Playing the 'what if' game for every SEC team this season
EDITOR’S NOTE: It is with tremendous sadness that we share the unfortunate news that Gary Laney passed away Friday.
Nobody loved covering LSU football more than Gary and we were lucky to have him do so for SDS. We thought it was only fitting that we break from our normal alphabetical style in these types of stories and have his final words be about the Tigers. In typical Gary fashion, this story was submitted two days ahead of schedule. The consummate professional, always. Rest in peace Gary. We miss you already. Prayers to the family and friends you leave behind.
Yeah, we’ve heard it before.
“If ifs and buts were candy and nuts …”
Still, it’s fun to look back and ponder how easily some SEC storylines could be completely different. It doesn’t take much to have a world where Les Miles is coaching LSU in the Sugar Bowl, Chad Kelly is SEC Player of the Year, Dan Mullen is coaching somewhere else and Georgia is the winner of the SEC East.
A play here, an injury there, can change everything.
Here are some of the big what-ifs for every SEC team this season:
What if …: Blake Barnett got off to a fast start against USC?
That’s an interesting question because I saw Barnett tear up the recruiting circuit and think he’s going to be a really good quarterback for Arizona State. So I think if he continued to get significant snaps, he would have put up big numbers. But Jalen Hurts, who replaced Barnett in the season’s third series and never looked back, eventually would have gotten his chance and, at worst, would have made it sort of a two-quarterback system. I still think Alabama goes unbeaten with Barnett as the starter and I still think Barnett was capable of, in his own way, putting up stats as impressive as Hurts.
What if …: Louisiana Tech pulls it off in the opener?
Instead, Arkansas scored late to escape 21-20, then turned around the next week and beat TCU. If Arkansas lost the opener, then the Bret Bielema hot seat talk would have dominated the second half of the season. Could Tech’s Skip Holtz, the son of former Arkansas coach Lou Holtz, have been a candidate?
What if …: LSU gets the game-winning touchdown play off on time?
In Auburn’s 18-13 win over LSU, Danny Etling’s would-be game-winning touchdown pass to D.J. Chark was negated because the Tigers didn’t get the play off on time. If LSU got that play off a second earlier … wow. Not only does Les Miles keep his job at LSU, Gus Malzahn, rumored to be on the hottest of hot seats entering that game, might not have made the week. What a difference that makes, considering he rallied his team to the Sugar Bowl and is on anything but a hot seat at the moment.
What if …: The Gators’ game against LSU was played on schedule?
It’s hard to say what would have changed for Florida if the LSU game had not been postponed from Oct. 8 to late November because of an approaching hurricane. The circumstances — injuries, momentum, etc. — were similar in late November as they were in in early October. If anything, the Gators were even more beat up in the 16-10 win than they were the week of the originally scheduled meeting. It was such a weird game — LSU dominated, but Florida dominated the red zone on defense — that one wonders if the same set of circumstances — LSU continually moving the ball into the red zone, but failing to score — would have taken place the first time. That’s impossible to say. The only thing for certain is that Florida would have picked up a win over Presbyterian and LSU would have beaten South Alabama, giving both teams additional wins on their resumes (those games were canceled to make room for the rescheduling of the LSU-UF game.
What if …: The Hail Mary by Tennessee fell incomplete?
On the last play of Georgia’s 34-31 loss to Tennessee, Joshua Dobbs heaved a 43-yard touchdown pass to Jauan Jennings to beat the Bulldogs. My, how things would have changed had the pass fallen incomplete. The Bulldogs would have finished 5-3 in the SEC and 8-4 while Tennessee would have been 7-5, 3-5, results that might have had Butch Jones in serious trouble at season’s end. And who knows, maybe if Georgia builds off the confidence of closing out a close win over Tennessee, they also finish close games against Vanderbilt and Georgia Tech and go 10-2 and win the SEC East.
What if …: Drew Barker did not have back issues?
Drew Barker was Kentucky’s original starting quarterback this season, but he went down with a back injury early in the third game and was replaced by Stephen Johnson. With Barker in the lineup, Kentucky probably wouldn’t go bowling. That’s not because he isn’t a talented quarterback, but because Johnson’s dual-threat presence proved to be a better fit for the personnel the Wildcats have on offense. His running ability kept defenses honest, allowing Boom Williams to have a big year. But here’s the biggest stat: When Barker went down, Kentucky was 0-2. Johnson led them to a 7-3 record and a bowl game.
What if …: Chad Kelly never got injured?
