The most exciting weekend of what was perhaps the greatest season in recent college football history brought us to this: 10 conference championship games that will decide as many as three spots in the College Football Playoff.
If we can assume No. 1 Georgia will make the playoffs whether it wins or loses to No. 3 Alabama in Saturday’s SEC championship game, then the Crimson Tide along with Cincinnati, Michigan, Oklahoma State and Notre Dame are competing for three spots. The Fighting Irish are the only team that won’t be playing this weekend. Since the playoff began in 2014, 24 of the 28 participants have been conference champions.
After a flurry of upsets, coaching changes and possibly another dose of chaos on the horizon, here are some more college football overreactions:
Brian Kelly heads to LSU with reputation intact
Last week, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly told reporters that “unless that fairy godmother comes by with that $250 million check” he wouldn’t be leaving Notre Dame
Apparently, because of inflation, the fairy godmother could only come up with between $100 million and $150 million, according to published reports.
Kelly, who won 113 games in 12 seasons at Notre Dame, is leaving for a bigger paycheck from LSU. That’s the only way to explain his sudden departure, which comes just five days before the Irish will learn whether they’ll be among the four teams competing in the playoffs. If Georgia beats Alabama and Baylor knocks off Iowa State in the Big 12 championship game or Houston upsets Cincinnati in the AAC title game, there’s a good chance Notre Dame could once again make the CFP field.
Unfortunately, the Irish won’t have their head coach.
Kelly had a chance to be remembered as one of the top three or four coaches in Notre Dame history. If there was a Mount Rushmore of Irish coaches, he’d be up there with Knute Rockne, Ara Parseghian and Lou Holtz. The big difference between Kelly and the other three is that his teams never won a national championship. Now, he’ll be remembered as the one who bolted when the Irish still might have had a chance to win a national title.
Maybe that’s another reason he’s departing for LSU. Three of the last four LSU coaches guided the Tigers to national titles. And it could certainly be argued that only one of them–Nick Saban–was an above-average coach.
Still there’s absolutely no excuse for how Kelly treated his players, assistant coaches and administrators. In a text message to his players on Monday night, Kelly apologized for not being able to tell them in person that he was leaving. “[F]or now, just know that my love for you is limitless and I am so proud of all that you have accomplished,” Kelly said. A team meeting is scheduled for 7 a.m. ET Tuesday.
In a sport that has suddenly gone mad, loyalty has gone out the window — along with Kelly’s reputation.
Lincoln Riley was scared of the SEC
Oklahoma‘s pending move to the SEC and Riley’s abrupt departure for USC probably aren’t coincidental, but I think it’s unfair to assume that he left because he didn’t want to play the likes of Alabama, Auburn, LSU and Texas A&M each season.
Riley left, in large part, because USC can be a better job than the one he had. It might not be a better opportunity right now, but given his track record with quarterbacks (he coached two Heisman Trophy-winning passers at OU) and the abundance of high school prospects in the state, he won’t have many problems building an upgraded roster.
Many of the top quarterbacks in the FBS right now are California natives: Alabama’s Bryce Young (Pasadena), Ohio State‘s C.J. Stroud (Rancho Cucamonga), Ole Miss‘ Matt Corral (Ventura) and Clemson‘s D.J. Uiagalelei (Inland Empire). According to ESPN Recruiting, Malachi Nelson of Los Alamitos, California, is the No. 2-rated quarterback prospect in the Class of 2023, behind Arch Manning of New Orleans. Nelson was committed to the Sooners, but he has already decommitted, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him flip to the Trojans.
As my colleague Tom VanHaaren noted, USC has signed only 30 of the 143 ESPN 300 recruits from California over the past five recruiting cycles. That’s about to change. Additionally, getting OU defensive coordinator Alex Grinch to follow Riley to L.A. will vastly improve a USC defense that ranked last in the Pac-12 in scoring defense (32.5 points) and 10th in total defense (420 yards).
Because of its location, tradition and recruiting base, USC is one of the top five jobs in the country. It was the best job when Pete Carroll was coaching at USC and Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart were playing there. Interest in the program has diminished because of mismanagement at the top, but Riley is innovative enough to bring the Trojans back. He didn’t leave Oklahoma because he was scared; he went to USC because he’s smart.
