Monday Down South: There's no right answer to the Bama-Ohio State debate (but choosing Bama's not wrong)
The regular season is over, the bowl order is set, and the teams stuck in the eight-car pileup of mediocrity behind Alabama, Georgia and Auburn finally have a couple weeks off to lick their wounds before defending the SEC’s good name in the postseason. Before we look ahead, this season-ending edition of the weekly review will look back at the best plays, players, and moments of 2017, another season nearly in the books.
But first, a few thoughts on what might go down as a defining weekend for the SEC on several levels:
1. Georgia is who we thought it was
The Bulldogs looked like the best team in the country over the first two months of the season, and by emphatically avenging their Nov. 11 loss to Auburn they resurrected the possibility that the first impression is the one that will ultimately stick. The rematch in Atlanta was almost a mirror image of the original: A 255-yard deficit in total offense the first time around became a 162-yard advantage; the running game, a nonentity in the first meeting, racked up 238 yards on 5.8 per carry; the front seven, shoved around by Auburn’s offensive line three weeks ago, swallowed up the Tigers’ ground game on Saturday and meted out a steady regimen of pressure on Jarrett Stidham.
Last time the Bulldogs finished -1 in turnover margin, this time they were +2. Last time they missed a key field goal attempt, this time they blocked one. Even time of possession was almost exactly reversed.
The upshot is that Georgia looked indistinguishable from the version of itself that ran roughshod over nearly every other team it faced in the regular season, and in the process made arguably the hottest team in America look indistinguishable from, say, South Carolina or Kentucky. The first game was the exception; the rematch was the rule.
In fact, although the Playoff committee seeded Georgia No. 3 behind Clemson and Oklahoma, there’s a legitimate case to be made for UGA as the favorite to win it all — under the circumstances, Saturday’s win was arguably the best this season by any of the four Playoff teams. The Bulldogs opened as 1-point favorites over Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl, an accurate reflection of just how little separation there is between any of the final four teams right now. (In the other semifinal Alabama opened as a 2-point favorite over Clemson, ostensibly the top seed.) There are still no truly great teams in college football this year, but Georgia is as close as any of the other contenders and has every bit as good a chance to be the last one standing.
2. There’s no right way to solve the great Bama-Ohio State debate …
The idea that there was some set of objective, incontrovertible criteria that would allow a group of a dozen different humans to come to anything resembling a foolproof consensus over these two teams was laughable. The argument was an inkblot test, a question with a different answer depending on the eye of the beholder, inevitably filtered through the lens of the two most divisive programs in college football. And the résumés of the plausible contenders didn’t offer much clarity.
Whatever you see in that comparison is probably exactly what you want to see. Given that this is an SEC site, most of y’all reading this are probably more inclined to see an outfit in the far left column that scheduled an elite non-conference test (vs. Florida State), passed it convincingly, and continued to take care of its business over the course of the season without succumbing to the kind of random, indefensible collapse that nearly dashed Ohio State’s campaign against the rocks. (USC’s, too, although the case for the Trojans never got much traction.) There’s a reason the Crimson Tide spent virtually the entire regular season atop the AP poll, above the fray, while the Buckeyes twice dropped out of the top 10.
On the other hand, if big wins matter (which they supposedly do) then Ohio State clearly has the edge with two narrow victories over Top-10 opponents, Penn State and Wisconsin, compared to Alabama’s zero. It’s not the Tide’s fault that FSU and Tennessee tanked this year beyond any relevant precedent at those two programs, or that LSU set fire to its national rep by losing to Troy; it is on them that, having been given the benefit of the doubt re: strength of schedule, they went out last week and lost their only game against Playoff-caliber competition by double digits. In retrospect, they were ripe for the picking.
The result is that OSU has two wins that look significantly better on paper than Alabama’s best, and two more (over Michigan and Michigan State) better than the Bama’s close call at Mississippi State. And that’s before weighing the Buckeyes’ conference championship against the Tide’s second-place finish in their own division — not to mention the fact that, in the end, they actually benefited from losing the Iron Bowl and sitting at home on the final weekend of the season.
The committee had to pick one side of that scale over the other, and however that debate winds up being remembered let the record show that it was not at all obvious which side it was going to be until ESPN flashed Alabama’s logo on the screen Sunday during its interminable Playoff reveal show.
(I don’t buy the claims by committee spokesfolk that it was an easy call; that seems more like an effort to mitigate controversy by promoting consensus in the room, whether it actually existed or not.)
In some ways they had to go against their own written protocol to arrive at the decision they did, apparently relying on other metrics instead and coming up with whatever justification seemed to make the most sense after the fact. Gut trumped guidelines. It didn’t have to be that way.
3. … but picking Bama certainly wasn’t wrong
Historically speaking, the loss column matters more in determining a team’s postseason fate than the games it won, and while Ohio State does have a more impressive set of skins on the wall this season, the idea of elevating a two-loss outfit over a similar team with just one L still invokes a bit of cognitive dissonance. And when the second L in question happens to be a 31-point thrashing at the hands of an unranked opponent that subsequently lost to Purdue, well, that’s just a little too dissonant.
The most compelling case for Alabama is that it’s almost inconceivable that the Tide would lose in that fashion, or to an unranked team in any fashion.
While the committee would never admit it, on some level last year’s results had to play a factor in their thinking as well: If nothing else, after the down-to-the-wire drama of the past two national championship games the prospect of Bama-Clemson 3 is infinitely more enticing than a rematch of last year’s Fiesta Bowl, where essentially the same bunch of Buckeyes was run out of the stadium by Clemson in an anticlimactic, 31-0 rout.
Even if just subliminally, the wipeout loss at Iowa — by the same margin — was too reminiscent of that, proof that OSU hasn’t come far enough from last year’s debacle to warrant another shot when the team that has staged a pair of instant classics against the Tigers has an equally compelling case.
Ohio State fans will bristle at that notion, of course, because it’s obviously unfair for this year’s team to be judged by last year’s, and unfair for Alabama to get a boost from its track record, too. But I doubt you’ll find any oddsmakers who suffer from that kind of amnesia, or Clemson fans, for that matter, who’d much rather be facing the Buckeyes for the second year in a row than the Crimson Tide for the third. It’s not supposed to matter, but then again nobody has to ask them why that is.
4. The Playoff expansion movement is about to begin in earnest
In my mind, one of the signs that the signs that the Playoff has been a smashing success is that fact that, after years of lobbying against the inherent unfairness and ineptitude of the BCS, I’ve never felt moved in the slightest to call for any significant revisions to the current format.
Maybe that’s because it’s still relatively new, and still seems like a vast improvement on what we had just a few years ago. (Imagine the nightmare of having to choose between Clemson, Georgia and Oklahoma to play for the national title in the old BCS system, and shrugging as the third wheel gets relegated to a consolation bowl.)
Maybe it’s because the Playoff had avoided a major controversy over the first three years of its existence, out of sheer luck of the draw. Or maybe on some fundamental level the four-team format really is optimal.
At any rate, with the Big Ten being left out in the cold for the first time, under objectionable circumstances, the honeymoon is officially over and the push to expand the bracket from four teams to eight is about to begin picking up steam. The prevailing assumption is that an 8-team system would consist of all five Power 5 conference champions, no questions asked, plus the most deserving mid-major representative and two at-large spots. Using the final committee rankings this year, that would give us a playoff that looks like this:
1. Clemson (ACC Champ) vs.
8. Central Florida (Top Mid-Major Champ)
4. Alabama (At-large) vs.
5. Ohio State (Big Ten Champ)
2. Oklahoma (Big 12 Champ) vs.
7. USC (Pac-12 Champ)
3. Georgia (SEC Champ) vs.
6. Wisconsin (At-large)
That’s four more meaningful, compelling, and highly lucrative games than we have now, without lowering the bar so low as to include a team that clearly doesn’t belong.
It’s also an extra layer of contracts, locations, travel and other logistics to juggle in mid-December against final exams (for players), recruiting deadlines (for coaches), and some semblance of a holiday break, if that’s still a thing. The teams that advanced to the championship game in this format would play 16 games, the equivalent of a full NFL regular season. Sounds like a lot of fun, as long as you’re not one of the people who would actually have to participate in it or put it together.
The best of the week year …
Without further ado, it’s time for the annual Monday Down South awards show. Dim the lights, hold your applause …
Offensive Player of the Year: Kerryon Johnson, RB, Auburn.
