Why the race to win the SEC — and earn a Playoff berth — will have a different feel entering 2020
Fast forward to 2020 SEC Media Days. Move past the overwhelming attention on the arrivals of Mike Leach and Lane Kiffin. Focus your attention on something else for a second. The infamous preseason media poll is in, and suddenly, a realization sets in.
“Wait, are there 4 legitimate contenders to win the SEC and possibly win it all?”
That’s right. It’s not Alabama and everyone else. It’s not Alabama, Georgia and everyone else, either. It’s Alabama, Georgia, LSU and Florida.
All 4 of those teams likely will start ranked in the top 8 of the Associated Press Top 25 (just like this year). It actually wouldn’t surprise me if they were all ranked 3-6 in some order. While it’s obviously not new for the SEC to have several preseason title contenders, this would be a rather unprecedented way to start the year. At least it would be since Nick Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa and turned Alabama into what we know it as today (going back to 2008).
What do I mean by that?
Since 2008, there were 2 instances in which the SEC had 4 teams ranked in the preseason top 8 (only 2 of the past 16 national champions ranked outside of the preseason top 8). One of those times was, interestingly enough, this past season.
Here’s what that looked like (number of preseason votes to win the SEC in parenthesis):
- No. 2 Alabama (203)
- No. 4 Georgia (49)
- No. 6 LSU (3)
- No. 8 Florida (1)
A team getting 4 times as many first-place votes as the 2nd-closest team doesn’t suggest parity. But as someone who picked Georgia to win the conference — and national title — let’s not pretend that there was zero offseason buzz about UGA winning it all. When I say “Alabama, Georgia and everyone else,” that’s what I mean. When 252 of the 256 total votes go to 2 teams, it’s not perceived as a 4-team race to win the conference. As we found out, those 3 media members who voted for LSU were pretty smart.
Still, this is about offseason discussion and how we view these teams for the next 7-8 months. LSU wasn’t a preseason national title contender because of the Alabama hurdle, and with all due respect to Feleipe Franks, none of us were holding our breath waiting for him to win a national title in 2019.
The other instance during this stretch in which we saw 4 SEC teams start in the top 8 of the AP Top 25 was in 2013. What a year that was for preseason buzz in the SEC. We had Alabama coming off its 3rd national title in 4 years, Georgia with senior Aaron Murray and a young Todd Gurley was getting buzz and Jadeveon Clowney was back for his junior year fresh off his burst-onto-the-national-scene moment in the Outback Bowl.
The crazy thing was none of those things were even the biggest storyline at SEC Media Days. It was the return of Heisman winner Johnny Manziel. Who could forget this?
— USA TODAY Sports (@usatodaysports) July 17, 2013
One would think with those 4 SEC teams generating all sorts of offseason attention and ranked in the top 8 to start the year that there was a relatively even split in terms of who was picked to win the conference, right? Not so much. Here’s what that breakdown was:
- No. 1 Alabama (182)
- No. 5 Georgia (38)
- No. 6 South Carolina (18)
- No. 7 Texas A&M (4)
Again, that doesn’t suggest it was a 4-team race to win the SEC. Alabama was in the midst of one of the most impressive dynasties in college football history. Of course the Crimson Tide got 3 times as many 1st-place votes as Georgia, South Carolina and Texas A&M combined. Nobody in their right mind thought that Auburn, fresh off a winless season in the SEC, would do a complete 180 and win the conference.
Maybe something like that will happen next year. What I believe, though, is that we’re about to see a rare split of 1st-place votes across 4 teams.
Part of that is related to Alabama coming off its worst season in 9 years and the fact that replacing the best quarterback in program history is significant. Another other part of that is we just saw LSU rattle off the most impressive single season in college football history. While the Tigers lost Joe Brady and a ton of players to the NFL Draft, getting past the Alabama hurdle will absolutely change the preseason conversation.
There’s actually going to be a legitimate preseason debate about who will win the SEC West. Those have been few and far between since Saban got things rolling at Alabama. You’d have to go back to 2012 when the media actually gave LSU 129 1st-place votes compared to 65 for Alabama, which obviously proved to be the wrong call. Still, it was at least a debate. It could be reminiscent of what unfolds this offseason.
But that might actually be overshadowed by the debate about who wins the SEC East. Even though Georgia has the 3-year winning streak against Florida, the storyline about the Gators narrowing the gap is already dominating offseason headlines. That took off even more when Georgia lost Jake Fromm and Cade Mays on the same day.
What’s rare is that there’s a very realistic chance that we see these 4 teams start in the top 8, but neither of the top-2 spots belong to the SEC. Clemson and Ohio State are the overwhelming choice to own those spots. In looking at some of the way-too-early Top 25 rankings, that could easily be the case throughout the offseason.
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CBS Sports actually had Auburn ranked ahead of Georgia, and with the favorable schedule Texas A&M has, the Aggies are already getting some increased attention to contend in Year 3 of the Jimbo Fisher era.
But for the sake of this argument, let’s stick with the 4 teams who will get the most votes to win the SEC.
Barring something wild happening — scandal, sudden retirement, several key injuries, etc. — there should be more divide than usual on the pick to win the league. Shoot, this feels like the first time in forever when both divisions could have a relatively even split. That hasn’t happened since 2012 when LSU had a 139-72 advantage on Alabama to win the West and Georgia had a 132-72 advantage on South Carolina to win the East.
And perhaps even more interesting this year is that all 4 teams should generate preseason Playoff buzz. Florida is the only team that hasn’t reached that peak yet, but the Gators are also the only team in that group who return a starting quarterback. Coming off consecutive New Year’s 6 Bowl victories to start the Dan Mullen era, Year 3 would be a fitting time for that next-level talk to pick up steam.
What does all of this mean? Are we destined to get a 4-team race through November? History suggests that won’t happen.
But for the next 8 months, get ready. The SEC is up for grabs, and finally, there are a handful of teams chomping at the bit to get it.