Extra Points: If you think Tennessee is good now, just wait ...
Each week, college football insider Matt Hayes tackles the biggest topics in and around the SEC …
What could’ve been in Knoxville
Forget about Georgia and Alabama for a moment. Imagine what Tennessee could be if a critical number of transfers hadn’t left Knoxville and stayed for coach Josh Heupel’s first season.
The team no one wants to play right now might be the most dangerous team in the SEC.
“They lost some good players, guys that have been through the rounds in this league,” an SEC defensive coordinator told me. “They’re difficult to defend now. It could be much worse.”
Just how much more difficult could the Vols be to defend if those who left UT were still around?
RBs Tyson Chandler (North Carolina) and Eric Gray (Oklahoma) have combined for 1,574 all-purpose yards and 16 TDs, and WR Brandon Johnson (UCF) has 29 catches and 9 TDs.
Jahmir Johnson, Texas A&M’s starting left tackle, would be an anchor for the Vols’ patchwork offensive line. Offensive tackle Wanya Morris (Oklahoma), who made 19 starts in 2 seasons at Tennessee, would start at one tackle on this Vols team, too.
Then there’s the defense, where Tennessee is 12th in the SEC in scoring defense (28.2 ppg.), 11th in total defense (418 ypg.) and last in 3rd-down conversion rate (48.4 percent).
Deandre Johnson (Miami) would give the Vols a rush presence off the edge on defense, and LB Henry To’o To’o (Alabama) and Quavaris Crouch (Michigan State) – both locks for all-conference honors in the SEC and Big Ten – would give the Vols athleticism and speed at linebacker.
Key Lawrence (Oklahoma) and Baylen Buchanan (Louisiana Tech) would give the Vols more experience in a secondary that has been shaky this season.
“They key for them is the quarterback, not the tempo,” another SEC defensive coordinator told me. “The way (Hendon) Hooker is playing, he has changed everything. He throws accurately and can run. But yeah, with those other guys that could be there? Makes you wonder what that (previous) staff was doing.”
The Boom is coming
The outlier in the College Football Poll – other than the ridiculous Michigan over Michigan State ranking – is unbeaten Oklahoma.
In any other season and based on the track record of previous CFP polls since 2014, the Sooners (or any unbeaten Power 5 team) would likely be among the top 4 this deep into November.
“That’s a good thing,” a Power 5 coach told me this week. “Because the committee isn’t rubber stamping a name, they’re looking beyond it and at the résumé – which is what the committee was designed to do in the first place.”
That doesn’t mean the Sooners will be ranked No.8 in the CFP poll for long.
OU’s path to the CFP is directly in front of it, and will be clear by winning out with games at No.13 Baylor, Iowa State and at No. 10 Oklahoma State. The Sooners will also likely play 1 of those 3 again in the Big 12 Championship Game.
Don’t be shocked if a big win at Baylor this weekend vaults the Sooners past every 1-loss team except Ohio State and Oregon (assuming they win this weekend, too). Understand this: Every unbeaten Power 5 team has made the Playoff.
If that holds true, OU must begin to make a move in the eyes of the committee. That move begins this week.
The Notre Dame-Cincinnati connection
Ladies and gentlemen, we give you the curious case of Notre Dame and the CFP.
An argument could be made that the Irish, who haven’t won a game of significance this season, are ranked No. 9 in the CFP for the express purpose – intended or not – to support the ranking of Cincinnati, the only Group of 5 team with a chance to reach the Playoff.
Notre Dame’s best wins are against 3-loss No. 18 Wisconsin and then-unranked Purdue. Other than that, check out these résumé wins: Florida State, Toledo, Virginia Tech, USC, North Carolina, Navy.
And then the biggest game of all: a 24-13 loss to Cincinnati in South Bend — the only thing keeping the Bearcats alive for the Playoff after 2 ugly, last-minute wins (Navy, Tulsa) over the past 3 weeks exposed their flaws.
If you don’t believe the CFP – again, intended or not – has Notre Dame at No. 9 to protect Cincinnati, consider this: The Irish finish the season at Virginia, Georgia Tech in South Bend, and at Stanford.
With that schedule – and if the Irish had beaten Cincinnati – the argument would be unbeaten Notre Dame doesn’t deserve a spot in the Playoff. Why, you ask?
Because they wouldn’t have a win of significance.
The rise of Billy Napier
Three Power 5 athletic directors I spoke to this week say there’s a coaching candidate not getting nearly enough traction: Louisiana’s Billy Napier.
A former assistant for Dabo Swinney at Clemson and Nick Saban at Alabama, Napier, 42, is in his 4th season at Louisiana and his program building has been impressive.
He arrived in Lafayette, La., in 2018 after the program had gotten stale under former coach Mark Hudspeth (22 losses in his last 3 seasons), and Napier immediately turned things around.
His first team was 7-7 and lost in the Sun Belt Championship Game. Since then, Louisiana has gone 29-5 and is the favorite this season to win the Sun Belt Championship. The Cajuns already have clinched the West Division, and last month thumped East Division leader Appalachian State by 28 points.
Their only loss this season was at Texas in the season-opener, where the Longhorns pulled away in the 4th quarter for a 38-18 win.
Napier has recruited the southeast for most of his college coaching career, and was a top recruiter for both Clemson and Alabama.
“I’ve done some work on him, talked to coaches he has worked with. The response has been overwhelmingly positive,” an Power 5 AD told me.
When asked if he would hire him if he had an opening, the same AD said, “from what I’ve heard, without question. The only thing that would prevent it would be him blowing the interview. And from what I’ve heard, if you interview him, you’re going to hire him. He’s that impressive.”