Monday Down South: The SEC's best Playoff candidates are still unscathed. Now comes the gauntlet
Nearly halfway through the regular season, 2019 in college football is shaping up as the Year of Chalk. No massive upsets. No bottoms falling out. No tables overturned. No real surprises. Everyone is on the right track.
The top 6 teams in the preseason AP poll are still the top 6, the first time that’s happened this late in the season in the history of the poll. In fact, they’re all thriving. Six weeks in, Alabama and Clemson have traded places at the top; Oklahoma and Ohio State have flipped just behind them. Otherwise, the front-runners remain unchanged and — aside from Clemson’s narrow escape at North Carolina — essentially unchallenged.
Of the 3 teams that have dropped out of the top 10 since opening day, 2 of them (Notre Dame and Texas) fell as a result of close, hard-fought losses to higher-ranked SEC opponents (Georgia and LSU, respectively). Of the top 16 teams in this week’s polls, only 1 (Utah) has dropped a game to a team that resides outside the top 10.
In a sport defined by unpredictability, that’s remarkably … predictable. Which can only mean the inevitable shake-up is past due. Right? Consider that in the 5-year run of the College Football Playoff, the field has featured a grand total of 6 undefeated teams, versus 8 teams that made the cut with a loss to an unranked opponent. Before last year, there had been just 3 perfect records, and never more than 1 in the same season. In the BCS era (1998-2013), the field was reliably culled to 1 or 2 unbeatens from the major conferences, if any; that assumption held in every season except 2004. Surely the great cull looms.
On the other hand: Does it? Clemson hasn’t quite played up to its potential (yet) but remains a virtual lock to finish 13-0 again against a string of ACC also-rans. Oklahoma’s offense is on pace for world domination, as usual, opposite what appears to be a vastly improved defense under first-year coordinator Alex Grinch. (In this case, vastly improved is an understatement: Grinch’s unit might actually be pretty good.)
The Sooners will also be heavy favorites in every remaining game, beginning with this weekend’s rivalry tilt against Texas. If not the Longhorns, who in the Big 12 is going to beat them? Ditto Ohio State, which boasts arguably an even more improved D than Oklahoma’s and the lopsided scoring margin (+40.5 points per game, best in the nation) to go with it. Already the Buckeyes have improved from a 0.7 percent chance of running the table in the preseason, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index, to a 40.1 percent chance after 6 games. That’s second only to Clemson’s 60 percent, despite the fact that OSU’s 3 toughest games all lie ahead.
So sure, if you’re playing the odds, the smart money at this point, with 8 weeks to go before the Playoff field is set, is still very much on chaos. An awful lot can change in a hurry. Or, you know, it could not. Right now, the odds are looking flimsier by the week.
The only place where the thinning of the herd is actually certain is, as ever, in the SEC.
With Florida’s 24-13 win over Auburn, all 4 of the SEC outfits that began the season in the top 10 (Alabama, Georgia, LSU and Florida) remain in the top 10, with a 21-0 record overall and a 3-0 mark against other top 10 opponents. Add Auburn to that group — the Tigers still control their fate, for what it’s worth — and not only does the conference boast 5 plausible Playoff contenders, nearly as many as the other major conferences combined; those 5 contenders still have to go head-to-head 6 more times in the regular season, not including the winner-take-all epic that awaits the survivors in Atlanta.
Gators-Tigers was only the first in what’s shaping up as a weekly installment of The Eliminator:
- Oct. 12: Florida at LSU
- Oct. 26: Auburn at LSU
- Nov. 2: Georgia vs. Florida
- Nov. 9: LSU at Alabama
- Nov. 16: Georgia at Auburn
- Nov. 30: Alabama at Auburn
- Dec. 7: SEC Championship Game
Regardless of what happens elsewhere, that gauntlet is the central story of how the national championship race is going to take shape over the second half of the season. Outside of Oklahoma-Texas on Saturday and Ohio State’s dates with Wisconsin and Penn State — both in Columbus — there are no other matchups on the horizon between teams with even faintly realistic Playoff ambitions. (Note that if the Buckeyes should lose either game, the title of Playoff-bound Big Ten front-runner would pass directly to the Nittany Lions or Badgers. Meanwhile, Michigan probably isn’t as bad as feared a few weeks ago, but the Wolverines are still barred from the national picture pending back-to-back games against Penn State and Notre Dame later this month.) Unless an overachiever on the fringes — Minnesota? Wake Forest? Baylor? — unexpectedly surges over the next few weeks, there aren’t going to be.
