Final thoughts and a prediction for the 2020 SEC Championship
It’s not what we thought it was going to be.
We had hoped for a pair of SEC teams with 1 or no losses, both with obvious Playoff paths. That won’t be the case (more on that in a minute). This is actually shaping up to be the first time since 2016 that both SEC teams didn’t have a Playoff path in the conference title game.
We have a shoe and Greg Sankey to thank for that. Above all else, we have Florida’s dud of a performance against LSU to thank for that.
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Still, it’s a game in which we’ll see the league’s top 2 offenses with a pair of Heisman Trophy candidates at quarterback. Even with the LSU game, this is still the best matchup of quarterbacks we’ve had in an SEC Championship since … ever. That’s a win in itself.
So, here are my thoughts on the Saturday night — remember it’s a night game this year — in Atlanta:
1. I think both Playoff fates are all but set
Sorry, Florida fans. Sorry, non-Alabama fans.
No, I don’t think a 2-loss team in Florida’s shoes would be in position to make the 4-team field. It’s not just that we’ve never seen a 2-loss team make the Playoff, though that’s part of it. It’s that a 1-loss A&M team that would have the head-to-head against Florida would be in position to get in ahead of the Gators.
The selection committee already told us that the head-to-head advantage that A&M had was key. If it wasn’t, we wouldn’t have seen A&M ranked ahead of Florida in every ranking. And if Florida fans are telling themselves that this is some Playoff-or-bust game with Alabama, that’s ambitious, to say the least.
The only scenario I can see getting Florida into the field would be a win on Saturday, PLUS Northwestern beating Ohio State as a 3-touchdown underdog AND Tennessee beating Texas A&M as a 2-touchdown underdog.
Alabama, on the other hand, is 10-0 having won every game by at least 15 points, all of which were against the SEC. The Crimson Tide’s average margin of victory is 32.7 points. And in those 2 games against top-10 teams, Alabama won by 17 and 28 points. If that’s not an automatic bid, what are we really doing here. It’s one of the most dominant regular seasons we’ve ever seen. There’s nothing that can happen in Atlanta that would suggest Alabama isn’t 1 of the top 4 teams in America.
The selection committee, in a weird way, probably doesn’t have much left to consider with this game. The only thing left to play out would be what Alabama’s seed would be if it were to lose this game.
But yes, I fully expect this broadcast team to try and convince me this is some sort of winner-take-all showdown.
2. I get the Florida-Alabama SEC Championship history, but this ain’t 2008, 2009, 2015 or 2016 (especially 2015 and 2016)
It almost feels unfair to say this is another Florida-Alabama SEC Championship when this matchup figures to be vastly different than the 4 that preceded it. None of those matchups saw both teams hit 21 points. The game is played so much differently now than it was then. Look at these quarterback matchups and final passing stat lines:
- 2008 — Tim Tebow (14-22, 216 yards, 3 TDs) vs. John Parker Wilson (12-25, 187 yards, 0 TDs, 1 INT)
- 2009 — Tim Tebow (20-35, 247 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT) vs. Greg McElroy (12-18, 239 yards, 1 TD)
- 2015 — Treon Harris (9-24, 165 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT) vs. Jake Coker (18-26, 204 yards, 2 TDs)
- 2016 — Austin Appleby (26-39, 261 yards, 2 TDs, 3 INTs) vs. Jalen Hurts (11-20, 138 yards, 1 TD)
None of those 4 games featured both quarterbacks having multiple touchdown passes. The most combined touchdown passes in those games was 3. None of those 4 games produced a 300-yard passer, either. Shoot, McElroy won the 2009 SEC Championship MVP for completing 12 passes and having 1 touchdown (Mark Ingram scoring 3 touchdowns apparently wasn’t good enough).
I’ve got a hunch that Mac Jones vs. Kyle Trask will feel slightly different.
The over/under for this game is 73.5. Among Power 5 teams, Florida has the No. 1 passing offense and Alabama is No. 3. Expect points. These passing attacks are too good for that not to happen. I wouldn’t be surprised if Trask and Jones combined for more passing yards in the first half than the highest full-game passing yard total that those 4 matchups produced (486).
The only thing that could be similar is that the winner of all 4 of those matchups played in the national championship, and on 3 such occasions, the Florida-Alabama winner went on to win it all. Perhaps that continues in 2020.
