It didn’t take long for the “TCU made a statement” and “TCU proved they belonged in the College Football Playoff” rhetoric to ratchet up after the Horned Frogs demolished Ole Miss in the Peach Bowl on New Year’s Eve. TCU’s backers in the national media were ready to pounce.
All that was required was for the presumptive demolition of Ohio State at the hands of Alabama to take place the following night in the Sugar Bowl. Only that didn’t turn out as expected and the crusade never caught fire. Why? How about subjecting Alabama to the same kind of post-bowl scrutiny that Ohio State surely would have?
Let me begin by saying that I think the College Football Playoff committee got the right four teams and felt that way as soon as the matchups were unveiled. I’m not a believer in the notion that teams prove their worthiness after the fact. TCU lost head-to-head to Baylor, and as far as I’m concerned that settles who the Big 12 candidate is.
Baylor played a lousy non-conference schedule, while Ohio State at least went out and played bowl teams in Navy and Virginia Tech. I would have been fine with either the Bears or Buckeyes going, but ask me to pick who the fourth team should be and I would have voted for Ohio State. But with that said, if I was ready to pounce on Ohio State if they lost, I’d certainly have been ready to shift gears and question whether Alabama ever belonged in the playoff field to begin with. Why do the Tide get a pass? The bowl season established that the SEC West, far from being on a level just below the NFC West, was in fact incredibly overrated.
This side of the SEC went 2-5 in bowl play. They did not match up with the rest of the country. Yet Alabama was unable to go undefeated against this group of teams. Say what you will about Florida State’s schedule, but at least they won them all. And in any case, if a playoff can’t include a defending national champion that hasn’t lost in two years, then what is exactly the point of having a bracket?
If we’re going to do some second-guessing, it’s Alabama whose inclusion is now debatable. They played in what we now know to be a subpar division, didn’t go undefeated and were quickly exposed on the national stage.
Of course no one could have known this prior to the bowl season. That’s why we should look at starting the playoffs after the bowls, when there’s a much better read on what conferences are really the strongest. But that’s a subject for another day.
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ANALYSIS & HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE FROM AROUND THE SPORTS WORLD
Johnny Manziel looked the part of a back-to-back Heisman Trophy winner, as the Texas A&M sophomore quarterback shredded Nick Saban’s Alabama defense for 464 yards on 28/39 passing. But the Tide got a good performance of their own from quarterback A.J. McCarron and a lot from running back T.J. Yeldon. With the 49-42 road win, the Crimson Tide seem home free, at least for the balance of the regular season, but their performances both here and in the opener against Virginia Techcontinue to provide more questions than answers.
We saw in the Virginia Tech game that Alabama had serious problems moving the ball against a team with a legitimate defense, with only special teams’ touchdowns and a defensive score saving them from a dogfight. With three new offensive lineman on a unit that was otherworldly in their 2012 title run, that was to be expected.
What was not to be expected is that the Alabama defense would be made to look impotent by a competent offensive team. While I certainly grant that no other quarterback the Tide will face is on a par with Manziel, giving up 42 points—including a 95-yard touchdown pass that got A&M off the ropes after they’d trailed by three touchdowns in the second half—doesn’t suggest that this Tide unit can carry a team.
Nor am I prepared to say that Alabama offense answered its questions. McCarron, 20/29 for 334 yards and no interceptions was excellent, as was Yeldon, who piled up 149 yards. But consider the competition—A&M’s defense has also been picked apart by Rice and looked shaky against Sam Houston State. The only “question’ the ‘Bama offense answered was whether they were at least as good as Rice.
Therefore, Alabama has clear vulnerabilities, but will it matter anytime between now and December? I’m saying no. It’s not that I think the Tide are a lock to go undefeated—Ole Miss is playing some good football, as demonstrated by their 44-23 throttling of Texas, with a potent ground game taking over in the second half. LSU never plays scared under Les Miles and they’re showing some signs of offensive life.
But both Ole Miss and LSU are far from perfect—the Tigers are young, and the Rebels are both young and lack pedigree in a genuinely big game. Furthermore, both of these teams come to Alabama. And double furthermore, even if Alabama loses one of these games, it’s still highly likely that they finish the season 11-1, still win the SEC West and still go to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game.
And that’s the crux of this—the Alabama regular season boils down to a single objective—get in position for an Atlanta-Pasadena parlay to produce a third straight national championship. I think it unlikely that a one-loss SEC team will kept out of the BCS National Championship Game, even if there are two unbeatens from power conferences.
The league’s recent track record is too overwhelming, and given how bad a conference like, for example, the Big Ten, has looked, I think there would be a serious credibility problem if we were given an Ohio State-Stanford game, even if both teams were undefeated. Or Clemson-Oregon, or Florida State-Oklahoma, or any other combination you think likely. And while I hate saying it, because I like to give the huge benefit of the doubt to teams that haven’t lost, the recent SEC track record would lead me to argue on behalf of the conference in such a scenario.
The question that overrides all preseason college football coverage starts in the SEC West, and it’s simply whether or not anyone can stop Alabama. Not beat them—we’ve seen the Tide lose games on their national title runs, to LSU in 2011 and to Texas A&M last season. But it’s ultimately been enough—whether by generous voters in ’11 or legitimately winning the SEC West in ’12—to get ‘Bama into the BCS National Championship Game.
When I look at the SEC West, I don’t see a lot of reason to think the Crimson Tide is going to be seriously challenged, at least when it comes to earning a berth in the SEC Championship Game on December 7. And the track record of this conference is such, that as long as the Tide is playing in Atlanta in December, they’ll have a chance to move on to Pasadena on January 6 for a third straight national championship.
Alabama has some rebuilding to do with its offensive line, a dominant unit a year ago, but the skill players are in place. A.J. McCarron is back for his senior year at quarterback, and T.J. Yeldon can adequately replace Eddie Lacy in the backfield.
The explosive Amari Cooper is back at receiver. Highly regarded freshman tight end O.J. Howard is a possible breakout candidate. Even if the Tide’s line isn’t as awesome as it was a year ago, you have to think it will at least be good enough to allow these playmakers to produce points.
Defensively, Alabama returns all four of its linebackers and this should be a strong unit, able to keep the pressure off the offense while the line comes together. The start of the season won’t be easy—a neutral-site game with Virginia Tech in Atlanta, and then a visit to Texas A&M two weeks later. But it’s clear that Nick Saban’s program doesn’t show any signs of slippage.
Who then can stop the rising Tide? The logical candidates to start would be LSU and Texas A&M, the ones who’ve beaten them on the field over the past two seasons, in Birmingham no less. But I think there are problems with both contenders.
THE RECENT CHALLENGERS
Texas A&M has only four starters back on defense, and I think this is going to be a big problem area for them all year. The Aggies’ success is going to hinge on Johnny Manziel being as good as he was last year, and I frankly don’t think that’s realistic.
Manziel was electric in becoming the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy, but to ask him to play at the level for an entire year against some of the nation’s best defenses is an awful lot.
Furthermore, I personally believe Manziel’s various summer sagasare going to leave him less than prepared, and his opponents motivated. He should still be able to play well, presuming the NCAA posse and his personal demons don’t do him in, and with Ben Malena running behind a solid left side of the offensive line, this will be a good offense. And Texas A&M will be a good team…but it doesn’t add up to being as good as Alabama.
LSU is doing some major rebuilding on defense, with virtually its entire front seven gone, and an abnormally high number of underclassmen moving into starting roles. And unlike A&M, the Tigers can’t even dream of their offense being able to compensate. LSU will run the ball well, with Alfred Blue and a pretty good offensive front. But Zach Mettenberg was a weakness at quarterback last year, and now he’s stuck with Cam Cameron as his offensive coordinator.
You may recall that Cameron was the coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens through much of last year, and several years prior. After he was fired in mid-December, the team immediately turned around and won the Super Bowl. I’m in the camp that believes there was a direct cause and effect.
I suppose we should include Mississippi State in the grouping with LSU and Texas A&M. The Bulldogs haven’t beaten the Tide, but they have become a respectable, steady bowl team under Dan Mullen. They’ll have Tyler Russell back at quarterback, Lardarius Perkins in the backfield and four returning offensive lineman. The defense, with Denico Autry wreaking havoc at defensive end, will be good.
The problems are that their young in the secondary and if we shift the measuring stick from “good bowl team, could win nine games” (doable), to “can beat Alabama”, then Mississippi State’s shortcomings become more glaring, as well as the fact they looked badly outclassed in last year’s head-to-head matchup with the division kingpin.
Ole Miss is the most interesting team in this division. Hugh Freeze came over from Arkansas State after winning the Sun Belt title, put the Rebels into a bowl game last year, and then went out and racked up a top recruiting class. And he’s got an experienced team coming back, allowing for a mix of vets and newcomers that could make this team very intriguing.
Bo Wallace is a versatile quarterback, and the offensive line has four starters back, and is heavy on upperclassmen, two items that are not always one in the same at mid-level programs. The defense uses a 4-2 scheme with the line and linebackers, and have four returnees. And incoming freshman defensive end Robert Nkiemdiche was the top-rated recruit in the country. Three of the five defensive backs return, including both safeties, the spot where experience counts the most.
CLEANING UP A MESS
That’s the job of Bret Bielama at Arkansas and Gus Malzahn in Auburn, two programs who fell extremely hard in 2012. Both coaches have championship pedigrees—Bielama won three straight Big Ten titles in Wisconsin, Malzahn won the Sun Belt at Arkansas State, following in Freeze’s footsteps. But in both cases, the rebuilding is too significant and the competition too stiff to expect anything more than six wins and a bowl game. And even that would take a lot going right.
No one is going to stop Alabama in the SEC West. The better race is Ole Miss’ push to vault over A&M, LSU and Mississippi State to become the second-best team in this division. The winner of that race will be in the conversation for a BCS at-large berth, and also a Cotton Bowl bid, which goes to a team from this division.
I like the Rebels to at least finish second, Texas A&M to slip to fifth and Alabama to roll on into another SEC Championship Game that will be a de facto national semifinal.