>Soccer journalists Chris Lierly and Andrew Noland join real football journalist Lindsey Prather to make their predictions three games into the season.
Andrew: *Cue the slow clap* The SEC managed to make it out of the second-weakest overall non-conference schedule mostly intact; even Missouri has narrowly emerged undefeated with a terrible game against Purdue. While they croon on about how wonderful they are, Alabama only confronts two challenges in Auburn and LSU. If they win either of two those games, they’re guaranteed to make the playoff, regardless whether they find themselves in Atlanta at the end of the season. Georgia, led by quarterback Jake Fromm, avoids the Tide entirely but faces the same two challenges as their rivals from Tuscaloosa. The real crux of this conference hinges on whether LSU’s Joe Burrow is the answer for the Tigers’ perennial quarterback issues. If LSU can knock Alabama or the Bulldogs off, it might rise as the SEC West’s representative in the conference championship game.
Conference Championship Game: Alabama vs. Georgia
Overall Assessment: Overhyped, but this is all the South has going for it.
Lindsey: There are three inevitabilities in life: death, taxes and Alabama being in the playoffs. We’re seeing the same old song and dance with the upper-level SEC as seen in previous seasons: mediocre to poor out-of-conference scheduling, yet exceptionally high rankings throughout the early weeks of the season. These rankings will continue to work to their advantage as the season marches on. Barring some spontaneous change of heart from the playoff committee or a three-loss season, Alabama will be in the playoffs. Georgia is favorably positioned to easily end up alongside them, omitting the possibility of a complete meltdown during in-conference play.
However, I want to give some credit to the SEC for their non-Alabama/Georgia teams. Kentucky is undefeated in college football, which instinctively feels like a lie as I’m writing this, even though I know it’s true. Mississippi State and LSU are also undefeated, with Vanderbilt and Ole Miss looking promising as well. My disdain of the SEC does not extend beyond the top two teams, primarily because I know that being in a conference with Alabama must feel bad. However, the honeymoon phase for the non-Alabama SEC teams will end soon, kicking off yet another average year for this top-heavy division.
Conference Championship Game: Alabama vs. LSU
Winner: Nick Saban
Overall Assessment: I know that Alabama and LSU are both in the SEC West. But Nick Saban always gets his revenge … one way or another.
Andrew: If you listen closely to the wind, you can just make out a Norman sports radio show spewing some rendition of “Y’all, we’re being robbed every season.” Yeah, well, that’s because the Sooners haven’t been to a championship game since Florida’s defense spanked Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford’s high-powered offense.
All kidding aside, the Sooners, despite their inadvertently weak non-conference schedule, look even more formidable from their flag-planting days of last season behind the dual-threat quarterback in Kyler Murray and a somehow limitless supply of decent running backs. Their two potential obstacles are the great equalizing game of the Red River Rivalry and a potentially decent Oklahoma State team. No one can honestly attest to the Stillwater team’s strength based on that horrible slate of non-conference games that can only be described as an extended preseason; that fact could hinder the Cowboys’ chance in the playoff, even if they find themselves standing over the wreckage of the Sooner Schooner at the end of the season.
To round up the rest of the contenders, TCU might prove a decent foe to any team’s hopes for hegemony and whatever Bill Snyder feeds his players at Kansas State always seems to make the team a worthy adversary for anyone. West Virginia is the not-so-sleeper/sleeper team. Will Grier looks like the Heisman frontrunner and OU must fear a trip to Morgantown. As usual, Texas is terrible.
Chris: If last year was the year of Baker Mayfield in the Big 12, than this year will be the year of Oklahoma. West Virginia fans have already begun to parade Will Grier around as a Heisman contender, which is laughable at best. If the Heisman returns to the Big 12 it will remain in the hands of a Sooner quarterback. Kyler Murray is already putting up Bakeresque numbers and that will only improve as the season progresses. As for other contenders in the conference, Oklahoma State looks like the most legitimate. Justice Hill is a force, and though the Cowboys will be reeling from losing Rudolph and Washington, their new star running back will likely speed by most Big 12 defenses. West Virginia, despite being perennially overhyped, stand the best chance to upset the Sooners, since their ability to go from below mediocre on the road to respectable at home is phenomenal. TCU is a wild card. They could make it all the way to Cowboys’ stadium in November, or they could be done before October is over.
Conference Championship Game: Oklahoma vs. Oklahoma State
Winner: University of Oklahoma
Overall Assessment: Might rise to the occasion, but the nation’s recurrent underperformers will still find a way to whine about their placement at the end of the season.
Lindsey: The PAC-12 could be worse. This early in the season, it’s difficult to tell whether any of these teams are the real deal. They currently boast two undefeated teams. However, that number will drop following the showdown between Bryce Love’s top-10 Stanford team and Oregon, a team that has a lot to prove during their in-conference play. Throughout the last three games, the Ducks’ defense has only allowed around 77 yards per game, among the best in the country. However, all eyes will be on Bryce Love’s return following his absence during last week’s game against UC Davis. Love’s performance puts his fading Heisman trophy hopes on the line, as well as his team’s shot at the PAC-12 championship game.
The PAC-12 After Dark made a comeback September 21 as USC upset an undefeated Washington State, 39-36. This continues the infamous reign of chaos over PAC-12 night games. Washington State’s usually solid defense checked out during the second half, allowing for USC to overcome a 13-point deficit to gain a three-point lead. Following an exciting 4th quarter (complete with a controversial targeting no-call), the Trojans were able to kick the game winning field goal, allowing the Cougars to fall victim to the gods of football chaos.
Chris: PAC-12 football tends to follow a cycle. A few teams get hyped up early in the year, a few star players get put on a shortlist for the Heisman trophy, and then it all falls apart. This year Stanford, Oregon and Washington all look like legitimate contenders to win the PAC-12, but that’s not the point. Every year one of those teams, or the real disappointment, USC, get put much higher in preseason polls than they should. That inevitably results in midseason madness where none of them look to have control over their division. Then the two teams in the conference championship play to see which team from the West Coast ends up playing in the Rose Bowl instead of the College Football Playoff.
This dismal cycle has made the PAC-12 the laughing stock of college football, but that could change this year. Stanford is led by returning Heisman finalist, running back Bryce love. Love has one last shot at the Playoff and a Heisman trophy, and that could be a big motivator (it was for the last Heisman winner). If Love can pull an incredible season out of the bag, and if Stanford can survive the late night madness that always happens in the PAC-12, than the Cardinal might just have a shot.
Conference Championship Game: Stanford vs. USC
Overall Assessment: the PAC-12 still has a long way to go to gain some respect. Additionally, the PAC-12 North is in a much better position than their Southern counterparts. Following some mediocre out-of-conference play for a majority of the conference, Oregon, Stanford and Washington have the most potential to make a splash as the season continues — provided they don’t cannibalize themselves and end up with several teams sharing the same abysmal in-conference schedule.
Andrew: This conference, both on and off the field, looks like a catastrophe. With the Big Ten East at least settling into shape, it appears that the September 29 clash between Ohio State and Penn State will probably determine the winner of the entire conference. Will Trace McSorley carry his team into the playoff or will Urban Meyer return just in time to win games and pretend his coaches aren’t committing crimes against humanity?
On the other hand, the Big Ten West looks remarkably worse than last season; Wisconsin decided to choke against BYU and found out that they were pretenders about ten weeks earlier than usual. The two Michigan schools will stand as stalwart threats to either the Nittany Lions or Buckeyes’ chances at the national championship; they might even prove themselves to be contenders if they can rally by the end of the season to ritually sacrifice whichever West team unfortunately finds itself at the conference championship game.
Conference Championship Game: Penn State vs. Wisconsin
Winner: Penn State
Overall Assessment: Out of the chaos will emerge two universal truths. The first is that whoever the champion is, the team will be a terrifying opponent for anyone in the playoff. The second is that while Urban Meyer can cover up his responsibility, he can’t say the same about his stupidity.
