The basketball blue bloods are on the back burner this year, but we'll never get a year like that in football
Out with the blue bloods, in with the new bloods.
It’s a phrase that we heard a lot during the SEC Championship with LSU and Alabama, and it’s a phrase we could hear throughout the NCAA Tournament. Duke, Kentucky and Indiana are all on the outside looking in while UCLA is in a play-in game, UNC is an 8-seed and Kansas appears to be the lone blue blood with Final Four potential as a 3-seed.
Meanwhile, 3 of the 4 No. 1 seeds have never won a national title. Michigan is the only 1-seed with a national title to speak of, and it happened in 1989. None of the 2-seeds (Alabama, Houston, Iowa and Ohio State) has won a national title in the last 50 years.
Call it a COVID year, call it a changing of the guard, call it whatever you want. What seems undeniable in this unique NCAA Tournament is that it won’t be a blue blood-dominated field that decides a national title.
Consider it a sharp 180 from anything we could ever see in college football. Well, at least in its current state with a 4-team Playoff.
(Now is the part where I’m supposed to reference how epic a 64-team College Football Playoff would be. I’ll instead remind you that we as human beings aren’t built to handle that.)
Good luck getting a Playoff that lacks multiple teams that have won a national title this century. The 2015 field was the closest thing to that with 2 non-traditional powers Clemson and Michigan State, though it still had yearly staples Alabama and Oklahoma (and Clemson became a yearly staple shortly thereafter).
The Playoff, whether you like the 4-team setup or not, usually includes 3 teams with championship experience and 1 that is hoping for some sort of return to prominence (2016 Washington, 2017 Georgia, 2018 Notre Dame, 2019 LSU). That dynamic exists for a variety of reasons. Obviously, the big one is that those teams don’t enter a “win or go home” matchup in a postseason format. Well, unless you consider that September game against Murray State as “win or go home.” In a way, it is. Technically, losing that game would be devastating for a team like Alabama or Ohio State.
But why is there never any concern that’ll happen in football? Part of it is there’s not a football equivalent of jacking up a bunch of 3-pointers and catching fire in a 40-minute window. Being bigger, stronger and faster matters more in football. Obviously.
It’s also about the talent pool. Those powers are picking from a different group. They just are. There’s a reason no national championship team in the Playoff era has been worse than No. 9 in the 247sports talent composite. That team was 2016 Clemson, which still had 4 5-star recruits and 35 4-star recruits, including a certain quarterback named “Deshaun Watson.”
Basketball is a star-driven sport. Sure, it takes the right team to mesh and put together an NCAA Tournament run. But it doesn’t take out-muscling and out-running a team in the same way football does. They’re different sports. One levels the playing field with things like a 3-point line and back-door cuts and one really doesn’t. That’s not to say there isn’t skill involved in football and that it’s based entirely on talent, but when one sport has 85 scholarships to hand out while another has 13, yeah, depth is emphasized in a different way.
From a development standpoint, it’s not like John Calipari goes into a season knowing that he has a roster full of 5-star guys who spent the last 2-3 years in the strength and conditioning program and they’re now ready for their opportunity. He instead always has a roster in flux and every once in a while like 2012-13 or 2020-21, the young talent just doesn’t work well together.
Kirby Smart and Nick Saban will never have that problem. Hence, why their floor is so much higher than a basketball blue blood.
(And now is the part where I’m supposed to say that Georgia isn’t a blue blood because it hasn’t won a national title since 1980. Fine. Georgia is at least a power in the sport.)
The closest thing we could get to a non-blue blood Playoff would start with Alabama and Ohio State missing the field. Clemson taking a year off as a football “new blood” would help the cause, too. And hey, Oklahoma, could you maybe not win the Big 12 for once?
Let’s say there’s a non-blue blood Playoff in 2021. Try and come up with 7-8 teams that could qualify for that as possible preseason top-15 teams (or close to it):
- Iowa State
- Texas A&M
Break that list down and you realize, OK, Iowa State would have to get through Oklahoma. UNC would have to get through Clemson. Texas A&M would have to get through Alabama while Indiana, Iowa and Wisconsin would probably have to get through Ohio State. Meanwhile, Oregon would have to get through the notion that the Pac-12 is the inferior Power 5 conference while Cincinnati would have to get through the whole “no Group of 5 teams have made the Playoff because they don’t sign top 30 recruiting classes” thing.
Of those teams, Texas A&M is the only one that will show up anywhere near the top 5 in terms of the talent composite rankings. If I set the over/under of 1.5 of those teams making the field, there’s no chance you’re taking the “over.” Maybe 1 of those teams will make the field.
More likely is that 8 months of preseason buzz will be replaced with a fall reminder of who runs the sport. That is, those 4 teams (Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma) that accounted for 20 of the 28 Playoff spots. That’s 71% of the field.
Hey, while we’re at it, why don’t we look at ESPN’s way-too-early Top 25 for 2021:
- Ohio State
And if you look at the 2021 recruiting class rankings, 4 of those teams are in the top 5 there, too. It’s not breaking any news to say those programs are stockpiling talent and utilizing that 85-scholarship limit in an elite way.
In basketball, Kentucky has as much talent as anyone. Here’s how that roster breaks down:
- 5-stars: 3
- 4-stars: 6
- Transfers: 3
- Unrated: 4
As this past year showed us with Kentucky, the margin for error is greater in basketball. There are only so many lineup combinations one can compile and following what wasn’t exactly an ideal offseason for a team with so many new pieces, the Cats crumbled.
Meanwhile, in football, it was nearly the most blue blood Playoff to date. Sub in blue blood No. 5 Notre Dame for blue blood No. 4 Oklahoma and yeah, it was a pretty standard Playoff. The only thing missing from the usual Playoff was another Alabama-Clemson showdown.
Some had speculated (myself included) that a potential pandemic wherein players were forced to spend time away from the elite, world-class facilities would actually level the playing field. Instead, it just reminded us that elite coaches are elite because they adjust at a higher level than anyone else. Crazy concept.
An even crazier concept would be seeing a bunch of newcomers battle for a national title in football. Our best chance of that happening is the field expanding, but even if that inevitable event takes place in the middle of the decade, there’s a next-to-impossible chance that we see a top 8 like the one we have in college basketball this year. That is, a top 8 with 1 combined national title in the last half-century.
Let’s appreciate each sport for what it is. Both entertain us in their unique way.
Just remember why the madness is reserved for March.