By Sean McAlevey
With the very real possibility that Johnny Football never graces a college football field with his irreplaceable presence again, Alabama, last year’s BCS Champion, suddenly finds itself in a much more enviable position than it was a week ago.
Don’t get me wrong. Alabama was, and still is, the public’s overwhelming favorite to repeat as champions. (Here at DynamicPicks we had Alabama at #2 behind Oregon in our Preseason Top 10.) But the hardest date on their schedule – a September 14 meeting against Texas A&M in College Station – will turn out to be nothing more than a tune-up game if Johnny Manziel is deemed ineligible to play this year by the NCAA.
After last season’s surprising upset by an underrated Aggies bunch led by an unknown freshman signal-caller, Alabama has made their mid-September date with TAMU their highest priority in the coming season. Now all of a sudden, Alabama’s schedule looks awfully kind; their next toughest matchup is a November 9 date with LSU in Tuscaloosa. If they can get through that matchup, they’ll likely be undefeated heading into the conference title game.
Naturally, it begs the question. If Alabama, who many predicted would be undefeated even with Manziel and A&M in its way, is primed to trample their schedule en route to a national title appearance, what team in a hypothetical Manziel-ineligible world can challenge them?
One notable threat is Oregon, given that it can maneuver its way to the title game through their less-than-arduous Pac-12 schedule (though Stanford is not to be taken lightly). The Ducks own one of the most dynamic offensive combos in the country in quarterback Marcus Mariota and running back De’Anthony Thomas. The two return to lead an offense that ranked second nationally in points scored last season (49.6 ppg). Their defense, which usually flies under the radar, is receiving due attention; it returns seven starters from last year’s squad that allowed only 21.6 point per game.
Their one weakness, however, is their change in coaches. After Chip Kelly hightailed his way out of Eugene and on to the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles, offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich was tapped to run the show. Sure, the Ducks may start slow – though I doubt they’ll lose a regular-season game outside of Stanford – but they’ll be plenty comfortable by the time January rolls around, when the Ducks could be set to face Alabama in the BCS title game. Really, there’s nothing bad you can say about the Ducks. They may not have the same caliber of defense as the Crimson Tide, but their high-octane offense more than makes up for that relative deficiency.
The other notable challenger to Alabama’s hegemony is Georgia, a rival SEC member. Like Oregon, Georgia will not matchup with Alabama during the regular season. Instead they’ll settle for a shot at the reigning champs in the SEC title game, if they can reach it. Senior quarterback Aaron Murray returns along with nine other offensive starters to lead a balanced offensive attack that features one of the most lethal backfield combos in Keith Marshall and Todd Gurley. If head coach Mark Richt can manage expectations and keep his team focused through one or two inevitable losses – they’re set to face Clemson, South Carolina, LSU, and Florida – Georgia will be ready to play David to Alabama’s Goliath in a potential SEC title game matchup.
Understand that in only discussing Oregon and Georgia I’m not ruling out other viable challengers, such as Ohio State, Florida State, Clemson, and Stanford. There’s reason to believe that any of those teams can reach the BCS Championship game. It helps, however, that Oregon and Georgia have two of the strongest offensive attacks in the game, a requisite skill to contend with the best defense in the country.
All of this talk assumes Manziel won’t be suiting up for TAMU this fall. The NCAA has a lot of work to do in order to prove that last year’s Heisman winner allegedly sold his autographs for a five-figure sum to a professional autograph broker. If, however, the NCAA can put together a case against Manziel, and execute it in due time, Alabama will have a significantly easier road back to the title game. In that case, the best chance to stop the ever-rolling Tide lies in the hands of the two teams discussed above.