By Brad Bradford
Emeril Lagasse is one of the best chefs in the Southeast. He has access to the best kitchens, the best meat, the best equipment and the best staff. Emeril worked hard to get where he is today, but my Aunt Berta may be just as good, given the same resources. The SEC and the entire college football nation can relate to this analogy.
Nick Saban has run away and retired the recruiting championship with seven straight No. 1 classes with his latest haul. This year, there were 11 five-star recruits in the SEC. Bama signed six of them; Auburn, LSU and Tennessee signed one each and Georgia signed two.
Alabama continues to stockpile, with 65 percent of its players coming from outside Alabama. Top recruits continue the yearly trek to Tuscaloosa knowing that they must wait their turn behind other five-stars. This adds to daily competition for playing time.
When Vegas puts the odds of winning the national championship for Alabama at 3 to 1, you know that the talent and coaching is there. Hard to bet against them.
Auburn faces the dilemma that it has faced in Gus Malzahn’s soon-to-be fifth year: relying on one “star” to lead the Tigers to the promised land of the playoffs. In the past, it was Jeremy Johnson as quarterback. He ended up third string and never reached his potential. Next, it was Will Muschamp as defensive coordinator who was going to be the answer. His defense finished 71st in the nation, giving up 405 yards per game. After one year, he was off to South Carolina.
This year, the Tiger hype is former Baylor quarterback transfer Jarrett Stidham. He showed in the spring that he has all the tools needed to get Auburn over the hump.
Two important questions: 1. Will Gus stay out of the way and let new coordinator Chip Lindsey run the offense? 2. Stidham has not played since 2015 when he played in the Big 12. The Big 12 defenses are nothing like the real bullets he is going to face against Clemson and the athleticism of the defenses in the SEC. How will he react?
ALABAMA 2016: Listening to Nick Saban and Jalen Hurts talk about last year, you would think that Alabama finished 6-7, lost to Chattanooga and got beat in the Birmingham Bowl instead of going 14-1. Winning four of the last eight national championships and going for a three-peat causes anyone wearing crimson or houndstooth to have one simple goal: Hoist the crystal trophy in early January or it is a disappointing season.
Last year’s defense will go down as one of the most dominating in Tide history. However, it will also be known for playing 99 snaps on defense against Clemson and giving up a last-second touchdown on a pick pass and losing the national championship 35-31.
On that night in Tampa Bay, the better team made the fourth-quarter plays and won it all. No excuses. Bama won its third straight SEC title and is the only team to be included all three years in the Final Four playoff.
Freshman quarterback Hurts was the offensive player of the year. The defense finished first in scoring defense, first in rushing defense and second in total defense nationally. Except for an early season scare by Ole Miss and a 10-0 win against LSU, no one came closer than 18 points – until Clemson.
ALABAMA OUTLOOK: This is the first year since 2013 that the Tide will return a starter at quarterback. The backfield is loaded with a healthy Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris. Top recruit Najee Harris can make a difference real quick. The offensive line is experienced.
Saban replaced Lane Kiffin as offensive coordinator with Brian “RUN” Daboll. His marching orders are to get the ball in the hands of playmakers (like Calvin Ridley) and don’t try to “out-cute” the defense.
Defensively, the Tide lost seven starters to the NFL. The good news is that nine of the 11 projected starters on defense will be either juniors or seniors. Concerns: finding a kicker and depth at quarterback.
Prediction: SEC West champions with a regular season record of 11-1. Possible losses: Florida State or Auburn.
AUBURN 2016: Defensive coordinator Kevin Steele kept the Tigers in every game by finishing seventh in scoring defense nationally, giving up 17 points per game and playing with the intensity that Auburn is known for. (For comparison, Alabama finished first in the nation at 13 points allowed, a difference of only 4 points).
Injuries to quarterback Sean White and running back Kam Pettway led to a record of 8-5. Losing by 6 points to Clemson and 6 points to Georgia shows just how close Auburn came to a 10-win season. Beating LSU at home on a last-second heart-stopper kept the Tigers from starting 1-3. Instead, that win (well-earned) led to a six-game winning streak and a 7-2 record headed into the road game at Georgia. They were ranked ninth in the playoff rankings and controlled their own destiny.
