Will Clemson’s championship win just make Alabama even stronger?

Well, that was fun, wasn’t it?

I’m writing this Mailbag on a long Southwest flight back from Tampa. It’s making two stops, and frankly I’m not even sure where.

Houston? San Antonio? I don’t know, I don’t care. There’s a diehard Clemson fan in the seat next to me who could probably fly this thing straight to San Jose purely on wings of delight.

Stewart – I’ve been considering the premise of your column from Monday morning: “Can we all agree it would be better for college football if Clemson wins Monday night’s national championship game?”

My thought is that Clemson’s victory will only make Alabama invest even more in facilities, staffing and process. When ‘Bama raises the bar, other major programs make their best efforts to keep up in the college football arms race. That level of spending may be attainable for the top two dozen institutions in terms of revenue and commitment, but it builds a chasm between the biggest programs and lower-spending Power Five conference peers.

— Joe, Ithaca, N.Y.

USA TODAY Sports/John David Mercer

Man, that’s a much more depressing way of looking at it.

I have no doubt Nick Saban will respond to this loss by upping the ante in myriad ways, whether hiring more analysts, spending more money on weight staff, nutrition, etc., etc., but none of that is going to impact the larger college football community. There are only so many more bench presses you can buy. If you believe that stuff was already a deciding factor before, then the Tide didn’t suddenly lose that edge because they won 26 straight games only to lose the last one in the final six seconds of the game.

But Clemson’s win may in fact touch off a spending spree among programs most would consider to be in its peer group financially — not Ohio State/Alabama/Texas but Virginia Tech, North Carolina, West Virginia, etc. All of them will want to try to become the next Clemson. But if I were them, I wouldn’t waste that money on locker rooms and juice bars.

The single most important decision Dabo Swinney made in building his program came after the 2011 ACC championship season when he redirected part of his own raise toward the program’s assistant salary pool. It allowed him to retain sought-after offensive coordinator Chad Morris and to hire Oklahoma DC Brent Venables, both of whom played key roles in the Tigers’ subsequent rise. Swinney is plenty well-paid today (an average of $5.125 million), but the message he sent during those earlier years was the importance of hiring the best possible staff.

Ultimately, though, the reason I wrote that column is because of exactly what happened. Swinney is unique, he’s fun, his personality is infectious and it permeates his entire roster. The country saw that Monday night. That doesn’t mean his style is necessarily better than others’, but given how much tough-nosed hardliners like Saban, Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh have dominated the headlines, it really is a breath of fresh air to see you can win big in this sport and still have a lot of fun doing it.

Did Nick Saban cost his team the national title when he fired Lane Kiffin seven days before the title game? Alabama was 0-for-its-last-10 third downs in the second half.  If they convert one more first down, they (likely) win since Watson runs out of time.

— Haden

I really don’t think so. We knew Kiffin would become a convenient scapegoat if Alabama lost, but that’d be a much easier case to make if the Tide scored 10 points, not 31, and got blown off the field rather than lost with one second remaining. I did not notice anything particularly odd about Steve Sarkisian’s play-calling.

Granted, Alabama did have quite a few false start/illegal procedure-type penalties that may have resulted in part from communication issues with the switch. I don’t think they decided the game.

So why was Alabama so inefficient on those third downs? While Jalen Hurts had his moments (most notably the late go-ahead 30-yard touchdown run), it did seem like he regressed as a passer during the playoff games. While he still largely avoided freshman-like mistakes, he just seemed off on most of his throws downfield.

But mostly, you’ve just got to give credit to Clemson’s defense. Those guys up front are incredible. They pressured the heck out of Hurts just like they did J.T. Barrett the week before. And the one guy who was having consistent success against the Tigers, RB Bo Scarbrough, unfortunately broke his leg in the second half. Once that happened it felt like ‘Bama was going to need a perfect game from its defense down the stretch, because the offense was largely hopeless.

That didn’t happen.

John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Stewart: Curious if you’ve given much thought in hindsight to the 2016 Heisman race. It seemed obvious to me that Lamar Jackson’s season started strong against a few lesser opponents, climaxed against Florida State and fizzled down the stretch. The national media seemed to miss that, while also missing the arc going in the other direction for Deshaun Watson. The CFP for Watson, along with Jackson’s bowl flop, showed the glaring difference between the two in the end.

