It’s O.K. if it’s taken you all week to process what you saw Monday night, when Clemson pulled the rug out from underneath Alabama and Dabo Swinney could have announced his candidacy for president in 2020 without anyone batting an eyelash. It was a big night, if not a competitive game, and it drastically redefined the season it concluded. The year in college football was supposed to be a slow march toward another Alabama title, four months of filler games before a delayed inevitability. Instead, Clemson turned the whole thing on its head, and the world was left blinking, and now it’s over—at least for a few months.
Spring football is still a ways a way, but in the meantime, there’s plenty to discuss and debate, from the obvious to the more nuanced repercussions of this season. With that, let’s take a look at the loudest storylines you’ll hear this offseason.
Which team can claim supremacy in the Big Ten?
Urban Meyer is gone, and record-setting passer Dwayne Haskins is off to the NFL, so Ohio State is supposedly due for a step back. But will Michigan be able to rise to meet its rival after an uninspiring end to the year? New Buckeyes coach Ryan Day hired away two of Michigan’s defensive coaches this week, spicing up the off-field angled of a rivalry missing one of its central personalities in Meyer. Ohio State will dominate the offseason headlines in a good way—an unknown quantity at coach is almost as good as a legend—and Michigan will be subject to another offseason of Jim Harbaugh-related angst. The Buckeyes will likely be the preseason favorite, but Wisconsin and Penn State are wild cards after disappointing years, Northwestern has a West division title to defend and Iowa will have a top-25 case. There’s a lot of prognosticating to go between now and Week 1.
The Pac-12’s no good, very bad 2018 could carry into 2019
For the second consecutive year, the Pac-12 was left out of the College Football Playoff, and it hasn’t won a semifinal since the system’s inaugural season. Things aren’t looking much better in the near-term. USC tried to go a different direction with its offense by hiring Kliff Kingsbury, who was offensive coordinator for only a few weeks before bolting for an NFL head coaching job. Washington and Washington State—the two teams that had the best playoff shots this fall—lost their quarterbacks to graduation. Utah always lurks, but it’s hard to imagine a world in which the Utes, or any of the aforementioned teams, make the leap over the best teams in the other four conferences. There’s certainly a world in which the Big Ten misses the playoff for a third straight year, but it’s been on the cusp every season—which is not something the Pac-12 can boast. Its best hope in 2019 may be Oregon, which brings back quarterback Justin Herbert and could be in for a breakthrough year if its offensive line stays healthy and its top-five recruiting class contributes. Being this far behind the pack isn’t sustainable in the long-term for a Power 5 league.
The implications of this year’s bizarre (and never-ending) coaching carousel
The aforementioned Kingsbury move—fired by Texas Tech, hired by USC, then hired by the Arizona Cardinals in 44 days—is just the tip of the iceberg. The NFL has talked to coaches few imagined might make the leap from the college ranks now, if ever, and Manny Diaz left Miami for Temple only to head right back to the Hurricanes after Mark Richt’s retirement. It’s been an unexpectedly volatile offseason, and all the pieces are still falling into place, so this is not something we’ll stop talking about soon, from the sheer craziness to the fallout. There’s the wild disparity between the freedom of movement coaches can exercise and the hoops players have to jump through. There’s the rapid rise in assistant coach salaries in order to incentivize the best to stay put. And then there’s the NFL looking to the college game for trends and forecasts—or maybe just guys who remind GMs of Sean McVay.
Alabama’s title-game choke and the sport’s hierarchy
This probably isn’t the end of the Alabama dynasty. Nick Saban probably hasn’t lost his edge as a coach. But the Crimson Tide need to reevaluate a few things after being dismantled by Clemson in the title game, and they might not feel like quite the shoo-in next year as they did in 2018. If nothing else, no one will be conceding them the top seed just because Tua Tagovailoa is back, after the Heisman runner-up threw two backbreaking picks against Clemson.
We’re never going to stop speculating about an expanded playoff
There’s always a new headline when it comes to playoff expansion: people want it, people don’t, it makes sense, it’s not happening during this contract, but what if it does, and what about 16 teams instead of eight or maybe even 12? It can be a whirlwind debate, and there’s always a new angle, even if none of them can quite be called unpredictable. And with no games to play or rankings to debate, at least we have playoff expansion.
Texas is back!
We think. Probably. That Sugar Bowl win sure looked good. This exclamation has been issued and retracted who knows how many times since 2009, the last time before this year that Texas had double-digit wins. That year, it lost the national championship game, and then it followed up the performance with a 5–7 finish 2010. It’s been a roller-coaster ever since, and even this year was not without its uncertainty. Still, 10 wins means something, no matter if the 10th was against a Georgia team that thought it should have made the playoff. Texas is back ... until it isn’t, at least.
Trevor Lawrence, Trevor Lawrence, Trevor Lawrence, Trevor Lawrence
Clemson’s rising sophomore quarterback is going to be the talk of the offseason, and rightfully so after the wizardry he committed in Santa Clara. A year ago, we had the same conversation around Tua Tagovailoa, but this time around we have a bigger sample size for Lawrence, and it’s still great. So of course we’re going to talk about him—his NFL ceiling, the talented skill players around him, his hair, how much he can achieve in two more college seasons (or three, as he mentioned after the title game). The Heisman Trophy ceremony is only 11 months away.