Mark Story

2019 SEC football preview: Coaches on the hot seat — and where fans can buy a cold beer

Why did Sawyer Smith pick Kentucky?

Kentucky quarterback Sawyer Smith explains why he picked UK as a graduate transfer after playing at Troy. Smith earned MVP honors in Troy’s win in last season’s Dollar General Bowl. Smith has two years of eligibility remaining.
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Kentucky quarterback Sawyer Smith explains why he picked UK as a graduate transfer after playing at Troy. Smith earned MVP honors in Troy’s win in last season’s Dollar General Bowl. Smith has two years of eligibility remaining.

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2019 College Football Preview

Watch for the Lexington Herald-Leader’s 2019 College Football Preview special section in the print edition on Sunday, Aug. 25. Click below to view all the stories for that section that have been published on Kentucky.com.

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Key trends to watch for in SEC football in 2019:

Coaches who need to win in 2019

1. Gus Malzahn, Auburn. In his six years as Tigers head man, Malzahn has had two banner seasons — 12-2 and national runner-up in 2013; 10-4 and SEC West champ in 2017. He’s also had four mediocre years with at least five losses in each.

Working to protect Malzahn’s job security is that Auburn would owe the coach a buyout of some $26.625 million if it removed him without cause after the 2019 season. Nevertheless, at a school that measures itself against Nick Saban’s Alabama dynasty, it would behoove Malzahn to produce something good this fall.

Gus Malzahn
In six seasons as Auburn head coach, Gus Malzahn has led the Tigers to two SEC Championship Games but also to four seasons with five losses or more. Butch Dill AP

2. Derek Mason, Vanderbilt. After James Franklin engineered Music City magic — going 24-15 in three years (2011-13) as Vandy head man with two nine-win seasons — Mason (24-38 in five years) has never had a winning year.

Working to protect Mason’s job security is that his teams have crushed intrastate rival Tennessee three straight years: 45-34 (2016), 42-24 (2017) and 38-13 (last year). Still, sometime soon, it would seem advisable for Mason to orchestrate a winning record.

3. Will Muschamp, South Carolina. After getting fired at Florida (28-21 in four years from 2011-2014), the Gamecocks head man has had one good season (9-4 in 2017) and two mediocre ones (6-7 in 2016, 7-6 last year) in Columbia.

A rugged 2019 schedule (see below) almost guarantees there will be no breakthrough this season. Just avoiding a losing record in his fourth year as Gamecocks head man, however, might help Muschamp keep the wolves at bay.

Will Muschamp
South Carolina Coach Will Muschamp is 22-17 in three seasons as the Gamecocks' head man. Sean Rayford AP

Three brutal schedules

1. Auburn. From the SEC East, the Tigers draw Georgia and Florida. In the West, Auburn must travel to both Texas A&M and LSU. The Tigers also have the small matter of facing Alabama in the regular-season finale.

2. South Carolina. The Gamecocks will play, perhaps, the three best teams in the country — Alabama (Sept. 14), at Georgia (Oct. 12) and Clemson (Nov. 30). South Carolina will also play potential top-10 foes Florida and at Texas A&M.

3. Texas A&M. Jimbo Fisher’s Aggies will also run the big-three gauntlet of at Clemson (Sept. 7), Alabama (Oct. 12) and at Georgia (Nov. 23). A&M also has a road date at LSU (Nov. 30).

The waiver wire

College football “free agency” in the form of graduate-transfer quarterbacks could have a big impact on Southeastern Conference football in 2019.

1. Arkansas. Coming off a 2-10 slog in Chad Morris’ first season as Razorbacks head coach, the former SMU coach brought in two grad transfer QBs — SMU’s Ben Hicks (9,081 career passing yards) and Texas A&M’s Nick Starkel (1,962 career passing yards) — to compete for the Hogs’ starting job.

2. Kentucky. With no experienced backup behind starting QB Terry Wilson, Mark Stoops and Co. were exceedingly fortunate to land ex-Troy quarterback Sawyer Smith. Last season, Smith inherited the Troy starting role midway through the season due to injury and went on to earn MVP honors in the Dollar General Bowl.

Sawyer Smith
Kentucky quarterback Sawyer Smith used the graduate-transfer rule to transfer to UK after earning MVP honors in the Dollar General Bowl last season for Troy. Alex Slitz aslitz@herald-leader.com

3. Mississippi State. MSU head man Joe Moorhead, the former Penn State offensive coordinator, brought in a familiar face in ex-Nittany Lions backup QB Tommy Stevens. Blocked by Trace McSorley in State College, Stevens ran for 506 career yards at PSU and threw for 304. In Starkville, Stevens had to battle Keytaon Thompson for the job vacated by Nick Fitzgerald.

4. Missouri. Two seasons ago, Kelly Bryant directed Clemson to a 12-2 season and a berth in the College Football Playoff. Last year, Dabo Swinney replaced Bryant with touted freshman Trevor Lawrence. As a result, Bryant chose to bring his dual-threat talents (ran for 665 yards and 11 TDs for Clemson in 2017; threw for 2,802 yards and 13 scores) to Mizzou.

Kelly Bryant
Kelly Bryant (with ball) quarterbacked Clemson into the College Football Playoff in 2017. After using the graduate-transfer rule to move to Missouri for his senior season, Bryant is expected to replace the departed Drew Lock as the Tigers' starting QB in 2019. L.G. Patterson AP

5. Vanderbilt. Riley Neal passed for 7,393 career yards with 46 TD tosses at Ball State. At Vandy, Neal is competing with junior Deuce Wallace to replace the departed Kyle Shurmur. The job is worth winning because Vanderbilt’s offense has some of the more dynamic offensive playmakers in the SEC.

Buying a cold one

On May 31, the Southeastern Conference announced it was ending its prohibition on alcohol sales in general-seating areas at the league’s sporting events. Now, each SEC school makes its own call on whether to sell alcohol in its football stadiums (and other sports venues).

Kentucky Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart announced Aug. 1 that UK will not sell alcohol at Kroger Field in 2019 to fans in general seating. Joining Kentucky in saying no to expanded alcohol sales at football games are Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, Mississippi State and South Carolina.

Kroger Field long shot
The University of Kentucky's Kroger Field is one of at least six SEC football stadiums where alcohol will not be sold in general-seating areas in 2019. Mark Mahan

Conversely, Arkansas (beer and wine), LSU (beer and wine), Missouri (beer and wine), Texas A&M (beer and wine), Tennessee (beer and wine) and Vanderbilt (beer) have announced plans to offer alcohol sales throughout their stadiums in 2019.

As of Aug. 15, Florida and Mississippi had made no announcement about alcohol sales for 2019.

Bowl ban

For the third straight football season, the SEC could have a team banned from bowl consideration.

Mississippi was ineligible for postseason competition in 2017 and 2018 as penalty for NCAA infractions. Ole Miss is again eligible to earn a bowl bid in 2019.

However, barring a successful appeal, Missouri is not. The Tigers were hit with a 2019 postseason ban after an NCAA investigation alleged a Mizzou tutor violated “ethical conduct, academic misconduct and academic extra benefits rules” in completing coursework for a dozen athletes.

Missouri has an appeal pending before the NCAA Appeals Committee seeking to get the bowl ban reversed.

Predictions

Georgia will win the SEC East for the third straight season.

Alabama will win the SEC West for the fourth time in the past five seasons.

Georgia will reverse last year’s 35-28 loss to Alabama and beat the Crimson Tide in the SEC Championship Game.

Clemson will beat Georgia to win the College Football Playoff national championship for the second straight year and third time in four seasons.

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Mark Story has worked in the Lexington Herald-Leader sports department since Aug. 27, 1990, and has been a Herald-Leader sports columnist since 2001. I have covered every Kentucky-Louisville football game since 1994, every UK-U of L basketball game but three since 1996-97 and every Kentucky Derby since 1994.
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