Alabama can’t block Georgia
There have been few defensive lines as deep, athletic and talented in recent history as Georgia’s this season. Interior tackles Jordan Davis and Devonte Wyatt are both worthy of being All-Americans, and Jalen Carter might end up being the most talented when all is said and done. Even after losing suspended Adam Anderson, the Bulldogs have a plethora of edge rushers in Nolan Smith, Robert Beal Jr. and Travon Walker.
So, after watching Alabama’s struggling offensive line get manhandled by Auburn’s defensive front in Saturday’s Iron Bowl, it’s safe to assume the Tide can’t block the Bulldogs in Saturday’s SEC championship game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, right?
“Well, first off, Auburn played them in a very different style,” Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart said Monday. “It was not what you see Auburn play all the time. They used a couple different methods with their receivers and different things, but they had [five] first-round draft picks on that offense last year. So anytime you have that you’re going to have guys who have to get playing time, get experience. … They’ve had some injuries, they’ve had guys move in and out at right tackle, just as all of us in the SEC have to do in finding the right combination.”
In last week’s 24-22 victory in four overtimes at Auburn, the Tigers sacked Bama quarterback Young seven times. The Tide had 17 plays of zero or negative yards. That led to two changes on the offensive line, with Chris Owens, the former starter, coming back to replace right tackle Damieon George Jr., and Seth McLaughlin replacing center Darrian Dalcourt.
Smart attributed some of the Alabama offensive line’s problems at Auburn — and in a 41-38 loss at Texas A&M on Oct. 9 — to crowd noise and playing in a difficult road environment.
“I don’t know how you guys look at it, but that’s a really tough place to play — so is A&M,” Smart said. “That doesn’t fall on deaf ears with our staff, and [we] understand probably two of the hardest places to play in the country are right there. We haven’t been to A&M, but I’ve been to A&M, and we’ve always gone to Auburn. It’s a tough environment.”
Still, Alabama has allowed 35 sacks, 2.92 per game, which is tied for 108th in the FBS.
The Big 12 is dead
When Oklahoma and Texas unexpectedly announced in July they were leaving the Big 12 for the SEC no later than the 2025 season, we all assumed that it might be a death knell for their former league. Without its two flagship programs, how could the Big 12 remain as relevant as the Big Ten and SEC?
Well, the Big 12 might not have added programs with brand names as powerful as the Longhorns and Sooners, but its future position looks pretty good right now. Oklahoma State, a current Big 12 team, and Cincinnati, a future one, might both make the playoff. Baylor has an outside chance, too, and it seems the Bears might keep second-year coach Dave Aranda, who received some interest from LSU and USC. TCU just plucked Sonny Dykes, one of the sport’s best offensive minds, away from SMU. Houston, another future Big 12 team, is in the CFP selection committee’s top 25.
Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby took a lot of heat when OU and Texas pulled one over on his league, but he has to be smiling now. The Longhorns, who haven’t won a conference title since 2009, went 5-7 under first-year coach Steve Sarkisian. The Sooners lost Riley, most of their nationally ranked recruiting class and a few of their key assistants. Karma.
A defensive player should win the Heisman Trophy
Unless Young throws for 300 yards with four touchdowns and leads Alabama to an upset of the No. 1-ranked Bulldogs on Saturday, I’m not sure there’s a player in the country who is truly worthy of winning the Heisman Trophy. No one is having a Joe Burrow-like year; then again the former LSU quarterback might have had the greatest statistical season of any player in college football history in 2019.
At the very least, there should be at least two defensive players invited to the Heisman ceremonies in New York: Davis, Georgia’s mammoth nose tackle, and Will Anderson, Alabama’s dynamic pass-rusher. Michigan defensive end Aidan Hutchinson and Georgia linebacker Nakobe Dean might also have an argument for being included in the top 10 of voting.
In the past two decades, only four defensive linemen have finished in the top 10. One of them was Nebraska‘s Ndamukong Suh, who had one of the all-time best performances by a defender in the Cornhuskers’ 13-12 loss to Texas in the 2009 Big 12 title game. In Nebraska’s last game in that league, Suh had 4½ sacks, 7 tackles for loss and 12 tackles. It was the last time I turned in my Heisman ballot before the conference championship games. Davis, Anderson or Dean might very well end up on a lot of Heisman ballots with a similar performance on Saturday.