There are two dark horse SEC football teams that fans should watch in 2020
SEC football has been dominated by Alabama, Georgia, LSU, and Florida for the last 10 years. In 2020, it doesn’t look to change much, as those are four of the favorites within their respective divisions.
However, there is one team in each of the two SEC football divisions that should be watched carefully, as they are in prime position to move up a rung or possibly more this season.
Look away, Auburn fans, because for once you aren’t on this list of up-and-comers. And Kentucky fans, it looks to be another year of close-but-no-cigar for the Wildcats.
SEC football dark horse – East Division
Volunteers 2019: 8-5 (5-3 SEC)
Last rank: 3
The Tennesse Volunteers had an absolutely wretched start to the 2019 season, starting with a loss to Georgia State in the opening week, followed up by an equally embarrassing double-overtime defeat against BYU.
By the time the Vols hit the halfway point of the season they were sitting at 2-4 with a game against No. 1 Alabama in Tuscaloosa next, and Jeremy Pruitt was sitting on the hottest seat in the nation.
As expected, the Vols were soundly defeated by the Tide and everyone expected Pruitt to be handed his pink slip.
But then a funny thing happened on the way to the SEC equivalent of a black hole. The Vols suddenly remembered they were a football squad and not an intramural frisbee team, and they ripped off six straight wins to close out the season, including a 23-22 win over a pretty decent Indiana team in the Taxslayer Bowl.
Granted, three of those six wins were against some of the weakest teams in the SEC, and one of them was against UAB. Not exactly murderer’s row, but still, wins are wins.
So why would this Jekyll & Hyde Tennessee team be considered a dark horse in the East? Because Jeremy Pruitt has been recruiting his butt off, despite all the negative press he gets, and if the Vols can solve their issue at quarterback (which will be no small feat) they have the pieces in place to field a very good team.
There are two key returning players for the Vols in 2020 that will be filling the shoes of some big-time players who have moved on.
Linebacker Henry To’oto’o, who racked up 72 tackles as a freshman last year, should be stepping into a bigger role replacing Daniel Bituli, the team’s leading tackler. Also, wide receiver Ramel Keyton will likely be depended on to be the go-to guy for quarterback Jarrett Guarantano. The Vols lost some big names from the receiving corps, and of the returning players Keyton has the most on-field reps.
It’s going to take a lot of moving parts clicking at just the right time, but if that happens, the Vols could surprise everyone.
SEC football dark horse – West Division
Aggies 2019: 8-5 (4-4 SEC)
Last rank: 4
When Jimbo Fisher took over as the Texas A&M Aggies head coach in 2018, most thought it would just be a matter of time before he turned the Aggies into a dominant team in the SEC West. While that hasn’t quite happened yet, this is a team on the cusp of making it happen.
The 2019 record is very misleading, as Texas A&M had one of the most brutal schedules in the nation last year, including Clemson, Auburn, Georgia, Alabama and LSU. While the Aggies did lose all five of those games, they were in a position to win three of them (being blown out by Alabama and LSU).
Bottom line – the 2019 Aggies were a better team than the 8-5 record would indicate. A great team? No, but steadily improving.
This year the Aggies have a much more manageable schedule, and could very well be undefeated when they travel to Auburn on October 17. If they can steal a win on the road there, they’ll be set up for an end-of-season showdown with Alabama and LSU in consecutive weeks to close out the schedule.
An easier schedule and the return of quarterback Kellen Mond, who put together a very respectable season despite the tough schedule in 2019, bodes well for the Aggies.
The Aggies will have to replace Justin Madubuike, and that’s where defensive tackle Jayden Peevy comes in. Peevy stepped in as a starter in the Texas Bowl and played in 12 games last season, totaling 35 tackles, including five tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks. He’ll need to become a bigger presence on that line.
Year three will be an important year for Jimbo Fisher and Texas A&M.