Forty names, games, teams, and little things that make headlines in college football (where the Houston Cougars defense needs a talk from Houston basketball coach Kelvin Sampson, whose team only dropped 77 or more points twice last season):
The kings are dead… Long live the king
It appears that for the first time in the nine-season college football playoff era, we’re going to be able to host one with neither Germany (1) still Klemson (2). They have been the two dominant brands of the last eight years of the CFP: the Crimson Tide has made the bracket seven times and won three national titles; the Tigers have done it six times and won it all twice. Now, after both being upset on Saturday, they’re looking inside from the outside and need a lot of help to change their circumstances.
But today, bigger questions are emerging about both programs: Is their window of dominance closing? Is the heyday over? Is this the inevitable beginning of the inevitable end of two dynasties?
As foolhardy as it may be to announce the demise of coaches like Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney, there’s reason to believe they’ve reached a tipping point.
This, of course, is relative to absurdly high programming standards. Conference championships, playoff placements, and national championships are all expected, and tremendous resources have been dedicated at both schools to achieve those goals. What might be considered a slip in Alabama and Clemson would be a dream season just about anywhere else.
But nothing lasts forever, and both have already surpassed historic norms — no one has ever endured a run like Saban’s 14 seasons from 2008-21, and few can match what Swinney achieved from 2015-2020. Just look at the product on the field.
For Alabama (7-2), two losses totaling four points on the road to 8-1 Tennessee and 7-2 LSU is hardly a disaster. It could be argued that The Tide is two games away from going unbeaten. But it could also be argued that after narrow escapes against Texas and Texas A&M, they are only two games away from a 5-4. Split the difference in four 50-50 games and ‘Bama probably has the record it deserves at this point.
The fact is that the Tide was (logically) eliminated at the earliest from the playoff race. The only other time Alabama missed the field came in 2019’s final Iron Bowl blow against Auburn, after an injury in mid-November knocked out Tua Tagovailoa and left the season in the hands of the then-untried Mac Jones.
This season is similar to the 2010 team from Alabama, who finished 9-3 in the regular season and suffered their second loss to LSU in early November. This team is Saban’s only underachiever at the school.
The biggest red flags that this ‘Bama team is slipping are in the areas of refereeing, penalty shootouts and defence. Fans are ecstatic for coordinators Pete Golding and Bill O’Brien, but trouble seems to run higher. This just doesn’t resemble the buttoned-up machine we’re used to.
Saban’s In-Game Coaching Decisions (3) have proved costly in both Alabama losses. He managed the clock poorly against Tennessee in the end – instead of bringing it down to almost zero before attempting a green field goal, he gave the Volunteers enough time for one last possession that resulted in a game-winning kick. And on Saturday in Baton Rouge, Saban’s fourth-quarter decisions to chase points with two two-point conversions backfired: Both attempts failed, meaning ‘Bama had to settle for a tie in the last minute , than it could have kicked game winner. Eventually the tide lost in OT.
No coach gets every decision right, but to see Saban on the wrong side of these two is heartbreaking. And maybe told.
In terms of penalties, Alabama can celebrate ending its streak of three-digit penalty kicks in away games with four: They were marked “only” nine times for 92 yards against LSU. The Tide ranks 125th nationally and last in the SEC for penalties per game — something a dominant team might be able to get away with, but not one that has as many close games as Alabama this season.
But perhaps the biggest departure from “Alabusiness As Usual” is a defense that doesn’t spawn enough big plays — especially the ones extreme reduction of takeaways (4). From 2008-21, The Tide averaged 25.2 takeaways per season. Total so far this year: six. That’s last in the SEC and ranks 127th nationally, which is shocking for a Saban team. And LSU became the fourth opponent this season not to turn the ball at all against Alabama, which is more than the previous three seasons combined.
