1 weakness that could sink each national championship contender
I’m not saying it can’t happen, but the odds aren’t good.
If you’re not considered a preseason contender in college football, good luck winning it all. In the past 15 seasons, a non-top 7 team only claimed 2 national titles.
Brett McMurphy tweeted that nugget Monday:
Since 2004, every national champ was ranked among AP preseason top 7 teams except in 2013 (FSU started at No. 11) & 2010 (Auburn started at No. 22).
So who’s this year’s national champ?
5 Ohio St
— Brett McMurphy (@Brett_McMurphy) August 19, 2019
For the sake of this argument, let’s focus on the top 10 teams in the preseason Associated Press Top 25. But instead of breaking down why they’ll win the national title, let’s do something different.
In alphabetical order, here’s a potential weakness that’ll prevent them from winning it all:
Alabama: The back-loaded schedule
I hate, hate, hate a back-loaded schedule. There’s a strong chance that Alabama sees just 1 Top 25 opponent in the first 2 months of the season. That means blowouts galore for a program that hasn’t lost to a non-top 15 team since 2010. My concern is that Alabama runs into the same issue that it did last year. That is, it plays in too many blowouts and gets away with mistakes that won’t work against elite teams.
If Alabama does run the table again in the regular season, that’d be my big concern heading into the SEC Championship and potentially the Playoff. Nick Saban can lose his mind in a 45-3 game all he wants, but until you have to go toe-to-toe with an elite team for 60 minutes, it’s hard to get that message across.
Clemson: The new-look defensive line
I know Xavier Thomas is all the rage. The former 5-star recruit is all over preseason All-America teams and is considered the next great Clemson defensive lineman. But the Tigers had such an incredible advantage with having Dexter Lawrence, Clelin Ferrell, Christian Wilkins and Austin Bryant all back for last year’s squad. That group was huge in that second half shutout of Alabama (well, except for Lawrence, he was suspended), and really they were huge all year.
Besides Thomas, can Clemson get that kind of all-world push up front? I mean, it’s Brent Venables so he’ll find ways to pressure the quarterback, but Clemson led the country with 54 sacks last season. To assume they’ll have that kind of success this year would be a big leap. That could hurt if they were to meet a team like Georgia in the national championship.
Florida: The offensive line
Last year, it was all about how the Gators were so experienced on the offensive line and how that was going to fuel the turnaround. This year, that could be the thing that holds them back from being elite. Replacing 4 of 5 starters up front won’t be easy, especially in a division that has nothing but defensive minds (Kirby Smart, Mark Stoops, Barry Odom, Will Muschamp, Jeremy Pruitt and Derek Mason).
The great teams impose their will at the line of scrimmage. Will Florida be able to do that? I don’t know, but I do know getting that push up front for a run-heavy offense will be crucial in Dan Mullen’s offense.
Georgia: The receivers
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Never has a team made the Playoff when replacing the top 5 receivers from the previous season. Georgia is trying to become the first. That stat was noteworthy following the dismissal of Jeremiah Holloman, who was expected to be Jake Fromm’s go-to target after the Dawgs lost Riley Ridley, Mecole Hardman, Terry Godwin and tight end Isaac Nauta to the NFL Draft.
As every Georgia fan will tell you, there’s still talent in that group. Five-star talent to be specific. Former Cal transfer Demetris Robertson has a major step to make and true freshman George Pickens has been getting rave reviews in camp. But yeah, the numbers are rough:
- Running back D’Andre Swift has most receiving yards of any returning player
- No returning wide receiver had more than 9 catches for UGA in 2018
- No returning WR averaged more than 10 yards per game in 2018
- 2 returning WRs who caught a pass in 2018
- Of total receiving yards (3,177) in 2018 UGA returns 24% of that production
- Of total receiving touchdowns (34) in 2018, UGA returns 18% of that production
The good news? Fromm has as much big-game experience as anyone in college football.
