Don’t fall for the fake yawns. Everyone in college football will be watching, although with varying emotions.
Annoyance. Fear. Jealousy. Angst. Awe.
It’s Alabama-Clemson for the fourth straight year, the third time in the national championship game, and despite the repetitiveness, it won’t be boring. It’s an incredible collision of talent and coaching, of power and precision. These two teams have dominated college football like no two teams in the modern era for a five-year stretch.
On one hand, you can sit back tonight and marvel at Nick Saban, seemingly getting younger and more innovative every year. (He’s 67 and looks about the same as he did at Michigan State 20 years ago, does he not?) Saban has won five of the past nine national titles, six overall, and is just about cemented as the Greatest of All Time.
Or go ahead and pop a soda and focus on Clemson’s extraordinary defensive line, which is matched only by Alabama’s extraordinary defensive line, tied together by two extraordinary young quarterbacks.
Or, I suppose you could revisit the sport’s hand-wringing debate: Is Alabama’s and Clemson’s concurrent greatness good for the sport, or damaging to the sport?
My easy answer: It’s good in the short term because it probably will produce another high-level thriller between a pair of 14-0 teams. It’s not good in the long term because it highlights the regional nature and inequities of college football, and will stir more people to illogically beg for a bigger playoff because — what? — we need more semifinal blowouts?
I suggest you enjoy it for now and worry about the implications later. The previous championship matchups were classics — Alabama won 45-40, then Clemson 35-31 — and I suspect Alabama will narrowly retain the title (let’s go with 40-37).
While enjoying it, it’s also important to understand it, especially for teams around here, in the Big Ten and Midwest. It’s important for Michigan and Jim Harbaugh to realize how much the game has changed in only a few years, and how much now is tied to offensive creativity, not just defensive mauling and power running.
Unfortunately (or fortunately) for Michigan, it hasn’t experienced the playoff, now in its fifth season, and hasn’t received a graphic illustration of how large the gap is. Michigan State and Mark Dantonio made the playoff in 2015 and lost to Alabama, 38-0. Notre Dame made it this year and lost to Clemson, 30-3. Ohio State made it in 2016 and lost to Clemson, 31-0.
Urban Meyer’s Buckeyes are the only breakthrough team, winning the inaugural four-team playoff in 2014, bashing Oregon 42-20. But overall, this should be embarrassing for the Big Ten, which hasn’t even sent its champion to the past three playoffs. It also should be enlightening.
Consider this: There have been 12 playoff games the past four years, counting the semifinals and title contests, and Alabama or Clemson has won 11 of them.
If there’s a simmering crisis in college football, with lopsided bowl games, players sitting out, and plummeting ticket prices for a matchup we’ve seen before, it’s not Alabama’s and Clemson’s fault. Here’s one solution: Somebody go beat them.
“I’m not going to apologize for having a great team and a great program and a bunch of committed guys, and Coach Saban isn’t either,” Swinney said Sunday. “I think the objective is to get the two best teams. That’s kind of the way it is. If that’s not best for college football, then why do we even do it?”
Saban shifts his approach
It’s easy to say they’ve built machines and can’t help but keep winning, but the truth is, they’ve built and rebuilt machines, changing parts and plans and assistant coaches, unafraid of the consequences. Swinney replaced incumbent quarterback Kelly Bryant with freshman Trevor Lawrence early in the season because his passing and overall athleticism were impossible to hold back.
Flexibility, adaptability. After winning a national title at LSU, Saban took over a down-in-the-dumps Alabama program and won the first of five more titles in 2009. He did it with a pounding defense and a basic game-managing quarterback in Greg McElroy.
But in 2014, Saban saw the game veering, and he boldly evolved. He took a chance by hiring controversial coordinator Lane Kiffin, and the offense cracked wide open, with run-pass options, talented receivers and play-making quarterbacks. This season it’s led by sophomore sensation Tua Tagovailoa, who supplanted previous sensation Jalen Hurts.
In 2009, the Crimson Tide averaged 32.1 points per game. This season, they averaged 47.7 and broke virtually every school record. Clemson isn’t far behind, averaging 44.3.
Saban once abhorred the spread offenses, then realized up-tempo teams were the only ones that beat him, so he smartly joined them. During media day at the championship game outside San Francisco, he matter-of-factly explained why he altered philosophies.
“The rules have changed relative to RPOs (run-pass options), blocking downfield on passes behind the line of scrimmage,” Saban said. “Those things have really made a huge impact on how people play offense, so it’s created a lot of adjustments and adaptability on defense. … I’m always looking ahead. I’m always sort of focused on the next challenge.”
This is a coach who switched quarterbacks at halftime of last year’s title game, trailing Georgia 13-0. He threw in true freshman Tagovailoa, who coolly led the comeback and tossed a 41-yard pass in OT to win it.
One of the early knocks against high-octane offenses is that they don’t prepare players for the NFL, and you can’t develop a defense playing that way. That theory has been blown up, and even the staid NFL increasingly embraces it. Baker Mayfield’s mobility and moxie made him the No. 1 pick. By most accounts, the 2020 No. 1 pick is expected to be Tagovailoa. The 2021 No. 1 pick is expected to be Lawrence.
Oh, Alabama and Clemson still have loaded defenses. The great linemen on both teams, from Alabama’s Quinnen Williams to Clemson’s Dexter Lawrence (sitting out because of a failed drug test) remain hotly coveted. But Swinney, like Saban, saw the talent pool change 8-10 years ago, as high schools put their best athletes at quarterback and utilized more spread concepts, instead of traditional drop-back passing.
Meyer certainly understood it and cranked out dynamic offenses, winning the 2014 title with three mobile quarterbacks. I think Harbaugh and Dantonio understand it, but do they have the willingness to embrace it?
Dantonio has shown few signs of revamping his offense. Harbaugh has shown some signs and probably will alter it again, but was reluctant to fully utilize Shea Patterson’s running ability. The Wolverines won 10 straight the old-fashioned way, but when they ran into faster, dynamic offenses, they got crushed by Ohio State and Florida.
That should be enough of a revelation right there. Nobody in college football does it better than Alabama and Clemson, collecting athletes and letting them loose. Instead of lamenting it, more programs need to learn from it.
No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 2 Clemson
Kickoff: 8 Monday, Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara, Calif.
Records: Both teams 14-0
Line: Alabama by 5½