It also means that the margin for error for each of the aspiring SEC contenders is razor thin and potentially nonexistent: If the status quo continues to persist against chaos, only the conference champion can count on making the cut. That will still be true even if there’s another compelling candidate with only 1 loss and a résumé that matches up favorably against 1-loss teams that have had their tickets punched in the past. Any credible path for the runner-up runs directly through chaos.
In that context, appeals to conference superiority don’t amount to much. Florida’s return to the national conversation on the heels of the resurgences at Georgia and LSU is a high-water mark for the league; it’s also a validation of the coaching changes at each of those programs, all of which were controversial to some extent but have paid off. At the same time, though, the higher the stakes in a dog-eat-dog scenario, the harsher the reality.
Having 4 or 5 Playoff-caliber teams just means 3 or 4 of them are destined to be left out in the cold.
Around the league in Week 6 …
LSU 42, Utah State 6
As strange as it still sounds, the lingering question for LSU is exactly the opposite: Can the Tigers generate enough defense to go with their suddenly prolific offense? Any unit that gives up 38 points to Texas and Vanderbilt is a legitimate concern, and derailing a better-than-you-think attack like Utah State’s is a solid step forward.
Granted, it’s clear by now that the 2019 Aggies aren’t nearly as explosive as they were last year when they ranked No. 2 nationally in scoring. Also granted, LSU racked up a staggering 22-minute advantage in time of possession, limiting Utah State’s warp-speed approach to just 53 snaps. Still, the defense was largely responsible for that, especially in the early going, when 3 brief incursions into LSU territory yielded just 2 field goals and a momentum-shifting interception by rising star Derek Stingley Jr.
Derek Stingley Jr = PLAYMAKER ?
— PFF College (@PFF_College) October 5, 2019
Threat averted: The Aggies failed to cross midfield again from that point on. Altogether, the Tigers forced touted QB Jordan Love into 3 interceptions and limited USU to its worst output in terms of total yards (159), yards per play (3.0), and points since 2013, against any opponent.
Ole Miss 31, Vanderbilt 6
True freshman QB John Rhys Plumlee started for the second consecutive game in place of the injured Matt Corral and continued to make a strong case to take over full-time. Plumlee is a different breed of quarterback than the Rebels are accustomed to, an undersized speedster who (so far, anyway) is more dangerous with his legs than his arm — in other words, a perfect fit for offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez, who invented the zone read, ushered it into the national consciousness, and still knows how to get the most of out of a dynamic athlete who’s behind the curve as a passer.
On the heels of a high-flying, 109-yard rushing day at Alabama, Plumlee ripped Vandy for a team-high 181 yards (not including sacks) on 19 carries, roughly half of that total coming on explosive runs of 54 and 33 yards in the 1st quarter.
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) October 6, 2019
He might not be Pat White or Khalil Tate, but kid has some burst. The rest of the night went much the same way, with Ole Miss racking up 413 yards on the ground thanks in large part to breakaway TD runs by Plumlee’s fellow freshmen Jerrion Ealy (78 yards) and Jarod “Snoop” Conner (84 yards) on consecutive series in the 3rd quarter. That marked the Rebels’ first 400-yard rushing game since a 2010 win over Fresno State and their best output against an SEC opponent since 1979. Read that again: 1979!
So it’s Vanderbilt. So Rodriguez wasn’t hired to resurrect the Spread ’n Shred at a program that has thrived on a philosophy of high-volume passing. After watching his original plan crap out in losses to Memphis and Cal, stumbling into a fledgling quarterback who fits his sensibility to a tee is one heck of a happy accident.
It might be too little too late to get the Rebels back into a bowl game this year, but at least it’s an identity.
The best of the week.
1. Missouri LB Cale Garrett
Cale Garrett is BALLING!
— PFF College (@PFF_College) October 5, 2019
Garrett was a force in Mizzou’s 42-10 win over Troy, finishing with 5 tackles (all solo, 2 of them for loss), 2 QB hurries and 2 interceptions in a blowout that was even worse than the final score suggests. (Missouri led 42-7 at the half before throttling down.) His first INT came up just short of a pick-6, setting up the Tigers offense at the Troy 1-yard line for an easy score that extended the lead to 28-7. His second, on the ensuing possession, he took all the way back for the clincher — his 3rd defensive touchdown in as many weeks.
Unfortunately, that might be his last highlight of 2019. Sunday night, Missouri announced that Garrett needs surgery to repair a pectoral muscle and could miss the rest of the season.
2. Georgia CB Eric Stokes
— Wes Blankenship (@Wes_nship) October 6, 2019
Stokes cracks Superlatives for the second time this season on the strength of another active outing in the Bulldogs’ 43-14 win at Tennessee: In addition to breaking up 3 passes in coverage, he delivered the hit of the night, a blind-side sack in the 3rd quarter that resulted in (a) a fumble, (b) the icing touchdown, courtesy of LB Tae Crowder and (c) an early exit for Tennessee QB Brian Maurer in his first career start. Notably, Stokes wasn’t responsible on either of Maurer’s early touchdown passes — UGA clamped down altogether after the second, holding the Vols scoreless over the final 3 quarters — thereby adding to his rep as the Bulldogs’ most reliable cover man.
3. Florida DE Jonathan Greenard
Greenard wasn’t credited with a sack or TFL against Auburn, but he was ubiquitous in the Tigers’ backfield, registering 6 tackles and 3 QB hurries as part of the most impressive team defensive performance of the weekend. Just as important as the literal pressure on Bo Nix was the added pressure to make up for a faltering running game: Auburn’s final tally on the ground (124 yards on 3.7 per carry, with a long gain of just 16) was its worst of the season, with corresponding results from Nix’s arm. The Tigers were just 2-of-14 on 3rd down conversions.
4. Auburn DT Derrick Brown
Derrick Brown is a TOUGH man to guard. pic.twitter.com/B8hS1ykwKX
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) October 5, 2019
Brown asserted himself again as the premier interior monster in the league, if not the entire country, finishing with 4 tackles and a brute-force sack/forced fumble that killed an impending Florida scoring drive in the 4th quarter (see above). Had the big man been able to keep his feet in the open field, his earlier fumble recovery in the first half might have ended in a go-ahead touchdown that changed the entire complexion of the game.
Instead, it went on the blooper reel, only for the offense to cough the ball right back to the Gators 2 plays later.
5. LSU QB Joe Burrow
Burrow was … well, Burrow-esque against Utah State, shredding the Aggies for 344 yards with 5 touchdown passes to 4 receivers. (He added 42 yards and a 6th TD as a runner.)
That marked his 4th consecutive game with at least 350 yards of total offense and 3 TDs, which is one more than every other LSU quarterback since the turn of the century combined.
Honorable Mention: Georgia RB D’Andre Swift, who was his usual dynamic self en route to 144 total yards (72 rushing, 72 receiving) and a TD in the win. … Tennessee WRs Jauan Jennings and Marquez Callaway, who racked up 219 yards and 2 roof-raising TDs in the best combined night of their careers. … LSU WR Justin Jefferson, who accounted for 155 yards and 2 of Burrow’s 5 TDs on a career-high 9 catches against Utah State, including this one. … Florida punter Tommy Townsend, who averaged 47.1 yards on 7 punts against Auburn, 3 of which pinned the Tigers inside their own 20-yard line and none of which were returned. … Florida LB David Reese II, who finished with a team-high 13 tackles against Auburn. … Auburn LBs K.J. Britt and Zakoby McClain, who combined for 16 tackles, 3 TFLs, and a pair of forced fumbles by McClain. … And Ole Miss’ offensive line, which paved the way for one of the Rebels’ best rushing performances of the decade.