Florida’s big tumble, Henry’s final Heisman walk-through lead ‘SEC Revelations’ for Week 13
Here are five “SEC Revelations” from the Week 13 slate of action, a jam-packed countdown that couldn’t find adequate space to address South Carolina’s near-takedown of No. 1 Clemson, Tennessee’s remarkably thorough trouncing of Vanderbilt or Kentucky’s anemic effort against rival Louisville — after a first quarter for the ages.
1. Florida’s home loss to Florida State eliminates the Gators from College Football Playoff contention — win or lose this Saturday
I had a lively Twitter debate with a Florida fan last week after writing that the Gators had “minimal odds” of reaching the College Football Playoff — short of two 30-point routs of Florida State and Alabama to close the season.
His stubborn but rational stance: The Playoff committee would be obliged to put the SEC champion into the national semifinals. It should be a perk of playing in the nation’s best conference — especially if the Gators only had one loss overall (versus LSU in October).
Well, that thinking no longer applies after Florida State flattened Florida 27-2 at The Swamp, a home drubbing which might bump the Gators out of the Playoff top 20.
Even if Florida should pull off the Herculean task of beating Alabama in Saturday’s SEC championship game in Atlanta, the Playoff committee could never justify putting the Gators in the national semifinals. Even if the Seminoles were ranked No. 1 overall and cruising toward an ACC title. In this Playoff age you cannot lose by 25 at home … and live to tell about it.
Bottom line: Only Clemson, Alabama, Oklahoma, Iowa, Michigan State, Ohio State, North Carolina and Stanford harbor any plausible chances of reaching the Playoff.
**The No. 1 Tigers are locks if they beat North Carolina in the ACC title game.
**Alabama would remain a fixture at No. 2 as the SEC champion.
**It would be a tremendous shock if No. 3 Oklahoma — which went 3-0 against Big 12 powers Baylor, TCU and Oklahoma State — doesn’t make the semifinals.
**The Big Ten champion (either Michigan State or Iowa) will easily garner a 2- through 4-seed, depending on other conference results. Not a single metric suggests the winner would be excluded from the Playoff.
Which leaves us with North Carolina, Stanford and Ohio State:
**The one-loss Tar Heels need to upset Clemson and then hope for a Florida victory.
**As a presumptive conference champ, Stanford (which takes on Southern California in this week’s Pac-12 title game) needs North Carolina to upend Clemson.
**And enigmatic Ohio State, the consensus preseason No. 1, requires the Chaos Theory-occurrence of Clemson and Alabama stumbling on Championship Saturday.
2. Alabama’s Derrick Henry won’t require another 271-yard explosion to clinch the Heisman Trophy
Finishing off a Heisman campaign runs eerily similar to making a case for the College Football Playoff: To garner serious consideration for the honor, it helps to be playing on the first Saturday of December.
Within that scope, Henry won’t have to fight his final Heisman battle on numerous fronts. In essence, only Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson (ACC title game) and Stanford tailback Christian McCaffrey (Pac-12 championship) possess one last chance to usurp Henry, the likely Heisman front-runner.
But even that’s a long shot for the duo, considering how Henry crushed the Auburn defense for 271 yards and one touchdown on 46 carries — a robust average of 5.9 yards per rush.
It was the junior’s signature performance in a year of stellar outings, with Henry posting four games of 200-plus yards rushing (joining an exclusive SEC club with Herschel Walker and Bo Jackson), extending his touchdown streak to 17 consecutive games (an SEC record) and breaking Alabama’s season records for rushing yards (1,797) and rushing touchdowns (22).
The only tangible worry regarding Henry’s campaign: Heisman voters tend to carry regional biases; and LSU tailback Leonard Fournette (159 rushing yards, one TD vs. Texas A&M) has enjoyed an amazing sophomore campaign with 1,741 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns.
Of course, that’s kind of a moot point, given how Henry has supplanted Fournette as the nation’s leading rusher.
3. Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze deserves props for acknowledging the elephant in the room after his team’s Egg Bowl victory
An ineffectual head coach of colorless means would have submerged the temptation during his post-game press conference. A blander leader, upon some reflection, would have publicly rationalized that many odd plays — good and bad — contribute to a team’s record at the end of a regular season.
But not Freeze, my new coaching idol (figuratively speaking).
On Saturday night, after the Rebels’ road rout of Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl, Freeze breezily lamented how his Ole Miss squad — which finished at 6-2 in SEC play, one game behind No. 2 Alabama — ended up “one fourth-and-25 play from (going) to Atlanta.” It was a direct reference to the Nov. 7 loss to Arkansas in which the Razorbacks needed a once-in-a-lifetime hook-and-across-the-field-lateral miracle to stay alive in overtime.
And Freeze should be commended for stating the obvious. After all, Ole Miss thumped Alabama on the road in September, and the Rebels only had one poor performance during conference play — a blowout loss to Florida in October.
If the Rebels had just squeaked past the Razorbacks, they would have represented the West division in the SEC championship game … and might have been favored in a title-game rematch with the offensively challenged Gators.
Which raises the question: If Ole Miss had earned the SEC championship invite (thanks to the tiebreaker advantage) … would Alabama still hold the No. 2 ranking with the Playoff committee?
