There’s no beating the South for college football. The Midwest takes the game very, very seriously and the Big 10 has started to catch up again with the SEC since hiring Urban Meyer and slowly integrating the spread offense across the rust belt and plains. Still, there’s a number of factors working against the B1G schools against the southern teams. For starters, the SEC takes football even more seriously. Big 10 fans think that they are a match until they actually visit a gameday atmosphere in the deep south and realize that they’re in a foreign culture.
I recently heard a Michigan fan relating to a fascinated audience in Ann Arbor their experience attending a tailgate and game for an SEC contest. “They were all dressed up in dress shirts and dresses with their school colors and drinking cocktails while behaving like savages!”
The Midwest, it should be noted, also has a lot of big cities with NFL teams. Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit-ish, Kansas City, Indianapolis, Green Bay, Minneapolis, etc. The South has the Falcons, the Titans, the Saints, and the Panthers. That’s it. You can throw in the Cowboys or Florida teams if you like. College football is it for a lot of these folks.
Then there’s the demographic angle. The South is booming while the rust belt has struggled for the last few decades and that’s also resulted in the migration of many black American families down to the Atlanta burbs or other southern locales. That has depleted some of the talent base somewhat in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, etc. If you watch recruiting patterns in the B1G you could argue that they’ve actually overcompensated, with many schools trying to raid the south for blue chip prospects and ignoring some Midwestern talents.
Between the large talent pools and cultural emphasis, the SEC and South in general own Saturdays. We’ve had five college football playoffs so far with 20 squads participating. Of those 20, 10 were from the proper “South” and then four more were from Oklahoma or Florida. Four were from the Midwest, the final two were from the Pacific Northwest.
If you count Florida, which we will today for simplicity’s sake, the South has had at least two teams in every playoff. I think we’ll see at least two from this group in 2019.
First a refresher on the guidelines I’m using for trying to pick these teams:
Does this team have offensive tackles and an overall line that won’t limit them when they face teams with NFL players on the DL? If you can’t win battles in isolation in the trenches, either protecting your QB or blocking for your RB, then that’s going to be trouble.
How is the defense up the middle? Are there proven veterans at the nose, linebacker, and safety that will allow the team to have flexible gameplans and match up against great offenses without getting blown away?
Does this team have elite facets or game changing players that can allow them to overpower even the best opponents? For instance, the 2018 Alabama Crimson Tide were impossible to handle up the middle of their defense. The 2019 Clemson Tigers ended up being able to fling the ball around on anyone with Trevor Lawrence and had an all-NFL DL.
Even good or great teams can be derailed by an unfavorable scheduling draw. Schedule is a regular reason that top 25 caliber SEC teams go 8-5.
Feleipe Franks proved much more capable in Dan Mullen’s offense than expected last year and did some serious damage with his tough running and solid cuts against Michigan in the bowl game last year. His passing ability still hasn’t been totally unlocked but the Gators have some weapons back there. His replacements down the line will be even better runners. The question for 2019 is the OL, where Mullen inherited an underrated and experienced unit from Jim McElwain that was then gutted by graduation.
They’ll probably be okay inside and run the ball well but tackle looks pretty iffy. They’ll be counting on massive RS junior Stone Forsythe and then Texas transfer Jean Delance, the latter of whom didn’t leave Austin with a good reputation but may have worked out some things in the time since.
The defense is starting over inside as well and have West Virginia transfer Adam Shuler listed as a potential starter at 3-technique. This is an athletic team that will be fast and capable on the back end but the power and knowhow up the middle doesn’t quite look elite.
You’ve got a brilliant offensive mind at head coach working with an experienced QB and some good athletes and then a crafty DC in Todd Grantham working with some top athletes on that side of the ball as well. I think they’ll squeeze some extra value from this team but I don’t know if they have overpowering elements to their team. Particularly with pass protection a question mark.
The cocktail party with Georgia is obviously the big one, the Gators also play Miami in the season opener and their SEC West draw is Auburn at home and @LSU in back to back weeks. It’s fairly manageable overall, you could see them getting the SEC title game at 10-1 if they could beat Georgia, but then what?
I think their schedule will put too many obstacles in their path without the “championship gear” to power through.
The loss of infrastructure on defense is why I had the Dawgs pegged for a step back in 2018. They lost CB/Ni/Di swiss army knife DB Dom Davis, Roquan Smith, their nose tackle, a starting safety and the other ILB, both OLBs, it was a lot. They also lost the Sonny Michel/Nick Chubb tandem although that never seemed as dire given the way they’ve recruited at RB.
