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The potential for a fifth straight season with a clash between the Alabama Crimson Tide and Clemson Tigers in the College Football Playoff looks high. Once again, the powerhouse programs have superior talent and return elite quarterbacks.
But the understandable fatigue isn’t simply that Alabama and Clemson continually return to the sport’s biggest stage—it’s that both schools keep obliterating their opponents along the way.
In 2018, Alabama averaged a 33.1-point margin of victory while cruising to a 13-0 record. Tua Tagovailoa didn’t attempt a pass in the fourth quarter until November. Clemson survived a couple of tight finishes in September before it rolled everyone the rest of the way.
In recent years, either Bama or Clemson had a semifinal matchup where the nation wondered aloud whether the opponent—Michigan State, Washington or Notre Dame, for example—even had a chance. The answer was almost always a resounding no.
Barring injuries to Tagovailoa or Trevor Lawrence, will any challenger be competitive in 2019?
Heading into the campaign, fans and analysts alike generally look through an optimistic lens. Worst-case scenarios are mentioned, but, Hey, that won’t happen! Most key players are healthy, and new coordinators promise to be aggressive, diverse and multiple.
But as legendary boxer Mike Tyson once said, “Everyone has a plan till they get punched in the mouth.” Alabama and Clemson will be throwing haymakers all year.
Only a few teams are capable of avoiding the knockout.
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Conference affiliation is the easiest place to start, and the SEC has several Top 10 teams hoping to dethrone the Tide.
Alabama will host No. 6 LSU in November, and either third-ranked Georgia or No. 8 Florida is likely to await the West Division winner in the SEC Championship Game.
Plus, Auburn hosts the Iron Bowl, while Texas A&M and South Carolina are on both schedules. Texas A&M travels to Clemson in Week 2 and hosts Alabama in Week 7, while South Carolina hosts Bama in Week 3 and Clemson to close the regular season.
But only two appear like threats.
LSU has dropped eight straight games against Alabama. Although the Tigers should have a sensational defense, their offensive line consistently gets dominated in this series. Returning experience is useful—and LSU has a bunch of that—but going from 12 rushing yards and zero points in 2018 to upsetting the Tide in Tuscaloosa would be stunning.
Cody Worsham @CodyWorsham
LSU brings back 88.9 percent of its scholarship offensive line snaps from last season.
Play counts for returners up front:
– Lewis: 959
– Cushenberry: 954
– Deculus: 807
– Charles: 751
– Hines: 296
– Magee: 228
– Traore: 226
– Campbell: 67
Similarly, Florida’s line could be an absolute mess against Alabama’s talented front seven. Auburn’s defense can frustrate the Tide, but an upset is a massive ask for freshman quarterback Bo Nix given the unproven receiving corps.
South Carolina is worth noting because it scored 35 points against the Tigers—the most Clemson allowed to any opponent last year. However, star wideout Deebo Samuel put up 210 yards and three touchdowns. Now that he’s in the NFL, the Gamecocks cannot be trusted to repeat that performance against either team.
Within the SEC, that leaves two schools.
Georgia took Alabama to the wire in the 2018 SEC title game. Jake Fromm assembled the best showing of his college career, throwing for 301 yards and three touchdowns with zero interceptions.
But the truth is, that excellent day was an outlier to an otherwise ugly trend. Fromm has consistently struggled against top competition, and the receiving unit will be completely new in 2019. Georgia needs to replace its top five receivers.
Thanks to a seasoned, productive blocking unit, we’re not counting out the Dawgs. They’ll likely have a championship-caliber defense too. But the pressure to match this upside is firmly on Fromm—and the junior quarterback knows it.
“I really feel like everything’s on my shoulders,” he told ESPN’s David M. Hale. “They’ll look at me, and they won’t say it was Jake and Co. They’ll say it was Jake’s fault. That’s the type of responsibility I want. I want to take this team to the next level and win a national championship. I’m determined to do it.”
No. 12 Texas A&M is more likely to compete with Alabama than Clemson for two simple reasons: timing and location.
Last year, the Aggies only fell 28-26 to the Tigers. However, they’re on the road in 2019, and five of the team’s six leaders in tackles for loss are gone. Expecting the replacements to thrive at Clemson in Week 2 is unwise. Taking on Alabama in October—at the favorable Kyle Field environment—is a better situation for A&M.
Clemson’s trickiest tilt immediately follows the matchup with the Aggies.
In both 2017 and 2018, the Tigers’ starting quarterback exited the Syracuse game with an injury. Zerrick Cooper couldn’t save the Kelly Bryant-less 2017 squad, but Chase Brice led a winning drive after Lawrence was hurt (and Bryant decided to transfer).
Syracuse hosts the showdown this season, and an experienced defense should be unfazed at the matchup. Still, the version of Lawrence that Syracuse briefly saw in 2018 is much, much different than the quarterback who ended the year.
David J. Phillip/Associated Press
If the Tigers navigate Texas A&M and Syracuse, no program jumps out as a definite hazard.
Florida State should be an improved team in 2019, yet the ‘Noles lost 59-10 last year. The gap between the teams was enormous, and one offseason isn’t enough to shrink it dramatically. The same goes for Miami and Virginia.
Otherwise, the best possible competition for Clemson will be waiting in the College Football Playoff.
Preseason Top Five teams Oklahoma and Ohio State are immensely talented but have a key topic to overcome.
The Sooners won’t have a historically efficient offense again, so they’ll need defensive improvement under coordinator Alex Grinch to atone for any decline. Jalen Hurts is a decent quarterback, but scoring 40 points as a necessity is new territory for the Alabama transfer. One-possession games may be a little dicier for OU in 2019.
Nevertheless, the combination of a home-heavy schedule and terrific skill-position talent surrounding Hurts is encouraging.
Ohio State has a similar outlook with Georgia transfer Justin Fields, who should have the benefit of an elite defense complementing the scoring attack. The two-time reigning Big Ten champs return the eighth-most defensive production, per SB Nation.
Patrick Murphy @_Pat_Murphy
Jeff Okudah said on BTN that he thinks Ohio State’s 2019 defense could be “great.”
Although the Buckeyes travel to Michigan, the slate is back-loaded with Northwestern, Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan among the last six games. Fields has plenty of time to learn and adjust before OSU reaches the critical stretch of the schedule.
The dilemma is: Any prediction of Ohio State in the CFP requires a whole lot of trust in the unseen.
Ryan Day has only served as an interim head coach, and Fields has never been a starting quarterback in college. Depth is a concern at running back and receiver. The offensive line—while it’s packed with young talent and may be more effective than the 2018 unit—is thin on experience.
If Hurts and Fields develop as hoped, Oklahoma and Ohio State will be legitimate challengers to Clemson and Alabama. Beyond them, though, the list is limited to programs needing a couple of breaks to simply have a shot.
Michigan must adapt to a new system, and the personnel might not sufficiently match it yet. It’s improbable that Notre Dame will repeat its schedule luck with a retooled offense. Texas is unlikely to avoid two losses—an eliminating factor for the CFP—with LSU, Oklahoma, a Big 12 title game and a history of struggling on the road. Washington has CFP upside, but new QB Jacob Eason is a wild card, and the defense is loaded with new starters.
As the 2019 campaign begins, only Georgia, Ohio State and Oklahoma seem prepared to contend with the two powers for a national championship.
Yes, perceptions will change over the next three months. Even if injuries don’t strike, some of this analysis will look remarkably optimistic or pessimistic in December. That’s the nature of college football.
Since the 2015 season, however, Alabama and Clemson have consistently proved this enormous level of praise correct.