Bravo to college football for making a national title by its greatest dynasty come as something of a surprise

Is it possible to be shocked when Alabama wins a national championship?

I would have said no before Monday night. That 26-23 overtime win over Georgia was almost too much to process, even for Nick Saban, who when it was over actually sputtered “I’ve never been happier in my life.”

Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, right, sits next to head coach Nick Saban during a press conference in Atlanta, Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018. Alabama beat Georgia in overtime to win the NCAA college football playoff championship game. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Think of what just happened here. The Tide won with Saban grasping for straws this time, not mechanically processing and dominating one situation after another.

When his young star quarterback got off to a lousy start, Saban switched to an even younger one, true freshman Tua Tagovailoa, and came climbing out of a couple of 13-point holes. Oh, and the hero is a lefty from Hawaii wearing lucky No. 13. You know, the usual.

When Alabama’s kicker missed two standard-range field goals, including what should have been the game-winner in regulation, Saban forfeited his usual bonus of stellar special-teams play but overcame that, too.

Finally, when a disastrous sack opened Alabama’s overtime possession, Saban hoped that new playcaller Brian Daboll, a former Miami Dolphins offensive coordinator, could come up with something remotely positive to get his balky kicker in position to force a second extra period.

Who could have dreamed that the game would end on the next play, a 41-yard touchdown bomb, and that Georgia’s night would turn out so horribly wrong after the Bulldogs had done so many things right?

It’s not like Saban has never been shocked and disappointed in a similar manner. Clemson beat Alabama in last year’s national title game with one second remaining. Also, at the end of the 2014 season, the top-ranked Tide drew No. 4 Ohio State in the first College Football Playoff and lost 42-35.

This year, though, it was Alabama’s time to squeeze into the last playoff spot. That got a lot of people grumbling, and not only because the Tide didn’t even win their division, or because the title game was an all-SEC affair. The biggest annoyance was that everybody kind of figured Saban would win it all again, like always.

Well, Alabama did win it, but not like always. This was a crazy demolition derby, with tensions so high that one Tide player had to be restrained from going after an unidentified man on the sidelines and another player needed emergency personnel to cart him away with some kind of medical issue.

Put it all together and you’ve got five national titles in nine years for Saban at Alabama. Miami fans don’t need that kind of dynasty to be explained to them. The Hurricanes won four titles in nine years, plus five in the space of 19, and ESPN made an epic 30-for-30 documentary about it.

What if I were to tell you that Saban isn’t slowing down at the age of 66, and that after winning six national titles, including one with LSU in 2003, he’s still adapting and finding new ways to crush the competition?

That’s not a documentary. It’s a horror movie, played on an endless loop.

[Richt must advance beyond his Year 2 highlights at Georgia and UM]

[$10 million sure didn’t buy Dolphins much with Jay Cutler]

[Does anybody, including Nebraska’s Scott Frost, want a piece of UCF now?]

Before Mark Richt became available, Miami interviewed Greg Schiano and Dan Mullen, too

Miami Hurricanes administrators can sit back and grin, satisfied that they’ve got the right football coach in Mark Richt.

In just his second season at the school, Richt has Miami in Saturday night’s ACC Championship game against defending national champion Clemson, and a win there should lead to a spot in the College Football Playoff field.

Miami Hurricanes defensive coordinator Greg Schiano (center) with Mike Boireau(left) and Damione Lewis (right) after a 1999 practice. Staff photo by Allen Eyestone, Palm Beach Post.

Could it have gone this well with any other coach available to at the end of the 2015 season? Impossible to know, but Richt was not the only candidate who got serious consideration.

Greg Schiano interviewed with Miami back then. The opportunity came at a time in his life when the former UM defensive coordinator would have given anything to be the boss in Coral Gables. Schiano was between jobs, having been fired as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach. He was volunteering as a high school coach, as a matter of fact, at Tampa Berkeley Prep.

There was reason to believe that something would come of it, too, since former UM star Jonathan Vilma, who played for Schiano, was a member of the six-person advisory staff that athletic Blake James put together to assist in the search process.

