First and 10: The real reason only 4 teams have a chance to win the SEC title in 2021
1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …
We interrupt the overwhelming evidence that offense has consumed college football with a simple offering: The 4 teams that can win the SEC in 2021 will do so because they play better defense than anyone else.
I’m not ignoring clear offense-first trends, or the recent track record of the once big, bad SEC quickly morphing into the last team with the ball wins Big 12. Because that’s happening.
If you don’t think so, take a look at your beloved SEC Championship Game, the gold standard of games not associated (officially, anyway) with the College Football Playoff. There were 98 points scored between Alabama and Florida, and it only ended after the Tide ran enough clock with a 6-point lead to seal the deal.
Now, shift to spring practice — and the rise again of defense.
The Alabama defense stole the show, and the Georgia defense – despite a new secondary – looks built to win a championship. The second tier is Florida, which has as many as 6 NFL Draft prospects on its defense (more on that later), and Texas A&M, which returns 9 starters from the SEC’s No. 1 defense last year and has 6 seniors who will start.
So despite the highlights you’ve seen this spring, despite the Ole Miss offense looking like a sleek machine, and LSU feeling good about its Joe Brady-inspired offense with new OC Jake Peetz, and Tennessee’s offense under new coach Josh Heupel dropping deep balls everywhere, and Mike Leach in Year 2 at Mississippi State, the conference championship will be won because one of those aforementioned 4 teams will play enough defense to get off the field enough times to make it work.
“You hold someone to 3 (points), that’s a big deal now,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “I think we’re all adjusting, but we’re not giving up (on defense).”
Exhibit A: the Alabama defense. There’s no denying Alabama’s struggles on defense (compared to its outrageous standard) the last 2 seasons.
Most of the issues revolved around the development of offense around the league, and some, to an extent, from DC Pete Golding growing into the position.
The most glaring deficiency – again, by Alabama’s lofty standard – has been its pass rush. Those struggles go hand in hand with Alabama’s struggles to cover in the secondary.
Prior to 2019, Alabama had gone 4 straight seasons with at least 40 sacks (twice in the 50s). In the last 2 seasons with Golding as DC, they’ve had 35 and 32, respectively. Personnel also has played a factor, and that’s where this spring enters the mix.
Will Anderson and Chris Allen dominated in the 15 practices and could give the Tide its best pass-rushing duo since 2016. Chris Braswell, a former 5-star recruit, looks like he’s ready to play, too.
When Alabama can force quick decisions with its pass rush, the defense is lethal.
“Will Anderson can rush. Chris Allen can rush. We probably got more guys that can rush that have more maturity,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “We’ve got a couple of the young guys that can rush.”
Translation: Watch how quickly Golding becomes the hot coordinator-to-head coach candidate when the Alabama defense returns to form.
And watch how scary Alabama becomes when mid-October rolls around and the offense and new quarterback Bryce Young have found its footing.
If you thought the last 2 Alabama-Georgia games with championships on the line were special (2017, 2018), wait until this one rolls around in December.
JT Daniels and Bryce Young. John Metchie III and Jermaine Burton. Brian Robinson Jr. and Zamir White. And 2 stout defenses – that’s right, stout defenses, bringing normalcy to the SEC Championship Game.
2. The will and fire of Muschamp
Coaches in the league that I’ve spoken to have said the most underrated move of the offseason is Georgia coach Kirby Smart hiring Will Muschamp as an analyst.
The former Florida and South Carolina coach is regarded as one of college football’s best defensive minds.
“This game is still about dudes. When you have them, you look really smart as a coach,” one SEC coach told me. “Will had a few (at South Carolina) and it didn’t look good. He loaded up (at Florida) and that was a badass defense. With those Georgia players on that roster now? He’s going to be huge for (Georgia DC) Dan (Lanning).”
Yet there’s one potential hiccup: Lanning is a top candidate for the Kansas head coaching job, and if he leaves, Smart would have to convince Muschamp to take the DC job. Another SEC coach told me Muschamp is “really happy” in his new role and away from the grind.
But understand this: Smart and Muschamp are best friends, and Smart already has spoken at length this spring about the value of Muschamp on his staff and how he will lean on Muschamp with a variety of executive decisions and processes.
If Lanning gets the Kansas job, it will be very difficult for Muschamp to tell his best friend Smart he’s not interested – especially with his alma mater so close to winning it all for the first time since 1980.
3. The clock is ticking
We’ve seen this time after time with Todd Grantham: He has an expiration date.
At some point during his tenures in both the NFL and college football, his risk/reward style of coaching takes its toll on teams.
Considering Grantham’s track record (10 NFL or college football jobs since 1990; none lasting longer than 4 years), the expiration date is arriving soon at Florida. You could argue it hit last season when Florida produced historically poor numbers defensively.
That was technically Grantham’s 4th year with Dan Mullen (1 at Mississippi State, 3 at Florida), and this will be his 4th in Gainesville. Mullen said the biggest problem with last year’s unit was its inability to line up quickly enough.
So I asked him what changes this fall with Grantham, and how did they fix it this spring?
“I told Todd we need to expand our playbook early in spring and see who fits where,” Mullen said. “Then we shrink it back down to fit the strengths of our players. Get our best 11 on the field.”
One NFL scout told me Florida has at least 6 players on defense who will be selected in the 2022 draft: CBs Kaiir Elam and Jaydon Hill, S Trey Dean III, LB Ventrell Miller, DE/LB Brenton Cox, DE Zachary Carter.
“They’ve got some young guys that can play, too,” the scout told me. “Too much talent on that defense, too many guys that can run, for them to play like they did last year.”
4. The changing Playoff
The College Football Playoff management committee met late last week and said they have begun extended talks about expanding the Playoff.
Publicly stated as much, anyway.
I wrote last fall that the management committee has been working through scenarios for an expanded Playoff, and at that point, a 6-team Playoff was favored because it eliminated second-semester football (which is why “spring” football was never a reality in FBS as a response to the pandemic, despite what the Big Ten was selling).
CFP executive director Bill Hancock said the committee is looking at various forms of expansion, including 6, 8, 10, 12 and 16 teams. Here’s the key: Hancock’s verbiage on the potential shift outlined a change that could come sooner than later.
“The timetable is certainly an important detail, but it hasn’t been determined yet,” Hancock said. “It’s too soon to predict timing, but even if the board decides to alter the format, it may well not occur until after the current agreement has expired (after 2025 season).”
A few points:
— In previous public statements, the CFP has stood firm on no change until after the 2025 season. Clearly, there is wiggle room in that statement.
— You can forget about 10, 12 or 16 teams. Those formats take the sport into the second semester. The academic timetable eliminates the ability to start the Playoff the week after championship weekend, and those double-digit team formats would more than likely need to start immediately after the season.
Unless there is a paradigm shift from university presidents regarding their thought process about second-semester football, the new format will be 6 or 8 teams. Six is the current favorite because it allows a mini playoff within the Playoff: the race for 2 first-round byes. And no one loves an argument — and how it fuels the sport — quite like the college football’s power brokers.
— It’s a long season. The NCAA already has changed overtime rules to shorten the number of plays in a game. Extending the Playoff to double-digit teams is bad optics when the NCAA is in court fighting all it can to prevent players from using their name, image and likeness.
5. The Weekly 5
The top 5 Player of the Year candidates in the SEC.
1. JT Daniels, Georgia
2. Bryce Young, Alabama
3. Matt Corral, Ole Miss
4. Tank Bigsby, Auburn
5. DE Brenton Cox, Florida
6. Your tape is your résumé
An NFL scout breaks down a 2022 draft-eligible SEC player. This week: Mississippi State OT Charles Cross.
“I love his athleticism. He has great feet, and he’s long with that reach. We’re going to learn a lot this season. First, it’s his second season as a starter in the SEC. Secondly, he knows with a big season, he can move to our league and make money. Why ignore it? When guys get to their third season (draft-eligible after 3 years removed from high school), money becomes the No. 1 goal for 99 percent of players. So, OK, let’s see how badly you want it.
“I can’t wait to watch him play, because, in that offense, he’s going to get the chance to showcase his pass blocking skills on the left side. He can be overpowered at times, and he needs to get bigger and stronger in his upper body. But he has a young frame, and there’s a lot you can do with it as far as development.”
