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SEC will control college football’s final four

Brad Bradford is ready for the 2014 college football season.
Brad Bradford is ready for the 2014 college football season.

By Brad Bradford

Finally, a playoff!

For all those college football fans who have been clamoring for a playoff, your wishes have come true. 2014 will be the first year of a type of “Final Four” to crown the national champion at Jerry World in Dallas on the night of Monday January 12, 2015.

To those deprived souls who eat tofu and put sugar in their cornbread and live outside the beloved footprint of the Southeast: Be careful what you wish for. There is not a limit on the number of teams from any particular conference in the final four, so the odds of an SEC vs. SEC championship just went up.

It is very possible that the loser of the SEC championship game can (and should) be in the playoffs. Last year, Missouri would not have been one of the top four. Alabama would have been. The 13-member selection committee has the marching orders to select and seed the top four teams, pitting #1 against #4 and #2 against #3. This year’s semifinals will be in the Sugar Bowl and the Rose Bowl. The higher seeded team will be placed in the closest bowl geographically. (Last year Florida State would have been in the Sugar playing #4 Michigan State with #2 Auburn playing #3 Alabama in the Rose Bowl.) The committee will also pair up the opponents in this year’s Orange, Cotton, Peach and Fiesta Bowls.

2013 IRON BOWL REWIND: Coach Paul Bryant famously stated that to win championships, you have to have injury luck and schedule luck. Many teams also create their own luck. Auburn did that last year. Auburn stayed healthy. Nick Marshall did a great job at quarterback and Auburn made huge plays against Georgia and Alabama when needed. (Last year, I picked the Tigers to win 8 games and was accused of being a “homer” since my wife was a former Auburn cheerleader. I also picked Alabama to win it all and would do it again.) Since Auburn had already lost to LSU by 14, a loss to Georgia basically sent then-undefeated Alabama to Atlanta. That’s why the tipped pass for a touchdown against the Dawgs meant so much in the total season. Without this play, there would be no Auburn SEC championship nor a trip to Pasadena to play Florida State for the BCS trophy.

Alabama took care of everything all season until the end of the Iron Bowl with no SEC opponent (except A&M) getting closer than two touchdowns. There were three questionable decisions in the game at Auburn, one by Auburn and two by Alabama: Both teams went for it on 4th down and were stopped when a punt or field goal would have been safer. An Alabama field goal after stopping Auburn on fourth down in scoring territory would have given them a two-score lead which would have been huge at the time. With one second remaining, most Alabama fans liked the odds of a “Hail Mary” jump ball in the end zone to Amari Cooper, O.J. Howard and Kevin Norwood against Auburn’s shorter secondary as opposed to a 57-yard field goal attempt. The questionable part had more to do with the size of the linemen and lack of speed of the Bama field goal unit (in case of a miss) than the attempt itself. This situation is practiced every Thursday of the week on both sides. Auburn entered the SEC championship game and final BCS game with unbridled confidence.

TAKE OUT LOANS NOW: Does the new format financially eliminate the hard working Auburn fan from Wetumpka or the diehard Bama supporter from Muscle Shoals from seeing their favorite team play in the post season?

Ponder this: Auburn or Alabama could win the West and be in Atlanta for the SEC championship game in early December. Would you pay $400 for a ticket if your team was favored by two touchdowns or save up for the next one? The winner would then play in the Rose Bowl or Sugar Bowl, depending on the rankings, on New Year’s Day. Would you travel to California and pay $500 for a ticket to the semifinal game knowing that in 11 days, you could be in Dallas for the championship game paying much more? Three games in five weeks would be a challenge on any budget. The winners are going to be the corporate sponsors, ESPN and ticket scalpers.

SEC EAST: Predicted order of finish: 1. Georgia 2. South Carolina 3. Florida 4. Tennessee 5. Missouri 6. Vanderbilt 7. Kentucky.

The top two teams both have to play Auburn from the West. Conventional wisdom is to go with South Carolina. However, the Gamecocks have to open with Texas A&M and have to play Auburn on the road. Replacing NFL top pick Jadaveon Clowney will be tough. The winner of the showdown with Georgia on September 13 will be the front runner in the East.  Georgia returns nine defensive starters and gains the services of former FSU defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. The Dawgs have a tough road opener against ACC foe Clemson. The winner of the East will probably have two losses.

Florida had 13 season-ending injuries last year but should be better as the younger players got experience by filling in. The Gators draw Alabama and LSU from the West and play Florida State. Otherwise, Will Muschamp needs to buy stock in United Van Lines. Tennessee will improve but plays Oklahoma and Alabama. With some breaks, they could win 7. Missouri will prove that it was a one hit wonder from 2013. Suspended receiver Green-Beckham, was their only offensive threat. They won the East last year by staying healthy and playing a weak schedule. James Franklin took Vandy about as high as they can go last year before he left for Penn State. They return only four defensive starters. A bowl is not likely this year. Kentucky has recruited better but has too much distance to make up this year. The Cats end the season at Louisville, then can get ready for basketball once again.

