First and 10: The choice for No. 1 is pretty simple, OK?
1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …
So we have this problem in college football. Once a team or a player or a coach reaches the mountaintop, the immediate goal is to find something that can replace them.
Or in the vernacular of our beloved sport, we should replace them.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the LSU Tigers. The best team in college football, the best résumé in college football, playing in the best conference in college football.
Yet it’s not enough.
It’s about a defense that gives up more than 600 yards to Ole freakin’ Miss, and more than 30 points to Vanderbilt. It’s about winning games of significance before the first College Football Playoff poll, then getting 3 relative breathers to finish the season.
Imagine if Ohio State or Georgia or Clemson or Minnesota or Utah finished the season with a “breather” game against Texas A&M, how the talking bobbleheads on television and the booger pickers on social media would crow about a “huge” game in the race for the Playoff.
Only there’s a teeny-weeny problem those annoying gnats fail to recognize: Georgia and Clemson did play the Aggies. It was a “gut-check” and a “résumé-building” win for Georgia, and it’s the only win that’s keeping Clemson’s tattered résumé from completely vanishing.
And for LSU? This week’s Texas A&M game is one where the Tigers “better not slip” – for fear of losing their grip on the No. 1 spot in the CFP poll. Because Ohio State plays at Michigan, and if the Buckeyes win that “classic” rivalry game, that most holiest of rivalry games, well, how could you not make them No. 1?
I mean, we’re talking Michigan. The same team that lost by 21 to a Wisconsin team that can’t throw the ball, and was getting drilled 21-0 by Penn State before the Lions got bored and won 28-21.
You want to play the “should” game? You’re going to end up shoulding all over yourself.
Here’s the problem with college football: It’s a sport that’s forever spinning in prisoner of the moment. It’s not about what you’ve done, it’s about what you did today.
Because that’s the bare truth of polls. College football polls, political polls — all the way down to the guy at your door polling you to see if you’re satisfied with your water pressure.
The only difference between the 13 members of the CFP selection committee and anyone else proclaiming who “should” be No.1, is the 13 actually get a vote. Trust me, I’ve participated in one of those mock selection days in that posh hotel in suburban Dallas, and as sure as every single college football Saturday is a national holiday, the vote comes down to eye test for every single voter.
You can talk about who plays a tougher schedule or who has a better win or who has a better loss, but there’s a reason committee members carry iPads with downloaded games from Sunday until the vote on Tuesday night.
Polls are opinions, eye tests that can and do fluctuate with the smallest of impact. And as a society, we tend to lean toward what’s new and now — not what once was. You better believe that includes the short attention span theater that is weekly college football games.
LSU will beat Texas A&M and Ohio State will beat Michigan, and before Saturday night rolls into Sunday, the college football stratosphere will be all awash with Ohio State should be No. 1.
Yep, just the beginning of shoulding all over yourself.
2. The importance of No. 1
It doesn’t matter, you say. If LSU and Ohio State and Clemson win out, they’re all in the Playoff, anyway.
But it does matter. It could be the difference in getting Utah (or Oklahoma/Baylor) or Clemson in the semifinal (no one wants any part of Clemson), and playing close to home (Atlanta) or across the country (Glendale, Ariz.).
So yeah, this is important stuff.
Now this is all a moot point should a wild bout of crazy explode over the next 2 weeks of the season. Because if Georgia beats unbeaten LSU in the SEC Championship Game, Georgia and LSU will both make the Playoff – but Georgia and LSU will be ranked No.3 and 4 and be beholden to the committee’s geographic whims.
The committee uses geographic proximity as a reward in placing the No. 1 seed, and that means if LSU wins out, it could not only play a CFP semifinal in Atlanta – in the heart of SEC country and a short plane ride (or decent drive) from Baton Rouge – against No. 4 seed Utah or Oklahoma/Baylor and not No. 3 seed Clemson, but a semifinal win sets up the right to play in the national title game in LSU’s backyard of New Orleans.
At some point, you’re going to have to beat Clemson to win it all. Why not do it for the national title, playing an hour away from your campus?
3. The No. 1 argument, The Epilogue
I’ve got some bad news for Alabama fans: There’s a much better chance that Georgia beats LSU to give the SEC 2 Playoff teams than there is Alabama getting an at-large spot to give the SEC a double dip.
It might not matter how badly Alabama beats Auburn in the Iron Bowl (if it does at all), the Tide’s résumé won’t match up in 2 critical areas: Utah is getting better with each week and has dominated an offense-heavy Pac-12 with stifling defense – and Alabama fatigue might just be real with the committee.
Remember, we’re talking about the eye test, and what secondary data points can back up a decision. Case in point: Washington, circa 2016.
The Huskies’ nonconference schedule consisted of Rutgers, Idaho and Portland State – but Washington’s big win over No. 8 Colorado in the Pac-12 Championship Game was the final push.
Utah’s nonconference schedule this season: BYU, Northern Illinois, Idaho State. Almost identical.
As long as Oregon doesn’t lose at home this weekend to Oregon State, the Ducks should be a top 10 CFP team. If the Utes – who have given up 61 points in the 7 games since losing on the road by 7 to 8-win USC – beat Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship Game, the final spot is between Utah and Oklahoma.
Both will have better résumés than Alabama.
The Tide need to beat Auburn soundly, then hope for utter chaos (Oklahoma State over OU, OU over Baylor; Oregon over Utah) and LSU to beat Georgia.
4. Dan’s stand
We talk all the time about the impact of good coaching. It’s absolutely critical in the college game, where development is much more of a factor than in the NFL.
To that end, the impact of Dan Mullen at 2 programs has been startling over the past 2 seasons.
With a win over rival Florida State this weekend, Mullen will become the first coach in Florida history to win double-digit games in his first 2 seasons in Gainesville.
That’s right, the greatest coaches in school history – Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer – didn’t do it.
More telling of the impact of Mullen, the coach: Mississippi State over the past 2 seasons.
The Bulldogs had the SEC’s most experienced (and many would argue, best) defense in 2018 and a 5th-year senior quarterback and won 8 games with Joe Moorhead. Mullen won 9 games with a near identical team in 2017.
Mississippi State is 5-6 heading to this week’s Egg Bowl, and needs a win to keep alive a streak of 9 years (built for all but 1 season by Mullen) of playing in a bowl game.
Prior to Mullen’s arrival in 2010, Mississippi State played in 13 bowls games since it began playing football in 1895.
5. The Weekly Five
Five picks against the spread (expanded Rivalry Week edition)
- Ole Miss at Mississippi State
- Missouri (-13) at Arkansas
- Clemson (-26) at South Carolina
- Georgia (-29) at Georgia Tech
- Louisville (+3) at Kentucky
- Alabama at Auburn (+3.5)
- Vanderbilt at Tennessee (-20)
- Texas A&M (+15) at LSU
- FSU (+18) at Florida
Last week: 1-2.
6. Your tape is your résumé
Each week an NFL scout breaks down a draft eligible SEC player. This week: Tennessee OT Trey Smith.
“If he didn’t have the medical (missed extended time with blood clots in his lungs), he’d be a guy that a lot of scouts would compare to Quenton Nelson. I know that’s a big jump, but this kid does things that you just don’t see guys his size do. His athletic ability and raw power is something. I don’t see him on the outside here, but man, he could be an absolute stud on the inside. He’s so big and powerful, and he’s got that lower body drive.
“But he’s also a guy that can hit and scrape in pass protection. The medical is truly the only question with him. There will be teams that will pass on him for just that. But someone is going to get a helluva player.”
7. Powered Up
This week’s SEC Power Poll (and one big thing).
1. LSU: Tigers’ D clearly a unit that plays up in big games. They’re all big from here out.
2. Georgia: There’s something about the Georgia offense that doesn’t feel right. It’s part QB Jake Fromm, part play-calling – and might cost the Bulldogs a championship (or 2).
3. Alabama: The Tide look fluid and comfortable (again) with Mac Jones at quarterback. The problem: Jones hasn’t seen a defense like Auburn.
4. Florida: No matter how season finishes, Gators’ staff will look back at 2 games (LSU, Georgia) they could have won and let get away.
5. Auburn: Lose to Alabama, and I don’t see how Gus Malzhan keeps his job – even with the $26 million parachute.
6. Texas A&M: Jimbo Fisher got emotional when talking about the growth of his team. That’s fine, but he better start winning some big games in 2020.
7. Tennessee: On one hand, give Jeremy Pruitt credit for right the ship. On the other, it’s not like the Good Ship Vol was navigating level 4 rapids (that schedule, woof).
8. Kentucky: This has been Mark Stoops’ best coaching job of his career. And might be the last in Lexington (hello, FSU).
9. Missouri: Tigers will beat Arkansas to get to 6 wins (and a bowl, pending NCAA approval), but there will be changes on the offensive staff.
10. Mississippi State: Think about this concept: Joe Moorhead is dealing with expectations made by Dan Mullen.
11. Ole Miss: Keith Carter is now officially athletic director. Does that mean a coaching change is on the horizon?
12. South Carolina: Tepid presidential support for Will Muschamp, then unwavering. If Gamecocks lose big at home to Clemson, it might get ugly.
13. Vanderbilt: Always good to see an administration not bow to pressure if it believes it has the right coach.
14. Arkansas: I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again: Mike Leach. It’s a no-brainer.
8. Ask and you shall receive
Matt: Every year we go through this, and every year we all wish there were more than 4 teams in the dang Playoff. Why are we the only ones who see this? When will this change?
Hank: CFP director Bill Hancock will tell you there’s no desire to change the system, but remember, there was no desire to change the BCS, either. The CFP contract runs through 2026, and while it likely runs through the current deal, don’t underestimate public momentum (that’s what started change in 2011; see: Alabama vs. LSU in BCS NCG) and plain, hard cash.
Once streaming services jump into the live sports game, everything can and will change. You could have Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, YouTube (Google) competing for deals that had always been given to cable television. If the streaming sites get involved, I feel like they’ll want more than a 6-team Playoff (which is the preferred next step by many university presidents). While I don’t think we’d ever get to a 16-team Playoff, I don’t think an 8-team Playoff is out of the question. Anything more than that moves the game closer to the NFL model, which nearly every president doesn’t want.
9. Numbers game
312. You want inept? Here’s inept: In its past 4 games, Georgia has played 4 of the top 6 defenses in the SEC (not including Alabama and Georgia) and is averaging 312 yards per game. While the only number that matters is 4 (4 wins in 4 games), those offensive numbers won’t last vs. LSU in the SEC Championship Game, and more important, a potential CFP run.
10. Quote to note
LSU coach Ed Orgeron, in yet another savage verbal beatdown of a rival: “There wasn’t going to be too much of a celebration for beating Arkansas. They haven’t beaten anyone in a long time.”