Saturday Football: Vol fans want Hugh Freeze, Trevor Lawrence vs. Justin Fields and Heisman talk
The Saturday Football newsletter goes out to subscribers up to 3 days a week and discusses the major events going on around the nation in college football. You can subscribe by clicking here.
Good morning and happy Monday! We hope you had a merry and safe Christmas filled with food, family and college football bowl action. Things are just heating up for bowl season, as many of the top bowl games will be played this week, including both College Football Playoff semifinal matchups on Friday.
But, before we get to that point, we have a few storylines to discuss. First, we start at Tennessee, where Vol fans continue to be unhappy with coach Jeremy Pruitt. Then, we head to New Orleans for a preview of the quarterback battle in the Sugar Bowl, which features Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence against Ohio State’s Justin Fields. Then, we’ll discuss the Heisman Trophy finalists, which feature a pair of Alabama stars. Let’s get started with today’s newsletter, shall we?
TENNESSEE LOVES HUGH FREEZE
Tennessee fans continue to be unhappy with Jeremy Pruitt. What happens if the Vols make a move?
The Tennessee Volunteers started the 2020 season with a 2-0 record, but then the wheels fell off. The Vols lost seven of their final eight games, with all of those losses by more than 10 points. Their only win was against a hapless Vanderbilt squad.
Naturally, that collapse has coach Jeremy Pruitt’s job in jeopardy. There are plenty of rumblings about his future in Knoxville, and fans know who they want to replace him should he be fired. Let’s take a look at what’s going on at Tennessee:
- Let’s just say Tennessee fans are ready to move on from Pruitt. And, it seems Vol Twitter has the next Tennessee coach picked out — Liberty’s Hugh Freeze. After a thrilling finish in the Cure Bowl against Coastal Carolina on Saturday night, Vol fans took to Twitter to lobby for Freeze to come to Knoxville. Freeze was connected to the Auburn and South Carolina job openings earlier this offseason, but he said it would take “something special” for him to leave Liberty. Would the Vols qualify?
- Meanwhile, the walls are closing in on Pruitt’s tenure. An internal investigation is taking place regarding some potential impermissible benefits given to players. AD Phillip Fulmer seems to have Pruitt’s back publicly, but SEC Network host Paul Finebaum says it seems someone in the program has it out for Pruitt.
- Not everyone is super eager to get rid of Pruitt, though. AtoZNashville.com’s Zach Ragan wrote about the dangers of firing Pruitt. Saturday Down South’s Adam Spencer wrote in his weekly Mailbag that he thinks Pruitt will survive through the 2021 season before being relieved of his duties. Meanwhile, was recently a battle going on with Tennessee’s iconic Rock, with anti-Pruitt fans calling for Pruitt to be fired in paint before pro-Pruitt fans covered it up.
Things are a bit unsettled on Rocky Top heading into the offseason, but it’s not a position the Vols are unfamiliar with. Important decisions will need to be made over the next couple of weeks, so stay tuned. This situation will be an interesting one, especially since Pruitt will enter 2021 on the hottest seat in the SEC if he keeps his job through this offseason!
- We’re quickly approaching the end of 2020, and what a strange year it was. There was some good, lots of bad, and plenty of things we’ve never seen before. Saturday Down South’s Connor O’Gara ranked the 50 best things about SEC football in 2020. Meanwhile, Ryan O’Gara named his 50 favorite moments from Big Ten football in 2020 over at Saturday Tradition.
- The Big Ten doesn’t have a Heisman Trophy finalist this season. That’s not terribly surprising, considering the league played fewer games than the ACC, Big 12 and SEC. But, the B1G should be loaded in 2021 once again. Saturday Tradition’s Ryan O’Gara named a few Heisman candidates to watch out for from the B1G next season.
- The LSU Tigers may have a budding QB controversy on their hands. Starter Myles Brennan missed much of the season with an injury, and in recent weeks, freshman Max Johnson has shown flashes of brilliance. Saturday Down South’s Connor O’Gara writes why Johnson’s emergence makes LSU’s offseason even more interesting.
- The 2020 season was really long for some struggling programs. But, hope will be plentiful this offseason, and a few schools should be able to turn things around. Bleacher Report’s Kerry Miller names 7 teams that should dramatically improve in 2021.
OHIO STATE-CLEMSON QB BATTLE
Justin Fields has struggled at times this season. Can he regroup and out-duel Heisman finalist Trevor Lawrence?
Justin Fields and Trevor Lawrence came into the 2020 season with all the preseason hype. The two elite quarterbacks were considered the favorites to claim this year’s Heisman Trophy and they were expected to compete with each other to become the No. 1 overall selection in the 2021 NFL Draft.
Lawrence has lived up to his end of the bargain, leading Clemson to a No. 2 ranking, a spot in the College Football Playoff and earning a spot as one of the four Heisman Trophy finalists this year. Fields was able to get Ohio State to No. 3 nationally and also clinched a spot in the Playoff, but playing only six games and struggling against some of the better defenses on the schedule has hurt the Buckeye QB in 2020.
Now, Fields faces criticism for his performance throughout the season as Ohio State prepares to play Clemson in the Sugar Bowl. Can Fields regroup in time to lead the Buckeyes to a win over the Tigers, and avenge last year’s loss in the Fiesta Bowl?
- First, let’s look at Fields’ numbers from 2020. This season, Fields has thrown for 1,521 yards and 15 touchdowns with 5 interceptions while completing passes at 72.6% clip. He’s also rushed for 274 yards and 5 scores. Believe it or not, Fields is averaging more yards per game and has improved his completion rate by 5 points since last season. He’s also the most accurate passer in college football on deep balls, per Pro Football Focus. But it’s those 5 picks that everyone seems to be getting everyone’s attention, after throwing just 3 in 14 games in 2019.
- Two ESPN personalities have been the harshest critics. Neither Booger McFarland nor David Pollack have been impressed with Fields this season. Despite a strong start to the year, Pollack suggests that Fields has not closed the gap on Lawrence, and that could be an issue for Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl game against Clemson. McFarland is worried about Fields’ thumb injury, which appeared to bother him in the B1G Championship Game against Northwestern. Fields admitted that the thumb was “pretty stiff” during the game, but didn’t blame the injury for issues throwing the football in the 22-10 win. Another ESPN analyst, Trent Dilfer, disagrees with Pollack and McFarland, saying that there isn’t a huge gap between Lawrence and Fields right now.
- Let’s not lose sight of the fact that Fields is still really good. From start to finish, Fields was listed in the No. 1 spot in Ryan O’Gara’s B1G QB Power Rankings for Saturday Tradition. There’s little doubt he was the best offensive player in the conference in 2020. But is he good enough to lead Ohio State to a win over Clemson? We’ll have that answer in a few days.
Despite the perceived struggles of Fields, ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) still breaks down the Sugar Bowl matchup between Ohio State and Clemson as a coin flip. The chance of victory percentage for both teams is listed at 50%. On the dot. So Fields must not be playing that poorly, after all.
JUST FOR FUN
Alabama WR DeVonta Smith is one of the four 2020 Heisman Trophy finalists. He is joined by three quarterbacks. Since 1990, only nine non-quarterbacks have managed to win the Heisman Trophy. For today’s quiz, can you name those nine standouts? Bonus points if you can name what years they won, too.
Scroll down for the answers to today’s quiz.
The four Heisman Trophy finalists are set. Who will take home the prestigious award?
The 2020 Heisman Trophy will be presented on Jan. 5, and the four finalists have been named. They are Alabama QB Mac Jones, Alabama WR DeVonta Smith, Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence and Florida QB Kyle Trask. All four of those guys had incredible seasons, but only one will hoist the trophy in a couple of weeks.
So, who will it be? Let’s take a look at what’s being said about the Heisman competition as the virtual presentation ceremony quickly approaches:
- Three of the players are still involved in the title race. Jones, Smith and Lawrence will all play in Playoff semifinals on New Year’s Day and could be preparing for a title game matchup a few days after the Heisman is awarded. Both Jones and Smith have downplayed winning the Heisman, saying they’d rather win a national title. Saturday Down South’s David Wasson recently ranked the top 25 Alabama players during Nick Saban’s tenure, and both Smith and Jones made the cut. Sporting News’s Bill Bender made a case for and against each Heisman finalist.
- How elite has Alabama been under Nick Saban? Well, this picture from a couple of years ago speaks volumes. There are four Heisman finalists there — Tua Tagovailoa, Jalen Hurts, Mac Jones and DeVonta Smith. Interestingly, Smith might win the 2020 trophy while the three quarterbacks didn’t take home the award. ESPN’s Heisman Watch has Smith at No. 1 with Jones at No. 2. Fansided’s Dakota Cox listed three reasons why Smith should win the award.
- Outside of the four finalists, the rest of the top 10 was interesting. In order from No. 5 to No. 10 were Alabama RB Najee Harris, Iowa State RB Breece Hall, Ohio State QB Justin Fields, BYU QB Zach Wilson, Notre Dame QB Ian Book and Florida TE Kyle Pitts. Just by finishing in the top 10, Pitts made history. Meanwhile, Fields will take on Lawrence in the Sugar Bowl and Book will face Jones in the Rose Bowl to try to prove they should have been the finalists.
It should be noted that Trask had 43 touchdown passes this year, which led second-place finisher Wilson (33) by 10 whole touchdown passes. That’s an incredible amount of production in an 11-game season, and he’s not done yet. His Gators will face the Oklahoma Sooners in the Cotton Bowl on Wednesday night. It’ll be interesting to see how the four finalists stacked up when the votes are all released!
The nine non-quarterbacks to hoist the Heisman Trophy since 1990 were:
- Desmond Howard, WR/PR, Michigan — 1991
- Rashaan Salaam, RB, Colorado — 1994
- Eddie Georgia, RB, Ohio State — 1995
- Charles Woodson, CB/PR, Michigan — 1997
- Ricky Williams, RB, Texas — 1998
- Ron Dayne, RB, Wisconsin — 1999
- Reggie Bush, RB, USC — 2005*
- Mark Ingram, RB, Alabama — 2009
- Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama — 2015
(* Bush’s Heisman was later vacated.)
QUOTE OF THE DAY
“It means something to me. It’s my poll. I do it. … It has nothing to do with Ohio State — absolutely zero. You can change the name to Michigan or Georgia or Florida or Tennessee or Nebraska. Anytime you have a top-10 (ranking), it should be that special. This year it’s like really, really, really special and I wanted it to be that way.
“And so, I wanted to recognize the teams that played 9 games or more. And so, if you didn’t play 9 games, I just didn’t consider you for the top 10. That’s why they were 11. …
“Obviously, they’re a great team. They’re plenty good enough and talented enough to beat us and good enough to win the national championship. But, in my opinion, I don’t think that it’s right that 3 teams have to play 13 games to win it all and 1 team has to play 8. What universe am I living in? And it has nothing to do with them. It was about qualifying. And I didn’t think they were qualified based on the number of games.”
– Clemson coach Dabo Swinney explained why he had Ohio State at No. 11 in his final Coaches Poll. It’s safe to say the Buckeyes will use that for motivation in the Sugar Bowl.
TWEET OF THE DAY
Texas A&M’s Leon O’Neal Jr. has never been one to shy away from sharing his thoughts. After Alabama landed a commitment from 4-star OL Jaeden Roberts on Christmas Day, O’Neal took to Twitter to call out top Texas prospects for leaving the Lone Star State.