By: Denery Noone
Alabama is the beneficiary of a favorable schedule for the second year in a row. The Tide's non-conference primetime kickoff to the season, this year against Duke, will serve more as a warm up for their upcoming SEC schedule, which isn't very daunting in its own right. The Tide avoid a regular season matchup with Georgia for the fourth season in a row, play host to LSU in November, and travel to Auburn in a year in which the Tigers very well may start a freshman quarterback and the coaching position could be vacant. Outside of LSU, Alabama's most intriguing matchups will come in the form of three road tests. At South Carolina week 3, the last team from the SEC East to beat them (2010), at Texas A&M who are poised to improve in year two of Jimbo Fisher with a returning Kellen Mond under center, and at Mississippi State who always find a way to play Nick Saban's squads tough, although replacing Nick Fitzgerald and the seniors on that defensive line will be no easy feat.
To summarize, expect the Tide to return to the playoff. They return either the best or second best group of receivers in the country depending on who you ask, Najee Harris is taking over as the head of the backfield, and oh, yeah, number 13 will be back under center, and it seems as if he has some unfinished business to take care of. On top of that, the turnover on the defensive side will take care of itself, it always does, and it has a 12-game regular season to get itself ready for postseason play.
This looks familiar, doesn't it? Alabama and Clemson have met in the College Football Playoff four years in a row, including three times for the title. Each of those meetings generated hype throughout the regular season as the public figured they would meet again, but this year feels a little different. The seemingly impending Clemson-Alabama match up in January has a USC-Texas 2006 hype and build up feeling to it. With both quarterbacks coming back and projected to be Heisman front-runners, the two most talented receiving corps in the country, and just a little bit (!) of bad blood following the 28-point shellacking in the national championship in January, a potential rematch this season has the makeup to surpass that infamous 2006 Rose Bowl.
The reason I put the Tigers at number two behind the Tide is more about the defensive turnover, specifically on the defensive line and in the secondary that Clemson may struggle to replace as seamlessly. Sophomore Xavier Thomas is poised for a breakout season at defensive end, but he can't account for the loss of Wilkins, Ferrell, and Lawrence alone, and who knows if fellow sophomores K.J. Henry and Justin Mascoll will be ready to take that next step. Regardless, Clemson is still going to be lethal. As scary as it sounds, Trevor Lawrence will only continue to improve as the game slows down, and he still has Tee Higgins, Justyn Ross, Amari Rodgers, Derion Kendrick, and two incoming freshman studs (Joe Ngata and Frank Ladson) to distribute the ball to. Their only real potential tests will come out of conference against Texas A&M and at South Carolina, but don't be surprised if the Tigers run the table en route to another playoff berth next season.
3. Ohio State
Boy did new head coach Ryan Day hit the jackpot for his first upcoming season after being promoted to replace Urban Meyer in Columbus, as Justin Fields was granted immediate eligibility after transferring from Georgia. Fields is without a doubt one of the most impressive college football quarterback prospects in recent memory, a big reason why he was the #1 prospect in the 2018 ESPN 300. He is a polished passer with a rocket arm, but also possesses the ability to run with his blazing speed. In a sense, Fields is a combination of the two quarterbacks Ohio State had last year, Dwayne Haskins and Tate Martell. Haskins as we all know is going to be a top-10 draft pick in April, and Martell still found the field often during his time in Columbus before transferring to Miami through specifically designed run packages developed by Day himself.
Day is going to be able to incorporate both aspects of last year's playbook into the fold this season, as Fields can handle both duties. Additionally, J.K. Dobbins will return at running back, they've recruited extremely well at wide receiver and on the defensive line, and their schedule is relatively favorable. Their biggest tests of the season will come in consecutive weeks to close the regular season, at home against Penn State and on the road at Michigan. Despite recent success on the recruiting trail, Penn State is going to have to replace Trace McSorley under center, while Michigan returns veteran quarterback Shea Patterson, but will really suffer from the losses of Rashan Gary, Devin Bush, and Chase Winovich. With Fields under center, the new age of Ohio State football could begin with a return trip to the playoffs.
I'm going out on a limb here a little bit, obviously. Betting against the Longhorn's in-conference rival Oklahoma to miss the playoff seems foolish. The Sooners have won the Big 12 each of the last four seasons, three of which resulted in a place in the College Football Playoff. They have been home to the past two consecutive Heisman Trophy winners and accomplished veteran quarterback Jalen Hurts transferred in from Alabama for his final year of eligibility. So how could I possibly bet against them?
Defense. Both Texas and Oklahoma have serious chances to go undefeated in 2019. They can outscore anybody in the Big 12, they have veteran quarterbacks, powerful running games, and play makers on the outside. Despite all of that, I simply trust Texas' defense to perform week in and week out in 2019. The Longhorns have made it a point of emphasis to seek the level of speed and physicality on the defensive side that helped them win a national championship in 2006, and they have done just that, finishing third in the country in team recruiting rankings each of the last two seasons. Outside of Oklahoma, a match up to keep an eye on will be the week two clash in Austin against LSU. LSU is the epitome of southern 'big boy' football, a style that has given teams in the Big 12 like Oklahoma and Texas trouble as of late, but for Texas to take that next step and officially 'be back,' taking down the Tigers is a must.
On the outside looking in
Look, I know it's tough to bet against the Bulldogs. They have one of the best quarterbacks in college football in Jake Fromm, a brilliant defensive mind at head coach, and a room full of running backs that never fail to produce. It is even more difficult to bet against them when you look at their last two recruiting classes, ranking first and second in the nation respectively with TWELVE 247Sports Composite five-stars combined between the two of them. When it comes to replacing talent gone to the NFL Draft, they are beginning to do so on a level resembling that of only Alabama.
However, there are some legitimate question marks on this team. Speaking of replacing talent, they are going to have to replace nearly ⅔ of their total receiving production from a year ago as Riley Ridley, Mecole Hardman, Isaac Nauta, and Terry Godwin (130 catches and 1,906 yards combined) all departed for the NFL Draft. It helps having a savvy veteran like Fromm, but the only established receiver he has coming back from a year ago is Jeremiah Holloman who had 24 catches a year ago. The development of Demetrius Robertson, Kearis Jackson, and five-star signee George Pickens will be critical here. Georgia fans can exhale a little bit knowing the offense can rely heavily on the running game often in the early parts of the season while the receivers become more comfortable.
In terms of the schedule, there aren't any indications that Georgia should have any trouble running the table en route to another SEC Championship Game. In fact, they only have four road games. Most of their biggest tests, Notre Dame, Texas A&M, South Carolina, Florida (neutral site) are all from the comfort of their own home. Auburn poses as the only true road threat on the schedule. However, I truly believe Georgia could get tripped up in a game or two this season. Notre Dame is no stranger to difficult road environments, and their fans will travel well. Florida and Texas A&M will both bring in stingy defenses and balanced offensive attacks. South Carolina will have its most talented team in the Muschamp era and a senior quarterback with what will be 38 starts and counting under his belt when he arrives in Athens. Auburn still needs to figure out the quarterback position as of today, but the Tigers will be highly motivated in 2019 with Gus Malzahn on the hot seat. It also goes without saying that travelling to the Plains is never an easy task, something Jake Fromm knows extremely well from his forgettable trip two years ago.
With all of that being said, should Georgia still make it to the SEC Championship, Nick Saban and Tua will be there waiting for them. As talented as Georgia is, it is going to be difficult to make it to the playoff this upcoming season.
Is it a bit ambitious to put three SEC teams in the top-six? Maybe. But LSU has a real claim to the sixth spot here in these rankings. Sure, the losses of cornerback Greedy Williams and inside linebacker Devin White are going to hurt on the defensive side of the ball, seeing that both players will more likely than not be hearing their names called in the top-15 of this years' NFL Draft. But if there is one thing LSU has done supremely well over the past decade it's replace talent on the defensive side of the ball. With Ed Orgeron, a defensive guru in his own right, still leading the charge for the Tigers, that trend is sure to continue. It also doesn't hurt that the Tigers landed the number three overall player and number one overall cornerback in the 2019 recruiting class, Derek Stingley Jr. who should be able to replace Williams as well as anybody else could.
The area that excites me the most about the Tigers and is a huge reason as to why I have them here at six is the offense. For the first time in years, the Tigers showed signs of stable and productive quarterback play in 2018 from Ohio State transfer Joe Burrow. Burrow was an excellent addition for Orgeron's previously struggling offense, throwing for 2,894 yards, 16 touchdowns and only 5 interceptions a year ago. His sneaky and surprising mobility was also a tremendous mix up to provide balance to LSU"s offense, as he rushed for 399 yards and 7 touchdowns. Burrow is set to return to the Tigers in 2019, a huge victory for the program in its own right, as the seasoned veteran will be better equipped than ever to lead them through the rigorous test of an SEC West schedule.
However, as daunting as the schedule seems and figures to be year in and year out, LSU actually catches a few breaks in the 2019 campaign. Outside of their early September trip to Austin to face Texas, and their November trip to Tuscaloosa against Alabama, two teams I have in my projected final four, the Tigers schedule sets up formidably for serious success. They face Florida, a team they lost to last season that overachieved a bit, at home, and travel to Vanderbilt in their other SEC East match up. A trip to the Plains against Auburn is not quite as scary with the question marks Auburn has at quarterback. Their only other road games are at Mississippi State and at Arkansas, two teams LSU should have no trouble with, and they host Texas A&M in a game they will most certainly be looking for revenge after a 7-Overtime defeat a year ago. I have them right on the outside looking in because I think that it is more likely than not they lose at Alabama and Texas and win the rest of their games, but should they pull the upset in one of those two matchups, things could shake out very differently next season and LSU could find itself in that final four come bowl season.