— Ryan, Greenville, SC

I’m pretty much the poster for what you’re describing. Embarrassingly enough, given I just wrote a column about him finishing his career as one of the all-time greats, I did not have Watson in my weekly Heisman Top 5 list at any point all season prior to listing him third on my actual ballot (behind Jackson and Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield.)

So how did that happen? Well, for one thing, with guys who won or finished high in the Heisman vote the previous season, it’s hard to avoid setting that as the standard, and right from a sluggish opener at Auburn, Watson did not perform at his 2015 level for much of the first two-thirds of the season. I remember at one point he ranked in the 30s nationally in pass efficiency. Obviously he threw a lot of interceptions.

Arguably the key moment, though, was when he and Jackson played each other (in a game I covered). Watson won and put up nearly 400 yards of offense but committed four turnovers. Jackson was electrifying in the second half and came darn-close to pulling it out. That night further affirmed the narrative that Jackson was having a better season than Watson, and nothing either guy did over the next five weeks or so changed that.

But what myself and many of my colleagues failed to notice at first was that Watson started playing like his old self right around the same time Jackson went belly-up late in the year. And as you said, the strength of schedules weren’t comparable. Only when I sat down to fill out my official ballot did I truly grasp that.

Obviously, if they held the Heisman vote after the bowls, Watson would have run away with it this year and possibly even won it last year. So while I’d love to get a mulligan, it’s also quite the case of hindsight given his spectacular performance against Alabama pretty much trumped everything that happened before that.

Kirby Smart

Stewart: Clemson just won their first national championship in 36 years, what is the next program with a long drought (25+ years) or without a title to win one?

— Ross, Louisville

You want me to say Louisville, don’t you? That program certainly has the coach and the resources to play at the highest level, but I don’t see it happening as long as Dabo Swinney and Jimbo Fisher are in the same division. Which could be quite a while.

Given the trend we’ve seen over the last 20 years where almost every national champion (save for Ohio State) has come from the South or the West, the safest bet is someone in those parts of the country that just hasn’t reached the top in a while. Which has got to be Georgia. Despite a rabid fan base, Top 5 recruiting state and one of the richest athletic departments in the country, the Dawgs’ drought is currently one year longer than Clemson’s was prior to Monday night. It’s too soon to say whether Kirby Smart is the guy to do it, but I’d be willing to predict Georgia will win a national championship sometime in the next decade.

Another logical answer is Penn State, which last won one in 1986, came awfully close to reaching this year’s playoff and should be right back in the mix next year. But I’m definitely of the opinion that playoff champions will almost always come from the pool of 10-12 teams that regularly recruit Top 5-10 classes. Georgia is one of those. Penn State won’t likely be there quite as frequently.

And finally, let us not forget P.J. Fleck’s Minnesota Golden Gophers. Get ready to Row that Boat right back to 1960.

Reuben Foster
John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Before the season I asked who was on your non-QB/RB Heisman Trophy Watch list. Now that the season’s over, who would get your vote for the non-QB/RB Heisman Trophy?

— Steve, Chicago

Definitely Alabama LB Reuben Foster. While DE Jonathan Allen got more pub, Foster was the Tide’s most indispensible player on either side of the ball. He’s the guy opposing offensive coordinators feared most. Monday night was my first time seeing Alabama in person this year, and Foster was seemingly everywhere (12 tackles, including six solos, and a sack.) The guy explodes to the ball-carrier like he’s being shot out of a cannon.

If we’re filling out the top three — and not including actual Heisman finalist Oklahoma WR Dede Westbrook — I’d take Clemson DE Christian Wilkins and Ohio State S Malik Hooker.

Stewart, Thank you for your coverage this past season; it was interesting and informative as always. This past season presented us with the best opening weekend I can ever remember. What are some of the intriguing matchups for the opening weekend of the 2017 season?

— Mark, Magnolia, Ark.

While not quite as deep a lineup as this past September’s, man, does it have some biggies.

If you’re not already aware, Alabama is playing Florida State at the new Atlanta stadium. That’s even more glamorous than Alabama-USC last year, and with likely playoff ramifications for both teams. Florida-Michigan in Arlington (which reportedly might move to Sunday) is intriguing as well, though I have less of a feel how good either of those teams will be. The Wolverines will basically be playing a completely new lineup outside of QB Wilton Speight.

After that it’s a bit if a drop-off, but other notable contests include Virginia Tech vs. West Virginia in Landover, Md.; LSU-BYU in Houston, Texas A&M at UCLA and Georgia Tech-Tennessee in Atlanta on Monday night. In theory, Western Michigan at USC is a matchup of New Year’s Six bowl teams, but I’d expect a 20-plus point spread.

Others I’ll be curious about: Temple-Notre Dame, Louisville-Purdue and of course, Incarnate Word-Fresno State.

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Hi Stewart: After watching most of the national championship game Monday night and extensive discussion with others watching the game, we couldn’t come up with a logical answer why this game is played on a Monday night. We know that there are supposedly more potential viewers and that the CFP would not want to compete with NFL Wild Card Saturday, but it seems like the CFP is missing out on making the championship an even bigger deal.

— Joe, Minneapolis, MN

I hear that a lot, but it’s really the best available option. While it would be more viewer-friendly if the game were on a Saturday night, the NFL locked that spot down quite a few years back and is not going to surrender it. TV executives universally consider Monday the best night of the week to maximize audience, especially given the massive success over the years of Monday Night Football. Thursday, you may have noticed, is not going nearly as well.

The downside is, you don’t get nearly as much buildup to the championship game as the Super Bowl or the Final Four because everyone’s focused on the wild-card games the weekend before. To ESPN’s credit, they blow out their coverage all day and night Monday leading into the game. But it’s hard to say whether that’s working. Much to my surprise, the overnight rating for Monday’s game (15.3) was actually down from last year, which was itself down significantly from the first year.

Two factors to consider: ESPN is losing subscribers by the year, and also, that game took about seven hours to play and barley ended before Tuesday morning rush hour.

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

Stewart: Which team with four or fewer wins has the best shot to make the playoff next year?  A few candidates: Oregon, Michigan State, UCLA, Notre Dame.

— Chris Johnson

Make the playoff? I’m not going there. But I could see Notre Dame sneaking into a New Year’s Six bowl. And yes, I’m required as a member of the national media to say that.

Stewart: Do offensive players have unlimited stamina?  Immediately following the game, analysts started talking about Alabama allowing three touchdowns in the fourth quarter because they had to defend for 99 plays.  Isn’t it tiring for a 325-pound offensive lineman to try to block a future NFL defensive lineman 99 times?  Isn’t in tiring for a wide receiver to run down the field over and over again and take huge hits?  Why don’t offensive players get to use the same excuse when they lay and egg in the fourth quarter?

— Jason, Los Angeles

Great question. I’m sure offensive players get tired. Clemson receiver Hunter Renfrow played all but one of those 99 offensive plays on Monday (he said the Tigers went jumbo on one goal-line play and kept him out) and was reportedly getting fluids on the sideline.

But in general, offenses don’t usually get drained the same way as defenses. For one thing, they’re the ones dictating the tempo. They can speed it up and slow it down at any time. Furthermore, they know what’s coming. Defensive players expend a lot more energy reading and reacting. D-linemen are moving more than O-linemen. Linebackers and safeties are often covering larger areas of the field than any individual running back or receiver. And of course it’s harder to substitute on defense than on offense because the offense dictates that, too.

Alabama definitely got gassed in the fourth quarter. Clemson’s players could see it. People watching in the stadium and at home could see it. This year’s Tide boasted one of the fastest swarming defenses I’ve ever seen. By game’s end they looked very ordinary.

Fired Cal head coach Sonny Dykes

Hi Stewart: I used to see Cal as one of the true sleeping giants of the sport, but now I believe poor decision-making and apathetic leadership means it’s probably the worst in the sport at leveraging its attributes (academics, weather, location, culture). What other programs in America do the worst despite the attributes they have to offer? I’d guess a few would be from the PAC 12.

— Mike, Oakland

I agree. Cal is a mess. It doesn’t know what it wants to be in football, and a constant churn in leadership over the past several years has not helped. It will be interesting to see how much the various arms of the university will or will not come together to support the next coach.

And you’re right, that phenomenon is most evident in the Pac-12. Arizona State is one of the most popular schools in the country to attend and yet it cannot come close to filling its football stadium. UCLA is a never-ending enigma. Washington was this way for quite a while but has obviously moved past that.

Other candidates: Illinois, which really struggles given its history and fairly ideal recruiting location; North Carolina, which has enjoyed so much success in its other sports; and Syracuse, a great school with an extremely rich football history that now seems to treat the sport as an afterthought.

A-C-C! A-C-C! A-C-C!!!!

— Matthew, Merritt Island, FL

It’s the ACC’s world now, and we’re all living in it. I don’t know how the SEC Network will go on.