Chad Kelly was, in my mind, the best offensive player in the SEC and may have been the most important offensive player even if Fournette were healthy. So if Kelly didn’t miss the season’s last three games with a torn ACL, I think he wins SEC Offensive Player of the Year honors even if the Rebels ultimately lose two of their final three, just as they did without him. He had 2,758 yards passing and 331 yards rushing when he went down and, with tough games down the stretch, the Rebels — a weak team outside of quarterback play — would have leaned on him to continue to put up big numbers. I love Jalen Hurts, but if Kelly continued to put up those numbers, even on a losing team, he would have deserved the award.
What if …: The Bulldogs won the two early non-conference losses?
Of all the SEC West teams, MSU is the one that relies on player development most because it rarely is able to recruit at the same level as the rest of the division. So the lows can be pretty low, like the 21-20 loss to South Alabama to open the season. But what if MSU won that game and, just to make the scenario more interesting, also beat BYU early (it was a 28-21 loss)? That might not have had a great ending for Bulldogs fans. If Dan Mullen could have gone 7-5 the year after losing Dak Prescott, the offers he might have been getting could have been too good to pass up. I’m not sure MSU fans appreciate him enough, but they will after he’s gone.
What if …: The Tigers beat Georgia in Week 3?
Georgia’s Jacob Eason threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to Isaiah McKenzie on fourth down in the final minute of the Bulldogs’ 28-27 win at Missouri. Would it have changed much for Missouri if they had won? Probably not. Obviously, it would had made the Tigers 5-7 instead of 4-8, but unless pulling off the Georgia game would have helped them find an intangible that would have prevented a bad loss to Middle Tennessee a few weeks later, it looks like Mizzou tapped out. Their remaining losses were all by double figures and three of the six were by at least 26 points. This was just not the Tigers’ year.
What if …: Will Muschamp would have rolled out Jake Bentley and Rico Dowdle from the beginning?
It was obvious that South Carolina’s offense took a turn for the better when the true freshman tandem of quarterback Jake Bentley and running back Rico Dowdle became the centerpieces of the offense. Bentley went 4-2 as a starter and Dowdle rushed for over 100 yards per game during that stretch. But it’s not fair to project the same play in the first half of the season. Few would have expected either to ready to make the impact they made out of the gate. It’s probably best to view this as Muschamp getting the most out of his young players as soon as they were ready.
What if … : Jalen Hurd didn’t quit?
Jalen Hurd is persona non grata in Tennessee right now after he abruptly quit the team eight games into the season looking to transfer. But did his departure make a difference? Probably not. The only person Hurd really hurt was himself and the perception of him as Tennessee went 3-1 without him down the stretch. And the loss? That 45-34 setback to Vanderbilt was about a defense that gave up 608 yards, not about anything that was missing on offense.
What if … : Trevor Knight doesn’t get hurt?
Above, I opined that if Kelly stayed healthy, he wins SEC Player of the Year. Well, here, I’d say that if Knight were healthy, the Aggies don’t get swept by the Mississippi schools. Knight left in the second quarter of what was eventually a 35-28 Mississippi State upset of the Aggies and he wasn’t available in their 29-28 loss to Ole Miss the next week. With him? They win at least one of them and finish at least 9-3, good enough to bump Auburn for the Sugar Bowl spot.
What if … : Vanderbilt hadn’t upset Tennessee?
Vanderbilt became bowl eligible by upsetting Tennessee in the season finale to improve to 6-6. But even if the Commodores had lost, they would have had the highest APR among the 5-7 teams and would have been extended a bowl invitation. Would that have knocked out Mississippi State? No, because Vandy getting knocked out would have decreased the number of bowl-eligible teams out there so Vandy’s current bowl spot would have been filled by … Vandy. So Mississippi State would have gotten in. The only thing that might have changed was what bowls they landed in.
What if …: Leonard Fournette was never injured in August camp?
Here’s something that should be clarified: We never saw Fournette at 100 percent this season. Not even when he set a school single-game rushing record against Ole Miss. He had the dreaded high ankle sprain that doesn’t go away without a lot of rest, and he’s finally getting that rest now. But what if he were healthy? I suspect a healthy Fournette makes big plays he wasn’t able to make in early losses to Wisconsin and Auburn. I don’t suspect he makes a difference against Alabama, but maybe a healthy Fournette would have been too much for Florida to handle. I’d say LSU would be in the Sugar Bowl, coached by Les Miles, and Fournette would have gone to New York as a Heisman finalist. We forget how good he was when healthy.