(This is an early column before Saturday night’s Alabama-Florida State game.)
When there are no games to watch, and sometimes even when there are, there are two universal obsessions in sports: yesterday and tomorrow.
Somewhere between, “How did we blow that lead?” and, “We’ll never lose another game,” there’s chemical balance. But that generally doesn’t exist in college football. It’s why we have people like Nick Saban to periodically, and seemingly joyously, slap us silly with orchestrated news conference rants like this:
“You guys make all these predictions about everything. Who’s gonna win all the games? I don’t even know why we play. Why do we even play? Why do we even have practice? Why do we compete? Why do we coach guys? …”
“… I mean, you guys got all the answers to how guys are gonna be, what they’re gonna do. I mean, sometimes I wonder… why do we play? Why do we even have practice? Because you guys have got all these conclusions already drawn about who’s what, how good they are, what they can do.”
Alabama was a preseason No. 1 going into Saturday’s opening game against Florida State. Saban hates backdrops like that because it leads to questions like, “Do you know you might play three games in Atlanta this season — the opener, the SEC championship and the national title game, and by the way can you bless my grandchildren and sign my forehead?”
Saban has won four national championships at Alabama. He could win a fifth. It would be a championship the rest of the SEC would run up the flag pole because that’s what conferences do. But there’s no denying there has been a shift in college football’s power structure. It’s now … everywhere.
The SEC went through a ridiculously gluttonous period in the BCS era when it won seven consecutive championships (Alabama, Auburn, Florida, LSU). It was represented in the final eight BCS title games (both halves in the 2011 season: Alabama vs. LSU) . Conversely, the SEC was represented in only two of the first eight BCS title games.
“I don’t think there will be another run like that,” former Georgia All-American and ESPN analyst David Pollack said. “It was pretty crazy to think about and pretty historic. You think about all of the SEC teams that had success – Auburn, Florida, Alabama, the ones who stepped up and won it. I don’t think anybody will match that.”
There has been a shift in the past four years. In the first three seasons of the College Football Playoff, the SEC (Alabama), ACC (Clemson) and Big Ten (Ohio State) each have claimed titles. If you factor in Florida State’s 2013 championship that closed the BCS era, the ACC has been the relative conference kings over the past four years.
Also, both of the ACC’s final wins came over SEC teams: FSU over Auburn; Clemson over Alabama. That’s why ACC coaches claimed conference superiority before this season.
“I think we’ve established ourselves as the premier conference in college football,” Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher said.
Even Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall was gloating.
Somewhere it is written: The Virginia football coach should never gloat.
More numbers Saban won’t obsess over: Oddsmakers in Las Vegas don’t get everything right, but they’re generally pretty close. Alabama is the preseason betting favorite to win the championship (12-5), but the next six teams and seven of eight are from the Big Ten (Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State), Pac-12 (USC, Washington), ACC (Florida State), and Big 12 (Oklahoma).
One reason for the SEC’s dominance eroding is coaching talent going elsewhere. The Big Ten added Urban Meyer (who went from Florida to Ohio State), James Franklin (Vanderbilt to Penn State) and Jim Harbaugh (NFL to Michigan). Add Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio and rising star P.J. Fleck at Minnesota, and it’s easy to see why the conference is no longer a punchline.
The ACC, forever the SEC’s little brother, now includes Jimbo Fisher, Dabo Swinney (who’s gained a new level of respect), Mark Richt, Paul Johnson, Bobby Petrino (contemptible, but with a level of success in college), David Cutcliffe and Justin Fuente.
Strong and higher profile coaches lead to stronger recruiting and, usually, an increased in fundraising.
High-tempo spread offenses, widely adopted in some form across the nation, also have contributed to the shift.
“Tempo started an avalanche across football,” Pollack said. “You saw that with Oregon, playing fast and what that did and the schematic systems of the West Coast, giving people headaches and problems. Think about (Texas) A&M having a good run with Johnny Manziel and Ole Miss having a great run with the talent they got for several years, and Dak Prescott for Mississippi State.
“The other schools don’t have Nick Saban. They don’t have the ace in the hole. But I think you’re going to continue to see a lot of talent that’s spread out, a lot of systems that can score a lot of points, a lot of tempo. If you get a player like Prescott or Cam Newton at quarterback, you can make things happen. The great players will pop up all over the place.”
A loss Saturday night will not take either Alabama or Florida State out of the playoff picture. Either way, the winners of the SEC and ACC likely will make the playoffs. But if there are four teams from four conferences in the semifinals, all previous assumptions about what happens next have been shelved.
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