A smart guy said something silly this week.
ESPN’s David Pollack used his network’s college football podcast to announce his belief that Jaylen Waddle’s season-ending injury was fatal to the Crimson Tide’s national championship run.
“I think it’s over for Bama,” Pollack said. “I think if you’re just talking about winning a national title, I don’t think they can win a national title without [Waddle].”
While it is a bit early to dip into specific matchups, a quick roster comparison — by position group — with Alabama’s perceived closest competitor may be in order. ESPN’s playoff predictor slots the Tide as the No. 1 seed in the playoff followed by Clemson at No. 2.
Alabama versus Clemson. Let’s see how the two compare.
Running back. Najee Harris has elevated his game to the same heights occupied by Clemson’s Travis Etienne. Stats for each of these two dynamic backs are nearly identical. While Harris has enjoyed running behind a far superior offensive line (spoiler alert), a deeper group for Bama makes the difference in grading out these units. Edge: Bama
Wide receiver. The largest gap in talent may exist here, which is what makes Pollack’s analysis so puzzling. Both teams lost their best wide receivers for the entire year, Waddle at Alabama and Justyn Ross at Clemson. If he were to switch teams, Clemson’s best remaining receiver would be the third-most talented in Tuscaloosa behind Devonta Smith and John Metchie, III. Edge: Bama
Tight end. The talent in both of these groups is pretty similar, with a slight nod to Clemson’s unit based on production so far in 2020. Edge: Clemson
Offensive line. Another area where there is a fairly substantial gap. Alabama’s line has overpowered opponents and consistently given Mac Jones a clean pocket. Clemson has four new starters, has generally struggled to get a push in the middle and has allowed Trevor Lawrence to take some tough shots. Edge: Bama
Defensive line. This version of the Tide defensive line lacks the dominant presence of seasons past but remains serviceable. It is a group not asked to do a lot other than free up an athletic group of linebackers to make plays. Clemson’s defensive line is also not in the same class of some of the more heralded units of the Dabo Swinney era, but has a couple of true freshman with significant upside. Edge: Even
Linebacker. Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables coaches this position group, and it shows. They are a group of smart overachievers. James Skalski, Baylon Spector and Jake Venables are never short on effort. But none are the type of player for which opposing offensive coordinators have to account. On the other hand, Dylan Moses, Christian Harris and Christopher Allen are a force. Freshman Will Anderson, Jr. is an athletic freak. Edge: Bama
Defensive back. The upgrade in athleticism in the back end of Alabama’s defense is noticeable this year. Patrick Surtain II can wall off his side of the field, while Daniel Wright and Malachi Moore have already recorded two interceptions each. Safety Nolan Turner, a former two-star prospect from Vestavia Hills, is now the dean of the Tigers’ defensive backfield. As a full-time starter this year, Turner is like a coach on the field. Clemson’s unit is in a bit of a rebuild after having lost two first-round draft picks from last season’s squad. Edge: Bama
Special teams. Alabama kicker Will Reichard is perfect on the year. That is a great sign, but there is naturally a little wait-and-see approach when evaluating the Tide’s kicking game. Waddle’s loss in the return game is significant. Clemson has no threats in that area. Edge: Even
Quarterback. The best debate is saved for last. Both of these quarterback rooms have raw, inexperienced 5-star freshman as backups, so this is all about the high-profile starters. Lawrence is the likely first pick in the 2021 NFL draft. But this comparison is not about who can best help the New York Jets resurrect its franchise. This is about 2020. Lawrence has thrown for 1,833 yards, including 17 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. He has completed 71% of his passes and has averaged 9.6 yards per completion. Jones has thrown for 1,905 yards, including 12 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. He has completed 79% of his passes and has averaged 13 yards per completion. We said back in August that the Crimson Tide could win a national championship with Jones at the helm. Confidence in that assertion is now sky high. Jones’ performance this season demands that he take a backseat to no one. Edge: Even
Now that we have dispensed with Pollack’s notion that the Crimson Tide are out of the national championship hunt, let’s get to some picks.
LSU (-3) at Auburn: Coach O is back. His Tigers hammered South Carolina last weekend by four touchdowns. A 2:30 kick on CBS and then get back to Baton Rouge in time to go out. What could go wrong?
The pick: Auburn 36, LSU 24
Arkansas at No. 8 Texas A&M (-11.5): The Razorbacks had a bye last week, but there has been no shortage of praise heaped upon head coach Sam Pittman, and his improved team, in the intervening days. What a great story.
The pick: Texas A&M 31, Arkansas 17
No. 15 North Carolina (-7) at Virginia: Another great story is the Mack Brown reunion tour in Chapel Hill. With a national championship ring from his time at Texas, Brown returned to North Carolina, a place he previously coached from 1988 to 1997. His Heels face off against a struggling Virginia team long on grit but short on talent.
The pick: North Carolina 26, Virginia 20
No. 16 Kansas State at West Virginia (-3.5): There are 25,000 more people living in Manhattan, Kansas, than Morgantown, West Virginia. So Kansas State head coach Chris Kleiman will not have to worry about his team being intimidated by a big-city atmosphere. This is a sneaky big game in the Neal Brown era at West Virginia.
The pick: West Virginia 30, Kansas State 19
No. 4 Notre Dame (-20) at Georgia Tech: Notre Dame head coach Bryan Kelly has made no secret about his team’s anticipation for next week’s matchup against Clemson, a team which beat Georgia Tech 73-7 a few weeks ago. With Trevor Lawrence now doubtful in that matchup after a positive COVID-19 test, the Irish can undoubtedly smell blood and will be ready to exact revenge on an embarrassing playoff loss two years ago.
The pick: Notre Dame 24, Georgia Tech 17
Last week: 4-3 straight up; 3-4 ATS
Season: 17-5 straight up; 12-10 ATS
Tim Howe is an owner of Yellowhammer Multimedia