THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
The Boys of Autumn
By Jay B Webster
Top flight college football is a pretty top heavy affair. The College Football Playoff era is in its sixth year, yet of the 130 schools in the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) of NCAA Division 1 programs, only six to eight have a realistic chance of being among the final four teams selected to play for the national title.
And any discussion of the current crop of college football teams has to start with just two of those, Alabama and Clemson.
The Crimson Tide and Tigers have dominated the BCS landscape, meeting in the title game in three of the last four seasons, as well as having clashed in a semifinal matchup in 2016.
If you recall, the two teams squared off last January, both sporting unblemished 14-0 records. Nick Saban’s Alabama team came in as the No. 1 ranked team, having knocked off Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray and the Oklahoma Sooners in a semifinal clash.
But it was Clemson’s freshman quarterback sensation Trevor Lawrence who stole the spotlight, throwing for 347 yards and three touchdowns, as the Tigers dominated to win their second title in three seasons by a score of 44-16.
It was Alabama’s largest margin of defeat since the 1998 Music City Bowl, and marked the first time a college football team had won 15 games in a single season since the 1897 Penn Quakers.
With a host of returning superstars and the usual blue chip recruiting classes, Alabama and Clemson sit atop every preseason poll out there. Who is No. 1 and who is ranked second depends on who you ask, but there is little doubt that the two teams are the ones to watch once again.
The defending champion Clemson Tigers look poised to capture their fifth straight Atlantic Coast Conference title under the tutelage of head coach Dabo Swinney, who has built quite a dynasty at Clemson, compiling a 65-7 record over the past five seasons.
QB Trevor Lawrence exploded on the scene as a true freshman last season, throwing for 3,280 yards and 30 touchdowns with just four interceptions. Lawrence is already considered the consensus top pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, and is considered a generational player in the mould of a John Elway or Peyton Manning.
He’ll have a corps of talented receivers to throw to, including Justyn Ross and Tee Higgins, and prolific tailback Travis Etienne – 37 touchdowns on 311 carries over the past two seasons – to lean on for the ground attack.
Playing in the relatively weak ACC, Clemson has a chance to be the first team to average 50 points per game since Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston and Florida State did it in 2013.
The Tigers’ toughest challenges come early in the season when they host a talented Texas A&M team on September 7th, followed by a tricky trip to the Carrier Dome to face Syracuse. From there on out it would look to be smooth sailing to a BCS semifinal slot.
It is a tougher row to hoe for the Alabama Crimson Tide in the stacked Southeastern Conference, as road games against Texas A&M (Oct. 12) and Auburn (Nov. 30), along with hosting a top-10 ranked LSU team (Nov. 9) will be challenges, as the team looks to rebound from the worst loss ever under coach Saban.
The offense will be guided once again by quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, running back Najee Harris and perhaps the best wide receivers corps in the nation, led by Jerry Jeudy.
There are some questions in the defensive secondary, which was shredded by Clemson’s Lawrence in last year’s title game and lost several key players. But this Alabama team is loaded top to bottom, and it is unlikely to see the Tide stumble to that degree again this season.
Barring any huge surprises (and the short college football season is built for surprises), Clemson and Alabama will be on a collision course to lock down half of the BCS Semifinal slots, leaving the rest of the field to chase the remaining two berths.
The Georgia Bulldogs have been stuck in Alabama’s shadow in the SEC the past couple of seasons, falling to the Tide in heartbreaking fashion in both the 2017 College Football Playoff and 2018 SEC championship game. And last year’s season ended ignominiously with an upset loss to Texas in the Sugar Bowl.
There are some big holes to fill this time around, particularly on defense. But Coach Kirby Smart’s team is loaded again this season behind quarterback Jake Fromm and running back D’Andre Swift and another blue chip recruiting class, which features five five-star recruits, more than any other team in the country.
The Bulldogs have a tough schedule that sees them facing four teams ranked in the preseason top 25: Notre Dame (Sept. 21), Florida (Nov. 2), Auburn (Nov. 16) and Texas A&M (Nov 23). If they manage to survive that gauntlet unscathed, they’ll most likely have Alabama waiting in the SEC Championship game on December 7 for their troubles.
It’s certainly a tough challenge, but it looks like the Bulldogs will at least have the talent to make a run.
The Oklahoma Sooners have changed coaches (Bob Stoops to Lincoln Riley) and quarterbacks (Baker Mayfield to Kyler Murray) over the past couple of years and not missed a beat in the Big 12 Conference, racking up a 33-3 record since 2015.
After consecutive BCS semifinal appearances and Heisman Trophy-winning seasons from both Mayfield and Murray, OU sees Georgia transfer Jalen Hurts take over at quarterback for Coach Riley this season, as the Sooners look to keep things rolling.
If Hurts’ name sounds familiar, it might be that you remember him as the starting quarterback for Georgia when he led the team to a national title in 2016, and a runner-up finish in 2017, before losing the starting job to Tagovailoa midway through the 2018 title game.
Last season, Hurts backed up Tagovailoa and bailed the team out with two fourth-quarter touchdown passes in the SEC championship game against Georgia. But rather than play second fiddle in Alabama once again for his senior season, Hurts transferred to Oklahoma, where he will get a chance to be top dog.
The Sooners, however, could be pushed in the Big 12 this year by the Texas Longhorns, who return starting old-school quarterback Sam Ehlinger. The junior QB set the Big 12 record for consecutive passes without an interception (308) between the season opener and season finale in 2018, and the Longhorns beat the Sooners in the regular season before falling to them in the Big 12 championship game.
With perhaps the top recruiting class of any college in the nation, third-year coach Tom Herman will be looking to build on last year’s 10-4 record and capitalize on the momentum of the Longhorns upset victory over Georgia in last season’s Sugar Bowl.
The Ohio State Buckeyes had been pretty darn good under head coach Urban Meyer, posting an 83-9 record over seven seasons, beating arch nemesis Michigan seven times and winning the Big Ten title both of the last two years. But the Buckeyes have missed out on the College Football Playoff both times, and Meyers has opted for retirement.
Offensive coordinator Ryan Day takes over the helm, with Heisman Trophy candidate Justin Fields under center. The highly-touted Fields transferred to Columbus after being unable to supplant Jake Fromm from the starting role in Georgia.
Fields replaces Heisman Trophy finalist Dwayne Haskins, who set Big Ten single-season records in 2018 in passing yards (4,831) and touchdowns (50). While few expect Fields to replicate those numbers, there is little doubt that he has a chance to put up some big numbers of his own in OSU’s high-yield offense over the next two years.
While the Buckeyes’ offense should have no trouble putting points on the scoreboard, they will need to shore up a defense that allowed 25 points and 404 yards a game, and probably ultimately cost them a playoff berth. Keep an eye on the November 30th regular season finale matchup against Michigan in Ann Arbor.
This year’s College Football Playoffs semifinals will be played December 28 at the Peach Bowl in Atlanta and the Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, Arizona. The championship game has been pushed back to January 13, 2020 at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in New Orleans.
Will the National Champion be one of the teams mentioned above, or is there a Cinderella lurking somewhere to turn the football world upside down? Buckle up and tune in for another hard-hitting season of big-time college football.