Tony Barnhart is Mr. College Football, and he has three jobs and the registered trademark to prove it. The Georgia graduate, in his 38th year of covering the game, works for the SEC Network, CBS and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, keeping track of all things college football, particularly in the SEC.
So when he took the podium at last week’s annual Reese’s Senior Bowl and Dex Imaging L’Arche College Football Preview at South Alabama’s Mitchell Center, Barnhart had the audience’s attention. And he shared the head table with new Florida head coach Jim McElwain, Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee, Alabama defensive backs coach Mel Tucker, South Alabama head coach Joey Jones and Florida State defensive coordinator Charles Kelly, as well as Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage.
In a press conference prior to the event, Barnhart said he believes Alabama and Auburn are ahead of the other teams in the SEC right now and he favors Georgia to be the East Division winner. In the Big Ten he favors Ohio State and noted no one knows how good Oregon will be in the Pac 12 without QB Marcus Mariota. He said he thinks Clemson has a good chance to win the ACC crown, though FSU, with the addition of former Notre Dame QB Everett Golson, could win the league again if he can protect the football. Barnhart favors TCU in the Big 12.
As someone whose first concern is the health of the overall college game, Barnhart said he hopes the Power Five conferences (SEC, Pac 12, ACC, Big Ten and Big 12) will continue to schedule games against teams from the Group of Five conferences (Sun Belt, Mountain West, Conference USA, American Athletic and Mid-American). Barnhart also gives the College Football Playoffs a big thumbs up.
“The game is more popular than it has ever been and the playoffs added an extra level of excitement,” he said.
As for the SEC, he said Alabama and Auburn lead the way in the West Division, but the remaining five teams are a toss-up. “Three through seven (in the division) are all the same team, and they’re all Top 25 teams,” Barnhart said. “When I did my picks … I had Mississippi State, which is insane, because they’ve got the best quarterback in the league. But when you look at what they lost, that’s where they slotted in.”
Barnhart said the West is the most balanced he has ever seen it. He said he thinks Tennessee could be a darkhorse pick in the East Division, but its youthful roster probably won’t allow it to win the divisional crown. Florida needs help on its offensive line and other areas before it is is ready to contend in the East.
Here are a few other thoughts shared by guest speakers:
USA’s Joey Jones on last season, including earning the Jaguars’ first bowl invitation: “The biggest thing is how it has helped recruiting,” he said. “Guys, when we go to Miami now, they know who South Alabama is. I’ll be honest with you, a couple of years ago some didn’t even know where South was … Also, you create credibility with other programs in the conference some. It (bowl game) was probably the best thing to ever happen to us.”
Auburn’s Rhett Lashlee on Auburn’s offense under Jeremy Johnson: “Nick (Marshall) was special in his own right and he did a lot of great things for us,” he said. “We tried to play to his strengths and we’ll do the same thing with Jeremy. Our offense was change from the core and style that it is. We’ve had all different styles of good quarterbacks (over the years) and I think part of good coaching is to play to your strengths and what your quarterback does best.”
Alabama’s Mel Tucker on working with head coach Nick Saban: “I’ve worked with coach Saban before — I worked with him at Michigan State, he gave me my first job in 1997,” Tucker said. “I also worked with coach Saban at LSU … He hasn’t changed his core philosophy.”
FSU’s Charles Kelly on the Seminoles’ defense this season: “We’ve got to have some guys come through that haven’t played a lot, but that we think are very talented,” he said. “We’ve moved a couple of guys around … And we feel like we’ve got some good, young players who did some good thing in the spring. It’s going to be fun to watch them compete.”
Florida head coach Jim McElwain on the mood of Gator fans heading into this season: “First and foremost, the Gator brand is special,” he said. “No matter what part of the country you’re in, if someone sees that Gator they know who it is, what it is and what it’s all about. And that’s great … The one thing we’re trying to get across is there are so many things to be celebrated.”