SEC Country explores the relative hits and misses of ESPN.com’s recent undertaking, applying an NCAA tournament-style bracket to the upcoming college football season — working off the way-too-early projections for 2016.
The “selection committee” of writers and editors even took the time to select four additional teams for play-in games, because, you know, why have a 63-game tournament … when 67 games can be stealthily shoehorned into the process?
Let’s get to the breakdown (SEC teams in bold):
1 — Alabama
16 — Southern Miss (play-in winner over Northern Illinois)
8 — Miami (Fla.)
9 — Texas
5 — Iowa
12 — Georgia Tech
4 — TCU
13 — California
6 — UCLA
11 — Texas Tech
3 — Notre Dame
14 — Minnesota
7 — Utah
10 — Penn State
2 — Oklahoma
15 — South Carolina
1. By all accounts, Alabama stands as the No. 1 overall seed for the tournament.
As such, ESPN presumably has the Crimson Tide running the table at 13-0, portending victories over Southern California (season opener at Jerry World), Ole Miss (road), Tennessee (road), Texas A&M (home), Auburn (home) and this year’s Game of the Century — Alabama @ LSU (Nov. 5).
2. Just like basketball, this tournament committee lives for made-for-TV matchups early in the process. How else to explain Alabama’s clash with either Miami or Texas in Round 2?
If it’s the Hurricanes … Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban would be reunited with old friend Mark Richt.
Alabama would also encounter a talented Miami squad that features quarterback Brad Kaaya (likely first-round pick for 2017 or 2018), tailback Joseph Yearby (1,275 total yards, 8 TDs last year on just 228 touches) and mammoth O-lineman Trevor Darling, a left tackle with first-round talent.
And if it’s the Longhorns … then Alabama would have to overcome an opponent loaded with blue-chip recruits, but maybe doesn’t have the requisite expertise and experience to prevail in a 60-minute game.
Either way, one could make the case the Miami/Texas winner would be Alabama’s toughest test for the first three rounds, in advance of a regional-final clash with Oklahoma, Notre Dame or UCLA (Josh Rosen’s sophomore campaign).
3. As for South Carolina … I have the Gamecocks enduring some growing pains during Will Muschamp’s first year with the program.
Consequently, I wouldn’t expect South Carolina to make a hypothetical 68-team tournament this fall.
1 — Baylor
16 — Marshall
8 — Texas A&M
9 — Nebraska
5 — Oregon
12 — Duke (play-in winner over Northwestern)
4 — Michigan State
13 — Western Kentucky
6 — Oklahoma State
11 — BYU
3 — Houston
14 — Western Michigan
7 — Louisville
10 — West Virginia
2 — Stanford
15 — Air Force
1. From a power-rankings standpoint, I fully expect Texas A&M — assuming that either Jake Hubenak (strong bowl debut as a freshman) or Trevor Knight (Oklahoma transfer) take charge at quarterback — to be the SEC’s third- or fourth-best team in 2016.
This team is loaded with experienced playmakers, NFL-caliber stars (defensive end Myles Garrett, receiver Christian Kirk) and rock-solid depth in the trenches (Texas A&M = the new Offensive Line U).
As such, the Aggies would be a scary out for any No. 1 seed in the Round of 32 — particularly a Baylor team that must replace receiver Corey Coleman (74 catches, 1,363 yards, 20 TDs last season) and develop consistency and durability at the quarterback spot.
2. It’s easy to make boastful proclamations in a hypothetical exercise: Texas A&M would be my pick to reach the regional final, presuming victories over Nebraska, Baylor and the Michigan State/Oregon winner.
We’re talking three favorable matchups for an Aggies team that will score points en masse … and consistently get to the opposing quarterback. (In 2015, Texas A&M’s defense ranked tied for third nationally in tackles for loss and tied for 26th in team sacks.)
One last thing: The top half of this regional looks more formidable than the bottom half.
1 — Florida State
16 — Bowling Green (play-in winner over Utah State)
8 — Wisconsin
9 — Auburn
5 — North Carolina
12 — Arizona State (play-in winner over North Carolina State)
4 — Ole Miss
13 — Temple
6 — Florida
11 — South Florida
3 — Ohio State
14 — Appalachian State
7 — Boise State
10 — Arizona
2 — LSU
15 — Navy
1. Two weeks ago, I angered the Rebel Nation masses by earmarking Ole Miss for a 6-6 overall record (despite ESPN’s early top 20 ranking), which calls for a 3-5 SEC mark and season-opening defeat to Florida State.
For the sake of two close friends/Ole Miss grads, I hope to be woefully wrong about the prediction — especially if it helps the Rebels land a better bowl projection.
For this exercise, though, I must stick with the earlier projection … meaning Ole Miss likely wouldn’t garner a top-4 tournament seed with a .500 record.
On the flip side, Ole Miss would be a daunting first-round opponent as a double-digit wild card, perhaps knocking off the likes of UCLA, Oklahoma State, Oregon, Michigan State (my alma mater), Houston or Southern California.
2. I also have Auburn pegged for a struggling campaign in the neighborhood of 7-5 or 6-6. But that projection would merit an instant upgrade if the Tigers can find stability at the quarterback slot — namely JUCO transfer John Franklin III (above).
Auburn’s treacherous schedule has few breaks. It starts with Clemson, Arkansas State, Texas A&M and LSU at home … and then includes tricky outings with Arkansas, Ole Miss (road), Vanderbilt, UGA (road) and Alabama (road) down the stretch. #TournamentTested
3. Florida has enough blue-chip talent to rise above my so-so seasonal projection (8-4 overall — losses to Arkansas, Tennessee, UGA, Florida State) and compete for the SEC East title.
The left side of the Gators’ offensive line (featuring tackle David Sharpe and guard Martez Ivey) might be the most talented in conference circles; and Jalen Tabor could be college football’s alpha dog among cornerbacks this fall.
4. LSU’s season essentially breaks down in two phases:
a) An ambitious neutral-site or road-game slate of Wisconsin (at iconic Lambeau Field), at Auburn, at Florida, at Arkansas, at Texas A&M and the SEC championship in Atlanta (if applicable).
b) The likely winner-take-all home showdown against defending national champion Alabama (Nov. 5).
The Tigers are set up for a monstrous 2016 campaign, riding the 2,000-yard goodness of junior tailback Leonard Fournette on offense (below highlight) and relying on experienced, explosive, NFL-caliber talent to stifle the opposition on defense.
As such, if the Tigers lose just once during the regular season to anyone outside of Alabama — say the Oct. 8 trip to Florida (permanent crossover) — they’ll be perfectly positioned for an SEC West title, a chance at the conference championship and a No. 1 seed for this hypothetical tournament.
5. The tournament committee should never house four SEC teams in the same region. And yet, it happens twice here.
1 — Michigan
16 — Cincinnati
8 — Pittsburgh
9 — Arkansas
5 — UGA
12 — Kansas State
4 — Southern California
13 — San Diego State
6 — Washington
11 — Virginia Tech
3 — Tennessee
14 — Indiana
7 — Washington State
10 — Mississippi State
2 — Clemson
15 — Georgia Southern
1. One non-SEC note: I have serious reservations about Michigan earning a No. 1 seed here — as the presumptive Big Ten champion.
Yes, the Wolverines should have a better roster in Year 2 of Jim Harbaugh’s media-friendly tenure; but it’s unwise to assume they’ll be perfect with hellacious road trips to Michigan State (Oct. 29), Iowa (Nov. 12) and Ohio State (Nov. 26).
That said, I fully expect Michigan to carry an undefeated record and top-five ranking into the final weekend of October, creating the illusion of a championship run down the stretch.
2. At this time, I have UGA earmarked as the SEC East champion (10-3 overall), which consequently presumes the Bulldogs would own a higher seed than Tennessee.
3. This should be an interesting spring for Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema, deciphering between Austin Allen — a virtual physical clone to brother Brandon Allen, the school’s career TD passes record-holder (64) — and Ricky Town, a transfer from Southern California, who was the No. 3 pro-style quarterback from the Class of 2015 (source: 247Sports.com).
After that, the Razorbacks’ vast array of returning starters should help fill in the blanks.
I have the Hogs going 4-4 in SEC play (losses to LSU, Alabama, Texas A&M, Auburn) and 7-5 overall. That likely warrants a No. 9 seed.
For that first-round draw, Pittsburgh’s 2016 slate looks considerably difficult on paper, with home outings against Penn State, Marshall, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, Duke and road trips to Oklahoma State, North Carolina (back-to-back Saturdays), Virginia, Miami and Clemson.
With crazy schedules to boot, perhaps Pitt and Arkansas should be congratulated, come December, for simply avoiding a double-digit seed.
4. I have Tennessee projected for a 10-2 record, but with crucial defeats to Alabama (home) and UGA (road) — thus hindering the Vols’ chances of an SEC East title.
That said, given how Tennessee projects to be perfect (and dominant) for the month of November, the Volunteers should be in excellent position for a top-10 ranking and No. 2 seed in a hypothetical regional.
Bottom line: A presumptive clash of Tennessee-Clemson would be the best matchup of the Sweet 16 round, with the winner having a viable shot at the Final Four.
MY PICKS (OFF ESPN’S BRACKET)
Sweet 16 Round
Alabama over TCU
UCLA over Oklahoma
Alabama over UCLA
Sweet 16 Round
Texas A&M over Oregon
Stanford over Houston
Texas A&M over Stanford
Sweet 16 Round
Florida State over Arizona State
LSU over Ohio State
Florida State over Ohio State
Sweet 16 Round
Southern California over Michigan
Clemson over Tennessee
Clemson over Southern California
Alabama over Texas A&M
Florida State over Clemson
Florida State over Alabama (could go either way)
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.