THINKING OUT LOUD ON WEDNESDAY
1. Bill Bender, the college football writer for Sporting News, says only five teams have a realistic shot at winning the 2020 national championship: Ohio State, Clemson, Alabama, Georgia and LSU. I think everyone can agree with the first three on that list. Clemson has won or played for the national championship four times in the last five years and has all-interplanetary QB Trevor Lawrence returning. Ohio State lost 10 players to the draft but returns QB Justin Fields. Alabama may have lost Tua and nine players to the draft, but Nick Saban never rebuilds. He merely reloads.
The two I can’t agree with are Georgia and LSU. Let’s start with Georgia. Sure, the Bulldogs will have a stout defense and this will be year four of the national media’s love affair with Kirby Smart so there will be plenty of hype, but let’s douse the hype with an ice-cold bucket of reality water. There was no spring practice for a team that lost four starting offensive linemen and a three-year starter at QB. The new offensive coordinator (Todd Monken) didn’t have spring practice to implement a revamped offense or the opportunity to work with Wake Forest Gump grad transfer QB Jamie Newman, who will have a chance to become the most overhyped quarterback we’ve seen in college football since Ron Powlus became the poster child for mediocrity from 1994-97. All of this adds up to a team that not only isn’t going to contend for the national championship but may not even contend for the SEC East. I can see three losses in Georgia’s future.
As for LSU, I have to wonder out loud did Bill Bender not watch the NFL Draft? Fourteen Tigers heard their names called, five of them in the first round and the top draft pick of all was QB Joe Burrow. I think Myles Brennan has a great arm, but he is not Joe Burrow, plus he will be learning his third offensive system in three years. LSU is going to lose a couple of games this year and will be back in contention in 2021. This year? Not going to happen.
So who do I think will contend along with Clemson, Ohio State and Alabama? For one, I believe this is the year Dan Mullen was pointing to when he took the Florida job. He’s rebuilt the roster so there is talent and depth at every position and he has the SEC’s leading passer back in Kyle Trask. The O-line returns four starters and will be much improved. Tight end Kyle Pitts and wide receiver Trevon Grimes are going to have monster years. As for the defense? I’ve got one word for you. Nasty. Brenton Cox Jr. on one side and Mohamoud Diabate on the other are going to make life miserable for opposing QBs. Florida’s secondary will be as good as there is in college football. The Gators are going to win the SEC East and they’ve got a great shot to beat whoever emerges out of the West.
My fifth contender is Texas A&M. If there is a team capable of beating both Alabama and LSU in the West, it’s the Aggies. Just as Mullen targeted 2020 as the year of the Gators, Jimbo Fisher has targeted 2020 as an Aggie kind of year. Kellen Mond will be a fourth-year starter at QB, his third under Jimbo, and the defense no longer will be the youngest in the conference.
As for teams on the outside looking in, my three would be Penn State, Southern Cal and Oklahoma.
2. I remain convinced college football will be played in the fall, almost certainly with a 10-game schedule. I think camps will open August 1 and the season will open on September 19, giving everybody six weeks to prepare. Since players have missed their spring and summer conditioning, I think the NCAA will mandate 10-14 days of conditioning and another 10-14 days before full contact is allowed.
I do not believe there will be any attempt to expand the playoffs this year or even next. This will be the seventh year of a 4-team College Football Playoff on ESPN so there is no hurry by the network to add another weekend of games. The only way I can see a move to expand the playoff in the next couple of years will be if congress gets involved and demands better access for the Group of Five to the playoffs.
What I would really like to see is for the Group of Five to have its own playoff. That would give teams at the bottom feeder conferences a chance to have a national championship of their own, earned on the field and not just something declared by the UCF athletic director.
3. Since I am convinced we will have college football in the fall it’s never too early to come out with a ranking for each SEC division as well as contenders for players of the year on both sides of the football.
SEC East: (1) FLORIDA; (2) Georgia; (3) Kentucky; (4) South Carolina; (5) Tennessee; (6) Missouri; (7) Vanderbilt.
SEC West: (1) Alabama; (2) Texas A&M; (3) LSU; (4) Auburn; (5) Ole Miss; (6) Mississippi State; (7) Arkansas.
Never-too-early SEC Offensive Player of the Year contenders: (1) Kyle Trask, Florida; (2) Najee Harris, Alabama; (3) Kellen Mond, Texas A&M; (4) Ja’Marr Chase, LSU; (5) Terry Wilson, Kentucky.
Never-too-early SEC Defensive Player of the Year contenders: (1) Dylan Moses, Alabama; (2) Darryl Stingley Jr., LSU; (3) Brenton Cox Jr., Florida; (4) Nolan Smith, Georgia; (5) K.J. Britt, Auburn
4. Joe Burrow is reportedly about to sign a four-year deal with the Cincinnati Bengals (fifth year option) for $36 million with $24 million up front as a signing bonus. Not bad for a guy who Mel Kiper Jr. admitted was thought to be a sixth or seventh rounder prior to the start of the 2019 season. I didn’t see a Heisman Trophy or national championship season coming for Burrow, but I did think he got a bum rap among the media for his 2018 season. He arrived at LSU In August, learned the offense on the fly and accounted for 23 touchdowns (16 passing and 7 rushing) while leading the Tigers to a 10-3 record. I thought he would be much better in 2019, but who could have guessed he would account for 6.039 yards of offense and 65 touchdowns (60 passing, 5 rushing)? What Burrow did in 2019 is the perfect example of what happens when a coach tailors the offense to the personnel. Give Coach O a lot of credit for essentially reinventing himself by making a radical change in offensive philosophy to fit what his personnel could do best.
5. On May 24, the NCAA will allegedly vote on and approve a rule that will give a one-time waiver to first-time transfers in any NCAA sport. Although some are calling this an unmitigated disaster waiting to happen, I’m in favor of the rule. I am of the opinion that if a coach has the right to leave a team for a new job without having to sit out a year, then players should have the same right as well.
One of the reasons I’m all for the new rule is to put an end to the waiver process that’s been in place the last three or four years when kids (like Justin Fields to Ohio State or Shea Patterson to Michigan for example) who could afford good legal representation got their waivers simply by threatening to sue the NCAA while deserving kids (like former Georgia tight end Luke Ford) were denied. Level the playing field for everyone is the only way to handle it.
If there is a flaw to the rule it is that kids who are standouts at a smaller school in a Group of Five conference might shop his talents to a Power Five school where he can play immediately. Group of Five schools might see themselves as farm clubs for the big boys, but by the same token, those Group of Fives could get talented kids from the power conferences who just need a change of scenery.
My expectation is that we’ll see three or four Florida football players announce they are transferring as soon as the new rule goes in place. We may also see some very talented kids at schools that have no hope of competing for a championship elect to transfer to UF.
I will be eager to see how the SEC reacts to the new rule. Currently, a player transferring within the conference has to get a waiver both from the NCAA and SEC commissioner Greg Sankey for immediate eligibility, but with the new rule will the SEC still require the commish to sign off on any transfer from one SEC school to another?
Last, will we see basketball players at schools like LSU, Kansas, Arizona, Creighton, Oregon, Southern Cal and Louisville, which face serious NCAA sanctions, do their rats from a sinking ship routine and leave for say, Kentucky, which has five open scholarships?