With apologies for borrowing ESPN’s dopey slogan for its College Football Playoff coverage, it does seem that since the advent of the four-team playoff, everything is geared toward that with little regard for the fact that winning a conference championship has always been and will always be a big deal. Likewise, it misses the point that there’s really good college football played at all levels and is certainly not limited to just 4 teams.
Last Saturday’s Florida-Miami game, and the wild finish of Arizona-Hawaii where quarterback Kalil Tate was stopped just one yard from the potential tying score was just enough to wet our appetite for a full week one which spans Labor Day weekend from Thursday to Monday night.
Here are a few thoughts heading into 2019.
First, yes we all know ESPN that Alabama, Clemson, Georgia and Oklahoma are the favorites for the 4-team playoff and you spent one-hour of airtime to tell us who the favorites are for the Heisman Trophy, as if anyone actually cares in December much less August, but I’m of the opinion that the only sure bet amongst those four is Clemson. Despite the fact that Clemson has a penchant for losing a game sometimes that they shouldn’t like throwing up a clunker against someone like N.C. State or Pitt, there is no one in the ACC that can challenge them. There will be someone in the ACC Coastal to meet up with Clemson in the ACC Championship game, but that’s just a mere formality to Clemson being in the playoff.
The real question in the ACC is who does win the Coastal? The pre-season favorite is Virginia. All I can say about that is I’ll believe it when I see it. Bronco Mendenhall claims he’s instilled a championship culture at U.Va. and he may be right. Actually what he has is the best two-way threat at quarterback in the league. Notice, I said two-way because Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence is clearly head and shoulders above everyone else. Mendenhall – whose speciality is defense – has the best defense in the Coastal Division and based on those two factors, his team should win the Coastal. But, they still cannot solve the problem of Virginia Tech. Last year represented their best chance to beat the Hokies since 2003 and they fumbled it away. Mendenhall has made no secret about his desire that his school beat Virginia Tech and since his BYU team got into an all-out brawl with Justin Fuente’s Memphis team in a bowl game a few years ago, there’s been no love lost between Mendenhall and Fuente.
Speaking of Fuente, this is the year we figure out whether he’s the right fit at Virginia Tech or is he just Ray Perkins? Perkins followed Bear Bryant with marginal success at Alabama. Fuente followed the folksy Frank Beamer by saying and doing all the right things. But, this clearly appears to be a program is some distress. Stories indicate that the locker room was a toxic environment as some of the final holdovers from the Beamer era were less than satisfied with Fuente’s “culture” in Blacksburg. He kicked one player off the team after that disaster at Old Dominion. Players are constantly entering the transfer portal (in all fairness, many of whom weren’t going to play) and Fuente himself is a different cat.
He’s not folksy, and is all business. There’s nothing wrong with that when you are winning games, but when you go 6-7 like he did last year and watch your team play like garbage in a bowl game to a Cincinnati team that was actually interested in being there, there’s reason to be concerned. Again, in all fairness Virginia Tech’s defense was awful last year. They won’t be that bad again in Bud Foster’s final run in Blacksburg, but Fuente was hired for the purpose of fixing Tech’s floundering offense under Scott Loeffler. This he has not done.
Defense has carried this program before and it will likely do so again. Fuente has chosen last year’s starter Ryan Willis as his starting quarterback, and while Willis is experienced and tough as hell, Fuente best realize that the best Virginia Tech teams over the years have had a dynamic duel threat at quarterback to go with a nasty defense and special teams. Fuente isn’t in danger of losing his job and they do figure to be better than 6-7 but in year 4 this is totally his football program now. And, candidly his defining moment is coming this December. He will be the one to pick Foster’s successor as Defensive Coordinator. If he gets it right he may get to retire in Blacksburg. He gets it wrong and he may just be a guy that once coached at Virginia Tech.
Outside of Virginia Tech and Virginia, Miami is the only other serious threat to win the ACC Coastal. Granted they lost a very winnable game to Florida, but they are so much better than last year. The three-game round robin between Miami, Virginia and Virginia Tech should decide exactly who gets the invitation to get their ass kicked by Clemson in December.
Speaking of Florida and the SEC, someone please explain to me how Florida wins games with Felipe Franks at Quarterback. The guy straight sucks. He misses open throws and makes poor decisions and yet Florida won 10 games last year and already has a win over Miami this year. The answer is Todd Grantham and his defense. Florida tried everything to screw up the game against Miami on defense, but Grantham has a defense that is no joke. Does that mean they can compete with Georgia? They think they can, but with Franks playing quarterback, I’m not so sure.
Then there are the long-suffering ever optimistic Tennessee Volunteer fans. Year two for Jeremy Pruitt and the Vol fans think they can compete with Florida and Georgia. I have a suggestion. Try competing with South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Missouri first. Vandy has beaten Tennessee 4 straight season. South Carolina coach Will Muschamp has never lost to Tennessee as a head coach counting his tenure at Florida and South Carolina. Missouri has a dynamic playmaker in Quarterback Kelly Bryant. Last year Drew Lock at Missouri ripped the Vols to shreds by running an offense that literally had three plays…inside zone run, outside zone run and short pass in the flat with occasional deep shot.
As for Pruitt. Well I don’t know what to think. He’s popular in Knoxville right now because he isn’t Derek Dooley and he really isn’t Butch Jones. Pruitt – unlike Jones isn’t full of shit – and is honest about his team and doesn’t try to cover for poor play. Jones could never stop using stupid catch phrases to cover the fact that he could recruit good players, but couldn’t coach them.
However, I’m still convinced that Pruitt is really taking his marching orders from Phillip Fulmer. Fulmer, who continues to live off 1998, is supposed to be the Athletic Director. Supposed to be that is. Last year he committed an NCAA violation by being on the football practice field coaching the offensive line. Oops.
Someone needs to coach the offensive line because Tennessee is bad up front on both sides of the ball and that’s bad news. Quarterback Jarrett Guarantano has grown on me by showing how tough he is. He was beat all to hell last year and kept going. He figures to get beat all to hell again as Tennessee may start two true freshman on the offensive line. They have several lay-up wins (Ga. State, Chattanooga, and UAB). They need just three more to go to a bowl and they figure to be able to at least do that. The single most important game is a Week 2 home game against BYU. Win that and they can probably win 7 games. Lose that, and they’ll be struggling to get to 6. As for beating Florida at Florida, it ain’t gonna happen. As for beating Georgia, ain’t going happen and as for Alabama, it really ain’t gonna happen. Vol fans need to remember that Jones left a dumpster fire for Pruitt to clean up. Pruitt is candid that he spent too much time trying to fix everything last year and forgot the most important thing…the players. It’s a breath of fresh air to hear honesty from a Tennessee Head Coach.
Speaking of fresh air, they have that in Morgantown, West Virginia. Dana Holgerson was a bad fit from the start at West Virginia. The way he got the job was bizarre. Hired by then A-D Oliver Luck to be the offensive coordinator for one year under the late Bill Stewart, Holgerson was supposed to take over after Stewart took a farewell lap.
That was a mistake that Luck, who is extremely bright, probably still regrets. He’d decided to fire Stewart, but rather than just fire him, he gave him a transition year because he felt he’d earned it. Well, if you are going to fire someone, you don’t leave them hanging for a year. The results were predictable. Stewart called some media guys into his office and asked them to dig up dirt on Holgerson. They did what journalists do, they reported those meetings. First of all, Holgerson is the author of his own dirt. He got thrown out of a casino in West Virginia just a few months into the job and he was perceived by the WVU administration as a “frat boy”.
Holgerson wanted out and found his opportunity at Houston. In fact, in a typical Holgerson move, he took the job at Houston while he was supposed to be preparing his team for its bowl game against Syracuse. The Mountaineers played unprepared and Holgerson was off to Houston – his favorite city of choice – the next day. Holgerson has fully ingrained himself into the Houston “party bus” scene. In all fairness, Holgerson did a nice job building a Big-12 team from scratch.
Meanwhile, enter Neal Brown at West Virginia. A Kentucky native, whose a better fit at WVU was ultra successful at Troy in the Sunbelt Conference. He’s already got in his car and drove 3 1/2 hours from Morgantown to Bluefield, when one of Bluefield’s players suddenly passed away. He may never recruit a player from Bluefield, but when he does do you expect Bluefield coach Fred Simon to forget that? Never. He’s taken his players to visit with coal miners – the lifeblood of West Virginia’s economy – and certainly hasn’t been tossed out of the Mardi Gras Casino in Cross Lanes. He wasn’t left with a very good team and 6 wins would be an accomplishment, but West Virginia will win a game it’s not supposed to win this season. But, Brown’s first issue is not losing to FCS James Madison in game 1 this week. JMU is pre-season number 2 in the FCS and returns 21 of 22 starters.
As for the playoff. Well everyone has their thoughts. My thought. Number 1 seed is unbeaten Clemson, two seed is SEC champion Georgia, three seed is Big Ten Champion Michigan, and 4 seed is Big-12 champion Texas. I like Georgia to play Clemson in the final with Clemson making it back-to-back titles. I wouldn’t bet any money on this actually happening, but that’s what makes it fun so let’s kick it off.