Why Alabama and LSU will both make the College Football Playoff in 2016
Five years ago, Alabama and LSU hijacked the 2011 college football season, staging not one but two No. 1 vs. 2 games, the latter marking the beginning of the end for the ill-fated BCS. Most of the public outside the Southeast revolted at not just the rematch but seemingly dinosaur offenses.
However, a staggering 45 eventual NFL draft picks – including 14 first-rounders – played in those games. The teams were that good.
I’m predicting a near-repeat scenario in 2016.
Defending national champ Alabama is an easy pick to represent the conference yet again in this year’s College Football Playoff. We can nitpick the Tide’s potential flaws – a potentially untested quarterback (if redshirt freshman Blake Barnett or true freshman Jalen Hurts beat out veteran Cooper Bateman), inexperienced running backs (sophomores Bo Scarborough and Damien Harris), the void left by Outland Trophy-winning center Ryan Kelly. End of day, these guys are still loaded, most notably in the front seven, where Jonathan Allen, Da’Ron Payne, Dalvin Tomlinson, Da’Shawn Hand and Tim Williams will take turns flooding into opposing backfields.
The more intriguing team to watch, though, will be LSU, whose national championship coach, Les Miles, got walked to the very end of the plank late last season before the school president stepped in and saved his job. This is shaping up to be the rare instance where a coach on the hot seat is presiding over a potential national champion.
You name it, the Tigers have it (with one glaring potential exception), from sensational RB Leonard Fournette to a stacked front seven led by LBs Arden Key and Kendell Beckwith to an experienced secondary. Without question, QB Brandon Harris needs to be more consistent, but with so many playmakers around him, he also doesn’t need to put the team on his back. Fournette will.
I’m picking Alabama and LSU to both finish 11-1 – and both reach the playoff. We haven’t yet had two teams from the same conference, but it’s bound to happen, especially with the schedules these two play. The committee has made clear how much it values Top 25 wins. Both Alabama (against USC) and LSU (against Wisconsin) could get one on opening Saturday, then add three or four more in conference play.
While it’s entirely possible one or both won’t get to 11 wins – because yes, Nick Saban will go 9-3 at some point – it’s hard to envision anyone else winning the SEC West. I expect Texas A&M and Arkansas to both be improved, but not enough to edge both the Tide and Tigers in the standings. Ole Miss, 6-2 in conference play a year ago, may take a step back in 2016. Mississippi State is rebuilding. Auburn is reloading.
If anyone besides Saban or Miles is going to win the SEC this fall, the most likely candidate is … Butch Jones. Really.
While Tennessee’s fourth-year coach has hardly inspired overwhelming confidence to date – he’s 3-13 so far against ranked opponents – there’s no question the Vols have improved each year he’s been there. Tennessee won its last six a year ago to finish 9-4. Not coincidentally, the Vols have gone from extremely young early in his tenure to now, going into 2016, the SEC’s most experienced team.
With the dangerous tailback tandem of Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara, imposing bookends Corey Vereen and Derek Barnett and dependable veterans (LB Jalen Reeves-Maybin, CB Cam Sutton, SS Todd Kelly Jr., FS Evan Berry) throughout the defense, Tennessee would have to try really hard not to win the East. Florida lacks the playmakers, and Georgia is vulnerable in Kirby Smart’s first season.
The question is whether the Vols could go on to win in Atlanta. That may require beating Alabama twice, which just isn’t going to happen. But then, maybe it’s LSU, not the Tide, waiting on the other side. All I know is if two SEC West teams finish 11-1, you’re going to have a hard time finding three other playoff contenders out there more qualified than whoever loses Nov. 5 in Baton Rouge.