The lasting images of the 2019 season will be of Joe Burrow finding JaMarr Chase with a beautiful ball in the end zone; Thaddeus Moss looking like a statue, alone in the end zone for a score that effectively sealed LSU‘s national championship win; and Ed Orgeron, beaming into the middle distance, still unable to process how far he’d come.
Those are good images upon which to close the season. LSU was special, and the next few months should afford us ample time to put the Tigers’ performance into historical perspective. What those images won’t do, however, is tell us much of anything about 2020 — no matter how much we’ll hear otherwise over the next seven months.
It’s a long wait between Burrow hoisting the trophy Jan. 13 and kickoff of Notre Dame and Navy in Ireland in August, and that time inevitably will be filled with talk of big bowl wins and momentum for 2020 and, almost assuredly, a pronouncement that, for real this time, Texas is back! It’s in the sports writers’ union contract. Someone has to say it.
But here’s the rub: USC’s Rose Bowl win three years ago meant nothing for the 2017 season, Wisconsin’s Orange Bowl win two years ago set the stage for a disastrous 2018 season, and Texas — of course — gained nothing in 2019 from having scored a big Sugar Bowl win to cap the prior year.
Inevitably, we’ll talk about bowl momentum (bowl-mentum?) for a few months before we realize those were massive bowl overreactions (bowl-vereactions?) and wonder why we made such a big deal of these games in the first place. Rinse, repeat. So, let’s cut to the chase and take a look at the bowl hot takes we’ll be most likely to regret in 2020.
Texas is back!
Texas QB Sam Ehlinger throws three touchdowns and runs for another in a 38-10 win over Utah in the Valero Alamo Bowl.
Nobody owns an offseason like Texas, and December set the stage for a glorious 2020 for the Longhorns — at least until games start getting played again. Start with a dominant win over Utah in the Valero Alamo Bowl, just the type of upset victory that gets pundits lathered up for a good offseason narrative. Then quarterback Sam Ehlinger announced a return for 2020. Then rival Oklahoma was utterly embarrassed in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.
All the pieces were in place. The Big 12 belonged to Texas in 2020, right? Well, small problems: Texas finished 97th in pass defense, couldn’t run the ball consistently and lost at least four games for the 10th straight year. Number of four-loss seasons for Oklahoma in that stretch? One.
Tennessee can win the SEC East
Nothing sets the stage for a good offseason “momentum” story like a six-game winning streak, which Tennessee capped with a 23-22 win over Indiana in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl. The Vols came a long way from that opening loss to Georgia State, and to be sure, there’s cause for a lot more optimism around Jeremy Pruitt’s program now than there was a year ago.
But let’s pump the brakes a bit on Tennessee’s return to glory. UT averaged 15 points in six games versus Power 5 bowl teams. There are big questions about the future of the QB position and an offensive line that couldn’t open up running lanes all year. And, despite the late-season success against South Carolina, Missouri and Vandy, the Vols were outscored by their two real foes in the East — Georgia and Florida — by a total of 60 points.
Clemson‘s schedule is a problem
Marty Smith examines what the future looks like for the Clemson Tigers, after having their 29-game winning streak snapped by LSU in the national championship.
Sure the Tigers were good in 2019, but who had they played? In a dreadful ACC, the lack of stiff competition undermined Clemson’s credibility, and lo and behold, when the playoff began, the Tigers struggled versus Ohio State and lost by 17 to LSU. The postseason showed the importance of testing a team in the regular season, and in 2020, the Tigers don’t figure to face many bigger obstacles than they did in 2019.
One problem: It wasn’t Clemson’s easy road through the ACC that turned the national title game lopsided. It was Burrow and Chase and Moss. No one in the country could match up with that LSU offense. In fact, Clemson probably did as good a job of it as anyone, sacking Burrow five times and forcing LSU to punt a season-high seven times. And LSU still averaged better than 6 yards per play on offense. Moreover, there’s ample reason to be optimistic about Clemson’s 2020 schedule, which includes new-look Florida State, an improved Louisville team, defending Coastal champ Virginia and a road trip to Notre Dame. Clemson’s real worries for 2020 start with improving the production at receiver and defensive line.
USC is in football purgatory
The collective groan from the Trojans’ fan base when coach Clay Helton was retained got a whole lot louder as Iowa, a team that hadn’t topped 30 in a game since September, carved apart the USC defense in a 49-24 Holiday Bowl win. Now all that’s left for Helton and the Trojans is to play out the 2020 season awaiting the inevitable coaching change, hoping no one gets left on an airport tarmac.
