- How many other programs have the resources Nick Saban would need to take them to the national championship game? Is Texas back? Answering those questions and more in this week's mailbag.
Everyone is complaining about it, but we got the national title game matchup we expected in August. And, of course, you have questions…
From Cliff: In what other programs could Nick Saban's coaching result in his team playing for a national championship? How far down the top 25 would programs have the resources to allow Saban to get there?
This is a fascinating question. We’ve seen Saban build monsters at LSU and Alabama, but could The Process work anywhere? The two biggest commonalities at LSU and Alabama are proximity to elite players and a willingness to spend money, but with so much more money in the system than when Saban was hired at LSU before the 2000 season, a lot of schools meet that second criterion now.
So how many schools meet both? To answer the money question, we consulted USA Today’s most recent athletic department revenue chart, which uses data from the 2016–17 school year. The tricky part was figuring out the lower boundary, because everyone is making so much more than a few years ago. Fortunately, there has been a team close to Alabama’s level the past few years. On Monday, coach Dabo Swinney’s Clemson Tigers will play Alabama for the national title. It’s the fourth consecutive year these teams have met in the College Football Playoff and the third time in that span that they’ve faced off for the national title.
The Tigers are in the midst of the most dominant stretch in program history because they have a special coach. Swinney is the closest to Saban’s level at the moment, and the job he did taking the Tigers from a middling ACC team 10 years ago to one of the best two programs in the country shows just how much coaching/culture matters. Because while Clemson has money, it is not awash in money the way most of the top SEC and Big Ten programs are. Swinney had to fight over pennies early to help build this. Back in 2012, he told me he described his quest for a bigger support staff and better facilities this way to his bosses: “You can’t run a donkey in the Kentucky Derby.”
The administration trusted Swinney and made the investment, and now Clemson has a thoroughbred. So we can safely set our lower financial boundary at Clemson’s revenue figure. Saban would ask for an initial investment to beef up staff and probably to improve facilities. But those requests would all be manageable at this revenue level. Now, it’s a matter of figuring out which of the programs on that list would have access to enough talent to allow Saban to fully implement The Process.
1. Texas: $214.8 million
2. Texas A&M: $212 million
3. Ohio State: $185.4 million
4. Michigan: $185.1 million
5. Alabama: $174.3 million
6. Georgia: $157.9 million
7. Oklahoma: $155.2 million
8. Florida: $149.2 million
9. LSU: $147.7 million
10. Auburn: $147.5 million
11. Tennessee $145.7 million
12. Oregon: $145.4 million
13. Florida State: $144.5 million
14. Penn State: $144 million
15. Wisconsin: $143.4 million
16. South Carolina: $136 million
17. Notre Dame: 132.4 million*
18. Kentucky: $130.7 million
19. Iowa: $130.7 million
20. Arkansas: $129.7 million
21. Washington: $128.7 million
22. Michigan State: $126 million
23. Louisville: $120 million
24: Nebraska: $120.2 million
25. Ole Miss: $117.8 million
26. Minnesota: $116.3 million
27. USC: $113.2 million*
28. Clemson: $112.6 million
*Because Notre Dame and USC are private schools, they are under no obligation to respond to USA Today’s requests for their athletic department financial figures. But they are required to report similar numbers to the U.S. Department of Education. Their numbers (for the same academic year) were pulled off the Department of Education’s Equity in Athletics site.
So 28 schools would have the money to implement The Process, but how many of them have the access to players that Saban would need to build his roster? We need to evaluate that on a case-by-case basis.
Any program that has won a national title in the past 20 years should make the list, because it has demonstrated it can get the players to compete. So Texas, Ohio State, Alabama, Oklahoma, Florida, LSU, Auburn, Tennessee*, Florida State, Clemson and USC are definitely included. We also should include any program that has played for a BCS title or made the College Football Playoff in the past 10 years. Those teams clearly have access to enough players to compete and could get over the top with Saban coaching them. So welcome Georgia, Oregon, Notre Dame, Washington and Michigan State.
*The Volunteers won their last national title 20 years ago Friday, so they just made the cut. But Knoxville is only a four-hour drive from where Saban works now, so it’s safe to say they would have made it anyway.
We’re already at 16 programs where Saban could conceivably build a dynasty. Adding Texas A&M is a no-brainer because of money and easy access to recruits. Michigan also can recruit at a level that would allow Saban to win. Penn State can recruit up and down the eastern seaboard, so add the Nittany Lions. South Carolina is in the same state and makes more money than Clemson, so Saban could work his magic there. That brings the number to 20.
Now the choices get difficult. Wisconsin won double-digit games every year from 2014–18, but did the Badgers max out relative to their access to talent because they have had such a capable administration and coaching staff? My guess is Saban would turn them down for a school closer to better recruits. Kentucky and Louisville are a 75-minute drive apart and in conferences that allow them to recruit south. But the best players who live the closest to them are in Ohio, and those players are going to be tough to pry away from Ohio State. (To play at the level we’re talking about, you’d have to be able to talk Ohio’s best players into playing somewhere other than Ohio State. That’s how good a recruiter you’d have to be. Swinney did it last year with lineman Jackson Carman.) Is Nick Saban that good of a recruiter? Yes he is. So let’s add Kentucky and Louisville and take the number to 22.
That brings us to Nebraska, which has the money, facilities and tradition to compete with anyone but a location that makes building an elite team a challenge. Saban is a pragmatist and stays closer to the players. For this reason, he also eliminates Minnesota.
Saban has proven himself capable of scouring Mississippi junior college rosters and finding huge diamonds hidden in lots of rough (see Cody, Terrence), so he could definitely stock his roster at Ole Miss. But we know the NCAA will show up the moment Ole Miss starts beating bluebloods for players, so would Saban be willing to deal with that aggravation? Sure. There are some really good players in Mississippi and nearby Memphis. So add Ole Miss to the list. That brings us to 23. That’s the number of the GOAT in another sport—the older guy; remember my age—so it’s a fitting number of programs that college football’s GOAT could lead to a dynasty.
From Brian: Is Texas back?
Quarterback Sam Ehlinger says so.
Coach Tom Herman doesn’t seem so sure.
The fact that the Longhorns beat the Big 12 champ in the regular season and then played a competitive game against Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game certainly bolsters Ehlinger’s case. And it doesn’t matter if Georgia was motivated or not. Texas whipped Georgia’s athletes up front in the Sugar Bowl win, and that’s a promising sign for the future.
So can Texas compete for the Big 12 title and a CFP berth next year? On one condition. The Longhorns need to learn to win the games they’re supposed to win. In Herman’s four seasons as a head coach (two at Houston, two at Texas), his teams have been excellent in huge games but suspect in games against average teams with a puncher’s chance. The best examples from this season are the Longhorns’ losses to Maryland and Oklahoma State. (The last-second loss to West Virginia doesn’t fall into this category. That West Virginia team was quite good.) Texas could have won the Big 12 by beating Oklahoma in the conference title game, but the Longhorns would have had no shot at making the playoff because they didn’t show up for 60 minutes against the Terrapins and the Cowboys.
Winning the games a team is supposed to win is often the toughest step for an aspiring national contender to take. If Herman can train the Longhorns to play to their own standard—as Alabama and Clemson do—and not to the level of their competition, then Ehlinger just may be correct.
From Kevin: Will any team other than Michigan get dragged all offseason for losing its bowl game?
It would have been even worse at Miami had Mark Richt not resigned following a 35–3 Pinstripe Bowl loss to Wisconsin. The Hurricanes almost immediately hired former defensive coordinator Manny Diaz as the head coach, which amounts to a push of the reset button led by the best part of Richt’s brief tenure in Miami. Unlike Michigan, which had a good season before a disastrous final two games, Miami didn’t seem fixable under Richt.
NC State will feel some heat after losing 52–13 to Texas A&M in the Gator Bowl. The Wolfpack won nine games, but against a terribly weak ACC and with the best non-conference game on the schedule flipped to an easily winnable one because of a hurricane. NC State got destroyed 41–7 at Clemson, and the Wolfpack lost a game they should have won against Wake Forest for the second consecutive season. Meanwhile, NC State will lose quarterback Ryan Finley and offensive coordinator Eli Drinkwitz is off to become the head coach at Appalachian State. The good news for NC State is that head coach Dave Doeren has been here before. The 2015 season ended with 51–28 Belk Bowl loss to Mississippi State. Quarterback Jacoby Brissett was out of eligibility, and Doeren had decided to fire OC Matt Canada. The Wolfpack got better then, and Doeren’s challenge will be repeating that feat.
But Michigan is going to get a lot of negative attention this offseason because of the way this season ended. The bowl loss isn’t as much of a concern because it’s not shocking that the Wolverines—playing shorthanded because of injuries and players skipping bowls—were less than motivated to play a Florida team that viewed the Peach Bowl as a launchpad to the 2019 season. The Ohio State game is far more troubling. That 62–39 loss to the Buckeyes exposed a talent gap that hasn’t closed nearly as much as it should have by Jim Harbaugh’s fourth season. Michigan’s top-end players are great, but starters 11–22 (and, drawing a logical conclusion, all of the backups) are not as good as their Ohio State counterparts. That must get fixed, and perhaps the resignation of Urban Meyer will allow Michigan to improve enough to get on the Buckeyes’ level on every corner of the two-deep.