I’m not quite ready to buy into this premise wholeheartedly, but I have to admit it makes for an intriguing argument.
As the College Football Playoff celebrates its sixth birthday this week, it’s become clear that giving more teams access to play for a national title has not actually given more of them a chance to win it. If anything, the divide now is even greater between the handful of programs that stockpile the best talent in recruiting and the plucky overachievers who might have been able to pull off one upset in the BCS era but now have to do it twice.
We’re getting to the point, though, where even that standard doesn’t paint a complete picture of how difficult it’s becoming to win a national championship in this era of college football. Not only do you need a roster full of blue chips and luck to be on your side, but unless you have an elite quarterback, you can probably forget reaching the ultimate prize.
“You look at the four teams in it right now — and I don’t watch sports and I don’t watch ‘SportsCenter’ — but the best four quarterbacks are on the top four teams,” LSU offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger said. “I think that’s the key to college football right now.”
For the first time in the history of the CFP, all four participants would consider the quarterback position the strength of their team.
If college football really has turned that particular corner, I’m pretty sure that doesn’t bode well for a particular offensive philosophy we’ve all come to know and love this season.
But far more often in college football, you’d see great teams that didn’t necessarily have great quarterbacks. Even as recently as 2015, Alabama won a national title with Jake Coker, who now sells insurance in the Mobile area after a very brief attempt to play in the NFL.
That isn’t meant to disparage Coker, who had a solid season as Alabama’s starter and made a couple key throws in the national title win over Clemson. But Alabama winning championships with guys like Coker and Greg McElroy was reflective of the notion that elite-level quarterback play was a bonus, not a necessity.
“I think those days are done,” said Quincy Avery, a private coach in the Atlanta area who has been associated with a number of top quarterbacks including Hurts and Fields. “When you look at the national championship game — those aren’t like the old days where it’s 20-17. People are putting up points and if you’re not in a position to do that with a guy who can throw the football, you won’t be able to win at the highest level.”
‘Bama had a pretty darn good defense in 2015, if I recall. That season appears to have made a lasting impression on Saban’s defensive coordinator. Too bad others have reached a different impression.
And that’s the never-ending nightmare all defensive coordinators now have to live with, particularly this year when every Playoff team is scheming against a quarterback who can individually turn a bad play into a good one.
“You feel like you did right by confusing them in coverage and your reward is that they scramble and go find a guy for a 50-yard gain and you sit there from a coordinator standpoint wishing you’d called something else,” Oklahoma defensive coordinator Alex Grinch said. “But early in the down, you couldn’t have made a better call. When you can’t fool a guy or reap the benefits of a disguise or you brought pressure that wasn’t what they expected and they reap the benefit and you don’t, you go back to, what’s the answer to that? What’s the next thing on the list? When our good calls turn into bad calls, that’s a difficult Saturday.”
It’s hard to see college football reverting back anytime soon to an era where the so-called “game managers” are winning at the highest level. No disrespect to former Alabama quarterback Blake Sims, former Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant or Michigan State’s Connor Cook, all of whom led teams to the Playoff, but the days of making it this far without a dynamic passing game are likely coming to an end.
To be fair, Kirby came within a whisker of winning a national title with a true freshman quarterback who wasn’t asked to do more than be a good game manager. But that same approach with the same quarterback two years later didn’t yield anywhere near the same results in the SECCG against a dynamic LSU offense. What lessons Smart takes from that three-year passage of time will tell us a lot about Georgia’s chances in 2020.