Sunday SEC Thoughts: Playoff Expansion, First-Year Head Coaches, Transfer Portal, and More

by Connor Jackson

Photo courtesy of South Carolina athletics

Just over a week from now, Alabama and Georgia will meet again in the national championship.

Last time, Alabama stunned the Bulldogs, rallying from 13 points to win in overtime in the 2017 national title game. In that game, the legend of Tua Tagovailoa was born.

Since then, the Dawgs have lost numerous heartbreakers to the Crimson Tide. Most recently was this year’s SEC title game. Fortunately for Georgia, it will have the chance to exercise those demons for a national title on Jan. 10.

Until then, we will continue to speculate, look ahead, look back, and do all the other things college football fans do during this time of year. Here are some thoughts:

Pro-Expansion Argument Takes a Hit

After Cincinnati and Michigan were dominated by Alabama and Georgia, respectively, in the College Football Playoff, pro-expansioners likely decided to look the other way. We’re not here to pick a side, but we’re not sure that there are eight teams per year that can compete for a national title. In fact, four seems like a stretch.

The gap between the better teams in the playoff and the underdogs has been huge in recent years. A few days ago, Michigan was absolutely dominated in all facets of the game against Georgia. The Wolverines looked more like the 2-win team we saw in 2020 than a national title contender.

It also wasn’t too long ago when teams like Michigan State, Washington, and Notre Dame got embarrassed early on.

Many seem to hold onto hope that a Cinderella team will make a run in the playoff. Could expansion make that possible? Maybe.

After this past week, we will believe it when we see it.

Grading First-Year SEC Head Coaches

Tennessee’s Josh Heupel gets an A and South Carolina’s Shane Beamer gets an A+. Both coaches blew expectations out of the water.

Entering the season, the idea of South Carolina winning seven games was laughable. That Gamecocks team won two games last year and dealt with nagging injuries all season. Beamer has gotten his team to rally around him, and it has even paid dividends on the recruiting trail.

We expected Tennessee to be pretty good. With a high-powered offense, we picked the Volunteers to win seven games. Heupel met those expectations.

Grading Bryan Harsin is tricky. At one point, Auburn was 6-2 with wins over Arkansas and Ole Miss. The Tigers controlled their own destiny in the SEC West and were right in the thick of things.

Well, Auburn finished the year with five straight losses and a Birmingham Bowl loss to Houston. Even with a first-year head coach, that is pretty inexcusable. Harsin gets a C-, because it could have been a lot worse.

All in all, judging any of these three head coaches after year one is an exercise in futility. Some rebuilds take longer than others, and some coaches build programs in different ways. Usually, year No. 3 is when we can get a real idea of the program’s direction under a head coach.

The Future of the Transfer Portal

The transfer portal has completely changed the college football landscape in its short existence. Every year, it seems like it gets more and more prolific. On some days, hundreds of players enter the portal. We’re not exactly sure what the future holds, but we can speculate.

Thanks to the portal, some team that does not consistently recruit at a top-5 level will win a national championship sometime in the future. Take the teams that recruit in the top 10 or 15 every season, add a few impact transfers and you have yourself a contender.

For example, take this year’s Michigan team and add three or four elite players out of the portal. Those players should completely transform that team.

Now, the best of the best in the portal go to the best teams, so this would be rare. Rare however, does not mean impossible.

The State of Auburn Football

While watching the College Football Playoff this past week, there was a realization about how hard it is to win at Auburn. The Tigers draw Alabama, LSU, and Georgia every year. Those three schools will make up the last three national champions.

Talk about pressure.

Auburn went a disappointing 6-7 this season, but let’s look at the big picture.

Even while living in this shadow, Auburn has won a national championship once, the SEC twice, and the SEC West three times since 2010. A very small percentage of programs have accomplished those accolades in that amount of time.

Even recently, Auburn has shown that it is not as far behind as people think. Auburn has beat LSU two years in a row, and was dangerously close in 2017, 2018, and 2019. The Tigers are also the only team in the SEC that has consistently took down Alabama. This year, at its worst, Auburn was a few plays away from knocking off the Crimson Tide again.

What’s puzzling is how Auburn can find a way to compete and win games like that, but turn around and lose to teams like South Carolina and Mississippi State. It seems like Auburn should win nine games every year, but the Tigers lose a handful of games each year that they shouldn’t. That is a trend that has followed Auburn since the Tommy Tuberville days.

Is Alabama the Next Open SEC Job?

With Ed Orgeron getting fired at LSU and Dan Mullen at Florida this past year, there might not be a current SEC head coach on the hot seat. Obviously, that is something that can change year to year. Sometimes, it changes week to week.

It’s hard to think of a current SEC coach who would leave on his own, outside of Ole Miss’ Lane Kiffin. Even then, it seems like Kiffin has been given the keys to Oxford. If Florida State opens again soon, is Mark Stoops in play? Who knows?

It’s also tough to think of a current SEC coach who will be fired after the 2022 season. Barring something unforeseen, that is a safe assumption.

It feels weird, but Nick Saban is 70 years old. There will certainly be more SEC openings from now until Saban retires, but those in Alabama’s athletic department need to have their next move in the back of their minds.

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