In a vacuum, the short answer is “yes,” since the Crimson Tide had nothing to do with Ole Miss’s road loss to Memphis (Oct. 17) — hindering the Rebels’ overall ranking.
The longer answer should also be “yes,” given how Alabama (elite-level strength of schedule) has proffered nine consecutive wins … by a healthy average margin of 22.5 points.
4. The drama-fueled journalist in me really wants Mark Richt to consider South Carolina as his next coaching destination
A decade ago, Nick Saban eventually went from LSU (2000-04) to the NFL’s Miami Dolphins (2005-06) to Alabama (2005-present).
Just like how Steve Spurrier once endured the circuitous (and lucrative) journey of Florida (1990-2001) to the Washington Redskins (2002-03) to South Carolina (2005-15).
And outside of Bill Curry (Alabama to Kentucky in the late 1980s), Tommy Tuberville (Ole Miss to Auburn in the late 1990s) and Houston Nutt (Arkansas to Ole Miss in 2008), it’s quite rare for SEC head coaches to directly jump from one conference program to another — without taking some time off or accepting an out-of-conference job in the interim.
But this offseason presents a unique opportunity for deposed UGA coach Mark Richt, in the form of showing interest in the South Carolina vacancy.
As a qualifier, I have no insider knowledge to whether Richt cares to coach another school in 2016, whether it’s South Carolina, Southern California or his beloved alma mater, Miami. But at 55 years old, Richt still has the youthful exuberance to lead a program to supreme heights over the next 10 to 12 years. And as a bargaining chip, it’s possible that prep All-American Jacob Eason (a quarterback from Washington state) could abandon his oral commitment to UGA … and follow Richt to any of the above schools.
If that were to happen, it would be the equivalent of sports-journalism gold: the anti-Richt contingent at UGA (fans, boosters, school officials) reconciling the backyard notion of facing Richt and Eason for the next three or four years — assuming the latter evolves into a Matthew Stafford college clone.
From a non-journalism perspective, I couldn’t care less where Eason goes to college. My only advice: Pursue the path where you’re extremely comfortable with the coaches and the offensive system in place. The “education” aspect is obviously important, as well — but perhaps not as significant as a blue-chip quarterback losing his coach to the NFL after a successful freshman campaign … and then regressing as a sophomore and junior under a new coaching regime. (See Hackenberg, Christian.)
(For the record, Eason’s signed financial-aid agreement with UGA does not fully bind him to the Bulldogs, meaning he’s still eligible to pick another school before National Signing Day. Not that he’s looking elsewhere.)
5. It’s now hard to envision a scenario in which Les Miles — at his current success rate — gets fired from LSU
I’m far from a Star Wars zealot, but Obi-Wan Kenobi would be proud of Miles’ newly enhanced stance within the Baton Rouge, La. community: If you should strike me down, I will come back even more powerful than you can possibly imagine.
Those famous words are completely apropos for Miles’ situation, in the wake of his behind-the-scenes maneuver to remain the Tigers coach. For roughly six days leading up to LSU’s regular-season finale against Texas A&M, the college football world was buzzing over the news of Miles’ impending dismissal, despite one BCS national championship (2007 season), two SEC titles (2007, 2010) and 138 victories over 11 seasons (highest winning percentage among modern-day LSU coaches).
And if you saw just a fraction of the TV coverage devoted to Texas A&M versus LSU on Saturday night — Miles emotionally tipping his hat to the Tigers faithful or singing the school fight song for the SEC Network cameras — you would have been convinced the personable coach had completed his time with the program.
But then, at the proverbial 11th hour, LSU athletic director Joe Alleva emerged from a week of radio silence and (begrudgingly?) announced that Miles would continue as head coach — eliciting more joy than angst throughout the state of Louisiana.
And why not? Miles has carved a wonderful legacy at LSU since 2005, coming on the heels of Saban bolting from the Tigers for NFL riches a decade ago (before re-entering the SEC mix in 2007). Seven campaigns of 10-plus wins, three victories over Saban (while with Alabama) and a perpetual pipeline of blue-chip athletes roaming the campus.
(At last count, 40 LSU alums are playing in the NFL — the highest tally of any school.)
Simply put, we’re talking about one of the most palatable win-win situations of this century, relative to college sports. And yet, someone connected with the LSU program — either a university regent or deep-pocketed booster — had apparently grown weary of Miles beating everyone on a regular basis. Except maybe Saban, to whom Miles has five straight losses, including the BCS national championship in January 2012.
But none of that matters today, as Miles has recaptured that aura of invincibility within the Tigers program, meaning he’s essentially guaranteed to keep his gig for the foreseeable future — barring any major NCAA sanctions or, even worse, a 6-6 season (gasp!), which might include defeats to Vanderbilt, Missouri, Kentucky, Jacksonville State or South Alabama.
Just don’t expect that meltdown to occur in 2016. The Tigers should have a top-10 team in next year’s preseason polls, a Heisman front-runner in tailback Leonard Fournette, a large cluster of returning starters and perhaps the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class.
Oh, and as part of mollifying everyone’s obsession with Saban (cue Dr. Phil saying, ‘How’s that working for you?’) … LSU has Alabama at home next November.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports.