Who is the biggest Playoff threat to the SEC: Jalen Hurts and Oklahoma or Trevor Lawrence and Clemson?
Just when you thought it was safe to start reserving Playoff hotels, Jalen Hurts picked Oklahoma, immediately filling the Sooners’ biggest hole in the most dramatic way imaginable: With another Heisman Trophy hopeful.
Had Hurts picked Miami or Maryland or TCU or someplace similar, the impact wouldn’t have been nearly the same.
But his decision makes Oklahoma a serious threat to return to the Playoff for the third consecutive year and fourth overall.
Did it make the Sooners the biggest threat to the SEC? Or does that honor still fall to reigning champ Clemson? That’s something we’ve been discussing since Lincoln Riley hit us with the eye emoji.
Connor O’Gara, senior national columnist
With all due respect to Jalen Hurts, Clemson is still the biggest threat to the SEC until proven otherwise. We’re talking about a team that beat Alabama in 2 of the past 3 meetings. Dabo Swinney didn’t go anywhere, and neither did Trevor Lawrence. There’s a reason the Tigers are set to start 2019 as the No. 1 team in America, and until Alabama or anyone in the SEC gets redemption — don’t forget Clemson went 3-0 vs. the SEC last year — they’re the bigger threat.
Lincoln Riley had consecutive Heisman Trophy winners, and neither could beat the SEC teams they faced in the Playoff semifinals. Obviously a big part of that was the Oklahoma defense, which struggled mightily against Alabama and Georgia. Still, though. It’s tough for me to imagine a scenario in which Hurts takes Oklahoma to a higher place than Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray.
But would we love to see that theory tested against an SEC team in the Playoff? Absolutely.
Michael Bratton, news editor
Clemson, by a country mile. For as good as Jalen Hurts may be, let’s not forget he lost his starting job and is being forced to seek playing time elsewhere.
Oklahoma never stood a legitimate chance against the SEC with Baker Mayfield or Kyler Murray under center and having Hurts won’t change that. Oklahoma will also be dealing with the loss of four starting offensive linemen and several key offensive players. Let’s not even get into the defense, which is already one of the worst in a conference known for terrible defenses.
The Tigers still have all their great weapons returning in 2019, play in a weak league and should cruise into another Playoff appearance with a more experienced Trevor Lawrence this time next year. The toughest games on Clemson’s schedule next season will likely be the two SEC teams it faces (Texas A&M and South Carolina), but there’s no chance the Tigers are anything other than big favorites in those two games. Look for the SEC champion to have to beat Clemson to win it all in 2019.
Chris Wright, executive editor
This is a classic case of “What do I want to happen” vs. “What do I think will happen.”
There’s no question what I want to happen. I want Alabama vs. Oklahoma in the Playoff semifinal, most likely at the Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, Ariz.
Who doesn’t want to watch Hurts vs. Tua Tagovailoa? Say what you want about Oklahoma’s recent Playoff record against the SEC. All I know is both times the Sooners put an absolute scare into Georgia and Alabama … and both times those teams lost the subsequent national championship. Worn out on defense? It’s a fair connection.
Oklahoma has holes to fill, but who doesn’t? Everybody has Clemson penciled into the Playoff. That’s fine. Lawrence is a generational talent. The offense might be historic and the ACC won’t offer a lot of resistance. But Clemson nearly lost an ACC game last year and must replace its entire defensive line, which is headed to the NFL. The next wave is talented, but not that talented.
Alabama is in the midst of its usual, annual makeover. History suggests the Tide will handle that with its typical, ruthless aplomb. Georgia has similar challenges but not nearly the track record to suggest it’s ready to plug-n-play. It’s almost impossible to imagine the Big Ten missing the Playoff for the third consecutive year.
Just becoming one of the 4 Playoff teams is treacherous enough.
Here’s what I hope doesn’t happen. I hope Clemson and Oklahoma don’t meet in the semifinal and rob us of the opportunity to watch Hurts take aim at the SEC.
He says the story isn’t over. I believe him.