No. 1 Alabama (13-0) is the best college football team in the country. This cannot be disputed.
But make no mistake: The Tide did not win a difficult conference.
“It was pretty bad,” Bleacher Report SEC writer Barrett Sallee said on CBS Sports Radio’s Tiki and Tierney. “It was a down year. Obviously when you have a four-loss Auburn team going to the Sugar Bowl, that’s a problem. But I don’t really see it as conference prestige or power anymore. I think that narrative has sort of gone by the wayside in terms the playoff. We saw Ohio State win the whole thing out of a bad conference two years ago. I think with the SEC specifically this year, it was a case of quarterbacks being inept and injured and that directly had to do with the fact that it was a really down year from an offensive line perspective and the best defensive front class that we’ve seen maybe in SEC or college football history. I think those two things sort of lended itself to quarterbacks being injured, being inept, and this conference being pretty much down.”
While Alabama is certainly the least flawed team in the playoff, Sallee believes the second least flawed team is No. 2 Clemson. But even the Tigers (12-1) are far from perfect.
“They lead the ACC in pass defense, but if you watch them against good quarterbacks, they’re not very good in that department,” he said. “The reason they lead the ACC in pass defense is because the front seven is so good and forces mistakes.”
Sallee does not trust J.T. Barrett in the passing game – or Ohio State’s offensive line in the blocking game – nor does he trust Washington’s Jake Browning to win big games. In his two toughest games – against USC and Colorado – Browning went 26-of-60 (43.3 percent) for an average of 188.5 yards and had three touchdowns and two interceptions. Browning had 39 touchdowns and five interceptions in 11 games against all other opponents.
“They’re all flawed,” Sallee said. “This is a strange year in that regard.”
Still, true freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts can absolutely lead Alabama to a national title – mainly because the Tide don’t ask him to do much.
“It’s a very simple offense,” Sallee said. “They just changed it to fit what his skill set is, and they don’t give him an awful lot. They give him one side of the field. They say read high, read low, and if neither is there, take off. He’s a true freshman, so he can grow. We’ll see how much he develops. He’s got a strong arm. Does he make mistakes? Yes. Is he consistent? No.”
He also doesn’t chuck it down the field much, especially in big games. Almost three-fourths of his throws in the Iron Bowl were within five yards of the line of scrimmage.
“That’s what they do,” Sallee said. “They’ve done a really good job of sort of easing him in and protecting him. (Saban) can (do that) because the rest of that team and the cast is so good. They have a knack of scoring off special teams and defensive turnovers. When (your offense doesn’t) have to score to win games, (you’re in a good spot).”
Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, meanwhile, could find himself in a new role sooner rather than later. Kiffin is reportedly receiving interest from LSU to serve as coordinator under Ed Orgeron, while other schools reportedly want Kiffin to be their head coach.
Either way, Sallee believes Kiffin’s days in Tuscaloosa are numbered.
“Talking to Lane – and I’m surprised he even spoke to us on Saturday, but he did – tells me everything I need to know,” Sallee said. “Because Nick Saban doesn’t allow his assistants to speak at all. That tells me that Lane knows that he’s gone now. I think Nick Saban recognizes that he’s gone, too. That’s why Steve Sarkisian is on that staff as well. He can slide right in and theoretically not miss a beat.”
If Kiffin leaves Alabama, it remains to be seen whether he would stick around for the playoff.
“It does depend sort of on what job he gets,” Sallee said. “If he gets Houston, maybe all parties involved think it’s a good idea for him to coach because that’s good pub for everybody, including Houston. But my gut feeling is that everybody knows that he’s gone and they’ve got a plan in place. Really, the question becomes does Steve Sarkisian go with Lane wherever Lane goes as a head coach? Because that, I think, is the more pressing issue because Steve Sarkisian is there to sort of be that offensive coordinator in the bullpen.”