LSU: Alabama … and the offensive line
It’s too easy to just say Alabama, though if LSU goes 11-1 with that Texas win, it could have a super interesting Playoff case. Instead of just saying that losing to the Crimson Tide again will be the thing that holds the Tigers back, let’s look at a place where they return a lot of experience — the offensive line.
Garrett Brumfield is the group’s lone departure. Seven offensive linemen who started games, including first-team All-SEC center Lloyd Cushenberry, are back. That’s the good. What’s the bad?
Joe Burrow took more sacks than anyone in the SEC last year — he was pressured on 27.5% of dropbacks — and the run blocking wasn’t much better. Part of that was because of injuries, LSU started a different offensive line combination each of the first 6 games. If that doesn’t change with this returning group, the Tigers will stub their toe multiple times in the regular season.
Michigan: Ohio State … and the front 7
Like with LSU, it’s too easy to just name the contender that always stands in its way. The front 7 has major holes following the departures of Devin Bush, Chase Winovich and Rashan Gary. Gary had a frustrating junior season, but Bush and Winovich were monumental for that group each of the past 2 years. There’s no guarantee the Wolverines have the guys to replace them.
And when that trio was either banged up/out for the Ohio State and Florida games, we saw how much the Wolverines struggled. Jim Harbaugh can make all the offensive tweaks in the world — him bringing Josh Gattis in to completely take over the offense is a fascinating offseason storyline — but if Don Brown doesn’t find a few alpha dogs on that defense, the Wolverines will have more late-November disappointment.
Notre Dame: Ian Book’s lack of help
It’s great to have a returning starting quarterback from a Playoff team. You know what else is great? Having an idea who the key contributors around him will be. The Irish ranked No. 86 in the country in percentage of returning offensive production before the collar bone injuries to pass-catchers Cole Kmet and Michael Young.
Gone are top receiver Myles Boykin and feature back Dexter Williams, who had over 1,100 yards from scrimmage and 13 touchdowns. And while experienced, the offensive line doesn’t have the top end talent that it had the last couple of years. That means there will be a lot of pressure on Book to make some big-time plays both as a passer and as a runner. Is that going to be good enough for Notre Dame to win its first title since the 80s?
Ohio State: A first-time head coach
Has there ever been a program with a first-time head coach and a first-time starting quarterback who got preseason top 5 love? I can’t think of one. We’ve seen first-time starters thrive at quarterback, no doubt, and we’ve even seen first-time coaches like Lincoln Riley have incredible Year 1 success. That’s exactly what Ohio State hopes Ryan Day is in the post-Urban Meyer era.
There’s no guarantee that happens. There’s also no guarantee that he handles the offense as well now that he has head coaching duties on his plate. Now he’s got to handle media, egos in the locker room and everything in between. That’s on top of the pressure he has of maximizing the rare abilities of Justin Fields.
Just seems like a tall ask for Day to win it all in Year 1.
Oklahoma: The “defense”
Speaking of Riley, his teams made Playoff appearances the past 2 years in spite of Oklahoma’s awful defenses. And upon arrival, they lost close games to SEC powers because of their awful defenses. Will that be any different in 2019?
Fortunately for Riley, he’s got a new defensive coordinator (Alex Grinch) who will take over a unit that returns 81% of its defensive production from a year ago. Can Kenneth Murray lead a unit that’s at least average? That’s an interesting question. It figures to be a different feeling for Jalen Hurts after the top-flight defenses he played with at Alabama.
Texas: The overall inexperience
Lost in the shuffle of everyone claiming “Texas is back” is the fact that the Longhorns rank dead last among Power 5 teams in percentage of returning production. Dead last. Most of those defensive players who led the effort against Georgia in the Sugar Bowl are gone. This is truly Sam Ehlinger’s team.
And sure, Tom Herman recruited extremely well the past couple of years. There’s no doubt that program is stockpiled with talent. But can a group so inexperienced really take that next step to a title? To do that, Texas would have to beat both LSU and Oklahoma, not to mention avoiding slip-ups to teams like Oklahoma State.
But hey, at least Maryland isn’t on the schedule this year.