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Why the ACC has a better chance than the SEC to put two teams in the College Football Playoffs

Let me start by saying this article isn’t about comparing the two conferences top to bottom. Like it or not, the SEC is more talented and much better overall than the ACC. However, 2016 has potential to be a very special year for the ACC. When the 2015 college football season came to a close, you may have noticed a reoccurring trend in the media. In seemingly all of the 2016 preseason polls, both FSU and Clemson wound up in the top five. More ACC teams such as North Carolina, Miami, and Louisville were getting top-25 love too. And if you want to count Notre Dame, they were hovering up near the top-10. All of this new-found ACC love is stemming from the interested generated by having two teams with fantastic shots to win a National Championship. This article will focus on the four teams I think have the best shot to win it all in 2016 out of the ACC and SEC. While you can make an argument for the teams I’m leaving out, it’s my opinion that these teams have a substantially smaller realistic chance of making the College Football Playoffs than these four teams.

There two teams in the SEC who have the best shot to win the National Title are the LSU Tigers and the Alabama Crimson Tide. LSU returns one of the best running backs in the country in Leonard Fournette, along with a lot of play-makers such as Malachi Dupre. Alabama on the other hand will be lead by electric WR Calvin Ridley and a pretty good defense. Both of these teams are really good, and deserve the respect they’re currently receiving. However, I don’t think either of them have what it takes to win a national championship.

Yes, Alabama is the only college that can reload year after year and skip those “rebuilding” years. This year, however, they have major question marks at key positions in addition to a grueling schedule. The SEC West is the best division in college football, and they’re going to beat each other up. Alabama hasn’t gone undefeated since 2009, and while that seems rather recent, it shows the recent growth of teams in the SEC West division. Alabama might have the toughest road to get to the playoffs out of any team. People forget they open with the USC Trojans and also square off against a much improved Tennessee team on top of playing in the SEC West. Recent history says you must have one loss or less to make in the playoffs. Do you see Alabama with only loss after they play through this schedule?

LSU is another team that will get a lot of preseason love and deservedly so; they bring back an absolute beast in Leonard Fournette, return their starting quarterback, and didn’t lose a lot of talent last year. However the Tigers also face the same challenges the Crimson Tide do by playing in the SEC West. They too will be tested right away with an opening week clash against Wisconsin, and will have their yearly meeting with Florida in the Swamp this year. Weird things happened to Ole Miss when they visited the Swamp last year. The bottom line is I don’t think we will have another 2012 situation in 2016.

For those who need a college football history refresher, in 2012 both LSU and Alabama reached the national championship game. In the regular season, LSU triumphed over Bama in a special (teams) game that ended in overtime 6-9. If you love defense, then go re-watch that game because “The Game of the Century” had plenty of it. Anyways, after that game both teams ended up winning out and it was argued that since the first game was so close, Alabama deserved a rematch with the Tigers for all the marbles. This did not please the rest of the country, as Oklahoma State had a legitimate case to be in that game. Alabama ended up winning in the rematch against LSU, and Nick Saban added to his growing collection of trophies. That situation won’t happen in 2016 in the SEC, simply because I think Alabama is the only team capable of surviving the SEC West with one loss. LSU crashed and burned last year, and Les Miles has a track record of not being able to bounce back after a loss. It only takes one loss for the Tigers to start spiraling downwards, and it takes only a few boosters to get Les Miles replaced.

What happened in 2012 for the SEC West could very well be on the table for another division in college football, however. Both Florida State and Clemson won’t have an easy path to the playoffs, but the ACC Atlantic is no SEC West. The SEC West is the deepest division in college football top to bottom. Whoever loses between the ‘Noles and the Tigers has a much better chance to win out than both LSU and Alabama. Say FSU goes 11-1 and only loses to Clemson. Clemson goes 13-0 (including ACC Title) and is ranked 1st or 2nd. Depending on what’s going on with the rest of the country, the ‘Noles have a great shot to sneak into that final playoff spot.

If LSU’s lone loss is to Alabama at the end of the season then they deserve a spot in the playoffs (and vice versa). However, I don’t see that happening. LSU has some great players returning, but aside from Leonard Fournette and Malachi Dupre there wasn’t a whole lot to love as far as a national title contender goes. Granted, the Tigers are still a super talented team and could very well prove me wrong and run the table. It’s just hard for me to get excited about a team that finished 2-3, especially when all 3 losses came in a row. Just because I don’t think LSU won’t make the playoffs doesn’t make them a bad team, they just have the look of a good team not quite there yet.

With LSU out of the picture, the SEC West  should be the Crimson Tide’s to lose. That doesn’t mean they’ll go through their schedule unscathed. They still have a tough schedule in a tough division. Here comes the reason I don’t think the Tide will win it all this year: Lack of experienced depth in key positions. The Tide do return standout left tackle Cam Robinson, but lose stud center Ryan Kelly and right tackle Dominick Jackson. A new center and quarterback can cause problems if those two aren’t on the same page. It’s so vital for the center to call out blocking assignments for the line, and the quarterback to adjust the play based on the defensive alignment. In addition, the quarterbacks in competition have one combined start and that game was a loss to Ole Miss. Cooper Bateman started that game but was eventually replaced by Jake Coker. In addition, Alabama lost long time defensive coordinator Kirby Smart to Georgia. He will be replaced by Jeremy Pruitt (yes that Jeremy Pruitt) and he will have his work cut out for him. Pruitt will have to work with a rather young secondary, as three sophomores are slated to start. Senior safety Eddie Jackson is a fantastic player and makes up the other starter, but he can’t cover the whole field. It should be interesting to see what changes Pruitt makes to the Tide’s defense.

Alabama, Clemson, Florida State, and LSU are all going to be very fun to watch next year. They are all very talented and deserve to be in the national conversation. However, it is more likely that two ACC teams wind up in the playoffs rather than two SEC teams. Using the argument that the SEC is more talented actually hurts your case here. That means a tougher in conference schedule which can either help you or hurt you. And in the case of the 2015 LSU Tigers, it hurt them. They haven’t showed me that their capable of a complete season since their 2012 National Championship run. And Alabama will most likely wind up in the playoffs, although it won’t be easy. Clemson and Florida State are most worried about each other in 2016. Yet even the team that loses that game has a great chance of sneaking into the playoffs. A better shot than, let’s say a 10-2 LSU team. You can say that a Stanford or Michigan would take spots in the playoffs, but they have a lot of problems to deal with on their own. I still think Michigan is a year away from returning to their former glory and Stanford relies too heavily on the play making ability of Christian McCaffery. The 2016 season could be monumental for ACC football. If only we could fast-forward to week one.

 

Ben Brewton
Writer at Nole Gameday covering football and basketball. FSU alum. Follow me on twitter (@Ben_Brewton) and we can talk sports. On the 8th day, God created college football.

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