These are the teams that stand between Alabama and back-to-back national titles
If it was not apparent before this weekend in college football, it feels more certain than ever that the long slog of the season is now nothing more than a mere formality to crowning the Alabama Crimson Tide as champions once again. Especially so in the wake of their 29-0 victory in Baton Rouge over LSU on Saturday night.
It wasn’t enough for the Crimson Tide to be one of the biggest road favorites ever on the road at the then-No. 3 program in the country and cover comfortably. No, Nick Saban’s crew would have none of that nonsense. Expectations were not only met in the second quarter but the dominance displayed on both lines of scrimmage, in the passing game and on defense will lead to even more talk of this being the best team in school history — and maybe the sport itself.
We’re still a long ways from those comparisons to 2004 USC, 2001 Miami, 1995 Nebraska or, reaching way back, 1956 Oklahoma. Those conversations will need to be saved for late January even if they are in the back of everybody’s minds this week. Until then though, even as unstoppable as Alabama has looked in 2018, does anybody have a shot at stopping the terminator from Tuscaloosa?
Let’s take a look at all the contenders and where they have a chance to make a dint in the Tide... and where there are areas of concern for the opponents in potential games down the road.
Say what you want about the Tigers this season, but all bets are generally off in a rivalry game and that’s especially true of one like the Iron Bowl. Jarrett Stidham has not been great when he’s had pressure in his face but if he can get a clean pocket (no easy task with Quinnen Williams and Isaiah Buggs coming after you), he can make throws down the field to beat you unlike Joe Burrow and LSU.
What remains an open question is if Auburn can actually run the football, something Gus Malzahn’s entire offense is predicated on. They had just 19 rushing yards against Texas A&M on Saturday and have really only found success against a bad Ole Miss defense. It would be a stretch to think the Tigers can magically flip a switch and be able to run on the Tide but rivalry games are funny and sometimes produce results outside the norm.
Defensively is where Auburn may have a chance in particular, having not given up more than 24 points all season. If the defense can maybe force a turnover or two and shorten the ball game a bit, things might get interesting in the second half at the end of the month.
Let’s face it though, there’s not a ton of faith in this team getting it done based on what we’ve seen so far and with the Iron Bowl in Tuscaloosa against a revenge-minded Alabama team. You can’t completely rule it out, but everybody outside of the state is penciling in a win for the home team in this matchup.
The Bulldogs will have an opportunity to get their shot at revenge at the site where they very nearly knocked off the Tide at the beginning of the year. This has been a team that has not hit their stride so far this season but it’s also one that does not appear as good as last year’s edition either. Those veteran leaders like Roquan Smith, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel who were leading the way in Atlanta in January are now on NFL sidelines after all.
Still, Kirby Smart knows his old boss well and that is at least one area that could give the red and black hope. And let’s face it, this is also one of the few rosters that have enough blue-chip talent to go head-to-head with the Tide as well.
The one wild card might be Justin Fields, the former five-star QB who was worked in more and more against Kentucky on Saturday. Jake Fromm has a 17:4 TD-to-INT ratio but his play has been erratic at times under center and the poised young freshman has not made the leap as a sophomore. Perhaps offensive coordinator Jim Chaney can come up with some packages for both of his signal-callers to play to their strong suits down in Atlanta but both will need rapid progress between now and Dec. 1.
What is different this time around is Georgia’s ability to throw playmakers against Alabama’s back seven. Elijah Holyfield is a load between the tackles and D’Andre Swift is getting better with each passing week as the home-run threat. Add in a receiving corps that is deep and filled with guys who occupy different roles and nobody aside from Clemson has the kind of Jimmy’s and Joe’s that the Bulldogs can throw at Alabama.
Will it be enough? The last time these two met in the SEC Championship Game they staged an absolute classic so it shouldn’t be ruled out even if UGA doesn’t quite look in the same league as their West rivals.
In terms of a potential semifinal game, it will be hard to top the potential drama of Tua Tagovailoa vs. Kyler Murray and offensive savant Lincoln Riley against defensive mastermind Nick Saban. While things may be very one-sided when it comes to the matchup between Alabama’s offense against OU’s defense, there may be only one team in the country truly capable of going blow-for-blow with the Tide scoring-wise and that’s this one.
If you look back through the College Football playoff era, Alabama has only lost five games. The common thread among them? An offense that could move the ball and generally a quarterback with a big arm who can move around the pocket. Three of those five losses came when Alabama scored 31 or more points and playing a Big 12 squad would likely result in a similar type of shootout.
Don’t forget that the Sooners have had a knack for rising up and knocking off SEC foes when little is expected of them either. Yes they’d face long odds but the Murray-Riley combination gives OU a shot in every game they are in no matter how much their defense remains a liability.