7. Powered Up
The post-spring power poll — and one big thing.
1. Georgia: Kirby Smart can’t avoid it. This is the season, and wouldn’t you know it, there’s Clemson — right out of the gate.
2. Alabama: How does any idiot pick against Alabama? Check back after the season-opener(s).
3. Florida: The biggest offseason storyline isn’t who plays quarterback, but does the decision to retain DC Todd Grantham work?
4. Texas A&M: Aggies must prove 2020 wasn’t an aberration – a difficult lift with a new quarterback and legitimate questions on the offensive line.
5. LSU: Plenty of talent on this roster. The 2020 problem: bad defensive coordinator hire, and freshmen quarterbacks.
6. Ole Miss: The only missing variable in Lane Kiffin winning big in the SEC: Can he recruit difference-makers on defense?
7. Missouri: Can former NFL head coach Steve Wilks turn around a defense that in 2020 gave up 40 points or more 5 times and an average of 32.3 points per game?
8. Auburn: Only once since 2009 has an Auburn season not been influenced by Gus Malzahn. How quickly can Bryan Harsin mold this team into his personality?
9. Kentucky: Losing out at Auburn and failing to beat out Terry Wilson are in the rearview now for QB Joey Gatewood, whose play in the spring makes him the favorite to win the QB job.
10. Arkansas: This might be too low, especially considering how well Arkansas played in 3 close losses last season – and how well QB KJ Jefferson played this spring.
11. Mississippi State: Another potential too low pick. Mike Leach’s teams have historically gotten better quickly, especially with a QB (Will Rogers) in the second year of the Air Raid system.
12. Tennessee: The Vols may not stop anyone (they might just be historically bad on defense), but the offense will stress plenty of SEC defenses.
13. South Carolina: It will get worse before it gets better: Uncertainty at quarterback and a considerable rebuild on defense.
14. Vanderbilt: Been saying this since last season: I really like QB Ken Seals. Can Vandy put enough around him to be successful?
8. Ask and you shall receive
Matt: The 10-game conference season last year was fantastic. Every week was exciting, even if we didn’t have full stadiums. What are the chances the SEC goes back to 10 games in the future?
Peter Fleming, Atlanta
Peter: Zero. Look back at the first two decades since the turn of the millennia, and realize the 8-game model has led to a 7-season national championship streak (2006-2012), 4 national championships in the College Football Playoff era, and 12 overall national titles in 20 years from 4 teams (Alabama, Florida, LSU, Auburn).
In that same span, the Big Ten – generally considered the No. 2 conference in college football – has 2 national titles by the same team (Ohio State).
It would be reckless of commissioner Greg Sankey to mess with that model, even though Saban has been pushing for a 9-game schedule for more than a decade. By the way, that’s not happening, either.
There is, however, some hope: better nonconference scheduling. Sankey has pushed the league’s schools to schedule better nonconference games, and most have. The only thing that could possibly move the SEC from its 8-game schedule? Money.
A lack of it.
If stadium attendance continues to shrink, if member institutions continue to bleed revenue from 10-20,000 missing fans, a move to 9 games might make sense. The pandemic has changed the way we look at everything and most certainly changed the way fans spend money on fall Saturdays – a growing number preferring to stay home, avoid traffic and large hotel bills, and watch their team on a 70-inch television with their bathroom in the next room.
Forget about expansion of the CFP changing the SEC’s schedule format, or the other Power 5 conferences forcing the SEC’s hand. The only way the league moves off 8 is if it’s fiscally smart to do so.
9. Numbers: 11
This is what new Kentucky offensive coordinator Liam Coen – a disciple of Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay — is walking into: In the last decade, Kentucky has thrown 110 TDs (11 per season) and finished last in the league in touchdown passes 4 times, and next-to-last 3 times. That’s No. 14 or No. 13 in 7 of 10 seasons.
10. Quote to note
Arkansas QB KJ Jefferson: “My confidence level is pretty high. Started off this spring a little rocky because I knew I had to fix my footwork and accuracy, and recognizing defenses and different coverages. Coming out of spring, I feel like I’ve grown and matured from where I was.”