This team was expected to be elite defensively, with linebacker Will Anderson leading an expectedly touted pass rush and a secondary touted as one of the best in the nation. But the department hasn’t done enough in the revenue department to turn tight games into mishaps or losses into wins.
For Clemson (8-1), this could be the second straight season he’s missed the playoffs (which he’s never done before). The Tigers could still come into the game 12-1, but their only loss is dire: They were blown out 35-14 by an unranked Notre Dame team. (The ACC’s top two teams both lost to the Fighting Irish, who in turn lost to Marshall and Stanford. That will mark the playoff résumé.) Saturday was Clemson’s biggest non-playoff game loss in eight years . from before Swinney kicked the program into high gear.
Clemson’s problems are different than Alabama’s, but just as pronounced. Start with the obvious: Quarterback Game (5). When the Tigers were at their peak, they were led by two elite QBs in Deshaun Watson and Trevor Lawerence. Now they are deep in a two-year battle for that position.
It’s better than last year, mostly because it can’t get any worse. But it’s not up to the standard set by Watson and Lawrence, and the last two games against quality defenses (Syracuse and Notre Dame) have been brutal. Clemson’s combined passing stats from those games: 42 of 65 for 348 yards with a touchdown and four interceptions, one of which was a 96-yard pick six. Efficiency rating: 102.36, which is rough.
In both games, starter DJ Uiagalelei was benched for newcomer Cade Klubnik, who paid some dividends against the Orange but not the Irish. The Clemson QBs are missing a game-changing receiver, as that unit has become pedestrian since the days of Tee Higgins, a healthy Justyn Ross and Amari Rodgers.
But the Clemson defense, touted as one of the best in the country, also fell short in South Bend. The Irishman rushed for 263 yards, the most the Tigers have allowed on the ground since the 2014 season opener. When the team’s strength is weakened, there is a problem.
Maybe turnover (6) is a problem following the loss of longtime coordinators Brent Venables and Tony Elliott. But last year’s team was worse than this one, and both guys were on that team. Still, it’s possible that someone who promotes internally like Swinney might end up promoting someone who isn’t up to the task — or at least isn’t up to the task unless they’re endowed with overwhelming talent.
The 2020 Clemson recruiting class should keep that level of talent at elite level. It was number 2 in the nation and would theoretically receive what had been built. The payout hasn’t arrived yet.
Four for the playoffs
Each week, The Dash determines what the playoff bracket should look like if today were Selection Sunday. This week’s look:
peach peel: top seeds Georgia (7) vs. fourth seed TCU (8).
The Bulldogs (9-0) temporarily ended any debate over who is No. 1 by beating previously undefeated Tennessee. Georgia deconstructed the Volunteers’ big pass attack while hitting several of their own shots and the game’s outcome was never in doubt after halftime. Next for Georgia: on Saturday in the state of Mississippi.
The Horned Frogs (9-0) used to fall behind on Saturday before eventually bouncing back to victory. Opponents this time were Texas Tech, and the answer to a 17-13 deficit in the fourth quarter was a game-ending 21-point blast. The Hypnotoads have beaten their opponents 55-14 in the fourth quarter of the last four games. Next up for TCU: in Texas in a big one.
Fiesta Bowl: second seed State of Ohio (9) vs. third seed Michigan (10).
The Buckeyes (9-0) put on their worst performance yet, rolling past a miserable 21-7 by Northwestern in a game ravaged by the elements. CJ Stroud didn’t help his Heisman Trophy campaign with his arm (10 of 26 for 76 yards), but produced a big play with his legs: a 44-yard scramble to set up the go-ahead touchdown. Next up is Ohio State, home to Indiana in what should have been a terrible Big Noon Kickoff affair.
The Wolverines (9-0) played around against Rutgers for a while and fell back in the second half but then scored the final 38 points of the game to win the away game. Michigan has won every game but one by 13 or more points and held five straight opponents to 17 or fewer points. Next up is Michigan: Nebraska in Saturday’s Big House.