Hickey: Turnover at SEC powers could open CFP window for Big Ten contenders
A window to win the CFP national championship opened for Big Ten contenders in 2022. Both Michigan and Ohio State reached the College Football Playoff, marking the first time multiple Big Ten teams reached football’s Final Four.
Neither team made it through the window, with each losing in the semifinals. It was an embarrassing moment for a conference that hasn’t produced a national champ since 2014.
Such windows don’t frequently stay open very long. But in 2023, it may actually open a bit wider for the Big Ten’s national title hopefuls. The perennial favorites in the SEC, 2-time defending champ Georgia and Alabama, are undergoing significant changes that make this season the prime time for an interloper to strike.
For Michigan and perhaps Ohio State too, 2023 looms as the most golden opportunity to win the title since 2014. And though it’s impossible to say what the future holds in a transfer portal world, it could well be the most golden opportunity for several years to come.
Georgia’s offensive overhaul
Georgia was close to invisible the past 2 seasons, though Ohio State nearly pierced that shell in the Peach Bowl.
While the Bulldogs will be good again in 2023 — another SEC East title seems a matter of course — there is at least an air of vulnerability this time around.
There will be a new starting quarterback replacing Stetson Bennett IV, who helped guide the Dawgs to those back-to-back national championships. And that new quarterback will be guided by offensive coordinator Mike Bobo, who could end up being Kirby Smart’s first hiring boo-boo.
Bobo was successful in his first go-round as Georgia’s offensive coordinator from 2007-14. He developed quarterbacks David Greene, Aaron Murray and Matthew Stafford. But Bobo’s career has careened off a cliff since leaving for the Colorado State head coaching position in 2015.
His final 2 teams at CSU finished 108th and 71st nationally in scoring. He had a pair of 1-year stints as offensive coordinator at South Carolina (98th in scoring) and Auburn (68th in scoring) before returning to his alma mater as an analyst last season.
Maybe none of that will matter. Smart will likely find a way for Georgia to once again field a top-5 scoring defense. But it’s fair to believe it won’t be matched by a top-10 scoring offense, as has been the case the past 2 seasons. And that could ultimately make a difference in a Playoff setting.
Saban’s most uncertain season since…
Alabama was loaded for bear in 2022.
Neither quarterback Bryce Young nor defensive end Will Anderson are getting past the No. 5 pick in the NFL Draft. Bama had another championship season in its sights before 2023 would be used for the Crimson Tide version of a rebuild.
But thanks to a 3-point loss to Tennessee and a 1-point loss to LSU, Alabama’s 11-2 season will be remembered as a major disappointment. And rather than heading into this year on the post-championship honeymoon phase, Alabama now is now dealing with more pressure than an inexperienced roster should normally face.
And it is an inexperienced roster. Only 7 teams nationally have fewer production returning.
SEC teams national rank in percentage of returning production for 2023, via @ESPN_BillC:
7. Texas A&M
30. Ole Miss
102. South Carolina
— Connor O'Gara (@cjogara) February 7, 2023
Alabama is the type of program that can compensate for experience with its recruiting depth. But this year, its roster turnover coincides with coaching turnover. Saban has a pair of new coordinators in OC Tommy Rees and DC Kevin Steele, neither of whom were considered hot commodities in the offseason coordinator pool.
This is the 5th time Saban has replaced both coordinators at Alabama. None of those previous 4 seasons — 2007, 2008, 2018 and 2019 — ended with a national championship for the Tide.
The B1G window
If not for its back-to-back Playoff failures, Michigan would go into next season as the favorite to win the national title.
The Wolverines are 5th nationally in returning production, including quarterback JJ McCarthy and running backs Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards. Key losses at offensive line, defensive end and tight end have been shored up in the transfer portal.
Yet Vegas seems to know bettors can’t trust Jim Harbaugh in the postseason. DraftKings has the Wolverines 4th to win the title (+1000) behind Georgia (+240), Alabama (+500) and even Ohio State (+750).
Yes, the same Ohio State that Michigan has beaten in back-to-back seasons. Of course, it could well happen a third-straight time and Ohio State would still reach the Playoff if that were the Bucks’ lone defeat.
Ohio State is a title contender for good reason. Successfully replacing CJ Stroud at quarterback is the barometer measuring whether that will come to fruition. If Ryan Day is able to do so, we may well see back-to-back season with the Buckeyes and Wolverines in the CFP.
Only this time, there will be little excuse for falling short of the crown.