After 2 weeks of Power 5 games, here are the 5 biggest threats to the SEC
Boy, I’ll tell ya. This whole 2020 deal gets tougher and tougher to predict every day.
At this time last week, the Power 5 was fresh off its first weekend of action and the B1G and Pac-12 didn’t officially have any plans to play a fall season. And then, well, they no so coincidentally got the ball rolling again.
What hasn’t changed is that the SEC isn’t facing anyone outside the league until the postseason. That, given how unpredictable some of these nonconference cancelations have been, appears to be a wise move.
The question is who or what looks like the biggest threat to the SEC at this point. And to be clear, a “threat” can be a little of everything. It could be a team, a conference, a player, an event or maybe even science. It’s 2020. Who knows what can prevent something from happening. This is about what can possibly threaten the SEC’s chance of either reaching the Playoff with multiple teams or winning a national title.
For now, these are my 5 biggest threats to that:
See what I did there?
Man, people from those states would hate that I combined their schools. Neither Texas nor Oklahoma played over the weekend, but let’s be honest: The Big 12 is coming down to those 2 teams. What type of threat do they pose to the SEC? Well, I’m starting to talk myself into Sam Ehlinger having a 2017 Baker Mayfield season if he can find some reliable pass-catchers, and Spencer Rattler made some throws in Week 1 that would have been incredible against air (they basically were against air because it was Missouri State).
And before Texas lost last year to that historically good LSU team, Tom Herman was actually 4-0 against the SEC as a play-caller/head coach during the Playoff era (2 of those wins were against Alabama and Georgia). We know that Herman gets, um, a little “fired up” against SEC opponents:
ICYMI: Texas coach Tom Herman appeared to mock Mizzouri QB Drew Lock’s TD dance after the Longhorns iced their bowl win. pic.twitter.com/QGEIlIExBg
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) December 28, 2017
Herman and Lincoln Riley are going to have offenses that’ll score a ton of points and stay in the hunt. It still comes back to this — do I really think the Big 12 is going to finally win a Playoff game? Probably not. And I’m not saying that because the league puked on its shoes and lost to 3 Sun Belt teams on opening weekend (the SEC had 3 losses to Group of 5 teams to start 2019). But at what point does the Big 12 finally have a defense that can slow down an SEC offense when the season is on the line?
And also, what happens if we have a 1-loss Big 12 champ competing with a 1-loss non-SEC champ for that final Playoff spot? In that scenario, are we sure the Big 12 would even prevent a second SEC team from getting in? I’m not. For now, Texlahoma doesn’t necessarily present a major threat to the SEC achieving postseason success until we actually see it.
4. Penn State
Lost in the hoopla of the Big Ten returning to action was Penn State. No, the Nittany Lions don’t have a Justin Fields. The Lions’ version of Justin Fields was Micah Parsons, who opted out for the 2020 season. By the way, he opted out before the B1G announced its initial decision to postpone, so who knows what it would take for the All-American linebacker to rejoin Penn State.
Still, James Franklin’s squad is on here because it should be a darn good football team. It’s a team that even without Parsons, should still give Ohio State a legitimate test, especially with that offense. Sean Clifford returns to lead a group that features one of the best tight ends in America in Pat Freiermuth, as well as a backfield duo that’s as good as any in the country in Journey Brown and Noah Cain. It was somewhat overlooked nationally that Penn State won a New Year’s 6 Bowl and ranked in the top 15 in both scoring offense and scoring defense.
For whatever reason, we haven’t been able to see the good Franklin era teams (2016, 2017 and 2019) square off with elite SEC foes. I’d say that unknown makes Penn State more dangerous than a team like Oklahoma, which we’ve watched lose to 3 different SEC teams in the Playoff after surrendering an average of 54 points.
Penn State has been right there with Ohio State. Yes, it’s 3 consecutive losses by an average of 4 points, 2 of which I’d argue were because of poor late coaching decisions. The Lions, who started off No. 7 in the preseason AP Top 25, aren’t far from being part of that Playoff discussion and posing a potentially new challenge for the SEC. A 9-0 Penn State team isn’t getting left out of the field.
3. A full conference championship weekend
With the Big Ten returning to play, here’s what the current conference championship schedule looks like:
- Dec. 12 — Big 12 Championship
- Dec. 19 — SEC Championship
- ACC Championship
- Big Ten Championship
And that’s not yet including a potential Pac-12 Championship on Dec. 18, which would still probably need something like an unbeaten Oregon or USC to make Playoff noise.
But let’s take a step back for a second. One reason I was fully on board with a 2-team SEC Playoff bid was because of what we would have been looking at with just the Big 12, ACC and SEC in action. The Big 12 Championship would have been a week earlier. That following Saturday, AKA the day before the Playoff field is selected, would have been all about the ACC and SEC. In other words, it would have been all about Clemson and 2 SEC teams. That, along with the Big 12 winner, likely would have been your field.
Now, if we’re talking about potentially 4 Power 5 conferences playing a title game that weekend — I’m including the Pac-12 and not the Sun Belt for now — it won’t be all eyes on the SEC. Gone is the default of giving the best conference in the sport, which is expected to be the SEC, the first crack at a 2-team bid.
2. Justin Fields/Ohio State
I say Fields/Ohio State because this is no longer your typical Buckeye squad that we’re talking about. Fields, for the non-Georgia crowd at least, is now firmly established as a positive focal point for this 2020 season. His efforts in the #WeWantToPlay movement were huge, and the fact that the guy got a quarter of a million signatures showed how powerful of a voice he has in this sport.
If Fields can somehow get Ohio State to a 9-0 season without a slew of Buckeye players/Big Ten players opting out, I have to think that’ll be enough momentum to get into the Playoff.
Remember that Ohio State was No. 2 in the preseason AP Top 25. That was higher than any SEC team. That’s the difference between a team like Ohio State going 9-0 or Wisconsin doing that. It’s confirmation bias. The masses already thought the Buckeyes were in position to compete for a national title with Fields back. Going undefeated would give Ryan Day’s team a chance and certainly push out a non-conference champ from the SEC.
Keep in mind that while we saw Urban Meyer’s somewhat limited offense struggle in the Playoff in 2016, Day’s team looked much different in 2019. That matters. The 2019 group was a play from getting a crack at LSU and having the Joe Burrow Bowl. They spread teams out differently and they do so with loads of NFL talent.
Of course, the “yeah but” in all of this is the Big Ten’s COVID-related regulations. A 21-day quarantine per positive test is significant, as is the 5% threshold. There’s no room for makeup games with the Oct. 24 start. Could Ohio State still be Playoff-worthy if it only played 6-7 games? Man, that’s a tough question to answer, though Kirk Herbstreit already said, yes.
But news that the Big Ten is indeed playing did give Ohio State a new chance to crash the SEC’s Playoff party.
Some of the things are listed here because they could prevent the SEC from having a 2-team Playoff bid. Clemson, of course, isn’t that team. Clemson is the team that could actually beat an elite SEC team in a semifinal/title game. Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne are still the best 1-2 punch in America, and you can’t convince me otherwise.
If there’s one thing I wonder about with Clemson’s inevitable showdown with an SEC team come Playoff team, it’s the defense. This 2020 group won’t be like what we saw in 2018, and there’s no guarantee it’ll look as good as the 2019 defense that entered the title game ranked No. 1 in scoring.
Now part of the reason Clemson had some lapses in Week 1 against Wake Forest could be attributed to playing without defensive backfield starters Derion Kendrick and Mario Goodrich, neither of whom traveled. That was from a secondary that lost top corner A.J. Terrell and top safety K’Von Wallace to the NFL Draft. Oh, and Isaiah Simmons also covered like a defensive back. Clearly, there are some adjustments for Brent Venables to make.
That’s nitpicking, though. Clemson is still loaded with talent on both sides, and barring some rash of quarantines/injuries, Dabo Swinney’s squad will be a double-digit favorite against every ACC foe it plays. The path to the Playoff is still as clear as ever for a 6th consecutive year of meeting an SEC squad.
And 1 last thing — I think the Group of 5 is unofficially eliminated from the Playoff
Lost in the shuffle of the Big Ten returning to play is that instead of a Power 5 conference’s 2-team bid vs. a potential unbeaten Group of 5, there are now enough Playoff spots for each Power 5 winner. In a year like this in which we have the Big Ten and SEC playing conference-only schedules and the ACC and Big 12 playing 1 nonconference game, I just don’t think there’s a path for a Group of 5 team to make history.
That’s too bad because there are teams like Cincinnati, UCF, Memphis and even Louisiana that could legitimately be in the conversation under normal circumstances. With just 3 Power 5 conferences in action, I thought there was a stronger possibility of a Group of 5 team finally breaking through in the event that there wasn’t a 1-loss non-conference champ from the Power 5 ranks.
But even if they get into the top 7 or 8, I think there’s a ceiling on how high the Playoff selection committee will rank a Group of 5 team in a year like this. I’m not sure what kind of chaos would change that notion.
Then again, it’s 2020. I suppose I shouldn’t rule anything out.