Lindsey: The Big Ten West was rocked by Wisconsin’s loss to BYU, leaving the fate of this division unclear for the moment. Now, their seemingly unshakeable favorite for the Big Ten Championship is looking vulnerable. Will this loss be a watershed moment for Wisconsin? We’ll see. They could potentially bounce back, but the next two games will be crucial in their recovery and potential playoff run. However, they will still make the championship game, despite sharing the division with the football powerhouse that is Iowa.
The Big Ten East has to go through some hard knocks before a clear winner will emerge. Urban Meyer’s return will be a pivotal moment; they’ve survived without him, but will they flourish with his return? I agree with Andrew that the deciding moment for this conference will be the September 29 game between Ohio State and Penn State. If Jim Harbaugh is successful with his dark magic rituals, Michigan could potentially play spoiler.
Conference Championship Game: Penn State vs. Wisconsin
Winner: Penn State
Overall Assessment: I don’t think that the Urban Meyer situation is over. Coaching turbulence and a loaded Penn State team leads to some less-than-ideal conditions for the Buckeyes. Wisconsin is still the best team in their division, and therefore will most likely have a showing in the championship game. However, Penn State can easily have this conference in the bag with a little work and some favorable winds.
Chris: Here we are: the ACC. The conference made up of programs too good for the now defunct Big East, but not quite courageous enough to join a conference where they would play Alabama on a yearly basis. The Atlantic Coast Conference has two divisions, Atlantic and Coastal (the pinnacle of creativity), and both divisions look similar. Both have two contenders. The Atlantic has Clemson and Boston College, and the the Coastal has Virginia Tech and Miami. However, that’s where the comparisons end.
The Tigers will have little trouble making it to the conference championship since Boston College is the only ranked opponent on their schedule. Virginia Tech on the other hand has to play a Miami team that, despite being overhyped the last few years, has a defense that will cause the Hokies staff trouble. In a way, the ACC looks like the Big 12. Both conferences have one team that, barring a catastrophe, will make it to the conference championship, three or four teams that all have a chance to challenge that top team, and one big program that looks to disappoint yet again. On the coast that team is Florida State. The Seminoles looked like they could be decent before the season started, but thrashings from Syracuse and Virginia Tech have ended that.
Conference Championship Game: Clemson vs. Virginia Tech
Overall assessment: A team not named Clemson could rise up this year and make a run at the dominance that the Tigers have had in recent seasons. A team not in the top four of the conference, like North Carolina State, could make it into the top five or replace one of the weaker teams entirely. However, these are all possibilities. The reality is that Clemson will dominate the ACC on their way making it into, but not winning, the College Football Playoff yet again.
Andrew: The ACC should not even be associated with any one of the other conferences; however, for posterity’s sake, I’ll expound the virtues of Clemson while pretending to entertain that any other team can compete for the championship.
Clemson is rolling, but probably should have lost about to Texas A&M that was in turn just crushed by Alabama. That being said, freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence has asserted himself as the anchor of the explosive Clemson offense. The young Clemson defense did not struggle against the triple option threat of the Yellow Jackets (a fact that the Big 12 frontrunner can not claim for itself) and should march its way to the conference championship and the playoffs with no issues.
As for the rest of the conference, the other teams are collapsing early on in the season in humiliating fashion. Traditional contender Florida State looks mediocre at best and the preseason dark horse candidate Miami was blown out by LSU in the first week of the season. My pick to emerge as the Coastal division winner, Duke, is facing a quarterback conundrum combined with a series of devastating injuries. Even if they successfully pull off a miracle against Dabo Swinney’s Tigers in November away from Durham, they’ll play them again two weeks later. Despite my high school freshman history teacher’s ravings, lightning doesn’t strike the same crazy Southerner twice; Dabo’s Clemson will emerge the conference champion in December.
Conference Championship Game: Clemson vs. Duke
Overall Assessment: No one really wins when Dabo Swinney is in charge.