By Brad Bradford
Some Vegas casinos have the most unusual and first-time betting option for the 2019 football season: You can take Alabama and Clemson together against the field (other 128 teams) to win the national championship. Where would you put your money? This goes to show how far these two teams have separated themselves from all the others.
Football fans forget that last year, as the season progressed, these questions came up: Is this the best Alabama team ever? Can anyone come near them? Could they beat a poor NFL team? All ridiculous questions.
Yes, Alabama breezed through the regular season but had to face Auburn, Georgia, Oklahoma and, of course, Clemson for the national championship. On these same weeks, Clemson played South Carolina, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame. This is not an excuse. Bama got taken behind the woodshed and gave Nick Saban the worst beating in his tenure at Alabama. There was no excuse for this. On Jan. 7, Clemson was the better team, better coached, better prepared and dominated.
Auburn’s 2018 season was riddled with uncertainty, injuries, inexplicable losses and incredible wins. The Tigers beat the PAC 12 champion Washington Huskies in Atlanta to open the season and totally steamrolled a Purdue team that had dominated Ohio State by 29 points in the Music City Bowl. Their signature win was defeating Texas A&M at home. They beat the other SEC bottom feeders but lost head scratchers to Mississippi State and a bad Tennessee team. The LSU game was basically taken from them with a couple of questionable interference calls and some Bayou luck. This early loss seemed to start some finger pointing and blame. A win over LSU would have given them a 5-0 start and momentum.
All schedules are not created equal. This year, Auburn faces the equivalent of the old Yankee’s Murderers Row in order: No. 10 Oregon; No. 13 Texas A&M; No. 6 Florida; No. 8 LSU; No. 3 Georgia and No. 2 Alabama. The media has made a big deal about Clemson playing Texas A&M. Guess what? Auburn and Alabama play them every year.
Here are Clemson’s six highest ranked opponents: No. 13 Texas A&M; No. 32 Syracuse; No. 40 South Carolina; No. 51 N.C. State; No. 65 Wake Forest; and No. 70 Boston College.
Which team do you think gets to rest their starters earlier, which leads to more depth, fewer injuries, and a larger margin for error? Nothing can be done about the SEC crossover games, but Bama gets Tennessee and South Carolina while Auburn drew Florida and Georgia.
Replace “The Process” with “The Alabama Factor.” It is hard to believe that Nick Saban is entering his 13th year with the Tide. He has recently talked more about the Alabama Factor than the Process: “Last year, we got away from the Alabama Factor which includes effort, discipline, commitment, pride and toughness.” Bama plays best with a chip on its shoulder and when not ranked No. 1. Both boxes are checked this year. Can he indoctrinate seven new assistants into the Alabama Factor? His track record says yes.
Is Gus Malzahn on the hot seat? As the head football coach at a major university, the two people that you want on your side are the president of the university and the athletics director. President Steven Leath (who gave Malzahn the $49 million contract) was recently let go and Athletics Director Allen Greene did not hire Gus. Auburn fans are not satisfied with a 28-20 SEC record and losing at least five games in four of his six years. When the gap in confidence and talent chasm gets wider with the team on the other side of the state, it heats up. See Avery Johnson, former Alabama basketball coach, as an example of this.
Alabama Prediction: After going 14-1 last year, you would think that the wheels have come off the Nick bus. Unfortunately, Bama is judged vs. perfection. Nothing less. Since quarterback Tua Tagovailoa made it look so easy last year, he was taken for granted. His passing efficiency rating of 199.4 barely beat out Kyler Murray of Oklahoma to lead the nation. Najee Harris takes over as the alpha running back after learning from now-NFL backs Damien Harris and Josh Jacobs.
The depth at wide receiver is a version of “pick your poison”: All-American Jerry Jeudy along with Henry Ruggs III, DeVonta Smith, and Jaylen Waddle can go the distance, quickly. The defense will be led by the best linebacking group in the country: Dylan Moses, Anfernee Jennings and Terrell Lewis. Alabama could have an All-American in every position unit on the team.
Trap games: at Texas A&M, LSU at home (even though Bama has won eight in a row) and Auburn, since it is in Jordan-Hare this year. The over/under is 11. Take the over. Prediction: 12-0. SEC champion. College football playoff again.
Auburn Prediction: One of the Tigers’ best recruiting jobs was having All-American Derrick Brown return at defensive tackle for his senior year instead of opting for the NFL. The Tigers’ defensive line is ranked No. 1 in the country. Senior Marlon Davidson, Nick Coe and Big Kat Brown should be able to shut down their opponents’ running game. As long as Kevin Steele is the defensive coordinator, Auburn will be in games.
The biggest question on offense is the one that you don’t want to have in the killer SEC West: Who is going to be the starter at quarterback? Redshirt freshman Joey Gatewood has the talent, but my money is on true freshman Bo Nix. He comes from good Auburn stock. Every starter on the offensive line is a senior (almost never heard of). The schedule does not give Auburn much room for error. Possible losses: Oregon, Texas A&M, Florida, LSU, Georgia and Alabama. The over/under is 8. Will be a push. Prediction: 8-4.
SEC WEST: 1. Alabama 2. Texas A&M 3. LSU 4. Auburn 5. Mississippi State 6. Arkansas 7. Ole Miss
SEC EAST: 1. Georgia 2. Florida 3. Missouri 4. Kentucky 5. South Carolina 6. Tennessee 7. Vandy
POSSIBLE PLAYOFF TEAMS: Alabama, Georgia, Texas A&M, LSU, Clemson, Ohio State, Michigan, Oklahoma, Texas and Oregon.
PLAYOFF PAIRINGS: Peach: No. 1 Clemson vs. No. 4 Georgia. Fiesta: No. 2 Alabama vs. No. 3 Oklahoma.
NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP GAME: Clemson vs. Alabama. This year, there will be 15 days between the semifinals and the championship game. Bama will have an easier time with Oklahoma than Clemson will have with Georgia in Atlanta. No one utilizes this extra time better than Nick Saban and his band of analysts. It should be a slight lean toward Clemson, BUT for the last 3 years, the loser of the Clemson-Alabama game has come back to win the National Championship the next year. How can you go against this stat? Alabama 38-Clemson 35.ν
Brad Bradford is a former football staff member at Alabama and Louisville. His daily blog about growing up in the South can be found at hairinabiscuit.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org