Johnson led the conference in rushing and yards from scrimmage despite missing two full games in September, a testament to both his talent with the ball in his hands and his capacity to handle a staggering workload. Like, literally staggering: Before Saturday’s injury-shortened turn in Atlanta, he logged at least 20 touches in nine consecutive games, and often a lot more than that, including in Auburn’s season-defining wins over Georgia (34 for 233 yards) and Alabama (33 for 125).
When Johnson wasn’t in the lineup, as in the Week 2 loss at Clemson, or he was at less than full speed, as in Saturday’s loss to UGA, the offense looked like an expensive car attempting to operate without an engine.
Ohhhhhhhh buddy Roquan Smith just flattened a man pic.twitter.com/C4Ek97Yg0p
— Jack McGuire (@JackMacCFB) December 2, 2017
Defensive Player of the Year: Roquan Smith, LB, Georgia.
The SEC doesn’t have a true Heisman candidate, but if I had a ballot I wouldn’t hesitate to put Smith on it. Smith was mainstay in this space throughout the season, in part due to his raw production — he led the league in solo tackles, 11 of them coming behind the line of scrimmage, and just turned in a career game in the SEC Championship — and in equal part for the unrivaled combination of speed, energy, and violence he brings to the position. A linebacker his size (6-1, 225 pounds, officially) you expect to be able to shoot gaps in the blocking scheme and track ballcarriers sideline to sideline, which Smith does as well or better as anyone in the college game; it’s the main reason he won the Butkus Award. You don’t expect him to routinely abuse opposing offensive linemen at the point of attack, but then every so often he turns out to be eminently Butkus-worthy in that respect, too.
Breakout Player, Offense: A.J. Brown, WR, Ole Miss.
I pegged Brown for this honor in my preseason award list, which wasn’t exactly a bold prediction given the advance hype that met his arrival at Ole Miss last year. But high expectations were too modest: As a true sophomore, Brown led the SEC in receiving yards (1,252, a school record) and touchdowns (11, tying a school record); finished second in receptions (75); hauled in nearly 80 percent of the throws on which he was the target, for 16.7 yards per catch; and won the Conerly Trophy as the best player in the state of Mississippi.
And while a disproportionate chunk of that production came against the bottom half of the schedule, he also accounted for more than 100 yards against Auburn, Vanderbilt, and his hometown school, Mississippi State, whose fans seemed frankly less than enthusiastic over a local product’s success.
Breakout Player, Defense: Jeff Holland, DE, Auburn.
There are a half-dozen worthy candidates for this category on the defensive line alone, any of whom would be a no-brainer in most seasons. In this particular season, though, they’re up against Holland, aka “Sensi Mud,” who came more or less out of nowhere to become the league’s most consistently feared pass rusher as a first-year starter at Auburn.
The fact that the Tigers lost draft picks Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams from last year’s front and both the pass rush and run defense significantly improved should tell you all you need to know.
Hard not to enjoy watching Tre Smith play football. pic.twitter.com/HTaEK4X2Dd
— Cole Cubelic (@colecubelic) September 22, 2017
Rookie of the Year: Trey Smith, OL, Tennessee.
Both of the starting quarterbacks in Saturday’s championship game are eligible for this one, so consider for a second just how good Smith had to be to stand out as an offensive lineman on a team that failed to win a single conference game. Really good!
In contrast to Jake Fromm, who stepped into the best possible situation for a true freshman QB at Georgia, Smith was thrust into a horrible situation: By year’s end, he was the only lineman (and one of just three players on Tennessee’s entire offense) to start every game, at one point moving from right guard to left tackle for the final four. That made him the first true freshman to start at LT for the Vols in at least 30 years.
Right away, though, Smith flashed the athleticism and straight-up nastiness that made him one of the most coveted recruits in the 2017 class, and only needed a few weeks to be recognized as a star in the making. If he has nothing else, whoever finally agrees to be the head coach in Knoxville has an anchor up front for the next two years. No chance he’s getting three.
12th Man of the Year: Sony Michel, RB, Georgia.
As prominent and productive as he was in Georgia’s offense, technically almost all of Michel’s playing time came off the bench: He started one game alongside Nick Chubb, in the regular-season finale at Georgia Tech, but otherwise racked up all of his 918 yards from scrimmage as a backup. There might have been one other backfield in college football where that would have been the case, maybe two. But that’s it.
