SEC power shifts, Heisman Winners, and Coaching Carousels in alternate timeline
Lamar Jackson was one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in college football in the last decade.
His excellence was on national display at Louisville during a classic encounter with Clemson 42-36, a true demolition of Florida State during a superlative sophomore season to win the Heisman Trophy.
Jackson said of his commitment to the Sun Sentinel, “When I was up there making my announcement, I thought I might decommit,” Jackson told the Sun Sentinel. “It really came down to the wire. I felt Louisville was family. Coach Thomas had a great connection with me, and I love how coach Petrino develops quarterbacks. I had to go with my gut.”
With that Jackson became a Cardinal but we wonder, what if Jim McElwain and the Gators would have secured the commitment of Jackson?
Petrino's second stanza in Louisville is pretty much forgettable outside of the Lamar Jackson era. It was the highlight of his time there, but Jackson masked serious deficiencies that came about in 2018. For instance, during Jackson's Heisman winning season, he was sacked 47 times.
Petrino never was able to find a suitable running game, an offensive line, and went through 3 different Defensive Coordinators at the end of tenure at Louisville.
Without Jackson, Petrino's time goes one of two ways, either the hype doesn't exist, and he is still coaching there, building that program, or it just accelerates the termination process.
When Jim McElwain took over for Will Muschamp in Gainesville, one of the top priorities was to connect with Boynton Beach prospect.
Jackson made a connection with outgoing Offensive Coordinator Kurt Roper, and the question of stability was key for him as McElwain and incoming Offensive Coordinator Doug Nussmeier would have to convince Jackson.
If they had been able to convince Jackson to commit to Florida, the quarterback room was wide open in his time. Will Grier might still have encountered his issues and would most likely transfer, and Austin Appleby and Luke Del Rio aren't in the same league as Jackson.
Jackson plays at a higher level, and for all the issues he did mask for Petrino in 2017, he would have done for McElwain. Also, it gives McElwain the momentum to have a stronger pipeline of recruits to fill in and potentially put Florida in a stronger position.
2016 SEC Championship Game
Lamar Jackson would have been a starter maybe as early as the 2015 season, his talent was that good. Even if he gives Jim McElwain 75% of what he did for Bobby Petrino and Louisville in this alternative timeline that is still 2,657 yards passing 24 touchdown passes, 1,178 yards rushing and 16 rushing touchdowns.
That is still Heisman material and difference making material.
You look at Florida's schedule from 2016, the Tennessee game stands out. The Gators completely collapsed after being up 21-0 on the Volunteers and then letting them score 38 unanswered in an embarassing defeat. In an alternate universe, Jackson is simply too dynamic to be shutdown and if he puts up 21 points like the Gators did, he will front run you to victory.
The other two losses were to Arkansas and Florida State, Luke Del Rio and Austin Appleby combined in those two losses to complete 52.7% of their passes, 378 yards, 0 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. I feel Lamar Jackson would be infinitely better in these contests.
There is a potential the 2016 SEC Championship Game would have been an encounter of two undefeated teams and potentially for Florida maybe a 1-loss team.
Alabama would have entered the game up to that point wire-to-wire the No. 1 team in the nation and had a defense that was giving up to that point 11.4 points per game. Jackson would have given the Crimson Tide some fits, and it may have been a better game than a 54-16 demolition.
This gives McElwain and Florida a lot more momentum going into bowl season and the 2017 season.
If Jackson comes to Florida, it gives Jim McElwain momentum and delays or even eliminates the possibility of Dan Mullen coming back to Florida, where he was a successful offensive coordinator under Urban Meyer.
This means Mullen is either building a stronger program in Starkville, or he sees the writing on the wall as a ceiling contending with Auburn, Alabama, and LSU in the SEC West that he goes somewhere else.
If Mullen is still coaching at Mississippi State, it keeps Penn State Offensive Coordinator Joe Moorhead in Happy Valley.
I don't feel Moorhead would have been a lifetime assistant in Happy Valley, but he would have given James Franklin more stability on the offensive side of the ball. One of the things Penn State as of late hasn't been able to find the suitable replacement for Moorhead as they have gone through Ricky Rahne, Tyler Bowen, Kirk Ciarrocca, and now Mike Yurcich.
Even though Leach takes over for Joe Moorhead at Mississippi State, Dan Mullen not leaving on time potentially throws this off for the Bulldogs and gives another SEC program a chance at Leach: Tennessee.
While Leach describes the 2017 Tennessee experience as "something out of Shakespeare," the mindset of Tennessee after the Greg Schiano fallout may have been a lot different toward Leach if programs like Florida and Mississippi State are on solid foundations.
2016 & 2017 Heisman Trophy Races
Two games defined Lamar Jackson's Heisman Trophy campaign:
- The 63-20 demolition of Florida State where Jackson had over 350 total yards of offense and 5 touchdowns.
- The primetime showdown against Clemson that went down to the wire 42-36 where Jackson had 457 yards of total offense and 3 touchdowns.
I still feel Jackson would be invited to New York, but I feel without those two games and if we go with the 75% of production I came up with above that still yields nearly 4,000 yards of total offense and 40 touchdowns, I feel Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson wins the Heisman Trophy in 2016.
The question then becomes of the 2017 Heisman race that would include two 2016 Heisman Trophy finalists in Lamar Jackson and Baker Mayfield.
Without us truly knowing what the 2017 Florida Gators would be with the momentum of recruiting and what improvements they could have had, it is hard to say. I still lean that Baker Mayfield wins the Heisman, but if Lamar Jackson has numbers that won him the Heisman at Louisville with Florida, it is anyone's guess how that goes.
Jimbo Fisher doesn't escape Lamar Jackson in this alternative universe, he just changes the circumstances.
Looking back the 2016 Louisville beatdown of Florida State may have exposed more than we thought, that game not happening keeps things under wraps.
We aren't truly privy to the breakdown of what happened with Florida State Administration, the Athletic Department, and Jimbo Fisher but we know that there was a total schism that led to Jimbo looking to leave and not putting his best foot forward.
If Florida State in 2016, say they beat a Lamar-less Louisville, there is no hangover in a 37-35 loss to UNC, say they beat an undefeated Florida team or even a 1-loss Florida team in a Top 10 showdown in that rivalry, winning cures a lot of things and disagreements around.
The Rise of Georgia Bulldogs
I do feel Georgia still becomes an elite program under Kirby Smart.
I recently wrote a piece on where Kirby stands amongst his SEC coaching peers all time and I don't back away from that assessment in this alternative universe. In my opinion, if Jim McElwain properly leverages and builds its program out around Lamar Jackson, it delays Kirby Smart's momentum when he took over in 2016.
The SEC East is still up in the air in 2016, but if Florida rips a 10-2 or 11-1 regular season, it becomes a lot harder to swing kids in the region.
I do feel The World's Largest Cocktail Party packs an even bigger kick if McElwain truly realizes his program and Smart realizes his, as two former Saban coordinators duke it out for SEC East supremacy.