Why you shouldn’t hand Alabama the national title just yet

Hey everybody. It’s Monday. Time for Immediate Recovery.

(Note: To send questions for my Wednesday Mailbag, email Stewart.Mandel@fox.com)


On Sunday, I offered my reaction to the committee’s final rankings. Long story short: They picked the four best teams. I wish Penn State the best of luck in the Rose Bowl.

But I don’t deny there’s a cloud hanging over the newly announced 2016 playoff field. And that cloud is named Alabama.

I’ve been covering college football postseasons long enough to remember quite a few other “overwhelming favorites,” but the 2016 Crimson Tide’s dominance to this point just feels different. Nick Saban’s team this year has essentially bludgeoned 13 teams to death. Those teams got legit scares during the season. They had identifiable weaknesses. Alabama, to this point, has none.

When a reporter asked Saban on a conference call Sunday which games were the Tide’s toughest, he first brought up Ole Miss, which held an early 24-3 lead on his team before falling behind 48-30. But then …

“We struggled to beat Arkansas, even though we were ahead in the game most of the time,” said Saban. Alabama won that game 49-30.

“We didn’t start out very well in the game [Saturday] night against Florida,” he said. Final score: 54-16.

“The Auburn game was close at halftime. The Texas A&M game was close at halftime.” Those ended 30-12 and 33-14, respectively.

That’s what we’re dealing with here.

On Sunday, once the committee made official that No. 1 seed Alabama would be facing No. 4 seed Washington in its semifinal game in Atlanta, Vegas immediately installed the Tide as a 14-point favorite over the 12-1 Pac-12 champion. To put that in perspective, the committee’s No. 2 seed, Clemson, was a 10-point favorite over 9-3 Virginia Tech in its conference championship game.

Speaking of Clemson, the Tigers have now won 26 of their last 28 games dating to the start of last season. One of those two losses was by five points to Alabama in last year’s national championship game. On Dec. 31 in the Fiesta Bowl they’ll meet an Ohio State team that’s won 35 of its last 37 games and handed Alabama its most recent postseason loss two years ago.

And yet the prevailing sense among many is that this whole charade is just a futile prelude to the Tide’s inevitable coronation.

To be clear, no team of 18-to-23-year-olds is unbeatable. That goes for this Alabama team, too. Here’s why there’s hope yet for those seeking an upset.

Bowl games are weird

For 14 weeks, college football teams go through the same routine. Then they take time off, take finals, go home for the holidays, come back and prepare for their biggest game of the season. Who knows how Alabama will handle its four-week break before the Peach Bowl. It might get better. It might regress. Ditto goes for Washington.

“It’s hard to carry the momentum from the end of the season to the game,” Saban said Sunday. “It’s almost like a new season, and you have to sort of approach it that way, or at least that’s what we’ve tried to do. We’ve done it successfully [in 2015 against Michigan State] and we’ve done it unsuccessfully [in 2014 against Ohio State,] so I’m not sure we have the formula exactly right.”

Look at those coaches

Saban is the unquestioned king of college football coaching, but man, look who he’s going against. Chris Petersen, he of the .826 career winning percentage, first turned Boise State into a national power and has now done the same with long-mediocre Washington. If Saban beats him, he either runs into three-time national champion Urban Meyer or 2015 national coach of the year Dabo Swinney.

Those guys have won 11 BCS or CFP games between themselves.

Are we really sure Alabama’s been tested?

While the Tide have wins over five teams from the committee’s final Top 25, four were against SEC teams that finished with four losses. The other was a Week 1 blowout of an eventual 9-3 USC team playing the wrong quarterback.

Before any Alabama fans reading this jump into outrage mode, I’m not suggesting the Tide aren’t deserving of the No. 1 seed. Of course they are. But the three teams they could play in the postseason may all be considerably better than any one opponent they’ve faced to this point.

… Because man, those quarterbacks

It may be that Jonathan Allen, Tim Williams and Reuben Foster render these playoff teams’ star quarterbacks just as helpless as such ho-hum SEC signal-callers as Tennessee’s Josh Dobbs or Florida’s Austin Appleby. But don’t forget about Ole Miss’ Chad Kelly. The last QB to beat the Tide, on Sept. 19, 2015, came back this season and threw for 421 yards and three touchdowns.

It’s been a while since the Tide faced someone as capable as Kelly, much less Jake Browning, Deshaun Watson or J.T. Barrett.

But most of all — do we never learn?

In 2002, Miami, winner of 34 straight, was a 12-point favorite over 13-0 Ohio State in the BCS championship game. In 2005, ESPN spent a week debating whether USC, also on a 34-game streak prior to facing undefeated Texas, was the greatest team of all time. Heck, three years ago the only reason Auburn was given any chance against undefeated juggernaut Florida State was “destiny.”

Now we have Alabama, winner of 25 straight games — not to mention four of the past seven national championships — playing the role of terrifying Goliath.

Miami lost. So did USC. Florida State needed a touchdown with 13 seconds remaining. Alabama may well win another national championship come Jan. 9, but any tournament that includes John Ross, Washington’s defensive line, Deshaun Watson, Clemson’s D-line, Ohio State’s DBs, Curtis Samuel, Chris Petersen, Dabo Swinney and Urban Meyer is hardly the makings of a cakewalk.

