Guerry Clegg

Auburn’s schedule is brutal, Justyn Ross is a star and more preseason notes from Guerry Clegg

College football is now three months away. We’re officially in countdown mode.

Well, for many fans, the countdown began as the clock in the Clemson-Alabama game hit 0:00. Most fans, though, need an emotional recovery after four months of ups and downs, frustration and heartbreak. Spring football is an appetizer of celery stalks, without dressing.

When the calendar flips to June, the start of a new season is close enough to anticipate.

School is out. Baseball season has lost its newness. The college football magazines have hit the shelves. All signs that another season is, if not imminent, then at least close enough to start pondering.

So along those lines, here are some thoughts as I browse the magazines and websites.

Auburn’s schedule is nothing short of brutal. Based on the two leading preseason magazines — Lindy’s and Athlon — the Tigers play six teams deemed worthy of a top 10 ranking. Both magazines have Alabama, Georgia, Florida and LSU among their top 10. Lindy’s has Oregon at No. 10, while Athlon has Texas A&M at No. 10. Only two of those games — Georgia and Alabama — are at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

Sure, preseason rankings are as trustworthy as an Urban Meyer promise. But until the games begin, they’re all we have to go on.

Yeah, it’s going to be that way every year as long as Auburn remains in the SEC West and plays Georgia every season. But the rotating inter-division schedule is perhaps the worst-case scenario for the Tigers, having to play resurgent Florida in Gainesville. Having to play the Gators a week after playing Mississippi State — always a physically exhausting game — is as tough as it gets.

If Gus Malzahn can navigate that schedule with two losses, he will deserve to be SEC Coach of the Year.

Central grad Justyn Ross may be the best receiver in college football. Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy won the Biletnikoff Award as the top receiver in college football and is ranked as the top player in the 2020 NFL draft by Mel Kiper Jr. He’s considered the best route runner in college.

But Ross is 6’4”, three inches taller than Jeudy, and every bit as athletic. Ross made an immediate impact for Clemson last season as a freshman. He came of age in the national championship game, especially in the second half. He finished with 46 catches, 1,000 yards and nine touchdowns. With Hunter Renfrow gone (finally, right?) those numbers should improve, especially with quarterback Trevor Lawrence’s continued growth.

Consider this: 12 of those 46 catches — 26 percent — came in the playoffs against Notre Dame and Alabama. That’s one more catch than Amari Rogers (eight) and Tee Higgins (seven) had combined.

Alabama needs to root for Tennessee and Auburn. The Crimson Tide’s schedule could prevent them from make the College Football Playoff. When the selection committee convenes, it will talk about resumes. The Tide’s toughest non-conference opponent is … Duke. Without Daniel Jones.

Their SEC East opponents are South Carolina and Tennessee. At best, they project to be the third and fourth best teams in the East behind Georgia and Florida. The only challenging aspect to their schedule is that they play three of the top four West opponents (Texas A&M, Mississippi State and Auburn) on the road.

If the committee truly does ignore past accomplishments, Alabama may have zero margin for error. It likely would overcome a regular season loss by winning the SEC Championship. But unlike the 2017 team, the Tide cannot fail to win the SEC and still make the playoff.

The most irreplaceable player in college football is …? Most would say Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm. To be sure, Fromm is the heart and soul of the Bulldogs’ locker room. But look at it this way. Which backup has more upside, Stetson Bennett or Mac Jones? Clemson’s Chase Brice played well last season when Lawrence was injured. I’m going with Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, or maybe Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert.