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Texas A&M photo by Craig Bisacre / Quarterback Kellen Mond and the Texas A&M Aggies are Phil Steele's surprise team in the SEC due to a more experienced roster and a less taxing schedule compared to last year, when they faced Clemson and Georgia in addition to Alabama, Auburn and LSU.

Whether it's a delayed college football season, a shortened season or even a season at all, Phil Steele has met his obligation.

The Phil Steele 2020 College Football Preview, a 350-page publication containing statistics, returning starters and predictions for all 130 Bowl Subdivision teams, was shipped out Wednesday to thousands of fans who annually consume the sport's most comprehensive preseason magazine. The upcoming season, should it transpire, already has league-only games in the Big Ten and Pac-12 conferences due to continuing concerns over the coronavirus, which certainly had an effect on Steele as well.

"I had a lot of wonder in March," Steele said this week. "In Ohio, they closed our office down and all the employees were on unemployment — the entire staff. I was just sitting here at the office by myself, grinding away.

"When things reopened at the end of May and the start of June and the staff got back in, we went full bore on the magazine and were able to put in the same amount of effort and quality that we normally do."

Steele typically produces 200,000 copies of his preseason magazine, but only 50,000 have been made this year. Distribution methods also have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, with only Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million stocking his publication for those who didn't order through philsteele.com.

Ohio State is Steele's preseason No. 1 team, while Alabama is his pick to win the Southeastern Conference. Nick Saban's Crimson Tide went 11-2 last season with losses to LSU and Auburn, which resulted in them missing out on college football's four-team playoff for the first time since its inception in 2014.

"I'm not enamored with Mac Jones at quarterback, but I am enamored with the rest of the Alabama team," Steele said. "They have my No. 1-ranked offensive line in the country. They were rather young on that line last year, but this year it's a veteran unit. They've got great receivers with Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith, and they have one of the best running back corps in the country with Najee Harris, Trey Sanders and Brian Robinson.

"Their defense has (linebackers) Dylan Moses and Joshua McMillon back from injuries, and it's a more veteran defense than normal. They didn't lose as many guys to the NFL draft as they normally do. I'm looking for Alabama to have a better defense and a very good offense with my No. 1 offensive line."

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University of Alabama photo / Running back Najee Harris and the Alabama Crimson Tide are Phil Steele's pick to win the 2020 SEC championship, provided the league can stage a season.

When asked about SEC surprises from a good and bad standpoint, Steele picked Texas A&M and Mississippi State.

"Texas A&M played three teams that were ranked No. 1 last season (Clemson, Alabama and LSU), and they played a No. 4 team (Georgia) and a No. 8 team (Auburn)," Steele said. "This year, they play the nation's 66th-toughest schedule and are No. 10 on my experience chart.

"I think Mike Leach is stepping into a tough situation at Mississippi State by taking a running team and turning it into a passing team. That could be a two- or three-year process."

Steele, who was a guest of "Press Row" on Chattanooga's ESPN 105.1 FM, said he spoke to more than 110 FBS coaches and that the experienced ones with veteran rosters expressed optimism even if they had few to no spring practices. He cited a first-year coach like Michigan State's Mel Tucker, who replaced Mark Dantonio in mid-February and inherits just 10 returning starters, as someone who may be impacted more than others by coronavirus-related limitations.

The big question is obviously whether there will be a season to accompany Steele's publication, and he places himself on the optimistic side of that debate.

"As long as we have conference play, I'll be happy," Steele said. "Anything above that would be great."

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Phil Steele

PICKS OF STEELE

National college football analyst Phil Steele on a quick-hitting range of topics:

Q: Of all the coaches you’ve interviewed, who is the least optimistic of having a football season this year?

A: “Troy Calhoun of Air Force.”

Q: Who has the better first season in the Magnolia State, Mike Leach or Lane Kiffin?

A: “Lane Kiffin. He is inheriting a lot of talented players who were freshmen last year.”

Q: Former Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville is running for the U.S. Senate. Which current coach would make the best politician?

A: “Stanford’s David Shaw.”

Q: Who is Georgia’s starting quarterback, JT Daniels or Jamie Newman?

A: “I’m going with Newman. He’s been in Athens all year, and he’s a quality quarterback who did a great job at Wake Forest last year.”

Q: Who wins the national championship, provided there is a way to determine one?

A: “I picked Ohio State as my preseason No. 1, so that’s who I’ll stick with. Ryan Day did a great job last year, and he has a lot of talent returning.”

 

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.

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