USA TODAY US Edition

SEC kick­off: Col­lege football is back for real

- Paul Myer­berg

Af­ter an off­sea­son like no other, here is where things stand to­day as the SEC en­ters the 2020 sea­son this week­end.

Fewer con­fer­ences. Fewer teams. Fewer games. No #Pac12After­Dark. (Or #Pac12Be­foreDark, for that mat­ter.) Can­celed games. Can­celed makeup games.

Af­ter an off­sea­son un­like any other, the Bowl Sub­di­vi­sion has hic­cuped into the reg­u­lar sea­son with un­sur­pris­ingly mixed re­sults. In a sur­pris­ing turn, how­ever, the sport has been greeted with a luke­warm re­sponse: TV view­er­ship is down com­pared with last sea­son, in some cases dra­mat­i­cally so, buck­ing the the­ory that col­lege football’s re­turn would be a rat­ings bo­nanza.

Among the fac­tors at play:

Only five con­fer­ences are un­der­way, two from the Power Five, out of the 10 that are nor­mally in com­pe­ti­tion.

With non-con­fer­ence play ei­ther lim­ited or elim­i­nated out­right, the FBS has missed the sort of matchups that can de­fine the early sea­son.

Of those teams iden­ti­fied in the pre­sea­son as the fa­vorites for the na­tional cham­pi­onship, only three, Clem­son, Ok­la­homa and Notre Dame, have been in ac­tion.

All three is­sues — va­ri­ety, in­ter­est and star power — will be ad­dressed by this week­end’s in­tro­duc­tion of the SEC, which prom­ises to im­prove the over­all qual­ity of play across the FBS and rekin­dle na­tional in­ter­est in the reg­u­lar sea­son while re­fo­cus­ing at­ten­tion onto the Col­lege Football Play­off.

In other words, it should feel more like busi­ness as usual. Here’s where things stand as the SEC en­ters the 2020 sea­son:

SEC takes cen­ter stage

The SEC has as many teams in the top six of this week’s Coaches Poll, three, as the Big 12 has in the en­tire Top 25. That’s as good a way as any to mea­sure the im­pact the con­fer­ence will have in de­ter­min­ing the flow of the reg­u­lar sea­son and post­sea­son.

Amid a slug­gish start, the Big 12 will

be shuf­fled into the back­ground, though No. 3 Ok­la­homa re­mains a con­tender to once again reach the na­tional semi­fi­nals. The ACC adds No. 7 Notre Dame to top-ranked Clem­son but still won’t match the over­all depth of the SEC — though two play­off con­tenders is one more than usual for the ACC.

This adds up to a fa­mil­iar sce­nario where Clem­son leads the way for the ACC, the Big 12 pins its hopes on Ok­la­homa and the SEC takes up all of the oxy­gen in the room. (This would change when, or if, mul­ti­ple Power Five con­fer­ences re­turn in Oc­to­ber.)

With at least one ranked team in each of the league’s seven games in Week 4, the SEC also prom­ises to bring some­thing largely miss­ing from the early sea­son: high stakes.

Lawrence leads for the Heis­man

The Heis­man will go through Clem­son quar­ter­back Trevor Lawrence, who has four touch­downs against seven in­com­ple­tions through two games while av­er­ag­ing 14 yards per pass at­tempt. The SEC’s start won’t change Lawrence’s lead.

In fact, for a con­fer­ence set to dom­i­nate the reg­u­lar sea­son the SEC has few ma­jor con­tenders for the Heis­man. One could be Alabama quar­ter­back Mac Jones, who played well as last sea­son’s re­place­ment for an in­jured Tua Tago­v­ailoa. His team­mate, run­ning back Na­jee Har­ris, is a pre­sea­son All-Amer­ica pick.

The SEC has a third chal­lenger in Florida quar­ter­back Kyle Trask, one of league’s break­out stars of 2019. Other play­ers could come off the radar for teams cur­rently in the Top 25, such as Texas A&M quar­ter­back Kellen Mond.

Lawrence’s cur­rent edge for the Heis­man is rep­re­sen­ta­tive of a larger ques­tion: While the SEC doesn’t lack for fire­power, does the con­fer­ence have a team ca­pa­ble of beat­ing Clem­son? While not against the best com­pe­ti­tion — Wake For­est and The Ci­tadel — Clem­son’s start­ing lineup has re­vealed no flaws af­ter two weeks.

Im­pact of de­lay on qual­ity of play

Few teams have been im­mune from the sort of slop­pi­ness re­sult­ing from a chaotic off­sea­son. Al­ways an is­sue even un­der op­ti­mal cir­cum­stances, tim­ing and co­he­sive­ness have suf­fered due to the in­abil­ity to re­cap­ture the flow of a nor­mal spring and sum­mer.

Even the abil­ity to start sev­eral weeks af­ter the ACC and Big 12 won’t help the SEC avoid the same pit­falls. That’s a po­ten­tial con­cern for No. 21 Ten­nessee, which is fa­vored at South Carolina but has had no­table is­sues this month eval­u­at­ing cer­tain po­si­tions, such as wide re­ceiver, while han­dling COVID-19 cases and the re­sult­ing quar­an­tine pe­ri­ods.

Sur­prises and dis­ap­point­ments

With wins against Alabama-Birm­ing­ham and Louisville, No. 14 Mi­ami (Fla.) has a case for be­ing the thir­dranked team in the ACC ahead of No. 12 North Carolina. Few teams have been as dom­i­nant as Army, which de­feated Mid­dle Ten­nessee State and Louisiana-Mon­roe by a com­bined score of 79-7.

No. 25 Louisiana-Lafayette broke into the Coaches Poll for the first time in pro­gram his­tory af­ter beat­ing Iowa State 31-14 to open the sea­son. On the heels of that mon­u­men­tal win, the Ra­gin’ Ca­juns were nearly tripped up by Ge­or­gia State be­fore win­ning in OT.

In all, the Big 12’s in­abil­ity to cap­i­tal­ize on the SEC’s ab­sence rep­re­sents a missed op­por­tu­nity. The league went 0-3 against the Sun Belt in Week 2, off­set­ting the pos­i­tive vibes com­ing out of red­shirt fresh­man quar­ter­back Spencer Rat­tler’s de­but for Ok­la­homa and the pro­duc­tion seen out of the re­built Texas of­fense in an easy win against Texas-El Paso.

State of the Group of Five

Be­tween No. 15 Cen­tral Florida, No. 16 Cincin­nati, No. 20 Mem­phis and 2-0 SMU, the Amer­i­can will dif­fi­cult to un­seat from atop the Group of Five con­fer­ences.

With the Moun­tain West still look­ing at ways to play this sea­son, the Amer­i­can’s big­gest threat will come from the Sun Belt. How­ever, the Sun Belt stum­bled in Week 3, as con­fer­ence fa­vorite Ap­palachian State fell Satur­day at Mar­shall in a loss with po­ten­tial sea­son­long in­flu­ence on the over­all rep­u­ta­tion of the league. Mar­shall moves to the front of the line in Con­fer­ence USA.

Next: Big Ten (and maybe more)

The Big Ten plans to be­gin Oct. 24 with nine games crammed into just un­der two months, lead­ing to con­cerns that one or two post­pone­ments due to COVID-19 could cre­ate a rip­ple ef­fect across the league’s en­tire reg­u­lar-sea­son sched­ule.

If so, that would dra­mat­i­cally im­pact the Big Ten’s hopes of putting a team — Ohio State, specif­i­cally — into the play­off. Al­ready be­hind the curve as other Power Five teams play as many as 11 games, the Big Ten cham­pion has lit­tle room for er­ror in mak­ing a case to the se­lec­tion com­mit­tee.

The Big Ten’s reversal on sit­ting out the sea­son brings four of the Power Five leagues into ac­tion. It may be the en­tire group by the end of Oc­to­ber. The Pac-12 con­tin­ues to eval­u­ate its op­tions for join­ing the 2020 sea­son and may be in po­si­tion to be­gin as soon as Hal­loween.

 ?? PATRICK SURTAIN II BY AP ??
PATRICK SURTAIN II BY AP
 ?? KYLE PHILLIPS/THE NOR­MAN TRAN­SCRIPT VIA AP ?? Ok­la­homa and QB Spencer Rat­tler had shared the Power Five spot­light with the ACC. Now the SEC joins the fray this week­end.
KYLE PHILLIPS/THE NOR­MAN TRAN­SCRIPT VIA AP Ok­la­homa and QB Spencer Rat­tler had shared the Power Five spot­light with the ACC. Now the SEC joins the fray this week­end.
 ?? MICKEY WELSH/MONT­GOMERY AD­VER­TISER ?? Alabama and QB Mac Jones should help col­lege football’s TV rat­ings.
MICKEY WELSH/MONT­GOMERY AD­VER­TISER Alabama and QB Mac Jones should help col­lege football’s TV rat­ings.

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