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Zach Pekale | | September 27, 2020

The 21 things we saw in the SEC's return to college football

Week 4 AP poll: Breaking down the top changes and storylines

The SEC made its highly anticipated 2020 college football debut on Saturday, Sept. 26. It'd been more than eight months since the league's last game, dating all the way back to January when LSU claimed a College Football Playoff national championship.

Mississippi State stunned LSU in the Tigers' opener in one of the conference's more memorable moments of the week. Here are 21 things we saw from the SEC's return to college football:

Mississippi State overwhelms defending champion No. 6 LSU 44-34

1. Mississippi State's hiring of head coach Mike Leach came with questions about whether his air raid offense could work in the SEC. More than 600 passing yards and a resounding defeat of the defending national champions later, Leach's system would appear to belong. A year after the Bulldogs had the third-fewest passing yards in the conference, quarterback K.J. Costello set an SEC record with 623 yards in his first start with the Bulldogs. Costello connected with 10 different wide receivers and threw five touchdowns in the upset.

2. LSU formally entered the Myles Brennan era on Saturday with a scoreless first quarter. The Tigers came into the game with points in 25 consecutive quarters dating back to November 2019. Taking over as a starting quarterback is not easy. Replacing a Heisman Trophy winner for the reigning national champions is much more difficult. Brennan looked more composed in the second half, finishing with 345 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. Playing from behind in the fourth quarter proved to be too tall a task for the first-time starter. 

3. Player of the game — It seemed like Costello broke a new passing record each time he stepped on the field Saturday. The SEC's new single-game passing leader looks to be the next commander of Leach's air raid offense. Costello picked apart LSU's defense for 623 yards and five touchdowns. The three turnovers are something to improve on, but those can be overlooked on a night where his positive impact carried more weight. A distant second would be running back Kylin Hill. The senior was a 1,300-yard rusher in 2019 but found a way to adapt into the new pass-heavy attack with eight catches, 158 yards and a touchdown on 11 targets.

Trask, No. 5 Florida roll Mississippi 51-35

4. Florida quarterback Kyle Trask is now part of some elite company after slinging six passing touchdowns and throwing for 416 yards in the Gators' romp over Mississippi. The redshirt senior tied Joe Burrow's SEC record for passing touchdowns in a conference opener while becoming the first UF quarterback to throw for 400 yards in a game since Tim Tebow at the 2010 Sugar Bowl. 

5. Ole Miss made a splash in the offseason by hiring Lane Kiffin as its new head coach. The Rebels' ability to pile up points (35) and yards (613) was a promising sign for things to come, especially quarterback Matt Corral and wideout Elijah Moore linking up 10 times for 227 yards. However, a pair of empty red zone possessions and over 600 yards allowed will be areas of improvement for Mississippi and likely leaves the Rebels wondering "What could have been?" against a top-5 team.

6. Player of the game — Kyle Trask. This is the first time UF has had a quarterback named preseason first team All-SEC since Tebow. Trask started 10 games a year ago but appeared to take a big step forward against Mississippi. He was responsible for 418 total yards and six scores, setting career-highs in passing yards and touchdowns as the Gators produced points on nine of 11 drives. UF tight end Kyle Pitts is a close second after establishing himself as Trask's top target with eight catches for 170 yards and four touchdowns. 

No. 8 Auburn wears down No. 23 Kentucky 29-13

7. Auburn's defense wasn't perfect on Saturday, but the Tigers made a number of big plays to beat a top-25 team. Auburn forced three turnovers, most notably a goal-line interception by defensive back Roger McCreary right before halftime with the Tigers clinging to an 8-7 lead. The Tigers also forced two fumbles. But the defense's ability to adapt and shut down the run was integral to Auburn's success. Kentucky ran the ball 25 times for 120 yards in the first half before being held to 15 carries for 25 yards over the final 30 minutes.

8. It appeared that Kentucky's first-half strategy against Auburn was to dictate the tempo. The Wildcats had 25 carries and 120 rushing yards at halftime after holding the ball for more than 21 of the game's first 30 minutes. But UK had only seven points at the break. A goal-line interception to close the half indicated a potential shift in focus to the passing game. Quarterback Terry Wilson finished with 239 yards and a touchdown, but the Wildcats ran 16 plays on Auburn's side of the field in the second half. 

9. Player of the game —  It'd be easy to give this to Auburn quarterback Bo Nix, who threw three passing touchdowns and led the Tigers in yards. But Roger McCreary's goal-line interception was a big momentum shift in favor of Auburn. The junior would've been credited with a touchdown too if not for a flag against the Tigers during the return. The junior also added a forced fumble with Kentucky driving in the fourth quarter to preserve a two-score lead.

No. 4 Georgia starts slow before routing Arkansas 37-10

10. Finding stability at quarterback was arguably Georgia's biggest area of concern coming into the new season. That still be the case after the Bulldogs' season opener against Arkansas. Redshirt freshman D'Wan Mathis got the start, throwing for 55 yards and a red zone interception before being pulled for junior Stetson Bennett.  The former junior college quarterback was much steadier under center, finishing with 211 yards and two touchdowns and no turnovers. If Bennett is Georgia's long-term answer, the Bulldogs are going to need more help from the run game (121 yards) and won't be able to get away with committing over 100 yards worth of penalties.

11. Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman is one of four new coaches in the conference this season. Despite the Razorbacks winning two games in 2019, Pittman had his team in front of a top-5 Georgia team more than halfway into the third quarter before the Bulldogs' offense surged. Quarterback Feleipe Franks showed glimpses of his potential, particularly on a 49-yard touchdown pass on Arkansas' second drive.

12. Player of the game — Bennett's insertion into the game turned the tide for Georgia. While his 211 yards and two touchdowns won't pop off the page, the junior college transfer was able to navigate Georgia away from a disastrous upset. He appeared confident in the pocket and was also accurate without turning the ball over.

No. 2 Alabama romps 38-13 over Missouri

13. It's difficult to pinpoint a star on Alabama's offense. Against Missouri, all four of the Crimson Tide's most notable contributors turned in big performances. Quarterback Mac Jones threw for 249 yards and two touchdowns despite attempting only one pass in the second half. Running back Najee Harris found the end zone three times on 17 carries for 98 yards while wide receivers DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle combined for more than 200 yards and two touchdowns. When these four are all clicking, the Tide are going to be difficult to stop.

14. Eli Drinkwitz made his head coaching debut at Missouri after spending one season at Appalachian State. Opening against a team that's won four titles in 10 years is a tough challenge. The Tigers couldn't do much to stop Mac Jones, though the offense showed flashes of promise. The offense converted 50 percent of its third-down attempts while quarterback Shawn Robinson threw for 185 yards a touchdown, completing over 75 percent of his passes. On Saturday, Missouri wasn't able to finish drives and had a few costly turnovers near midfield. As those things improve, the Tigers will become more consistent competitors in the SEC.

15. Player of the game — A year ago, Jaylen Waddle was arguably the fourth option on a very deep wide receiver depth chart. Waddle got a chance to be in the spotlight Saturday and shined. The junior hauled in eight receptions for 134 yards and both of quarterback Mac Jones' touchdown passes. Waddle already had a reputation for his skillset on special teams. Now, he has the SEC on notice for his receiving capabilities.

No. 10 Texas A&M survives 17-12 scare from Vanderbilt

16. The Aggies survived an upset bid from Vanderbilt on Saturday despite turning the ball over three times, committing eight penalties and having possession for just over 26 minutes. All three of those are areas to improve on, but Texas A&M's defense helped them hold off the Commodores. On a night where points were hard to come by, defensive backs Demani Richardson and Leon O'Neal Jr. had interceptions inside the Aggies' 30-yard line, putting an end to two of Vanderbilt's more threatening chances. Running back Isaiah Spiller led the offense with 117 yards and a touchdown.

17. Vanderbilt forced three turnovers, dominated time of possession and only had three flags for the whole game. But the Commodores struggled to finish drives and were held to 255 total yards of offense. Quarterback Ken Seals' two interceptions deep in Texas A&M territory proved to be backbreaking when neither team could score much. Vanderbilt's ability to control the game makes the Commodores an interesting competitor going forward.

18. Player of the game — Both Richardson and O'Neal's interceptions were important to Texas A&M winning on Saturday. But the timeliness of O'Neal's gives him the edge here. Vanderbilt was working with a short field in the fourth quarter following an Aggie turnover — and a touchdown would've put them in front. The Aggies defense did a good job creating a third-and-long situation before O'Neal ended the drive and ultimately helped preserve the win.

No. 16 Tennessee hangs on for 31-27 win over South Carolina

19. Tennessee's offense kept it in front of South Carolina on Saturday, but the Volunteers' special teams defense help them stay ahead for good. UT punted with 1:29 to play after South Carolina pulled within four points. The Vols got good pressure on the returner, who muffed the catch, allowing wide receiver Jimmy Holiday to fall on the ball and secure the win. Quarterback Jarrett Guarantano finished with 259 passing yards and two total touchdowns for Tennessee.

20. Collin Hill made his South Carolina debut at quarterback, leading the Gamecocks against a top-20 team. Hill threw for 290 yards and scored a touchdown through the air and another on the ground with the run game struggling to gain traction. Despite having an abbreviated offseason to learn the head coach Will Muschamp's system, Hill looked confident in his first SEC start.

21. Player of the game — Holiday came to UT to play quarterback but was converted to a wide receiver. The freshman did not see a target Saturday night but got his hands on the ball in the game's most pivotal moment. Holiday fell on a muffed punt, allowing Tennessee to run out the clock against South Carolina. UT defensive back Henry To'o To'o was a close second with an interception returned for a touchdown in the first half. 

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