SEC WEST: Predicted order of finish: 1. Alabama 2. Auburn 3. Ole Miss 4. LSU 5. Texas A&M 6. Mississippi State 7. Arkansas

The difference between Alabama and Auburn in 2014 will boil down to the schedule of the crossover games from the East. Alabama plays Florida at home and Tennessee on the road. Auburn plays South Carolina at home but has to travel to Georgia. Auburn may have the better team but Alabama could have the easier road to Atlanta. When Nick Saban has the top recruiting class year after year, the quality of the depth becomes unfair. Replacing quarterback A.J. McCarron with FSU transfer Jacob Coker is going to be a challenge for new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin. Having T.J. Yeldon, Derrick Henry and Kendrick Drake at running back; O.J. Howard at tight end and Amari Cooper at wide receiver will make it easier and force defenses to choose their poison. Better corner play and a better pass rush will be key for Kirby Smart’s defense. In 2013, Auburn came as close as any team to playing to its full potential. Gus Malzahn is better than any offensive coach in the country in creating mismatches and exploiting them. Auburn returns the best quarterback in the league, Nick Marshall, and has a big play receiver in Sammie Coates. Replacing left tackle Greg Robinson, running back Tre Mason and blocking back Jay Prosch is going to be tough. Auburn will have a big bull’s-eye on its back this year.

Ole Miss has recruited well and draws Vandy and Tennessee from the East. Playing Alabama and Auburn at home with an experienced quarterback in Bo Wallace is an advantage toward winning 8 games. LSU returns 4 offensive line starters but must replace quarterback Zach Mettenberger and 6 players who left early for the NFL. Opening with Wisconsin will answer some questions quickly. Texas A&M lost the most dynamic and creative player in years in Johnny Manziel. He kept them in games. Last year, they lost to Alabama, Auburn and LSU. Ditto for 2014. Mississippi State has a top quarterback in Zac Prescott. Their watered down schedule plus Kentucky and Vandy from the East will get them to a bowl. Arkansas is still a couple of recruiting classes away after the departure of Bobby Petrino.

IRON BOWL: For the first time in the history of this game, both teams will enter the game undefeated and ranked second and third behind Florida State. The winner of this game will come down to key injuries, turnovers and the kicking game. Nick Saban and the Bama players have a vivid memory of the fans storming the Jordan Hare field last year. Home field advantage and the revenge factor means Alabama wins 30-24.

SEC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME: Alabama (12-0) will play Georgia (10-2) in Atlanta. The previous week, Bama plays Auburn and Georgia plays Georgia Tech. Big difference in those contests. Alabama can relax a little knowing that they are probably a lock for the final four, win or lose. Believe it or not: Auburn fans will pull for the Tide to win to keep the Tigers in the running for a “Final Four” slot. Alabama will win 31 to 21 with Derrick Henry being the MVP.

WHO MAKES THE FINAL FOUR: Eight teams can make the Final Four: Alabama, Auburn, Baylor, Florida State, Michigan State, Oklahoma, Oregon, and UCLA. (Outside chance: Ohio State, South Carolina, Wisconsin and Georgia)

SEMIFINAL GAME PREDICTIONS: #1 Florida State vs #4 Auburn in the Sugar Bowl. Gus Malzahn will have the Tigers well prepared for this rematch from last year. FSU’s off the field issues will be a distraction. Auburn will find a way to win in a shootout: 38-35.

#2 Alabama vs #3 Oregon in the Rose Bowl. Oregon’s quarterback and leading Heisman trophy candidate Marcus Mariota will be more confused than a baby in a topless bar. The Tide will have played a similar spread offense in Auburn and will prove to be too physical: Bama 28-17.

NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP GAME: #2 Alabama vs, #4 Auburn. The entire nation (outside the state of Alabama) will get what they dreaded: SEC vs. SEC for all the marbles. Commissioner Mike Slive will laugh all the way to the bank. The game will be played 11 days after the semifinals on Monday Jan. 12 in Dallas. This will be a rematch from the Iron Bowl on Nov. 29. Alabama will lead at halftime 21-13. Alabama’s kicking game will once again be the deciding factor. Auburn’s offense will make a 4th quarter comeback and win its second national championship in 4 years. Auburn 33-Alabama 31. Most valuable player: Nick Marshall. Alabama finishes the year 14-1 and SEC champions. Auburn finishes 13-1 and national champions.

Brad Bradford is a 21-year veteran of the coaching business, six years as a high school assistant, four years as a head coach, three years at the University of Alabama with Ray Perkins and eight years as the running backs coach for Howard Schnellenberger at the University of Louisville. He is the author of the inspirational and humorous book, Hang in There like Hair in a Biscuit (hairinabiscuit.com.) Brad can be reached at coachbradbradford@gmail.com.and followed on Twitter @coachhardknocks. He is the president of Bradford Consulting Group and is a motivational speaker. Brad and his wife Susan currently split time between their homes in Destin, Fla., and Wetumpka, Ala.