As one of the leading advocates against “picking” playoff teams prior to November (if then), there will be no changing my mind on that topic at this point. There will be no “Final Four” guesses this week, or next week, or the week after that.
Two weeks into the season, though, there is starting to be enough data to watch the schedule matrix begin to take shape and one pattern is obvious: the SEC, and the SEC West in particular, is in very good shape.
Five of the teams in the division — Alabama, Auburn, both Mississippi schools and LSU — have Power 5 non-conference wins. The one SEC West team with a P5 loss, Texas A&M, lost to Clemson. That isn’t going to dent any cumulative strength of schedule ratings. Arkansas couldn’t hold on against Colorado State, the one blemish on the record, but, sadly for Fayetteville, this might be a year in which Arkansas is the division’s sacrificial hog. For the rest of the teams, the only question will be who can step up and assert themselves.
Auburn once again could be the kingmaker in college football, able to crown themselves or to determine who does make the playoff even if their schedule proves too difficult.
The SEC might be in a position to send two teams if an undefeated Alabama (or, for the sake of argument, an undefeated Mississippi State) makes it to Atlanta, faces an unbeaten Georgia and stages a classic championship game. There has been a general concession, in the wake of Georgia’s thrashing of South Carolina, that the East race is over. The only scenario that looks likely to prevent — not probable, not possible — would have Georgia losing both its crossover games (at LSU and at home against Auburn) and South Carolina somehow regrouping to go 7-1. (The only other possibility, astronomical though it might seem, would be for Drew Lock to go crazy for Missouri’s entire season, although the Tigers need to focus on not stumbling at Purdue this Saturday.) With all that said, don’t bet against Georgia.
There is one more team, thanks to smart scheduling, that will benefit from all that SEC West goodness: Clemson. There is a reason Clemson has had a recent series with Auburn, a current one with Texas A&M and a coming one with LSU. (There is a Georgia series, too.) These games, plus the finale against South Carolina, allow Clemson to offset its ACC schedule and virtually guarantee a playoff spot even with one misstep in league play, like last year’s Syracuse loss.) The only far-fetched possibility that might affect Clemson would be a loss to an undefeated Virginia Tech (you laugh, but check that schedule if they can handle Notre Dame) in the ACC Championship game, and no room left at the inn for two teams from their league.
The Pac 12 might have to have an undefeated Stanford (which would include a win against Notre Dame as well.) The Big 12 probably needs an unbeaten Oklahoma-West Virginia winner, which would mean one of those teams beating the other twice. Ohio State is the Big 10’s powerhouse, if not distracted by off-the-field circumstances (which doesn’t seem to have been the case.) There are other possibilities — Wisconsin and Penn State (barely) are alive.
Millions and millions of possibilities remain, so there are no picks. But no one is in better shape than the SEC after the first two weeks.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225.