Unfortunately, the wheels came off. No second half first downs against Georgia led to a loss. Two weeks later, they scored four field goals but no touchdowns against Alabama. Finishing number 112 in passing offense (out of 128 teams) allowed defenses to load the box and disregard deep passing threats.
AUBURN OUTLOOK: Everything depends on the development of quarterback Jarrett Stidham and keeping the running backs healthy. The duo of Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson at running back behind an experienced offensive line is going to give defenses headaches. Malzahn has recruited well on the defensive front and coordinator Steele will keep the Tigers in close games. Daniel Carlson is the best kicker in the country. This means that the offense only needs to get one first down past the 50 and it should turn into at least three points.
Scheduling Georgia Southern in the opener is off the chart on the “dumb meter.” They play a triple option offense, which requires more discipline and special assignments for the defense. (Ask the 2011 Alabama defense that gave up 21 points to them the week before the Iron Bowl). Next time, schedule someone who runs an offense similar to Clemson, the second week opponent. Concerns: finding pass rushers and a true deep threat at wide receiver.
Prediction: Third in the SEC West with a regular season record of 9-3. Possible losses: Clemson, LSU, Texas A&M, Georgia and Alabama.
BIG FOUR ROUND ROBIN: The top two teams in the SEC (Alabama and Auburn) and the ACC (Clemson and FSU) play each other, which will basically eliminate two of these four from the playoffs. Bama opens in Atlanta against Florida State. This can very well be No. 1 vs. No. 2. Obviously, one will be 1-0 and the other 0-1. The loser will not drop lower than 6th but has very little margin of error for the rest of 2017.
The next week, Auburn travels to Clemson for a battle of the Tigers. Since it is the second week, one will then be 2-0 and the other will be 1-1. On Nov. 11, Clemson plays at Florida State. If either loses against the Tigers or Tide in September, this will be a second loss. The Iron Bowl is two weeks later. Unless Bama and Auburn both win earlier against FSU and Clemson, this also will be a second loss and take that team out of the playoff scenario.
Auburn and Alabama both play in the SEC West. Florida State and Clemson both play in the ACC Atlantic division. Only one from each division can make the SEC and ACC championship games.
SEC East prediction: 1. Georgia: Experience at quarterback and return of Nick Chubb. 2. Florida: Defense is good. Must develop a QB. 3. Kentucky: good run game. 4. Vandy: Derek Mason is one of the best coaches in the conference. 5. Tennessee: Farewell season for Butch Jones. 6. South Carolina: Still too young. 7. Missouri: signed 24 three-star recruits. Ouch!
SEC West prediction: 1. Alabama: too much talent and hunger from Clemson loss. 2. LSU: Guice at running back and play Auburn at home 3. Auburn: Must beat Georgia and Alabama. Otherwise, the record moves to 0-8 in these games. The natives get restless. 4. Mississippi State: Fitzgerald is one of the top SEC QBs. 5. Texas A&M: Too thin on both sides of the line. Sumlin’s hot seat gets scalding. 6. Arkansas: When is Bielema going to win a big game? 7. Ole Miss: NCAA probe has sent the Rebels from the penthouse to the outhouse.
National picture: Ten teams have a good shot at making the 2017 playoff. They are:
SEC: Alabama and Auburn. ACC: Florida State and Clemson. Big 10: Ohio State and Penn State. Big 12: Oklahoma State. Pac 12: Southern Cal and Washington. AAC: South Florida.
Semifinals: Sugar Bowl: Alabama vs Penn State (Bama 31, Nittany Lions 14). Rose Bowl: Florida State vs USC (FSU 38, Trojans 35).
National championship game in Atlanta: Alabama and Florida State open the new dome in Atlanta on Sept. 2 ranked No. 1 and No. 2. On Jan. 8, 2018, these two teams will meet again for all the marbles. Great game again. Same results again: Alabama 42, FSU 28.
Brad Bradford served on the coaching staffs at Alabama and the University of Louisville. He and his wife Susan (former Auburn cheerleader) own Bradford Consulting Group. Brad can be reached at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.