College football saved its best for last. But when it was finally over, and it took awhile before Deshaun Watson’s last-second touchdown pass capped a 35-31 win over Alabama in a playoff title-game rematch, there was a familiar refrain swirling in the air with all that confetti.
Only this time this wasn’t the SEC bragging.
“I mean, I watch on tape, I watched all the Big Ten film and all that stuff,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said, more than a bit dismissively. “This is the best conference in college football. It's the deepest, it's the most competitive.”
This time, it was the ACC supplying the regional trash talk, trying to put everyone else in their place.
“You don't want to play a team from this conference,” Swinney said. “You just don't.”
Not this year, at least. Including Clemson’s two playoff wins, the ACC finished 9-3 in the bowl season, best of any conference. The league also went 16-6 in head-to-head meetings with SEC and Big Ten schools. And it wasn’t just the Tigers, obviously, as Florida State beat Michigan in the Orange Bowl in another high-profile postseason matchup.
But that merely stirs up the annual debate here in the Midwest, as Big Ten football fans ask themselves just how close they really are to competing — consistently — with all those Southern gentlemen down there where football is religion and a rare Alabama loss actually had folks questioning Nick Saban’s coaching acumen Tuesday morning.
Whatever the answer, this much is clear: They’re certainly giving it the old college try.
Big Ten schools might not have all the ingredients they need in their backyard, but they’re sparing no expense in hiring the best chefs and stocking the cupboards. And that’s more than half the battle in college football, where you’re not going to win big — and regularly contend for a national championship — without a top-notch coach and a roster littered with NFL-caliber talent.
That was a given when the SEC dominated the Bowl Championship Series era. But now the Big Ten and ACC have joined the SEC to win the first three College Football Playoff crowns, while claiming nine of the 12 playoff berths.
Playing on Sundays
To find out why, “just look at the NFL draft,” as Swinney said. Those three leagues have produced 257 NFL draft picks the last two years — the SEC (105) leading the way, followed by the Big Ten (82) and ACC (73). That’s partly a numbers game, since those are the three Power 5 conferences with 14 members apiece. But the numbers do matter.
Clemson and Alabama had a combined 16 players drafted last spring. (Michigan State and Oklahoma, the other two playoff qualifiers, added nine more.) And Monday night’s game featured as many as 8-10 prospects who’ll go in the first round of this April’s draft.
For Alabama, that’s simply the norm, with its $100 million annual football budget and more national titles than anybody else. But in Clemson’s case, it’s largely a testament to Swinney’s salesmanship. He turned “little ol’ Clemson” into the biggest story in college football with an affable, energetic approach and a tireless recruiting effort.
“Well, I mean, there's no doubt, if we'd have walked out there last night and brought our checkbooks, we’d get our butt kicked,” Swinney joked Tuesday. “We're comparing budgets and checkbooks and all that stuff, we'd get how many five-stars and we'd get dominated.”
But as much as this sport is ruled by the almighty dollar, college football remains a cult of personality, too. That’s where the Big Ten seems to be catching on, and maybe catching up.
It started with Ohio State’s 2011 hiring of Urban Meyer, who brought an SEC intensity and immediately ratcheted up the recruiting wars. Michigan State coaches bristled. Bret Bielema, then the head coach of Big Ten champ Wisconsin, went a step further, complaining about players getting poached and snapping, “I can tell you this: We at the Big Ten don’t want to be like the SEC — in any way, shape or form.”
Except they did, of course. Ten months later, Bielema bolted Wisconsin for an SEC job at Arkansas. But the rest of the Big Ten realized it had no choice but to try “keep pushing the envelope,” as Meyer urged his peers, or get left behind.
The Big Ten already had some established coaches in Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz, Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio and Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald. But then Penn State brought in James Franklin, who was just named national coach of the year Tuesday. And Michigan lured Jim Harbaugh back to his alma mater, a move that reverberated far beyond Ann Arbor. More recently, Illinois landed another former NFL head coach in Lovie Smith, while Maryland and Minnesota each think they’ve hired their own mini-Meyer in D.J. Durkin and P.J. Fleck, respectively.
Michigan State might have made its mark with player development, highlighted by three straight top-six finishes and a 37-4 mark from 2013-15. But Dantonio and his staff also found more than their share of diamonds in the rough, sending a couple of dozen players to the NFL the last five years. And now Michigan is back in the game, threatening to match Ohio State’s remarkable 2016 draft class with a double-digit NFL class of its own this spring.
Meanwhile, the Wolverines are right there with the Buckeyes on the recruiting trail, both schools in line to land 2017 classes ranked in the top five nationally for a second consecutive year. The Buckeyes are used to that by now. (“Believe it or not, I never really recruited against Ohio State until Coach Meyer went there,” Swinney said.) But the Wolverines probably will be again soon. They nearly landed the nation’s No. 1-ranked recruit for a second consecutive season, making a late bid to flip running back Najee Harris from Alabama. He ultimately decided to stick with Saban, but it said something that the Wolverines were in the mix, just as it does that they're still in on Aubrey Solomon, a five-star defensive tackle from Georgia.
Mostly what it says, though, was what was already obvious: Harbaugh intends to do more than simply push the envelope at Michigan, whether it’s the satellite camps or his team’s Florida spring camp or all the seven-figure salaries on his staff.
And with the kind of company he’s keeping now in the Big Ten, it’s seems like a good bet the best is yet to come.
The next level
NFL draft picks by conference the last two years.
SEC: 54 (2015), 51 (2016), 105 (total)
Big Ten: 35, 47, 82
ACC: 47, 26, 73
Pac-12: 38, 32, 70
Big 12: 25, 26, 51