The Wolverines' thrashing of Penn State 42-7 at the Big House solidified their status as the Big Ten front-runners and continued to show that this team has continued to improve from week-to-week. A potential Jim Harbaugh-Saban semifinal would have the TV networks drooling and the likelihood of that happening seems to grow with each passing week. Maybe more to the point, Big Blue also is turning into the team that could be just the one to challenge the top dog.
You can start on defense, which Don Brown has leading the country in just about every statistic imaginable. This isn’t just a unit that can stop Big Ten offenses though, they’re physical at the line and fast on the back end. There’s still a bit of an unknown in the secondary but they’ve looked good so far and do a lot of things that could disrupt the timing of the routes Tide OC Mike Locksley likes to draw up. Plus, they’re getting healthier too with All-American Rashan Gary showing flashes of his old self for the first time in a month.
Offensively, there are improvements too. Shea Patterson looks like the confident kid we saw at times back at Ole Miss and the offense has been incorporating his ability to run a lot more. Plus, Tarik Black nearly had a touchdown against the Nittany Lions in his first game back and provides a much needed threat on the outside. Mix in the ability to run the ball with Karan Higdon and this looks like one of those LSU teams of the early 2010s that actually went up against Alabama and managed to get a victory from time to time.
This is not the same ol’ Michigan squad we’ve seen the first few years in Harbaugh’s tenure and it might be the program best position to make things interesting in a semifinal game with so much time to prepare.
The Buckeyes have not earned the right to be on this list based on the way they’ve looked the past month but looking below the surface does reveal they can’t be completely written off.
They have an elite coach. They have an elite roster. And if they make the playoff, they’ll have had an elite run through November and into late December.
As noted above, the offense has enough pieces to keep pace if there’s any sort of shootout. Dwayne Haskins hasn’t been great the past two games but can pile up the numbers in a hurry and has a bunch of unique weapons on the outside. The offensive line has been battle-tested and there are two 2,000-yard career rushers in the backfield that can help control the pace.
Outside of Oklahoma though, nobody sports a worse defense and the open question around Columbus is if that can be fixed at all after Nebraska was able to move the ball with some ease on Saturday. It’s unlikely, but nobody gave the team a shot in 2014 either.
Brian Kelly did an interview with ESPN last week and told Gene Wojciechowski that while you should be careful what you wish for when it comes to playing Alabama, he would be okay with it. Images of that 2012 BCS title game beatdown will be fresh in the minds of everybody if these two programs were to actually meet on the field again but the '18 version of the Irish are a much different proposition.
First off, the defense is even more athletic than that 2012 group and they have some stout guys up front like Jerry Tillery and Daelin Hayes. They’ve got guys that can come off the edge like Julian Okwara and Drue Tranquill too. The secondary has been underrated all year long and so has their running backs. Quarterback Ian Book also has taken care of the football since assuming the starting role and he has some weapons underneath and downfield to find that could make things interesting as well.
Yet for as good as Notre Dame has been and as many matchup issues as they could cause though... only the most ardent supporters of the lucky leprechaun think this Irish team really would have a shot in either a semifinal game or the title game itself in Santa Clara.
This is where things get interesting. It goes without saying that both programs are intimately familiar with each other and you can bet the Tigers would be fired up to avenge their rubber match loss in last season's Sugar Bowl.
Let’s start on defense, where that line full of All-Americans is deeper than it ever has been (hello Xavier Thomas) and has the potential to apply some pressure to Tua Tagovailoa without blitzing. That would be key because those linebackers not only need to keep eyes on the quarterback if he scrambles, but to slow down some of the shifts and motions you see that Alabama uses to get a defense moving horizontally. Even the secondary, which had their issues when banged up against Syracuse, has come along in recent weeks too.
On the other side of the ball, Dabo Swinney made a change at quarterback last month for one reason: to get a vertical passing game with Trevor Lawrence in order to go up against a team just like Alabama in a semifinal scenario. The Tigers sport one of the deepest receiving corps this side of Tuscaloosa and that combination is something that they could exploit by hitting big plays. And let us not forget how well Clemson has been running the ball behind Travis Etienne and Tavien Feaster.
In short, nobody has a better shot than the one team who knows how to topple the Tide. There may not be Deshaun Watson on the sidelines but there’s still talent, coaching and a ton of veterans who know how to get the job done in orange.
BetOnline released odds on three potential matchups with Alabama following their game against LSU and those numbers weren’t pretty at all: Clemson +8.5, Michigan +14 and Notre Dame +20.5. That’s an indication of just how far in front those in the desert think the Crimson Tide are in front of everybody else.
We all know though, that this is a sport involving a swath of 18-25-year olds and long layoffs between games down the stretch. One never can say never in the end but there are at least a select few programs that might be able to trip up the sport’s juggernaut, even if doing so looks less likely than it has in some time.
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.