It’s a matter of timing in these things, though. Earlier, when Larry Coker got fired at Miami, the Hurricanes were turned away by Schiano. That was in 2006, when he was building something of his own at Rutgers, and formally asked to have his name removed from Miami’s list of candidates.

Lately, Schiano’s name was turned toxic when Tennessee pulled back from a decision to hire him because of an ugly social media reaction, buoyed by campus protests.

The advertised reason for the uproar was an unsubstantiated narrative that the coach somehow ignored or condoned Jerry Sandusky’s child molestation crimes while the two were assistants at Penn State. More likely a ton of Vols fans just thought they could do better than Schiano and coalesced around a convenient rationale to scare Tennessee administrators away from what had seemed a fairly straightforward hire of a well-respected coach.

So who else did Miami interview in November and December of 2015 before Richt got the job?

Dan Mullen, freshly introduced as Florida’s new coach, talked with James and his search staff. At that time he was 54-35 in seven seasons at Mississippi State. Had he gotten the Miami job, he would have been just as enthusiastic about flashing the “U” hand signal as he was about doing the Gator Chomp in Gainesville on Monday.

Butch Davis also interviewed with Miami before the Richt hire. He had been out of coaching for a couple of years and was eager to a second stint as head coach of the Hurricanes. These days Butch is coaching at FIU and waiting to see which minor bowl assignment his 7-4 Golden Panthers will get.

All questions were answered, and quickly, when Georgia fired Richt on Nov. 30, 2015. Four days later he was announced as Miami’s coach.

No need to be smug when one of these frantic coach searches works out. For every athletic director who nails it there are 10 who regret ever being put in the position to choose, and scores who fear the moment when they will be out there scrambling to find the right man again.

[For Gators, Dan Mullen is a good solution who wants to be great]

[Because hiring Chip Kelly wasn’t easy for Florida, nothing else would have been]

[Hurricanes finally bring out the beast in antiseptic Hard Rock Stadium]

FSU coming off horrible loss and that isn’t so great for the South Florida Bulls on Saturday

Don’t expect Florida State to lose a second consecutive game on Saturday. That hasn’t happened to Jimbo Fisher since 2011.

In this Saturday, Sept. 17, 2016, photo, Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher walks off the field after losing an NCAA college football game against Louisville, while Louisville players prepare to dowse their coach with Gatorade, in Louisville, Ky. (Pat McDonogh/The Courier-Journal via AP)
LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher walks off the field last Saturday while Louisville players prepare to dowse their coach, Bobby Petrino, with a celebratory Gatorade bath. (Pat McDonogh/The Courier-Journal via AP)

We’re talking 66 games without back-to-back losses. Only Oregon, at 70 games, has gone longer in that category.

Of course, FSU’s 63-20 disaster at Louisville last week was a bonafide shocker. It reset the entire ACC race and had the people who projected the Seminoles in the College Football Playoff field feeling pretty foolish.

There’s no reason why FSU shouldn’t handle 3-0 South Florida this week, though. Jimbo has the team’s full attention now, and the humiliation of losing that way to Louisville will provide plenty of motivation. No team had ever scored 63 on the Seminoles, and that covers all the lean years prior to Bobby Bowden’s arrival at the school.

There were six games last year where the FSU basketball team didn’t allow 63 points, for crying out loud.

[Adam Gase is lagging behind NFL’s other first-time head coaches]

[Tim Tebow tries to blend in with Mets’ Instructional League kids]

[Lamar Jackson could do what no Palm Beach County player ever has]

Reminds me of a few other times, however, when devastating scores were dropped on state teams but the effects were shaken off very quickly.

In 1998, Butch Davis’ Miami Hurricanes took a 66-13 beating at Syracuse in late November. One week later they returned to the Orange Bowl to upset No. 3 UCLA 49-45.

Steve Spurrier had to take his medicine, too, in the national championship game following the 1995 season. Florida came in unbeaten but lost the Fiesta Bowl to Nebraska by the startling score of 62-24.

One year later the Gators won their first national championship, blasting FSU 52-20.

As for FSU’s chances of making the College Football Playoff field and possible a spot in the national championship game at Tampa, consider this.

Ohio State and Oregon played in the inaugural national title game under the new playoff format and they got there after taking surprising losses early in the season. The Buckeyes lost to Virginia Tech in September of 2014 and Oregon lost to Arizona. In each case the opponents were unranked and in each case Ohio State and Oregon were top-10 teams playing at home.

By that measure, losing to No. 10 Louisville on the road shouldn’t disqualify FSU from anything at this point. Let’s see how the rest of the ACC season plays out.

Louisville plays at Clemson on Oct. 1. Four weeks later Clemson is at FSU.

Now if you want to argue the other side of this thing, looking at FSU’s 6-4 record in its last 10 games as the sign of a serious decline, this South Florida game is the real litmus test. It was a 17-7 September loss to the Bulls in Tampa that ultimately convinced everyone that 2009 should be Bowden’s final season.

My view is that Jimbo has got things tightened down a lot better than that. Louisville is going to make a lot of teams look bad this year. Suddenly they’re a national title contender.

The Seminoles have nine more games, including dates with Miami and Florida, to prove that they are, too.

 

Last four Signing Day hauls show that bad coaching can sour even the deepest wells of talent

National Signing Day shows which teams should be winning a lot of games over the next few years but it doesn’t always show who will.

It really does matter who is doing the coaching.

Alabama, for instance, has no excuse if the championships don’t come rolling in. Starting in 2012, Nick Saban has been judged by the Rivals recruiting site to have the nation’s top class of signees three times out of four years. That adds up.

CLEMSON, SC - NOVEMBER 07:  Head coach Jimbo Fisher of the Florida State Seminoles watches on during their game against the Clemson Tigers at Memorial Stadium on November 7, 2015 in Clemson, South Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
CLEMSON, SC – Head coach Jimbo Fisher of the Florida State Seminoles watches on during their game against the Clemson Tigers on November 7, 2015 in Clemson, South Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Look at USC, though. The Trojans had Rivals’ No. 1 recruiting class in 2015 and averaged out at No. 8 from 2012-15. The turmoil of numerous coaching changes really did its damage, however. Twice in the last four years USC was unranked in the final AP poll. Never during that period did USC finish in the AP Top Ten.

Let’s figure out, based on the rankings of the last four recruiting classes, which coaches are getting the most out of their talent in terms of development.

You already know about Al Golden, fired by Miami. His recruiting was decent, averaging out around No. 17 on the last four Rivals’ charts of his tenure. There were no bowl games in there, however, and no finishes in the AP’s final Top 25.

Will Muschamp had three top-10 recruiting classes at Florida beginning in 2012 but only one top-10 finish. That explains why he, too, lost his job and why Jim McElwain, a better coach, had the makings of an SEC East title team when he arrived as Gators coach.

Jimbo Fisher ranks high in both recruiting and production, as expected. Three top-10 recruiting classes according to Rivals between 2012-15. Three top-10 finishes and one national championship over the same stretch.

Nationally, I’d tag Gary Patterson as the coach who does the most with what he’s got.

Starting in 2012, TCU ranked 37th, 30th, 50th and 34th on the Rivals recruiting charts. That averages out to 37.25, nothing special. Still, over that same period, the Horned Frogs have two Top-10 finishes in the AP poll and two bowl wins.

Dabo Swinney gets high marks, too, for developing his team. Clemson had the nation’s No. 4 recruiting class in 2015 but nothing higher than No. 13 in the three previous years. Somehow Swinney has gotten four bowls wins out of that, including two in the Orange Bowl, and just last month the Tigers were in the national championship game against Alabama.

On the list of underachievers I’ll put Brian Kelly. Notre Dame, with its monster brand name and its own major television network, has appeared in one national championship game over the last four years but that’s the only top-10 finish over that stretch. The Fighting Irish should be getting more out of an overall average of No. 11 in the 2012-15 recruiting ranks.

Coaches to watch? Well, everyone’s had an eye on Butch Jones at Tennessee because the Vols’ recruiting ranks have been better in each of his years there, including No. 5 in 2015. So far, though, it’s a lot of smoke without really burning the house down.

As for Mark Richt, the new boss at Miami, his results at Georgia are about what you would expect. Three bowl wins and two Top-10 finishes over the last four years and a couple of top-seven recruiting classes in 2014 and 2015. Looks like he left plenty in the cupboard for new Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart. Let’s see how Smart likes it when Georgia boosters start ripping on him for coming up short in the SEC.

[Turns out Earl Morrall was a young whippersnapper if we’re on Peyton Standard Time]

[Dolphins and Marino were headliners the last time Super Bowl visited Northern California]

[Here’s hoping Dwyane Wade can recapture fun and finish of his rookie season]

 

Mark Richt wasn’t that far behind another of Nick Saban’s championship teams

Mark Richt almost got him in 2012, almost pushed Nick Saban right off the top of the mountain.

Today, with Saban looking like the greatest college coach ever to shower in Gatorade, it’s important to realize that no program is uncatchable. Richt, the new boss of the Miami Hurricanes, had his former Georgia team so stocked with talent and so ready to compete on the national scale that the Bulldogs and the Crimson Tide went right down to the wire in the 2012 SEC Championship game.

CORAL GABLES, FL - DECEMBER 04: New University of Miami Hurricanes head coach Mark Richt makes the 'U' sign after he was introduced at a press conference at the school on December 4, 2015 in Coral Gables, Florida. (Photo by Joe Skipper/Getty Images)
CORAL GABLES, FL – New University of Miami Hurricanes head coach Mark Richt makes the ‘U’ sign after he was introduced at a press conference at the school on December 4, 2015 (Photo by Joe Skipper/Getty Images)

Was Alabama any good that year? Well, they managed to crush Notre Dame one month later at Sun Life Stadium to claim a second consecutive national championship and the third of four that Saban has won at the school.

And how about Georgia? Richt’s team came into that SEC title game ranked No. 3 in the AP poll and finished No. 5 with a Capital One Bowl win over Nebraska. The Bulldogs didn’t have the riches of Alabama, which featured future NFL starters like Amari Cooper, Eddie Lacy, T.J. Yeldon and A.J. McCarron, but Richt did have a tough defense and sturdy offensive weapons like running back Todd Gurley and quarterback Aaron Murray.

Georgia led that conference title game 28-25 on a Gurley touchdown run early in the fourth quarter. Then Bama got it back late on a touchdown bomb from McCarron to Cooper. Then, just like that, the Bulldogs raced all the way down to the Alabama 8-yard line with a chance to win and maybe steal a spot in the BCS title game. It didn’t happen. Time ran out and Alabama survived 32-28.

For the Hurricanes of 2016, however, the clock has just begun to run on Richt’s efforts to build another program worthy of competing, at least every now and then, with Saban and Urban Meyer and Dabo Swinney and Bob Stoops and all the other headliners.

At the moment, Richt is hustling to push Miami toward a top-15 recruiting class. He’s already got a good quarterback in Brad Kaaya. He’ll do more, also, with the kids who committed to signing with Al Golden and largely are committed to staying with the Hurricanes now.

Miami can’t possibly be 58 points worse than Clemson, the national runnerup, or 58 points worse than anyone. It just doesn’t make sense, not if the coaching is sound.

[When Dolphins hired Cam Cameron, Huizenga wondered ‘Could this thing blow up on us?’]

[Clemson’s Dabo Swinney speaks highly of his new ACC rival, Mark Richt]

[Bill Belichick’s primer on how long it takes a new coach to fully install his program]

Richt was 1-3 in his Georgia career against Saban, with the worst of it being a 38-10 Alabama romp at Sanford Stadium last October over a Bulldogs team that had been mistakenly elevated to No. 8 in the AP poll.

Richt’s only win in the series was in 2007, in overtime, when Saban was retooling the entire roster in his first year at Alabama. Like everybody else, including Florida’s Jim McElwain, Richt knows what a challenge it is just to stay on the same lap of any race with Alabama.

Miami doesn’t have to deal with Alabama every year, though. It’s more a matter of catching up to ACC rivals like Clemson, which came close Monday night to completing the first 15-0 season in NCAA history, and Florida State, the 2013 national champion, and North Carolina, which just won the Coastal Division with an 8-0 conference record.

A tough task, but there is a pattern for doing it. Half a dozen times Richt’s Georgia teams finished in the Top Ten. Once, he gave Saban fits at the end of a national title season for Alabama. How long might it take for Richt to make something scary out of Miami?

No telling. Maybe it won’t happen at all. But when you think about it, 2012 just isn’t that long ago. That game hasn’t changed that much.

Neither has Mark Richt.

 

This has the feel of Clemson’s 1981 national title game, so I’m taking the Tigers

 

Alabama wins national titles just out of habit, but I’m thinking Clemson tonight.

Bama has the Heisman Trophy winner in Derrick Henry, but I’m picking Clemson and quarterback Deshaun Watson, who finished third in the voting.

Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson (4) scores in the second quarter against Oklahoma in the Capital One Orange Bowl at SunLife Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla., on Thursday, Dec. 31, 2015. Clemson won, 37-17. (Al Diaz/Miami Herald/TNS)
Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson scores in the second quarter against Oklahoma in the Capital One Orange Bowl on Dec. 31, 2015. (Al Diaz/Miami Herald/TNS)

Bama is driven by Nick Saban, a living statue in the hall of great coaches, and Clemson’s boss is Dabo Swinney, who had to walk on at Alabama during his playing days, and yet I’m taking the Tigers.

It’s not solely because picking the Crimson Tide is boring, or because a little bit of Saban goes a long way, or even because I was at Sun Life Stadium the day Clemson beat Miami 58-0.

All of these are fine reasons for making a prediction that nobody is going to care about tomorrow, unless of course I miss by a mile, in which case the social network will become very anti-social in its treatment of this so-called expert.

In reality, though, I really do see Clemson as the most complete team Alabama has faced, and the loosest when it comes to taking on the Tide. In some ways this has the feel of Clemson’s 22-15 win over Nebraska in the 1981 national championship game.

The Tigers were unbeaten and ranked No. 1 that season. Nebraska had a couple of losses and was ranked No. 4, but still everyone just figured Clemson would be unable to match the Cornhuskers’ power and big-game experience. Instead, Nebraska, a four-point favorite, wound up looking like the team that wasn’t quite ready.

Of course, the events of three-plus decades ago have not impact on tonight’s title game in Arizona. It does sound familiar, though.

Alabama was supposed to handle Ohio State in last year’s national semifinals. Wrong assumption.

Oklahoma was the consensus pick to steamroll Clemson in the Orange Bowl on New Year’s Eve. Again, that was a case of downgrading the Tigers on the basis of not seeing them all that often on the biggest stage.

Clemson has shown, however, an ability to fight back this year. They trailed FSU 10-6 at halftime and wound up winning by 10 points. They trailed Oklahoma at halftime of the Orange Bowl but outscored the Sooners 21-0 in the second half, shutting down a prolific Big 12 offense in the process.

[When Huizenga hired Cam Cameron, he wondered ‘Could this thing blow up on us?’]

[When’s the last time FSU, UM and UF all lost their bowl games?]

[Bill Belichick’s primer on how long it takes a new coach to fully install a program]

Beating Alabama, if it happens, will be more about countering Henry’s relentless power over four quarters with fresh waves of defensive depth. Clemson has the athletes to do that. On the other side of the ball, Clemson’s spread attack and Dabo’s ingenuity will stress the Alabama defense in ways that Michigan State couldn’t.

So make it 19-17 Clemson, and if that’s wrong, at least this blog was posted at the last minute, which might limit the volume of ridicule it engenders after the fact.

And maybe I’ll get a few brownie points for correctly picking Clemson over Oklahoma.

Or not.