First and 10: Sure, Alabama is the favorite, but winning the national title is far from a lock
1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …
We’ve reached the portion of our annual program of events where the inevitable has arrived at Alabama.
As long as the Tide beat Arkansas this week, it is a lock for the College Football Playoff – no matter what happens in the SEC Championship Game against Florida.
It’s good to be the king. No matter how shaky the throne could be.
“Now,” Nick Saban said after clinching the SEC West Division, “we got to talk about how we want to finish the season.”
And there’s the rub.
Alabama has 3 Heisman Trophy candidates and an offense that hasn’t been stopped all season.
The Tide machine is so well prepared, it can go without its head coach in the greatest rivalry in college football, or 4 assistant coaches in what is typically the biggest game of the SEC season (not this time).
Alabama will be a double-digit favorite against Florida and is the Las Vegas favorite to win Saban’s 6th national championship in Tuscaloosa (and 7th overall).
But what do we really know about the flaws of this team?
— In its 2 biggest wins, Alabama played teams with limited ability to throw the ball (Georgia and Texas A&M) and eventually overwhelmed both in the second half.
A combination of Kyle Trask, Trevor Lawrence, Ian Book and Justin Fields is on the horizon.
— The one team that pressed the Tide more than any other was 4-win Ole Miss, whose offense scored 48 points and had 647 total yards – and still lost by 15.
Florida, Clemson and Ohio State score in bunches, and have the ability to trade touchdowns with the Tide.
— The 8 quarterbacks Alabama has faced not named Matt Corral of Ole Miss have combined to throw 29 interceptions.
Trask, Lawrence, Fields and Book have combined to throw 11 interceptions. And 88 TDs.
— The Alabama defense has just 19 sacks, and opponents not named Ole Miss are still converting nearly 40% of 3rd-down opportunities.
The point here is simple: We won’t know anything about Alabama until the SEC Championship Game begins a potential 3-game stretch where Alabama will see the 3 of the best quarterbacks in the nation.
It will begin a stretch of games where Alabama will be pressed on both sides of the ball like it hasn’t been all season.
Where everything that has looked so easy on offense, will at least begin to feel resistance. And every mistake you thought you could get away with on defense can change the complexion of a game.
Florida, Clemson, Notre Dame, Ohio State.
The path to Alabama winning its first national championship since Tua Tagovailoa connected on 2nd-and-26 in overtime of the 2017 national championship game goes through a combination of those 4 teams.
Each of those teams brings a unique skill set and poses different challenges for the Tide.
Florida will be the best offense Alabama has faced.
Notre Dame would be the best defense Alabama has faced.
Clemson would be the most complete team Alabama has faced.
Ohio State QB Justin Fields would be the best dual-threat quarterback – and we know what dual-threat quarterbacks have done to Tide defenses of the past – Alabama has faced.
With that as the foundation of what Alabama will see over the next five weeks, understand that the SEC hasn’t exactly got the Tide ready for the gauntlet.
The league, while still the best in college football, isn’t what it has been in previous years. Whether it’s pandemic-related or defenses struggling to keep up in a passing game world, the SEC has three (maybe four) teams and a whole lot of average.
To be fair, Clemson has played 1 game of significance and lost. Notre Dame has played 1 game of significance and won in overtime against a backup quarterback.
Ohio State has played 1 game of significance and won by 7 points at home. Florida has played 2 games of significance and split them.
Yet every time you think it looks easy for Alabama, remember the Ole Miss game. And understand that if Ole Miss could’ve gotten a couple of defensive stops – like Clemson, Notre Dame, Ohio State and Florida can – it’s a completely different game.
What do we really know about Alabama, you ask?
We know the Tide are a lock for the CFP. At this point in the season, that’s the first big step.
2. The best of the best
Choose a candidate, any candidate. All 3 are worthy.
Mac Jones, DeVonta Smith and Najee Harris. In any other non-truncated COVID season, any of the 3 could win the Heisman Trophy.
Harris has 1,285 total yards from scrimmage and 20 touchdowns, and is averaging 6.6 yards per touch.
Smith has 80 catches for 1,305 yards and 15 TDs, and is averaging 16.3 yards per catch. In the 5 games since Alabama’s best receiver (Jaylen Waddle) was lost for the season, Smith has 42 catches for 822 yards (19.5 ypc.) and 11 TDs.
Then there’s Mac Jones, the quarterback who wouldn’t (or couldn’t) hold off freshman phenom Bryce Young. All he has done is put together – potentially – the greatest season of any Alabama quarterback.
Jones has as many as 4 games remaining, and if we simply go by season averages, he’s on pace to reach or exceed the impressive 2018 season of Tua Tagovailoa.
Season projections (through four more games):
- Touchdowns: 40 (Tagovailoa had 43).
- Yards: 3,940 (Tagovailoa had 3,966).
- Yards per attempt: 12.0 (Tagovailoa, 11.2).
Here’s why Jones’ season will be the greatest in school history: He’ll have accomplished those numbers in 13 games. Tagovailoa did it in 15.
As good as Smith and Harris have been, the Heisman Trophy will come down to who wins the SEC Championship Game. In that sense, Harris and Smith can help push Jones past Trask.
If Alabama beats Florida, it will be because Jones has had another big game – in the biggest game of the regular season, in primetime television. The winning quarterback of that game is a lock to win the Heisman.
3. One step ahead
As good as it looks for Alabama in these blowouts of overmatched opponents, don’t go all-in just yet.
The SEC Championship Game is a different animal.
Florida is playing for a spot in the CFP; Alabama is playing for seeding. In fact, Alabama could lose to Florida and still be the No. 1 seed if Notre Dame loses to Clemson in the ACC Championship Game.
We like to talk about Saban having Alabama ready for big games, and he will for Florida. But the Tide defense hasn’t faced adversity since the Ole Miss game, and hasn’t come remotely close to dealing with as many as 5 receiving threats in the passing game and a quarterback who throws accurately in a clean or dirty pocket.
These 2 teams have played 8 common opponents, and the results are heavily favored toward Alabama. Everything sets up for another blowout in the SEC’s biggest game of the season.
“Forget all of that stuff,” an SEC coach told me. “I look at that Georgia game. It was basically the same game, and it was the biggest game of the season for both teams. A talented opponent who was pumped to play (Alabama and Florida). Alabama won big in the second half, Florida scored 38 in the first half, and took the foot off the gas.
“I don’t know what’s going on at Florida. They’ve got dudes on defense. They’re just running around half-assing it half the time. It’s weird. The offense gets bored. The whole team doesn’t have that killer, championship instinct. That’s the difference between the two teams. Nick’s team will stomp on your throat when you’re down.”
4. Way outside looking in
It now appears as though the Big Ten will do everything it can to get Ohio State in the league’s championship game.
And that leaves Texas A&M with only a Hail Mary hope for the College Football Playoff.
Welcome to the world of playing in the same division as Alabama, Ags. Get used to it – or get good enough to beat them when you have a championship-caliber team (see: Auburn, LSU).
Ohio State has always been Texas A&M’s competition for the 4th spot in the 4-team Playoff. Not Florida, which the Aggies beat head to head.
If Florida wins out, the Gators and Alabama are in the CFP and Texas A&M is out. Period. No discussion.
The hope for Texas A&M begins with a Florida loss (to LSU or Alabama), and Ohio State failing to qualify for the Big Ten Championship Game by playing the minimum 6 regular season games.
The Big Ten has 2 ways to get around their rule for all (but, apparently, not for Ohio State) in case Michigan – which is in COVID positive/tracing hell – can’t play The Game this weekend: allow Ohio State to play in the B1G championship game with 5 games, or find Ohio State another opponent whose game this week is affected by COVID.
Either way, Ohio State is playing in that championship game to further strengthen its CFP résumé. The Big Ten didn’t return to play to see its best team not qualify for its championship game – and for the CFP.
That leaves Texas A&M with this path to the CFP: a Florida loss (likely to Alabama), and an Ohio State loss (to Michigan or a substitute, or to Northwestern).
Finally, there is this: if Notre Dame beats Clemson – fully healthy Clemson with QB Trevor Lawrence and 3 defensive starters who weren’t around in the Irish’s first win – Texas A&M can get in the CFP if Alabama beats Florida.
To recap the Aggies’ Hail Mary scenarios:
— Florida must lose once, and then:
— Ohio State loses once in games where it will be heavily favored, OR
— Notre Dame beats full strength Clemson.
— And Texas A&M, which hasn’t looked Playoff worthy the last 2 weeks, still must beat Ole Miss and Tennessee.
5. The Weekly Five
- LSU at Florida (-23)
- Auburn at Mississippi State (+8.5)
- Georgia at Missouri (+12.5)
- Ole Miss (+16.5) at Texas A&M
- Alabama (-30.5) at Arkansas
Last week: 3-1.
6. Your tape is your résumé
An NFL scout breaks down a draft-eligible payer. This week: OG Trey Smith, Tennessee:
“He’s going to be a steal, I truly believe that. If he didn’t have the blood clot (in his lungs), we’re talking about a different evaluation. He was right on the verge of becoming a first-rounder when it was diagnosed. He missed some time, and that stunted the progress a bit. He’s a mauler, a guy you can stick on the interior and he’ll be there for 8-10 years.
“He’s strong and long, and I love the way he gets to the second level. He’s like a magnet finding a connection. He’s needs to get in better shape, and that will lead to better footwork. There’s a lot of upside, and though he clearly needs some work, he’s a guy you can put on the field the first week and feel confident in what he’s doing.”
7. Powered Up
This week’s Power Poll – and one big thing.
1. Alabama: I don’t want to scare everyone, but Mac Jones might just come back and play another season at Alabama – and further strengthen his NFL Draft stock, which 2 NFL scouts I’ve spoken to have as mid-round.
2. Texas A&M: The way the Aggies are playing, losing the Ole Miss game because of COVID may not be such a bad thing. The Rebels are a dangerous out for anyone (see: Alabama, Florida).
3. Florida: Instead using a critical win vs. Georgia as motivation for bigger things in the back half of the schedule, Gators have regressed and are trying to sneak by until the SEC Championship Game (you’re not sneaking up on Alabama, fellas). That’s the reason here for the drop to No.3.
4. Georgia: Now that the Dawgs are officially out of SEC Championship Game, we need to see QB JT Daniels against an elite (sorry, Mizzou) opponent. That likely happens in a New Year’s 6 bowl game.
5. Missouri: Quietly and efficiently, Tigers have won 5 of 6. I don’t want to diminish what Eliah Drinkwitz has accomplished, but I want to see what the Tigers do this weekend when Georgia rolls into town.
6. Auburn: Tigers will win 6 games, but here’s what stands out: In 3 games of significance (Georgia, Alabama, Texas A&M), Auburn was outscored 100-39 in 3 losses.
7. Ole Miss: Five (or maybe 6) wins in a 10-game SEC season, full of pandemic delays and disruption, is a remarkable achievement from a first-year staff that inherited a broken team. Well done, Team Kiffin.
8. LSU: Forget about record defections to the NFL. LSU’s problems this season can be attributed to one thing: not solving the quarterback problem. Three quarterbacks have combined for 18 TDs, 8 INTs.
9. Arkansas: Hogs have lost 3 games by a combined 7 points – and should’ve won all 3 games. That’s the difference between a sour second half of losing 4 of their last 5, and a 6-3 record and a phenomenal turnaround under first-year coach Sam Pittman.
10. Kentucky: A long, tiring season at UK could get 1 more game in the bowl season. That won’t change the fact that the Wildcats wasted a strong defense this season.
11. Tennessee: The Vols have lost 6 straight, and coach Jeremy Pruitt said he might have been “too hard” on his players this season. Jeremy, babe, Florida got bored when it was 31-7.
12. Mississippi State: Here’s what MSU fans must hold onto over the long offseason months: Mike Leach’s first Washington State team won 3 games. His second team won 6. It’s a process – and Leach has a quarterback in Will Rogers.
13. South Carolina: If you’re South Carolina and you’re out of answers (despite throwing a ton of money at a problem), it’s got to be tempting to just say screw it, and take a chance. Hello, Shane Beamer.
14. Vanderbilt: We just automatically assume Clark Lea is going to come home to VU. Why? Until the university seriously commits to supporting football, the job is a tombstone or a stepping stone.
8. Ask and you shall receive
Matt: I don’t know why Kadarius Toney doesn’t get more attention from the media. He’s having a great season with the Gators. If he were playing at Alabama, the media would be in love with him. You guys need to wake up!
Tina Lewis, Orlando
Tina: Toney’s first 3 seasons in Gainesville were a combination of a guy who – pick a reason – didn’t work hard enough, didn’t really have a position, wasn’t committed to his craft and didn’t take the game seriously. Then his senior season arrived, and like it has for so many players over the years, the lure of NFL money changed everything.
Before this season, Toney had 50 career catches and 2 TDs. He has 53 catches and 8 TDs in 2020, with at least 3 games to play. Instead of showing flashes in various games over his first 3 seasons, he’s making consistent, electric plays game after game.
Now, the problem: He’s in a conference full of elite skill players, including the tight end (Kyle Pitts) of his own team. Unless he has a huge regular-season final against LSU, and the same against Alabama in the SEC Championship Game, he won’t be first-team All-SEC (DeVonta Smith, Elijah Moore). But that shouldn’t minimize his impact on this Florida team.
They’re a dangerous offense because he has developed into a No. 1 receiver. And he’s nearly impossible to defend at the college level.
9. Numbers: 12
Kentucky plays in the best conference in college football. It doesn’t have near the resources as the SEC’s bluebloods and doesn’t remotely recruit at the same level.
But the Wildcats have won 12 games in the last 2 seasons despite throwing for a combined 2,521 yards, 17 TDs and 13 INTs. That’s right, as the game has clearly moved toward favoring the passing game, Kentucky has won 12 games in the toughest conference in college football without an efficient passing game.
This leaves 2 key questions: How good could UK be with an improved passing game, and why can’t it recruit and develop a quarterback and build an offensive system around him?
Terry Wilson, Joey Gatewood and Beau Allen were all former 4-star recruits, and all recruited by heavyweight Power 5 programs. UK coach Mark Stoops has fired Eddie Gran and Darin Hinshaw as co-offensive coordinators and wants to move the offense in line with where SEC offenses are headed: spreading the field to stress defenses (think: Big 12 offenses).
10. Quote to note
LSU coach Ed Orgeron on potential staff changes in the offseason: “I promised we will go to the end of the season before we evaluate everything.”