College football always toes a tricky line.
On one hand, it’s the most blueblood-heavy sport this side of La Liga.
Since 1961, 12 schools have claimed 47 national titles, and the rest of FBS (or I-A or all the stuff it was called before that) has claimed nine. In five years of the four-team College Football Playoff, four schools have claimed 14 of the 20 bids. We probably know who’s going to win a given game simply by looking at the helmets.
On the other hand, nothing feels truly inevitable.
We might know most of what’s going to happen, but sometimes Pitt beats Clemson. Sometimes Ole Miss scores off of deflections. The oddities keep us coming back, even if we probably know who’s going to get to make the White House trip in the offseason.
When the sport skews toward oddity, we remember it forever.
When it skews the other way, with a season loaded full of three-loss teams … we get Alabama-Clemson IV, as was widely predicted for almost the entire calendar year.
Clemson and Alabama will play in a bowl game for the fourth straight year, a first in college football history.
— Tim Bourret (@TimBourret) December 30, 2018
Over the last four seasons, Alabama and Clemson are 106-4 in games that aren’t against Alabama or Clemson.
I’m sorry, that’s so absurd that I need to repeat myself.
Not including games against each other, Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide and Dabo Swinney’s Tigers have played 110 games of college football, a game defined by a pointy ball and the flakiest members of the population (18- to 22-year-old males), since the start of the 2015 season. They have lost four of them. FOUR.
And none of those losses came in 2018.
They suffer all the maladies that usually prevent a true college football dynasty from forming. And instead, they get better.
- They lose coordinators to head coaching jobs. Bama alone has employed seven offensive and defensive coordinators in this span.
- They lose All-American after All-American, plus all-time talent like Clemson’s Deshaun Watson.
- They suffer quarterback injuries at the worst possible times! Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence got hurt with the Tigers down a touchdown to Syracuse (and in the week after backup Kelly Bryant had announced he was leaving the team), and Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa was knocked out of the SEC Championship against Georgia with the Tide down a touchdown in the fourth quarter. Did it matter? Nope. Freshman Chase Brice helped to bail Clemson out against an eventual 10-win Syracuse, and Jalen Hurts — who got benched in last year’s national title game for struggling horribly against that same Georgia team — led two perfect touchdown drives to rally and win.
These two teams have dealt with uncertainty basically three times all year — those two injury-related wins and a narrow Week 2 win for Clemson at Texas A&M.
They have won their other 27 games by an average score of 44-12. They won their CFP semifinal games by a combined 38 points. They are probably going to put on a dynamite title game.
The 1970s were probably college football’s chalkiest decade.
Ohio State and Michigan won every Big Ten title, Oklahoma and Nebraska won or shared every Big 8 title, and Alabama (eight SEC titles), Texas (six in the SWC), and USC (six in the Pac-8/Pac-10) each won a majority of their respective conference races. These seven bluebloods and two key independents (Notre Dame and Penn State) hoarded 65 of the 100 available top-10 finishes, 41 of the 50 available top-fives, and 18 of the 20 available top-twos.
(The two usurpers, if you’re curious: No. 1 Pitt in 1976 and No. 2 Arizona State in 1975.)
Bluebloods in the 1970s saw the perfect combination of resource consolidation and great hires. Old coaches like Bear Bryant, Woody Hayes, Darrell K Royal, Ara Parseghian, and Dan Devine found their second or third winds, and up-and-comers like Barry Switzer, Tom Osborne, Joe Paterno, and Bo Schembechler hit their strides. This group’s run of dominance began with Ohio State’s title run in 1968 and didn’t end until people began to retire.
The 2010s aren’t that one-sided. But they’ve begun to feel pretty close.
Alabama is at its most dominant level ever and currently has a sophomore-heavy two-deep, plus the No. 1 recruiting class. Clemson will have a lot of star power to replace after Monday’s title game but, well, had a lot to replace two years ago, too — and its QB is a true freshman.
And the closest challengers to the Saban/Swinney throne — Ohio State, Georgia, Oklahoma — have plenty of blue in their blood as well.
Saban will retire one day, in theory, and maybe Ohio State will lose its stride now that Urban Meyer has left. Maybe Georgia’s Kirby Smart or Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley elect to move up to the NFL coaching ranks. Maybe Swinney’s magical program culture powers will dissipate.
But this sport appears to be forming one hell of a ruling class at the moment, and in 2018, we couldn’t even count on funky bounces to throw the heavyweights off their stride.