But let’s be optimists for a moment. USC did win five of its final six games in the regular season, found an emerging star in QB Kedon Slovis and dealt with a litany of injuries throughout. It’s worth remembering, too, that Clemson’s run started with a blowout bowl loss in January 2012, and it was just two years ago that LSU struggled through a bowl game with a coach a lot of fans didn’t want, either. The schedule and the Pac-12 overall get more manageable in 2020, so let’s not write Helton’s epitaph just yet.
The Big 12 can’t win it all
It was a rough bowl season for the Big 12, with Texas the lone team to score a win and Oklahoma‘s loss bringing the conference’s playoff record to a robust 0-4. That quickly translated into a sweeping verdict that the league is simply incapable of winning a national title.
The problem with this argument is that conferences don’t win national titles. Teams do. The ACC has been bad, but that hasn’t hurt Clemson. The Big Ten is 0-3 in playoff games since 2015, scoring a grand total of two touchdowns in those games. The Pac-12 — well, we’ll wake you the next time the Pac-12 sniffs the playoff. But look at the recruiting trail, and Oklahoma and Texas still bring in more than enough blue-chip talent to compete with anyone, and as LSU showed, eventually the right mix of talent and scheme will coalesce.
Alabama will be just fine without Tua
OK, so we’re not signing up to write the Crimson Tide’s eulogy or anything, and indeed, Mac Jones had Alabama’s offense humming in the Citrus Bowl. But it’s not wise to undervalue just how good Tua Tagovailoa was during his all-too-brief stint at the helm of Nick Saban’s offense. For all deserved attention afforded Burrow and Trevor Lawrence in 2019, Tagovailoa was every bit as good until an injury ended his college career, and Alabama’s less-than-elite defensive play this season continued a downward trend (albeit from one of the best ever to simply pretty good).
It’s fair to wonder if both LSU and Clemson have passed Alabama in the college football pecking order at this point, and while no one should be surprised if the Tide are back in the title game next year, it’s also reasonable to think that with a high-profile QB battle, more talent off to the NFL and a season in which they missed the playoff for the first time, life has gotten a bit tougher for Saban in Tuscaloosa.
Michigan is a second-tier program
Emmanuel Acho is disappointed in Jim Harbaugh’s performance as Michigan’s coach and wants to see someone else in the job.
Even the Wolverines faithful seem to have accepted their lot in life: They’re not Ohio State, and they never will be again. Hard to argue with the results, and Michigan’s woeful bowl performance against Alabama was just the latest slip toward the dreaded status of “above average.” Perhaps the bigger issue for the Wolverines, however, isn’t about program and is instead about quarterback. While Ohio State has gone from Braxton Miller to Cardale Jones to J.T. Barrett to Dwayne Haskins to Justin Fields, Michigan has endured plenty of stat lines like this: 17-for-37 for 233 yards, one TD and two picks. That was Shea Patterson‘s production in the Citrus Bowl, and it fits with the litany of underachievers at the position for the Wolverines.
But wasn’t this LSU’s lot in life for too long? Then one day Burrow comes along and — voila! — becomes a champion. Whether Michigan is any closer to finding its own Burrow is open for debate, but it’s worth remembering that from 2015 through 2018, LSU had 59 touchdown passes combined. Burrow threw for 60 in 2019. It can happen that fast.
Texas A&M will be a top-10 team
The early, way-too-early and ludicrously early top-25 lists are already out, and more than a few have the Aggies in the top-10 mix after a 24-21 Texas Bowl win over Oklahoma State helped Jimbo Fisher finish the season on a high note. There’s reason for optimism: A&M is recruiting well, gets an easier schedule in 2020 (goodbye Clemson and Georgia, hello Colorado and Vandy), and Kellen Mond is back for his senior season.
But here’s the counterpoint: A&M failed to top 400 yards of offense nine times in 2019 (including four of its last five games); had just two first-half TDs combined against LSU, Georgia, Alabama, Auburn, Clemson and Oklahoma State; and trailed entering the fourth quarter in six of 10 games versus Power 5 opponents. Plus, against Power 5 competition, Mond, a three-year starter, finished 59th in passer rating among 77 QBs with at least 100 attempts. In an era when Burrow is putting up a 60-TD season, Fisher’s offense looks increasingly archaic.
So if all this was hype, are there any bowl stories we’re buying? From Vince Young‘s 2005 Rose Bowl to Lamar Jackson‘s 2015 Music City Bowl, there are plenty of examples of a little bowl-mentum offering a sneak peak of what’s to come. So add a few of these to that list for 2020: Slovis, Sam Howell, Dillon Gabriel — true freshmen who combined to complete 69% of their passes for seven TDs and no picks in their bowl games — will be stars. Miami and Florida State have real problems at QB. If Notre Dame can run the ball, it’s going to be a playoff contender. Micale Cunningham is the best QB you don’t know. FAU and App State can keep rolling despite coaching changes. Oh, and Texas is back. Someone has to do say it.