Which Program Will Be Next to Follow Clemson to Perennial Title Contention?

Only two other programs in the past 30 years have made the kind of leap Clemson has pulled off, and we're just about due for another team to join that number.
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The 2018 season is in the books, and you have questions…

From Matt: #DearAndy what is the next team on the college football landscape that starts a meteoric rise like Clemson—maybe a Texas A&M or a Kentucky or a Baylor?

This is a tough question, because those rises are fairly rare. Clemson’s turn began when Dabo Swinney became the head coach, but the Tigers didn’t truly get rolling until they finally surpassed Florida State in the ACC Atlantic Division in 2015. Oregon went from above-average Pac-10 program to a team that played for two national titles in a four-year span, but the Ducks never got over the hump. The last program before Clemson that went from a similar level to national titles was Florida under Steve Spurrier, and that rise began in 1990.

So that’s three programs in nearly 30 years, meaning we’re probably due for another one within the next five years. We’re not talking about any program that has won a national title this century. Teams such as Texas, Auburn, LSU, Florida and Florida State are close enough to winning titles that it wouldn’t be surprising to see them win again.

Matt’s suggestion of Texas A&M is an interesting one, because the Aggies have money, a passionate fan base, top-notch facilities and a fertile recruiting base. Texas A&M has most of the same characteristics of the programs that frequently compete for titles (Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State) but none of the tradition. The Aggies have never been able to break into national title contention, and that's why they spent so much money to hire Jimbo Fisher, who has led a program to a national title. The problem for Texas A&M is that Nick Saban is still coaching at Alabama, which means the barrier to entry for national title contention from the SEC West is awfully high. (Fisher knows that well, though. He ran up against the same thing as Florida State’s coach dealing with Dabo Swinney’s Clemson program.)

Still, the program that seems most likely to make the jump is one you’re probably not thinking of because it got close to a national title twice in the past six years. Georgia hasn’t won a national championship since 1980, so it belongs in the category we’re discussing here. (Clemson won a title in ’81.) The near misses for the Bulldogs in 2012 and ’17 only served to deepen the frustration of the fan base. This season’s SEC title game loss made it even worse, because Georgia outplayed Alabama for most of the game and then lost because a) it couldn’t stop a backup quarterback and b) the coaching staff called one of the most perplexing fake punts in recent memory.

But the fact that the Bulldogs have gotten so close combined with Kirby Smart’s high-level recruiting suggests Georgia can be in the mix every season for the forseeable future. It’s just a matter of getting over the hump. That won’t be easy with Saban’s Tide on the other side of the SEC, but Georgia feels ready to break through—just as Clemson did back in 2015.

From Susan: Isn’t Alabama the same team today that they were all year, right up until kickoff of the championship, that analysts said were without a doubt the best team with the best coach? Same players, same coach, same undefeated team prior to being given a new identity by a stinky game.

This only people who think that single result changes Alabama’s identity are being prisoners of the moment. The Crimson Tide lost a game. The score was lopsided. We’re overreacting to this because we haven’t seen it happen during Nick Saban’s tenure at Alabama. That’s what makes it so shocking. But it doesn’t really change Alabama’s situation long-term.

The Crimson Tide have had the No. 1 recruiting class in the country in seven of the past eight years. Alabama will have another No. 1 class when the 2019 recruits finish signing in February. The only program that has been able to identify and land talent at Alabama’s level in the past five years is Clemson. On Monday night, Clemson’s four- and five-stars were better than Alabama’s four- and five-stars. The teams have met four times in the past four seasons. Each team has a close win and a blowout win in the series, and each team has two national titles in that span. So no, the Alabama dynasty isn’t dead. I’ve long said that no one should declare it as such until the Tide lose three regular-season games, which hasn’t happened since 2010.

One popular narrative since the game is that coaching turnover has finally caught up to the Tide, and that Clemson’s (much more stable) staff coached circles around Alabama’s coaches. I’m not sure that’s true. What Clemson’s coaches did do is exploit a few personnel mismatches. One mismatch in particular—6'4" freshman receiver Justyn Ross against the weaker of Alabama’s defensive backs—is more a case of losing a key recruiting battle than getting outcoached. Ross is from Phenix City, Ala., a town near the Georgia border that is only minutes from Auburn’s campus. Clemson coaches told Ross he could be the one who tipped the balance of power between the Clemson and Alabama. In the case of this year, they may have been correct. And that happens in matchups between programs that are in similar positions. Last year, Alabama’s Da’Ron Payne was the player Clemson had no answer for. We’re just so unaccustomed to Alabama being on the business end of that type of individual mismatch that we don’t know what to think.

But here’s the truth. Alabama is the best program of the past 10 years in college football. It is either the best or second-best program in college football the past four years. I’m not going out on a limb to predict it will be one of the two best programs in college football in 2019. Susan is correct. It’s one game. Let’s not go crazy.

From Dan: Alabama has lost to both Trevor Knight and Trevor Lawrence. Does Alabama have a Trevor problem?

Despite everything I just wrote, Dan may be onto something. So is there a way teams on Alabama’s schedule can take advantage of this obvious glaring weakness?

The only quarterback recruit named Trevor in the class of 2019 is a 6'5", 230-pounder from Berea, Ohio, named Trevor Bycznski. Bycznski committed to Rice last summer, but he didn’t sign with the Owls in the early signing period. So it’s not too late, folks. You still may be able to grab your own Alabama-slayer.