Comeback Player of the Year: Christian LaCouture, DL, LSU.
LaCouture, a fifth-year senior, missed all of 2016 with a torn ACL that threatened to end his career. Instead he came back for his final year of eligibility better than ever, starting every game, earning the coveted No. 18 jersey, and finishing second on the team in both total tackles (63) and tackles for loss (8.5) as an interior lineman. Next stop is the NFL.
— Greg Brandt (@devywarehouse) November 11, 2017
Most Underrated: Benny Snell Jr., RB, Kentucky.
Most fans around the conference know Snell’s name, if only because he’s virtually dead even with Kerryon Johnson for the SEC lead in rushing yards and touchdowns. Unless you follow Kentucky closely, though — and the odds are you do not — it’s easy to overlook just how prolific his first two seasons in Lexington have been: Already he owns the school record for career rushing TDs (31), and he’ll be back next year with the record for rushing yards in his sights as a junior. Altogether this year Snell has accounted for a full third of the Wildcats’ total offense, easily the highest individual share of any non-quarterback in the conference.
Fat Guy of the Year: Raekwon Davis, DL, Alabama.
I don’t know how long the list is of players who have taken a stray bullet to the leg and recovered quickly enough to record a sack less than a week later, or if there’s a single name on it other than Davis’. Beyond his auspicious debut, though, Davis has remained entrenched in the Crimson Tide front, taking over at midseason for the injured Da’Shawn Hand; he ended the regular season ranked second on the team in tackles and TFLs and first in sacks for a unit that ranks second nationally against the run.
In this case, “fat” is rhetorical: At 6-7, 306, Davis is relatively lean and mean for his position (emphasis on mean), and frighteningly athletic for a human his size. As a true sophomore he still has plenty of room to grow into the next highly decorated monster with first-round ambitions.
Game of the Year: Alabama 31, Mississippi State 24 (Nov. 11).
None of the most hyped games — Alabama-LSU, Alabama-Auburn, either iteration of Georgia-Auburn — was close enough for long enough to be very entertaining or dramatic, and the simultaneous meltdowns at Florida and Tennessee ensured that their weekly travails would be classified as ugly, lopsided, or irrelevant. Even Mississippi State, which spent much of the year in the Top 25, tended toward the extremes, blowing out LSU in Starkville in September before getting blown out itself in back-to-back laughers at Georgia and Auburn.
By pushing Bama to the brink when they did, though, the Bulldogs arguably changed the dynamic at the top of the conference overnight: Taken together with Auburn’s blowout win over Georgia the same afternoon, the narrow escape in Starkville made it clear that the Crimson Tide’s edge over the rest of the conference wasn’t nearly as wide as we’d assumed, and that the Iron Bowl would be closer to a battle of equals than just another upset bid. (MSU led 24-17 early in the fourth quarter, only the second fourth-quarter deficit Alabama had faced at any point in its 24-game SEC win streak.) MSU set them up; Auburn knocked them down.
Play of the Year: Florida’s Hail Mary.
For three quarters, Florida’s eventual 26-20 win over Tennessee was a barely watchable slog of a game that only looks worse in retrospect, now that we know just how bad both of these teams (and these offenses, in particular, and these quarterbacks) turned out to be.
But it was partly that context of ineptitude that made the ending such an abrupt, surreal, scream-at-the-television shock.
Again, as I pointed out at the time, that pass to Tyrie Cleveland was the only pass Feleipe Franks completed in the entire game that traveled more than 10 yards downfield in the air. Literally the only one. If the Gators had converted their offense to all Hail Marys, all the time, the results the rest of the way could hardly have been any worse. But Franks’ “Heave to Cleve” is one that will live forever.
Moment of Zen of the Year: Texas A&M blows a 44-10 lead in 19 minutes.
Opening weekend seems like such a long time ago at this point that A&M’s monumental collapse at UCLA almost seems like an urban legend, a tale so improbable and half-remembered you’re skeptical it ever happened at all.
Oh, but it did, in front of a stunned and horrified fan base that watched the Bruins’ Josh Rosen put together five consecutive touchdown drives covering 75, 85, 96, 74, and 66 yards, respectively, in the late third and fourth quarters of a game that the Aggies boasted a 99.9 percent chance to win and effectively resolved to fire their head coach then and there. Kevin Sumlin survived to coach in the season finale at LSU, but no one on Sept. 3 needed a crystal ball to see that his fate was already sealed.
And now, the Monday Down South All-SEC Team
Here’s my personal All-SEC lineup for 2017, based strictly on my own observations and opinions over the course of the season. (That is, it doesn’t reflect the observations or opinions of anyone else at Saturday Down South.)
If an obviously deserving player from your favorite team didn’t make the cut, it can only be because I harbor a deep, irrational bias against him personally — especially if he happens to play defensive tackle or cornerback — and certainly not because some of these decisions were tough calls between more credible candidates than I could accommodate.
Quarterback: Jarrett Stidham • Soph, Auburn
Running Back: Nick Chubb • Sr, Georgia
Running Back: Kerryon Johnson • Jr, Auburn
Wide Receiver: Calvin Ridley • Jr, Alabama
Wide Receiver: A.J. Brown • Soph, Ole Miss
Tight End: Hayden Hurst • Jr, South Carolina
Tackle: Jonah Williams • Soph, Alabama
Tackle: Martinas Rankin • Sr, Mississippi State
Guard: Braden Smith • Sr, Auburn
Guard: Kendall Baker • Jr, Georgia
Center: Will Clapp • Sr, LSU
Honorable Mention – QB: Jalen Hurts (Alabama); Drew Lock (Missouri). … RB: Benny Snell Jr. (Kentucky); Sony Michel (Georgia); Derrius Guice (LSU); Damien Harris (Alabama). … WR: D.J. Chark (LSU); Emanuel Hall (Missouri); J’Mon Moore (Missouri); Ryan Davis (Auburn); Christian Kirk (Texas A&M); Javon Wims (Georgia). … OL: Austin Golson (Auburn); Isaiah Wynn (Georgia); Lamont Gaillard (Georgia); Ross Pierschbacher (Alabama); Bradley Bozeman (Alabama); Toby Weathersby (LSU); Javon Patterson (Ole Miss); Trey Smith (Tennessee).
Defensive End: Jeff Holland • Jr, Auburn
Defensive End: Cece Jefferson • Jr, Florida
Defensive Tackle: Raekwon Davis • Soph, Alabama
Defensive Tackle: Jeffery Simmons • Soph, Mississippi State
Linebacker: Roquan Smith • Jr, Georgia
Linebacker: Devin White • Soph, LSU
Linebacker: Tyrel Dodson • Soph, Texas A&M
Cornerback: Duke Dawson • Sr, Florida
Cornerback: Andraez “Greedy” Williams • rFr, LSU
Safety: Armani Watts • Sr, Texas A&M
Safety: Minkah Fitzpatrick • Jr, Alabama
Honorable Mention – DL: Taven Bryan (Florida); Da’Ron Payne (Alabama); Greg Gilmore (LSU); Christian LaCouture (LSU); Derrick Brown (Auburn); D.J. Wonnum (South Carolina); Marcell Frazier (Missouri); Marquis Haynes (Ole Miss). … LB: Rashaan Evans (Alabama); David Reese (Florida); Montez Sweat (Mississippi State); Otaro Alaka (Texas A&M); Corey Thompson (LSU); Arden Key (LSU); Skai Moore (South Carolina). … DB: Donte Jackson (LSU); Deandre Baker (Georgia); Levi Wallace (Alabama); Ronnie Harrison (Alabama); Rashaan Gaulden (Tennessee); Carlton Davis (Auburn); Chauncey Gardner Jr. (Florida).
Kicker: Daniel Carlson • Auburn
Punter: JK Scott • Alabama
Kick Returner: Christian Kirk • Texas A&M
Punt Returner: D.J. Chark • LSU
Honorable Mention – K: Rodrigo Blankenship (Georgia); Eddie Pineiro (Florida). … P: Johnny Townsend (Florida); Trevor Daniel (Tennessee); Cameron Nizialek (Georgia). … KR: Mecole Hardman Jr. (Georgia); Richaud Floyd (Missouri); Deebo Samuel (South Carolina).