4-Down Territory: Flying Into 2024 Before 2023 is Even a Week in the Past
For the second or third straight year we close the book on the college football season saying it’s the end of college football as we know it. Events have moved so quickly, it’s hard not to think that the fault line shifts of tectonic continental plates will still be moving one year hence. Time will tell….
In the here and now it's hard to remember that Michigan won the National Title just last week. We knew 2024 would see dramatic change, but we're already flying at hyper-speed towards next season. And speaking of flying, wait until you see what some of next year's schedule has in store for college football fans.
AND while we all may be focused on recruiting, transfers and coaching changes, there will be plenty of action in the courts as more and more of the future of college sports is decided in the nation's federal courts.
First Down: The National Championship Game: Michigan won the National Championship fulfilling their belief in the destiny that awaited them. This was a team of older players that resolved to come back and get it done this year after losing to TCU in the semifinals last year. They overcame a myriad of off-field distractions and stuck together. During their game at Penn State, I stood on the sidelines with the FOX TV guys right near Michigan’s bench and watched closely the interaction of players and coaches (no one took video of anything). When you’ve been around teams that have a championship mojo you can see it in the body language, the interactions on the sidelines and the way a team carries itself. After that game there was little doubt among the group of people we were with, that Michigan in 2024 as a team had “it.”
Second Down: Embrace Your Roots: Although most everyone was convinced that defense as the driving force had taken a back seat to tempo offense and scoring boatloads of points Michigan embraced what Michigan has traditionally been. After a losing season during the Covid year, the Wolverines went back to what Harbaugh and Michigan know best, power run game, timely accurate passing and a defense that was relentless and tackled well. In the National Championship game Michigan’s ability to tackle one-on-one in the open field, as well as gang-tackle by relentless pursuit just stood out. To be fair, Washington’s offense was hobbled by the injury to running back Dillon Johnson which made them more one-dimensional. With the threat of the run game diminished, Michigan was able to play coverage and get pressure on Michael Penix with a four-man rush. Hats off to Penix for a gutsy performance. He took hit after hit and kept getting up to fight. Despite the early deficit, for several possessions it was a one-score game and UW just couldn’t catch Michigan. That is a credit to the Wolverine’s defense….Oh and on offense old-school Michigan huddled between plays, used motions, shifts and a number of personnel groups. One of the things Nick Saban mentioned about preparing for Michigan was having to work with his defenders to recognize and find the personnel coming out of the huddle as they got lined up. They hadn’t seen much of that all year. And speaking of Saban…..
Third Down: Saban's Place in History: Last week Nick Saban decided to retire as the Head Coach at Alabama. Is he the GOAT? Comparing across generations is always tricky. Comparing Saban to a number of old-school coaches before the BCS and playoff era. There were years when those coaches would’ve had a chance to win a National Title had there been a 4-team playoff. How would some of those coaches have flourished in the transfer portal era? Who knows? But one can certainly say that Nick Saban retires as the dominant coach of the late BCS era and this Playoff era. And despite falling short of a National Title this year, Alabama's 2024 season is a case study in how you get a young team to the playoff. It may have been one of Saban's best coaching jobs in any year. This team was left for dead after a loss to Texas and a struggle against USF---USF NOT USC. He and his staff found a way to play better defense, win games in the second half and get the most out a first-year starter at QB. And as Saban steps down he leaves a team that can compete again next year……
Fourth Down: What Do the Analytics Say? Punt it Into Next Year: ESPN added a "feature" on their telecasts that state on fourth down whether the "ESPN Analytics" say a team should punt or go for it. The ESPN analytics are like your drunk college roommate who went for it on every 4th down while playing Madden on the old Sega system--that guy never punted. But we'll punt on this season and look at what's happened already in 2024 and take a sneak peek at next fall when the SEC and Big Ten emerge as dominant conferences.
The Domino Effect: Saban’s retirement triggered a wave of changes. Washington Coach Kalen DeBoer took the Alabama job. Then Jed Fisch who led Arizona to a Top-10 finish took the job at UW. And the coaching changes may not be done yet if the NFL nabs a coach or two from the college ranks……
Power-2? The SEC and Big Ten jump into a bold new future giving us some incredible matchups to watch that are now conference games.
New SEC Conference Games: Georgia at Texas, Florida at Texas, Texas at Texas A&M, Tennessee at Oklahoma, Oklahoma at Ole Miss, Alabama at Oklahoma and Oklahoma at LSU
New Big Ten Games: UCLA at Penn State, Penn State at USC, Washington at Penn State, USC at Michigan, Oregon at Michigan and Ohio State at Oregon
Huge SEC vs Big Ten Matchups: USC against LSU in Las Vegas, Alabama at Wisconsin, Texas at Michigan and UCLA at LSU
USC’s Schedule: USC plays LSU in Las Vegas, and has road games at Michigan, Washington and UCLA and home games against Wisconsin, Penn State and Notre Dame.
Overtime: Expanded New Horizons: The Ultimate Power-4 conference road warriors are the UCLA Bruins. They will travel roughly 90% around the world this year logging 22,168 round trip air miles on road games at Hawaii, LSU, Penn State, Rutgers, Nebraska and Washington. They'll play as far west as Honolulu and as far east as Piscataway, NJ spanning 5 time zones. Three of their opponents are 2000+ miles away (Hawaii 2,550, Rutgers 2,450 and Penn State 2,250) and their shortest road trip is at Washington at 954 miles. But the road warrior champions are Hawaii. With games at Sam Houston, Fresno State, San Diego State, Utah State and Washington State they will log a whopping 29,780 miles. Hope there are some good in-flight movies on their planes.
But this is the brave new world of college football where teams like Stanford and Cal can belong to the ATLANTIC Coast Conference and the Big Ten can have 18 teams and span from the shadows of the Manhattan Skyline to LA and up to Puget Sound…….