3. Angry Kyle Pitts should be fun
I don’t know. I’m assuming he’ll be angry after not playing in the LSU game and then tweeting this out:
— Kyle Pitts👑 (@kylepitts__) December 13, 2020
Seven games, 11 touchdowns, 641 yards and 1 matchup nightmare. Pitts has either a touchdown or 80 receiving yards in all 7 games he played in this year. Does Alabama shadow him with Patrick Surtain? That would be the obvious choice, though it’s not like shadowing Pitts with elite cornerbacks has been the game plan to slow him down.
Five of the 7 games that Pitts suited up for were against former Nick Saban assistants. I imagine he watched all of them hoping that someone would finally draw up the right game plan. Instead, I’m guessing Saban called around to his former assistants and got crickets on the other end when he asked the question many have been wondering all season.
“How in the world do you stop that guy?”
4. Expect Dan Mullen to force Alabama’s linebackers to cover
Remember when Florida threw wheel route after wheel route against Georgia and by day’s end, the Gators’ running backs had almost twice as many receiving yards than the Dawgs’ entire team? Well, don’t be surprised when Mullen tries to replicate that formula. With Pitts, Kadarius Toney and Trevon Grimes warranting so much attention from that loaded Alabama secondary, Florida’s goal will likely be to try and force linebackers to cover running backs.
In Mullen’s ideal world, he can force Christian Harris and Dylan Moses (neither of whom have been great in coverage) to guard the likes of Nayquan Wright, Dameon Pierce and Malik Davis. It was Harris who allowed that 82-yard touchdown to James Cook in the Georgia game.
THE MAILMAN COOKIN’ UP TOUCHDOWNS pic.twitter.com/ClO8MmixWL
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) October 18, 2020
Those are the matchups Florida has to be able to exploit. It isn’t attacking Surtain, who is the highest graded defensive back in America (PFF). Malachi Moore and Josh Jobe are going to try and fool Trask on some of those anticipation throws. If Trask can recognize those rare instances in which a linebacker gets manned up on a running back, Florida has a much better shot at hitting those chunk plays.
Then again, we’re talking about an Alabama defense that enters Saturday riding a streak of 317 minutes and 52 seconds without allowing a passing score. That was Oct. 24 vs. Tennessee. That was also the last time Alabama allowed a completion on a pass that traveled more than 30 yards through the air.
Granted, none of those passing attacks were as prolific as Florida. Fire up the old “something’s gotta give” cliché.
5. Florida running corner blitzes (again) would be incredibly dumb
We saw Max Johnson pick them apart.
Let me rephrase that. We saw true freshman Max Johnson pick them apart.
Mac Jones salivates when he sees corner blitzes. It means someone has to cover DeVonta Smith or John Metchie with a single-high safety. Jones recognizes that extremely well. That’s the benefit of having an experienced starting quarterback. I guess it’s not so much about experience as it is just having a cerebral signal-caller who realizes that mismatch and doesn’t panic.
I don’t want to assume that Todd Grantham learned his lesson after watching LSU torch Florida on those plays. Telling Grantham not to blitz a certain way feels like telling Guy Fieri not to use a made-up word to describe a triple cheeseburger.
Then again, maybe Grantham didn’t think plays like this were a problem:
Max Johnson hits a wide open Kayshon Boutte for a 34 yard TD to give LSU (+23) a 21-17 lead and cash the 1H over (33.5)
LSU 1H +475 ✅
— Bet The Pigskin (@betthepigskin) December 13, 2020
Those are 2 true freshmen who did that. A pair of Heisman candidates could do much, much worse if Grantham insists on sending his cornerbacks.
Speaking of that …
6. I’m not ruling out the DeVonta Smith Heisman possibility, but Mac Jones winning wouldn’t be lazy
I know. Three catches for 22 yards for a receiver in a Heisman race is supposed to be the nail in the coffin. But with Trask’s letdown combined with idle Justin Fields and Trevor Lawrence, Smith now actually has +450 odds to win the award. A dazzling punt return touchdown had something to do with that.
I get it. Jones’ odds are now at -225. He’s the favorite, and understandably so. If Smith has a big day, almost every scenario involves Jones also having a big day.
What would vault Smith past Jones? It would probably take something like a 175-yard, 3-touchdown performance in which Jones finishes with sub-300 yards and maybe all of his scores are to Smith. Perhaps a couple of interceptions mixed in with that line would also clear a path for Smith. Obviously, that’s not likely. There’s also still the possibility that we could see Trask throw for 4 touchdowns and significantly outperform Jones.
If Jones does all but lock up the Heisman, it won’t be a lazy thing. Like, “oh, it’s just going to the quarterback of the best team.” That’s coming from someone who banged the drum for Smith to get serious consideration. Jones is on pace to set the FBS record for yards per attempt. He’s the highest-graded Power 5 quarterback (PFF), and he threw for 4 touchdowns in half of his games. That’s against all-SEC competition, too.
This is some pretty elite company:
Highest-graded QB seasons since 2014
🔹 1. Joe Burrow (’19) – 94.9
🔹 2. Zach Wilson (’20) – 94.8
🔹 3. Baker Mayfield (’17) – 94.6
🔹 3. Kyler Murray (’18) – 94.6
🔹 5. Mac Jones (’20) – 94.5 pic.twitter.com/ktx4oHc5J2
— PFF College (@PFF_College) December 14, 2020
I wouldn’t rule out the idea of the winning quarterback of the ACC Championship having an outside shot, but there’s a reason why Jones is now in the driver’s seat, and it isn’t just because he plays for the No. 1 team in America.
7. Nick Saban in Atlanta with Alabama is ____________.
Frightening. Terrifying. Horrifying. You pick. I’ll go with “unfair.”
Saban is 15-1 in Atlanta with his last lost coming to Tebow’s Gators in that 2008 SEC Championship. It hasn’t mattered if it’s been a season-opening game, an SEC Championship, a Playoff semifinal or a College Football Playoff National Championship. It doesn’t matter if his team is trailing late like the 2017 title game or the 2018 SEC Championship. Saban finds a way to get it done in Atlanta every time.
And go figure that this team could wind up being the most complete bunch he’s had yet. Time will tell, but it’s hard to argue with those numbers and the fact that it took one of the best players in college football history playing at his best for Saban to lose a game in Atlanta. Maybe Saban has a pregame meal from The Varsity that’s been fueling his ATL dominance for years.
I couldn’t tell ya. All I can say is this is quite the uphill battle for a coach who has never been in an SEC Championship like Mullen.
And a prediction … Alabama 49, Florida 28
I’ve been challenging myself to picture a path to a Florida victory. For what it’s worth, this process began weeks ago. The LSU game showed us why the Gators aren’t a complete team yet. Even during that post-Texas A&M winning streak, you could argue the Gators didn’t play 1 complete game. Between the slow starts and some of those frustrating defensive efforts, there’s always been something.
You have to play a complete game to beat this Alabama team. There’s no room for turnover-worthy plays or defensive miscommunications. You cannot be be 1-dimensional against this defense, either. Getting into a shootout makes the most sense for what Florida is best at, but it still also opens the door for Alabama to shift momentum with a game-changing interception. That’s ultimately what I think happens in this one.
It wouldn’t surprise me if this starts out with a rapid pace and something like a 21-21 score at the break. But I’ll trust an Alabama team who surrendered just 2 second-half touchdowns in the last 7 games. I’ll bank on Christian Barmore getting pressure and allowing Alabama to drop 8 into coverage so that Trask doesn’t have big windows to throw into.
Don’t get it twisted. I’m not expecting Alabama to shut down Florida for 60 minutes. Toney and Pitts should still have moments that remind us of their greatness, and I’d say the odds of a running back/non-Pitts tight end touchdown catch are strong.
This is, however, a different level of offense that Florida will see on Saturday. I’m 2,000 words into this and I haven’t even mentioned Najee Harris, who has allowed Alabama to be balanced all year. This attack is prolific and darn near unstoppable. Mike Elko didn’t have the answer, Kirby Smart didn’t have the answer, Jeremy Pruitt definitely didn’t have the answer and I can’t imagine that Grantham will have the answer.
It’s boring to say Alabama will roll in Atlanta yet again, but now doesn’t seem like the time for Saban’s squad to run out of gas.
Click here to get exclusive +400 odds through SDS on Alabama to win the SEC Championship Game with DraftKings Sportsbook.