Here are five post-bowl revelations to digest, as the college football universe braces for the ultimate clash of Alabama vs. Clemson in Monday’s College Football Playoff championship.
1. Leonard Fournette has one big advantage over Christian McCaffrey in the race for next year’s Heisman — a make-or-break date with Alabama
Does Brent Musburger have a Heisman Trophy vote?
If so, McCaffrey — the nation’s leader in yards from scrimmage and Rose Bowl MVP (277 total yards, two TDs vs. Iowa) — might have earned Uncle Brent’s vote for next year’s Heisman competition.
For everyone else, though, they should simply let the race for college football’s most prestigious award play out for a long while — at least until the first Saturday of November, when Fournette (a junior-to-be) draws Alabama for perhaps the final time in his collegiate career.
And as luck would have it … the Tigers will entertain the vaunted Crimson Tide in Baton Rouge, La.
For those with short memories, Fournette bore the look of a Heisman shoo-in for the first two months of this season; but a desultory effort against Alabama (31 rushing yards, one TD) — coupled with LSU’s 30-16 defeat and Derrick Henry’s 200-yard eruption on the same field — knocked Fournette from the ranks of being an unimpeachable front-runner
In fact, five weeks later, Fournette didn’t even garner an invite to New York City, as one of the three Heisman finalists (Alabama’s Henry, Stanford’s McCaffrey, Clemson QB Deshaun Watson) — despite finishing with the nation’s best per-game average for rushing yards.
That snub was the perfect catalyst for Fournette’s easy-to-predict explosion in the Texas Bowl. Facing Texas Tech — one of the country’s worst rushing defenses — the LSU sophomore absurdly amassed 256 total yards (212 rushing) and five touchdowns (four rushing).
Which sets the stage for 2016: McCaffrey vs. Fournette could become the most captivating Heisman battle of the last 30 years. It has all the built-in trappings of a supreme apples-to-apples competition: Speed, stats, power, unlimited natural gifts, superior football instincts, ample TV exposure and prominent schedules.
Of course, nothing attracts a college-TV audience like Alabama; and between McCaffrey and Fournette (1,953 rushing yards, 22 TDs in 2015) … only the latter will have a regular-season shot against historically the country’s premier rush defense.
(We’re assuming Alabama’s Henry will enter the draft after Monday’s championship bout.)
And since LSU’s titanic meeting with Alabama carried so much Heisman weight last season … this should also be the case in 2016.
2.It’s easy to overlook the late-season results of Florida and UGA — both good and bad — because of the major changes coming this fall
The Bulldogs have a new head coach (Kirby Smart), a new offensive coordinator (Jim Chaney) and potentially a new Day 1 starting quarterback in Jacob Eason, the 5-star prep dynamo from Washington state. (Smart is also slated to hire a defensive coordinator shortly after the national championship.)
The Gators, in turn, might be moving on, depth chart-wise, from quarterback Treon Harris, who struggled mightily in Florida’s final three games (all blowout losses), in favor of a heralded youngster — such as incoming freshman Feleipe Franks, the third-ranked pro-style passer in the 2016 class (according to 24/7 Sports).
That’s a lot of change for two East powers to absorb in one offseason … and that doesn’t even cover the uncertainty of UGA tailback Nick Chubb (recovering from a major knee injury) or how Florida will compensate for the loss of cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III — who’s destined to be a star at the NFL level.
3. Texas A&M coaches might get the noogie treatment from the other SEC West programs during the spring and summer
The West absolutely cleaned up during the postseason, going 6-1 during that stretch — highlighted by the major bowl victories in the Cotton (Alabama) and Sugar (Ole Miss).
For good measure, Auburn (Birmingham Bowl), Mississippi State (Belk Bowl), Arkansas (Liberty Bowl) and LSU (Texas Bowl) tallied bowl wins, with an average victory margin of 24 points. That’s pure dominance … reminiscent of the 2012 and ’13 seasons.
The lone disappointment? Texas A&M couldn’t mount a complete comeback in the Music City Bowl, falling to Louisville, 27-21. As such, the Aggies are now subject to some classic razzing from their divisional brethren, knowing they spoiled the West’s chances of an all-encompassing sweep through the postseason.
That aside, enough damage had been inflicted to quiet the SEC West’s dissenters — many of whom might tacitly acknowledge the West as the nation’s best conference … but not one that annually deserves four or five programs in the top 15.
But who could argue that Alabama, Arkansas, LSU and perhaps Auburn won’t warrant preseason rankings of 15 or above next August? All four teams can use this bowl experience as a springboard to bigger and better things next season.
(Even if the Crimson Tide should figuratively lose half their current roster to senior graduations and junior defections to the NFL.)
And if Ole Miss can close on another top-5 recruiting class in early February … perhaps the Rebels can quickly rebound from the NFL exoduses of Laquon Treadwell (wide receiver), Laremy Tunsil (offensive tackle) and Robert Nkemdiche (defensive line) — three potential top-10 picks in the upcoming draft.
After all, it shouldn’t be too hard for Rebels head coach Hugh Freeze — who’s riding a two-game winning streak against Alabama’s Nick Saban — to sell the virtues of the Ole Miss campus, along with picturesque Oxford, Miss.
Moving west … the last few weeks haven’t been a total drag for Texas A&M. Yes, the Aggies lost touted QBs Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray as transfers before the bowl; but in the spirit of universal balance, they’re reportedly in line to land Trevor Knight in the coming weeks — the same Knight who, as a freshman, torched Alabama for 348 yards and four TDs in Oklahoma’s win in the 2014 Sugar Bowl.
Which brings us to this: When Aggies head coach Kevin Sumlin convenes with the other coaches at the SEC spring meetings (Destin, Fla.) … his bowl-related penance might include an automatic two-shot penalty on the golf course, picking up the dinner tab(s) at a hotel/resort or convincing Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett (SEC sack leader, future All-Pro talent) to apply for the 2017 NFL Draft — making 2016 his last season in College Station.
4. Auburn’s stifling work against Memphis QB Paxton Lynch was equal parts cool and baffling
It bears asking: Excluding injury, has a possible top-10 draft pick at quarterback ever thrown for 110 yards or less in his final collegiate game?
Whatever the case, the Auburn defense deserves major props for their shut-down performance against Lynch (106 yards passing, zero TDs, one INT), the top QB prospect on various draft sites.
Prior to the Birmingham Bowl debacle, Lynch (6-foot-7, 245 pounds, strong arm, bears a physical likeness to Brock Osweiler) was getting buzz as a potential No. 1 overall pick come April. But after barely cracking the 100-yard mark against Auburn, it would be difficult for a downtrodden NFL franchise to justify that move — which would involve trading up to the top spot, since Tennessee (led by QB Marcus Mariota) owns the selection.
Heck, even the quarterback-cursed Cleveland Browns would be raked through the coals at No. 2, if they grabbed Lynch (3,776 yards passing, 28 TDs) in the top five. Fair or not, NFL general managers should be fearful of Lynch’s wretched outing against Auburn; and fair or not, the sour ending might outweigh Lynch’s dissection of Ole Miss on Oct. 17, upon passing for 384 yards and three TDs in the Tigers’ major upset of the Rebels.
Back to Auburn: The Tigers finished strong on a defensive note, limiting opposing quarterbacks to skim passing averages of 175 yards and 0.6 touchdowns in their final five games. It’s a short sample size, granted; but it’s also a stealth finishing kick for the year ahead … which begins with a high-profile home date against Clemson quarterback and Heisman hopeful Deshaun Watson (Sept. 3).
5. Credit Alabama for drawing the SEC’s most difficult road schedule in 2016
We don’t need to see the completed list of early-entry playmakers for the upcoming NFL draft, the final team recruiting rankings from National Signing Day, or the finished depth charts for all 14 SEC programs to state the following:
No one can match the Tide’s road slate of Ole Miss, Arkansas, Tennessee and LSU.
In fact, excluding Alabama, we might be staring at the SEC’s four strongest teams next season.
Adding to the scheduling fun, Alabama opens the non-conference docket with Southern California (AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas) and then a home date with Western Kentucky — which swept through Conference USA play this season (including the title game) and then outlasted South Florida in the Miami Beach Bowl.
Speaking of the Trojans … Alabama and Southern California have only one met once since the late 1970s — the 1985 Hawaii Bowl (the Crimson Tide won by 21).
The previous showdown, circa 1978, might have produced the greatest championship debate of the last 40 years:
For the ’78 game, featuring 1979 Heisman Trophy winner Charles White, a slew of future NFL Pro Bowlers, four Pro Football Hall of Famers (Ronnie Lott, Dwight Stephenson, Anthony Munoz, Marcus Allen — the 1981 Heisman), the Trojans dominated the action at Legion Field (Birmingham, Ala.), cruising to a 24-14 victory. Three weeks later, though, Southern California fell to Arizona State — its only loss of the season — re-opening the door for Alabama to eventually claim the national title.
Obviously, the 1978 season predated the BCS and College Football Playoff eras. But it’s still hard to reconcile how the Trojans and Crimson Tide could notch impressive bowl victories (Rose and Sugar, respectively), own similar year-ending records (12-1/11-1) … and yet, the national-title tiebreaker still didn’t involve Southern California’s “road” triumph over Alabama.
The Playoff committee wouldn’t let that oversight occur in today’s game … even with de facto knowledge of No. 2 Alabama upending No. 1 Penn State in that season’s Sugar Bowl (thanks to a goal-line stand for all time). At worst, Southern California would get the opportunity to usurp Alabama in the national semifinals.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports.