Saturday Football: Georgia's 2021 potential, Jim Harbaugh's strange goals and Alabama's staff turnover
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Good morning and happy Monday! Just because the 2020 season has come to an end doesn’t mean the news cycle has slowed down at all. The coaching carousel is still spinning and fans and analysts are already starting to look ahead to the 2021 season.
In today’s newsletter, we’ll discuss how Georgia could be positioned for a special 2021 season. Then, we’ll look at some recent storylines involving Jim Harbaugh at Michigan. Finally, we’ll dive into another offseason full of coaching staff turnover under Nick Saban at Alabama. Let’s get started!
GEORGIA’S 2021 POTENTIAL
Georgia has a bunch of key players returning in 2021. Can the Bulldogs take the next step under Kirby Smart?
The Georgia Bulldogs haven’t won a national championship since 1980, something their rivals like to remind them of on a daily basis. They’ve come close under coach Kirby Smart, winning the SEC title and making it to the College Football Playoff before losing to Alabama in overtime of the championship game. But, close doesn’t count, of course.
Still, optimism is high in Athens heading into the 2021 season. A number of key players are returning on both sides of the ball and the Bulldogs figure to be ranked highly heading into the fall. So, will Georgia be a title contender in 2021? Or, will they again come up short? Let’s take a look at some of the early headlines surrounding Smart’s program as we enter the offseason:
- So, who all is returning to lead Georgia in 2021? Well, let’s start with the most important position in football — quarterback. JT Daniels is coming back to lead the Georgia offense. That has Saturday Down South’s Connor O’Gara wondering if Daniels or Ole Miss QB Matt Corral will be the preseason first-team All-SEC QB entering 2021. He’ll have plenty of help. In the backfield, James Cook and Zamir White will return. WR George Pickens is not yet eligible for the NFL Draft. Kearis Jackson is also coming back. Along the offensive line, a pair of starters announced they’ll play in 2021.
- What about on the defensive side, you ask? Yes, key guys like Azeez Ojulari, Eric Stokes, Tyson Campbell and Richard LeCounte III are heading to the draft, but OLB Adam Anderson, DL Jordan Davis, DT Devontae Wyatt and others will be back. And, in perhaps the best news for the Dawgs defensively, coordinator Dan Lanning turned down an offer from Texas to remain at Georgia.
- Now, the elephant in the room — can the Dawgs win a title? Though ESPN’s Booger McFarland recently said Smart has done “less with more” than Mark Richt, many analysts are high on the Dawgs entering 2021. O’Gara has the Bulldogs at No. 3 in his way-too-early 2021 top 25 rankings. CBS Sports has Georgia at No. 3, too, one spot ahead of defending-champion Alabama. ESPN puts the Dawgs at No. 4. FOX Sports’ Joel Klatt might be the highest on Georgia. He had them atop his early 2021 rankings.
The Bulldogs are no stranger to high expectations. So, how do they actually live up to them this fall? Saturday Down South’s Sydney Hunte named 6 priorities the Bulldogs should have this offseason. Florida is still looming as a potential road block in the SEC East. In the West, Alabama remains a buzzsaw. We’ll see if Georgia can get over the hump and get back to the Playoff. It won’t be easy!
- The SEC had several game-changing receivers in 2020. But, in 2021, running backs could steal the show in the conference. From Zamir White returning at Georgia to guys like Chris Rodriguez at Kentucky and Tank Bigsby at Auburn, the SEC is loaded in the backfield. Saturday Down South’s Connor O’Gara ranks five legitimate All-American candidates who will be roaming SEC backfields this coming season.
- Alabama has been loaded with talent during the Nick Saban era. He has coached three Heisman Trophy winners (including WR DeVonta Smith this year) and dozens of first-round NFL Draft picks. ESPN’s Ryan McGee put together his choices for Alabama’s all-time All-Saban roster.
- Freshmen are entering college more prepared to play than ever before. But, figuring out which freshmen are ready to make an immediate impact and which need a year or two to develop isn’t always easy. Bleacher Report’s Brad Shepard makes his picks for which freshmen will burst onto the scene in 2021.
- In the spirit of looking ahead, the Big Ten could be in for a big 2021 season. With top teams looking to bounce back and teams like Indiana and Northwestern looking to continue their ascension, it’ll be an entertaining season. Saturday Tradition’s Ryan O’Gara explains why he’s already looking forward to the 2021 B1G campaign.
Michigan extended Jim Harbaugh’s contract. Will the Wolverines finally be able to get over the hump in the B1G?
It took longer than anticipated, but Michigan and Jim Harbaugh finally agreed to a contract extension last week, keeping the head coach in Ann Arbor through the 2025 season. Despite a dreadful 2-4 campaign in 2020, athletic director Warde Manuel still has faith that Harbaugh is the right guy to lead the Wolverines.
While there’s still plenty of criticism about Michigan’s decision to keep Harbaugh around despite failures to beat Ohio State, win a B1G title or reach the College Football Playoff, the head coach has already proven he’s willing to make some major changes to be successful. A lot has already happened since the contract extension was signed. Let’s take a look at what’s happening in Ann Arbor:
- Harbaugh has already made some significant staff changes. One of the biggest news items from the B1G this offseason was Harbaugh’s decision to let go of defensive coordinator Don Brown, a move criticized by former defensive back Ambry Thomas. Yes, Michigan’s defense had enjoyed some success under Brown’s guidance, but those moments became too few and far between over the past three seasons, especially in big-time games. Michigan’s next defensive coordinator? Mike Macdonald, who Harbaugh plucked from his brother John’s Baltimore Ravens staff.
- Put some Hart into it. Don Brown’s dismissal wasn’t the only big staff change. Harbaugh also (finally) hired Mike Hart to be the new running backs coach for U-M, hiring the former Wolverine back away from Indiana. It’s a move that ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit called a “great hire.” Hart’s return to Ann Arbor should help in terms of recruiting, as well.
- What’s the goal? Ask any Michigan fan what the expectation is for the program, and they’ll tell you two things: Beating Ohio State and winning a B1G title. While those two items are jotted down as goals on Harbaugh’s list for 2021, the head coach also has one very interesting goal for the new year: “Don’t be afraid of being fired.” Despite the contract extension, that doesn’t sound like a coach who is confident in his status with the program. And, as Saturday Tradition’s Adam Biggers writes, Michigan’s (mis)handling of the whole situation may have rattled Harbaugh a bit.
- Could it actually be one and done for Harbaugh? On the surface, Harbaugh’s extension appears to be a vote of confidence for the head coach, and should prove to be a beneficial move while on the recruiting trail. But the buyout numbers in the contract are interesting, with Michigan setting the number at a modest $4 million if it decides to terminate Harbaugh after the 2021 season. Does that mean the head coach has to deliver results next fall to keep his job? In an era when schools find ways to pay upwards of $20 million to fire a head coach, a small seven-digit figure doesn’t seem so intimidating.
The move by Michigan to extend Harbaugh is one that seems to divide people in college football. Saturday Tradition’s Adam Biggers says it’s the right move for the program, as Harbaugh continues to keep the Wolverines relevant. ESPN’s Paul Finebaum disagrees, saying Michigan will never win on a major level as long as Harbaugh is the head coach in Ann Arbor. Some things never change.
JUST FOR FUN
The coaching carousel is still spinning, but most FBS head coaching gigs seem set for the 2021 season. So, for today’s quiz, we’ll give you the names of five current FBS head coaches. Can you name the program they currently lead? Here we go:
- Mike Neu
- Doug Martin
- Kalen DeBoer
- Terry Bowden
- Chris Klieman
Scroll down for the answers to today’s quiz.
ALABAMA STAFF TURNOVER
Nick Saban finds himself in need of some new assistants. How does he overcome losing staffers every offseason?
When you win as much as Nick Saban has since taking over at Alabama in 2007, losing your top assistants is the price of doing business. After winning the College Football Playoff title game last week, Saban has once again watched a number of his key staffers head off to different schools to take on bigger roles. But, it’s probably safe to say he’ll make some new hires that will work out and, come this time next offseason, will have some more openings as other programs poach his top guys.
So, what’s the situation with Alabama’s coaching staff this offseason? Let’s take a look at some of the staff turnover that has happened in Tuscaloosa after Saban’s sixth title with the Crimson Tide:
- We’ll start with the biggest loss to the staff — OC Steve Sarkisian. Sark, of course, is heading off to Texas to run the Longhorns, and he’s taking a number of Alabama staffers with him. He hired OL coach Kyle Flood as his new offensive coordinator. Special teams coordinator Jeff Banks got a hefty raise to head to Austin. WR coach Holmon Wiggins is also joining Sark’s Texas staff. And, lately, there have been rumors about DC Pete Golding potentially taking the same role in Austin.
- It isn’t just Sarkisian who is raiding Alabama’s staff. Of course, analyst Butch Jones landed the Arkansas State job earlier this offseason. Then, there’s Marshall, which reportedly hired Alabama associate head coach/RB coach Charles Huff as its new head coach over the weekend. Meanwhile, one Alabama assistant and one staffer are reportedly in the mix for the Mizzou DC job. Oh, and analyst Charlie Strong is reportedly joining Urban Meyer’s Jacksonville Jaguars staff.
- All the rumors and staff turnover won’t faze Saban, though. That’s just the cost of doing business at such a high level on a yearly basis. Alabama is reportedly nearing a deal with Bill O’Brien to replace Sarkisian as offensive coordinator. How long until he lands another head coaching gig? ESPN’s David M. Hale broke down just how impressive Saban’s coaching tree has become. No wonder even Bear Bryant’s grandson admits Saban is the greatest college coach of all-time.
Trying to find the next Nick Saban has cost SEC programs nearly $200 million since 2007. But, it isn’t as easy as simply hiring a guy who has worked under Saban. Yes, some have success, but many others end up out of a job in a few years. Will Sarkisian, Huff and others find success away from Saban? We’ll find out starting this fall. And, we’ll also see who Saban brings in to groom as the next assistants who will potentially land head coaching gigs over the next few years.
Here are the answers to today’s FBS coaches quiz:
- Mike Neu — Ball State
- Doug Martin — New Mexico State
- Kalen DeBoer — San Diego State
- Terry Bowden — Louisiana-Monroe
- Chris Klieman — Kansas State
QUOTE OF THE DAY
“To be honest, when they told me I was gonna have a chance to play, I already had it in my mind to play. It was just great to get back out there with the team and just really do it one last time and go out the right way.”
– Alabama WR Jaylen Waddle made an impact in the title game after missing time with an ankle injury. He said once he was medically cleared, there was no question he was going to suit up against Ohio State.
TWEET OF THE DAY
That’s Alabama QB Mac Jones on the left during his freshman season and Heisman-winning WR DeVonta Smith on the right. It just goes to show that you don’t need to be insanely strong or big to be successful in college football, although that certainly doesn’t hurt, either!