SEC to Dabo: Hold my Dr Pepper
One minute, Dabo Swinney tells ESPN the SEC ain't all that and a bag of Golden Flakes. Not as deep as it used to be, he said. Not as taxing on Alabama as you think.
Next thing you know, the SEC releases its 2020 schedule. It's a muscular reply that screams, "Hold my Dr Pepper."
Who said fall camp wasn't fun?
That 2020 schedule gives the ACC, the Big Ten, the Big 12 and the Pac 12 one less pebble to toss at their superiors in the SEC. The Lesser 4 of the Power 5 just watched Greg Sankey and company turn Cupcake Saturday into Sirloin Saturday right before their very eyes.
A year from now, on the next-to-last Saturday of the regular season, Texas A&M will ride into Alabama and LSU will invade Auburn. The next week, LSU will travel to Texas A&M and Auburn will go to Alabama. You won't find four tougher games featuring four better programs in closer proximity - all to earn the privilege, most likely, of meeting Georgia a week later in the SEC Championship Game.
You were saying, Dabo?
Blame Auburn in part for that SEC West Steel Cage Death March. Since the SEC couldn't accommodate Auburn's request to break up the burden of playing both Georgia and Alabama on the road in even years, the Tigers asked if the Deep South's Oldest Rivalry could be moved forward from its spot two weeks before the Iron Bowl.
No problem, the SEC said. So the conference moved the 2020 Auburn at Georgia game to Oct. 10 and - problem - made Amen Corner even harder to navigate by placing the LSU game seven days before the Iron Bowl.
"What?" Gus Malzahn must be thinking. "Were the Patriots booked?"
The SEC actually did none of the top four programs in the Western Division any favors. To win the 2020 conference championship, on consecutive weekends:
Auburn may have to beat LSU, Alabama and Georgia.
Alabama may have to beat Texas A&M, Auburn and Georgia.
Texas A&M may have to beat Alabama, LSU and Georgia.
And then there's LSU. Just to get through November and to Atlanta, LSU will have to meet Alabama and South Carolina at home followed by Auburn and Texas A&M on the road on four straight Saturdays.
As if Kirby Smart and Georgia needed any breaks.
The larger point here is that Clemson may be good enough to contend with that run of tightly clustered land mines but the Tigers don't have to because the ACC simply isn't the SEC. Swinney has an incredible 8-1 record against the SEC since the start of the 2016 season, but during that run, his Tigers haven't faced two SEC opponents in the same month, let alone on consecutive weekends.
When you play matters almost as much as who you play. Take 2018. The Tigers did go 3-0 against the SEC en route to 15-0, but look at the details. Clemson survived Texas A&M in early September between Furman and Georgia Southern. Clemson outscored South Carolina in late November between Georgia Tech and Pitt. Clemson destroyed Alabama in January nine days after handling Notre Dame, by far the weakest of the playoff entrants.
Clemson as the reigning national champion, as one of the two best programs in college football alongside Alabama, is real. So is the grind its only peer has to face that the Tigers don't.