Four new faces will grace the SEC sidelines this fall. Bryan Harsin has taken over at Auburn, Josh Heupel has moved from Orlando to Rocky Top to coach Tennessee, Shane Beamer is back in Columbia as the head coach at South Carolina and Clark Lea has returned to his alma mater at Vanderbilt.
Those four coaches will state — and have already stated — that winning championships is their goal. But let’s be real — that likely won’t happen in 2021. So what should be the goal? That depends on the school, of course. Championships are expected at Auburn, stability is the goal at Tennessee, a return to relevance is the first step at South Carolina and simply being competitive is all that is expected at Vanderbilt.
Let’s break down how those coaches will start that trek in 2021.
Bryan Harsin, Auburn
Compete in every game — including Alabama: What do the numbers 21, 29 and 11 have in common? Those were the numbers Georgia, Alabama and Texas A&M defeated Auburn by in 2020, respectively. That is unacceptable and, quite frankly, a big reason why Gus Malzahn was fired. Harsin has to change that; Auburn should not be blown out in the majority of its big games.
Can it be done, though? Harsin likes to run downhill and work off play-action, so the presence of star running back Tank Bigsby is a good foundation on which to build. What’s more, Auburn’s linebacking corp is one of the best in the country, and its secondary looked really good in the spring game. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that the offensive line is still a work-in-progress, quarterback Bo Nix has been inconsistent during his first two seasons under center and the absence of its top three receivers is going to make it really hard for the offense to consistency click unless it makes major strides between now and September.
Championships should be the expectation at Auburn. After all, Malzahn won a national title as Auburn’s offensive coordinator in 2010, went to the national title game in his first season as head coach in 2013 and won the SEC West in 2017. It’s unlikely that Harsin will follow in those footsteps in 2021, but the fanbase and decision-makers on the Plains need to know that he can in the near future. If the Tigers can have a chance to win — and perhaps spring an upset or two — in their biggest games this season, he will accomplish that goal.
Josh Heupel, Tennessee
Make a bowl game: Let’s be honest — Tennessee is a mess. Ex-coach Jeremy Pruitt was forced to resign amid an NCAA investigation, there has been a mass exodus of players, including running back Eric Gray and linebacker Henry To’o To’o, and the program is working on its second decade of dysfunction. That makes Heupel’s goal rather simple: make Tennessee football great again.
“Great” won’t happen in 2021. In fact, “good” might be too much of a stretch. A bowl game, though? That should be the expectation at Tennessee every year — including in Heupel’s first season. The absence of playmakers is a problem, but the quarterback situation is rather healthy with Virginia Tech transfer Hendon Hooker in the house, ex-top 100 prospect Harrison Bailey back for another year and Michigan transfer Joe Milton coming soon.
Is that enough to get to a bowl game? Offense drives the bus in college football these days, and a six-win season — considering Heupel’s ability to produce high-octane offenses — should be attainable. The Volunteers’ big non-conference opponent is Pitt, which isn’t exactly Oklahoma, who was their big opponent last year before COVID-19 forced massive schedule changes. Their rotating cross-division opponent is Ole Miss at home, which is dangerous but do-able. Simply put: win the four out-of-conference games, dispatch of Vanderbilt and win one toss-up game.
Shane Beamer, South Carolina
Develop an identity: Steve Spurrier had South Carolina cranking when it got after opponents up front on both sides of the ball and had dynamic quarterbacks like Connor Shaw and Stephen Garcia. Presumed starting quarterback Luke Doty isn’t exactly Johnny Manziel on the ground, but he’s a willing runner with whom Beamer and Co. can get creative. That’s not to say that Beamer has to copy Spurrier’s plan, but he has to develop an identity that has long-term sustainability for a program that has one of the most passionate fanbases in the country.
Running back Kevin Harris could be Beamer’s best friend. The rising junior rushed for a whopping 1,138 yards and 15 touchdowns in 10 games last year in an offense that wasn’t exactly a juggernaut. Harris, combined with an experienced offensive line, should allow Beamer and offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfield to go old-school out of the gate to at least lay the groundwork for not only the season, but his vision of the program for the future.
Plus, it’ll keep the defense off the field and allow it to grow. The pass rush was atrocious last season, which led to an inconsistent passing defense despite NFL talent on the back end. The old saying says that, in order to win at a high level, teams have to run the ball and play defense. The first part of that equation can be accomplished right off the bat, which will help Beamer work to accomplish the second.
Clark Lea, Vanderbilt
Focus on what you know: Lea played fullback with the Commodores in the early 2000s, but he made a name for himself as one of the best defensive coaches in the country, most recently at Notre Dame. What kind of team was Vanderbilt when it was cranking under former coach James Franklin? A consistently good defense. Those Commodores finished in the top five in the SEC in defensive yards per play in 2012 and 2013. Not coincidentally, both of those teams finished with 9-4 records. That’s the equivalent of working back-to-back miracles in Nashville.
Is Lea capable of repeating that feat? Probably not in Year 1. The defensive line lacks playmakers and Lea’s scheme requires more depth and versatility in the secondary. There needs to be flashes, though. Plural.
Vanderbilt is at its best when it targets players with potential and coaches them up to become SEC stars with NFL potential. That’s easier said than done. But if anybody can do it, it’s Lea. The first-year head coach has the acumen to Vandy back to going to bowl games consistently, and it all starts with comfort on the defensive side of the ball.