And now, a few more takeaways as we look ahead to bowl season.

There’s more to the sport than the playoff

The annual weeks-long debate over the playoff field creates massive interest for college football, but unfortunately it overshadows pretty much every other story in the sport.

And boy, were there some good ones this year.

Penn State might not be going to the playoff, but the Nittany Lions are 11-2 Big Ten champs headed to Pasadena just four years after the most crippling NCAA sanctions since SMU. Instead, the Nittany Lions will play in their first Rose Bowl since a 2009 loss to this year’s opponent — USC, also marking its return to relevance.

Colorado got blown out in the Pac-12 championship game and thus missed out on the Rose Bowl. It’s headed to the Alamo Bowl against Oklahoma State. But the Buffs’ rise from 1-8 in the conference last season (and 5-40 their first five years) to 8-1 this season was the sport’s most remarkable turnaround in several years.

Oklahoma never really had a playoff shot after those early losses to Houston and Ohio State. But the Sooners this season became the first Big 12 team to go 9-0 in conference play, and Bob Stoops claimed his 10th Big 12 title in 18 seasons. That’s insane.

And last but not least … Row the Boat! Western Michigan is 13-0 and headed to the Cotton Bowl. It’s only the second time in 19 years that a MAC team has reached a BCS or CFB bowl (NIU was the first in 2012) and the first time since TCU in 2010 that a Group of 5 team finished the regular season undefeated.

The non-New Year’s Six bowl lineup worked out OK

Last year a slew of problems with the selection process left two Mountain West teams playing each other in a bowl and its commissioner Craig Thompson complaining that the system was “broken.” This year, flexibility allowed conferences to move some teams around and create better matchups.

For example, Nebraska and Tennessee aren’t what they were in the late-‘90s but it’s still cool to see them playing in a bowl game. The Big Ten’s no-repeat rule made it possible; the Huskers otherwise would have gone back to the Holiday Bowl rather than the Music City Bowl.

West Virginia-Miami is a cool little Big East reunion in the Russell Athletic Bowl. Because Virginia Tech had just played in the league title game in Orlando, it made more sense to keep 8-4 Miami in state and send 9-4 Virginia Tech to the Belk Bowl in Charlotte, which also happens to be much closer to it.

And on the lower end, several ESPN-owned bowls swapped their usual conferences to create better matchups. No. 25 Navy, 9-3, was looking at an unfortunate date with 5-7 North Texas in the Armed Forces Bowl but instead landed 8-5 Louisiana Tech. Mountain West champ San Diego State draws Greg Ward. Jr. and Houston as a Pac-12 replacement in the Vegas Bowl. And Idaho, which drops down to FCS after next year, gets to play in Boise.

Heisman ballots are due Monday, and, zzzzz

I’ve never sensed less interest or excitement in the Heisman come season’s end. It’s not just that Louisville’s Lamar Jackson seems the preordained winner. Is there any real intrigue over the other finalists? Did anyone besides Deshaun Watson make any noticeable closing argument?

I can tell you that as of Sunday night I had not yet submitted my ballot and had not yet narrowed it down in the slightest. Only one of the following names was guaranteed to be on there: Jackson, Watson, Texas’ D’Onta Foreman, Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield and Dede Westbrook, Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey, Florida State’s Dalvin Cook, USC’s Adoree’ Jackson, Washington’s Jake Browning and Alabama’s Jalen Hurts.

Hopefully I’ve figured it out by the time you read this. (Update: I don’t.)

Just for fun …

Some people love playing the “What would an 8- or 16-team playoff field look like this year?” game. I on the other hand am nostalgic for yesteryear. I wonder, what would this postseason have looked like in PAST bowl configurations?

Let’s start with the first New Year’s Six rotation in 2014, when the Rose and Sugar hosted semifinals and three bowls were open to at-large teams.

Sugar: No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Washington

Rose: No. 2 Clemson vs. No. 3 Ohio State

Orange: No. 5 Penn State vs. No. 11 Florida State

Cotton: No. 6 Michigan vs. No. 7 Oklahoma

Peach: No. 8 Wisconsin vs. No. 10 Colorado

Fiesta: No. 9 USC vs. No. 15 Western Michigan

I like those Cotton and Peach Bowls.

What about our dearly departed friend the BCS (using the last year’s rotation)? Without knowing how its standings may have differed from the committee …

Championship: No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 2 Clemson

Rose: No. 4 Washington vs. No. 5 Penn State

Fiesta: No. 7 Oklahoma vs. No. 24 Temple

Sugar: No. 14 Auburn vs. No. 15 Western Michigan

Orange: No. 3 Ohio State vs. No. 11 Florida State

In case you needed a reminder why we 86’d the BCS.

And now my favorite exercise of all: The pre-coalition, circa-1990 bowl system (as much as possible with the drastically different conferences).

Rose: Ohio State vs. Washington

Sugar: Alabama vs. Clemson

Orange: Oklahoma vs. Florida State

Fiesta: Penn State vs. USC

I do wonder sometimes whether it would be easier to just go back to this.