For 2019 their OL is insanely massive and well blooded by actual games and not just the physical practice culture that Kirby Smart encourages. Fromm is also back and although all their WRs are green it’s a good bet that whoever has received the 1st team offseason reps will be ready to go with their junior QB.
The offense was good last year too though, defense is the question. The middle of the defense looks more solid for 2019 with some older vets now established at ILB after taking some lumps in 2018 and the DL now restocked with blue chips that have had some seasoning.
The Dawgs will run on teams this year and it’ll be hard for most squads to do much about it. Granted, Texas shut down their rushing attack in the Sugar Bowl, but Georgia will have taken some lessons from that experience and most teams got railroaded up front.
The real fear will be from a revitalized defense that has too much speed, physicality, and want to for teams to find openings. A secret about Georgia that has been revealed a few times is that their anti-spread strategies aren’t astounding. They have good sub-packages, they use the tite front and some other fronts that help them, but their schemes aren’t really the secret. What they do well is matchup to your personnel and then play hard and fast with great athletes that play hard. When they have it going at every level they can make things hard.
Florida has problems with Georgia because they’ve lacked the size and ability up front on defense to withstand the Dawgs’ downhill run game. The rest of the east still hasn’t caught up. They draw Notre Dame at home after playing Arkansas State and before a bye week and then from the SEC West they draw @Auburn and Texas A&M at home in back to back weeks. This is probably the easiest schedule in the SEC.
The Dawgs will out-talent and out-physical their competition, Notre Dame will make them look good with a solid season after taking it on the chin in Athens, and they’ll advance to the SEC title game. There, even if they lose, they may still have a resume that puts them in. Or they could beat a non-Alabama squad and create a path for a double SEC entrance mirroring the 2017 season. At any rate, I think they’ll get in.
The DL and OL lose most of their best players, although the OL returns four starters (C Erik McCoy is gone). Last year they had an intriguing spread passing attack that stayed on the sideline mostly to run big formations featuring RB Trayveon Williams and TE Jace Sternberger. That’s all gone now so they’ll need to retool around QB Kellen Mond and the spread passing attack.
Defense still has Justin Madubuike at DT but starts over at NT, ILB, and then has the young, hard-hitting safety tandem of Derrick Tucker and now Leon O’Neal. DC Mike Elko will work hard to get all these guys in position and in sync but the whole team is facing a remake in style.
A best case scenario is one in which Kellen Mond and the deep WR room unleashes a consistent passing attack resembling the one that caught Clemson unawares in last year’s battle or that brought A&M back against LSU in the seven-OT game. That was a scary unit, pair that with a sound defense that can make stops here and there and you have a really tough team to beat.
Maybe the toughest in college football this season. They go @Clemson early and finish the year with back to back road trips @Georgia and @LSU. They also face Alabama, Auburn, and Mississippi State although at least those are home games. They could be a very good team and still lose five games.
No chance. A win for A&M this season would be to take advantage of the opportunity to play so many of the “it” teams in college football by winning one of those games against Georgia, Clemson, or Alabama in particular. Or beating LSU if the Tigers have beaten Texas. They want a narrative win to sell on the recruiting trail as Jimbo Fisher continues to build his program. Texas fans can laugh at that but it’d be meaningful for this program.
The Tigers had to rebuild their OL last year and it led to some problems, but now their group is all back. Five returning starters on a unit like that makes for a very promising start. Importantly for Auburn, they also have their man now at RB with Jatarvious Whitlow, who thrives in the tough inside running that makes Gus Malzahn’s system go.
The DL is still loaded and basically perpetually so, safety is also bringing back some starters, but ILB has to rebuild after two good years with the same crew. The prospective starters are all freshmen or sophomores so that’s a concern, as is the likely starting QB, freshman Bo Nix. I like Bo and think they could shock some teams if they let him chuck it around this year but he’s still just a freshman.
If Nix can execute the passing game well enough to clear out the box for Whitlow and the OL? You have the makings of a strong team. The defense should also be good again but enough to pace a championship team? I dunno. I think Auburn will split some of their heavyweight bouts and boosters may send some flowers to Bob Stoops unless they have another coaching target in mind.
The middle of the defense looks pretty solid. Rashard Lawrence and Grant Delpit on the front and back, now Michael Divinity up the middle to help lock things down after losing Devin White. They have their typical freakish athleticism on the edges, particularly at OLB where K’Lavon Chaisson returns after missing 2018 with injury.
Offense is the interesting spot. Joe Burrow is back at QB after a pretty solid 2018, as are most all of his targets. The Tigers will need to replace Foster Moreau at TE and there’s some rumblings about whether they’ll play in 11 or 12 personnel this coming season while utilizing the up and comers at that spot. OL is the big question, there’s talent everywhere and some experience up the middle but tackle is the question mark. They figure to start junior LT Saahdiq Charles (who started in 2018 as well) and then are sorting out RT, those positions need to show out well for all of this new passing stuff to work.
The big talk of the offseason was the hire of wunderkind offensive assistant Joe Brady to help bring some RPO and passing game creativity to the mix after having coached with Joe Moorhead and Sean Payton in previous stops. By all accounts the 2019 LSU Tigers will be wildly different from previous teams with a lethal passing attack to go along with their always potent defense. We’ll find out whether they have that gear or not pretty quickly when they visit Austin.
The defense figures to start five former 5-star recruits and then also superstar safety Grant Delpit, tackle Rashard Lawrence, and LB Michael Divinity. That’s two potential championship gears for this team and a lot of the reason for the buzz around the program.
The big one is their trip to Austin to take on Tom Herman’s Longhorns. That’s going to be one of the biggest games of the year since both teams will, at that time at least, have some big aspirations for the season and they’ll be on the big stage. But beyond that one, LSU also has tricky Utah State at home, Florida visiting from the East, and then they get @Alabama and @Mississippi State with Texas A&M and Auburn coming to the bayou. Lots of tough games for Ed Orgeron to find a way to get an advantage in.
Dave Aranda has had some problems with the running QBs from the spread over the years and he’s drawing a tough slate in that regard with Joe Moorhead, Tom Herman, and Dan Mullen all on the schedule. The Tigers need to find some effective answers there, grow up quickly at corner, and then also have the offensive changes pan out. They’d be an easier bet if their non-West slate didn’t include Texas and Florida. I think they’ll come up just short with a record like 10-2 or 9-3.
Joe Moorhead has a good thing going in Starkville, he’s basically reassembled the best of Joe Franklin’s staff at Penn State between himself and DC Bob Shoop and then also added QB Tommy Stevens via grad transfer. Stevens is the ideal SEC West spread QB, he’s really good throwing on the run and with some of Moorhead’s crafty RPO schemes but he’s also big and tough at 6-5/230 to hold up running the ball. “Nick Fitzgerald with a better arm” is a nice building block and Stevens actually has more experience with Moorhead’s offense than Fitzgerald had.
The OL returns a lot of pieces from last year’s breakthrough, as well as star RB Kylin Hill and RS senior TE Farrod Green. The defense lost a lot up the middle with an exceptional group of DL moving on the NFL and then their safeties that anchored the team also moving on. LB looks good with three starters back and they have reloaded along the DL with some JUCO additions (Mississippi always has strong JUCO programs). They also have some older guys back in the secondary so the prognosis isn’t too grim.
The Moorhead RPO spread O with a highly experienced OL and then the two-headed monster of Stevens and Hill is really something. If they can get the ball to the perimeter more in 2019 they’ll really blow away some defenses.
The Bulldogs invite Kansas State to Starkville for what promises to be another whoopin’ and then draws Tennessee and Kentucky from the East. Pretty manageable. They get Auburn and A&M on the road and LSU and Alabama at home, also promising.
Championship seems too generous but I really like this team and think that they, like Auburn, could split some of their big time games and potentially put an L on LSU or Alabama.
Last season I had an article before the year noting that Alabama’s secondary was facing a massive rebuild on a greater scale than we’d seen before and that previous massive rebuilds in their secondary had often coincided with some postseason problems. They’ll be in better shape this time around although you have to wonder how much that will matter given the gap between Clemson’s offensive skill talent and the Bama secondary in the 2018 final. LB and OLB are set and somehow Raekwon Davis is back for another year on the DL.
Here’s something interesting, check out the lineage of Alabama nose tackles under Saban:
Two things should stand out, Alabama’s greatest successes tend to coincide with their greatest nose tackle seasons and the 2019 team is potentially starting a freshman at that position. Now, obviously that’s happened before at Alabama and gone okay. In 2015 the Tide started freshman Daron Payne at the nose and bumped A’Shawn Robinson outside to DE, which yielded fruit. Payne was exceptional for three years in crimson and white and then Williams took the torch last year and was also outstanding.
I’ve watched Dale in HS, he’s also exceptional, but you wonder if he’ll be ready to help them dominate the line of scrimmage as they prefer in year one.
Other infrastructure spots look solid. Tua Tagovailoa is back, multiple OL are back, all of the WRs are back, Dylan Moses is back at ILB, etc. One other question mark is the coaching staff, which has had more turnover than even Saban prefers in recent seasons and has become an absolute turnstile. Saban really didn’t want to lose Josh Gattis to Michigan and I have some doubts over whether Steve Sarkisian will be the right answer for them. There’s a lot of sturdy things in place overall though.
The offense was overpowering against most teams last year and could be moreso in 2019 IF they can maintain their RPO spread approach and add more of a pro-style passing attack with Sarkisian. Will that suit Tua’s style? Can Sarkisian keep their RPO game going? I don’t know. If it works though they’ll be insanely dominant.
Defensively they’re younger than normal up front and need to sort out ILB and Saf a little better than last year but again, there’s a chance things could come together and there’s a ton of talent.
The non-conference opener is against Duke, the SEC East draw is at South Carolina and Tennessee at home. Not much doing there. The West is always brutal though and they get A&M, Mississippi State, and Auburn on the road with LSU, Arkansas, and Ole Miss coming to Tuscaloosa.
I don’t think this Alabama team looks as strong as some of their other squads of the past, as crazy as that may sound. They just look like a team that could lose their way if they can’t dominate the box like they’re used to doing with their DL and main ILB, or that isn’t sure what they want to be on offense between their spread additions and then Saban’s insistence on running the ball and controlling games. That schedule isn’t too bad though and it’s hard to see them left out of the SEC title game. If they go into that game, play Georgia at 12-0, and lose a close game will they be left out of the playoffs?
The Hurricanes are the main challenger in the ACC to Dabo Swinney’s Tigers, other than maybe Syracuse who tends to give Brent Venables some trouble. The Miami offense is probably not ready to make this all work. They look solid thanks to adding QB Tathan Martell and WR KJ Osborn but the OL wasn’t great last year and rebuilds on that unit tend to take real time.
The defensive infrastructure is fantastic. Pat Bethel returns up the middle, all three, 4th year starting LBs are back, safety will have new starters but can choose between three talented, third-year players.
On offense it’s hard to see one, although they should be competent with Dan Enos bringing his always effective offensive stylings (now with RPOs in the mix). Defensively they’ll be a big play unit that parades the turnover chain regularly, I think the defense can probably carry them to the ACC title game but then things get dicey.
They open with Florida, head to North Carolina, and get the Virginia schools back to back. It’s not an easy schedule but it doesn’t have that other ACC team until the conference championship game.
I think they’ll have a strong year one under Manny Diaz and generate some excitement before ultimately falling short against Clemson. They should offer a good test for the Tigers though with their pass-rush since the big question with the Tigers this year is basically whether they can protect as well as they did last year.
Clemson is losing longtime starter Mitch Hyatt from the LT spot as well as their entire DL, which was the envy of most every program in college football. The DL will start over with a cast of 3rd and 4th year players that spent last year waiting their turn, possibly with 5-star sophomore Xavier Thomas entering the mix if he can beat out the juniors ahead of him. Will they be as dominant as in 2018? Probably not. Will they be dominant? Probably.
Behind the DL at ILB and safety they have new starter but highly experienced James Skalski who was recently compared to a “super-athletic Ben Boulware” taking over at will. We’ve seen Skalski sub in for years, he’s good. Safety has multiple returning pieces and also Isaiah Simmons at nickel, who’s one of the most freakish players in the country.
The OL is actually really experienced and solid looking, the season probably comes down to whether 5-star sophomore Jackson Carman (from Ohio) is ready to hold up outside at LT and then whether one of their new corners is ready to hold up as a lockdown guy outside. Positive answers to those two areas and Clemson looks like the best team in the nation to these eyes.
Trevor Lawrence to Justyn Ross. Brent Venables defense. That’s about as good as it gets at this level.
Texas A&M at home…@South Carolina, there’s not much here with Florida State down in the dumps. Syracuse may be their toughest challenger again and then presumably Miami in the title game. The committee will probably even give them a mulligan if they drop a regular season contest and emerge as 12-1 ACC champions.
Most would argue that you should ink Clemson and Alabama into the playoffs before the season. Alabama has shown a remarkable ability to avoid having too tough a schedule for that to prove false, Clemson is incredibly well situated right now in the ACC where many of the programs are just not in great shape.
I’m less confident in Alabama than Clemson this year, the Tigers just have it too good. That could make for three teams from Dixie-land in the playoffs this year with Georgia, Alabama, and Clemson as your frontrunners with the SEC title game looming as a potential monkey wrench in the selection process.