As confetti fell from the roof of Mercedes-Benz Stadium and a joyous Alabama program celebrated its fifth national championship over the last nine seasons, it didn’t seem like a sad moment. In retrospect, it was just that. It signified the end of an incredibly wild college football season that taught us many lessons that we should take with us through the doldrums of the offseason and into the 2018 season.
What were the top 10 lessons that we learned?
1. Nick Saban is the greatest coach of all time: Some (including yours truly) already considered the Alabama coach as the greatest ever, but the way he led his team through the 2017 season and back to the top of the college football world is further proof that he’s not only the best college football coach of this generation, but the greatest of all time. He matched legendary Tide coach Paul “Bear” Bryant with national title No. 6 and did it in a hyper-competitive landscape that includes scholarship restrictions, intense focus on college football within programs from across the country and in an SEC that, during Saban’s tenure at Alabama, has produced four other programs that have played in the meaningful postseason (BCS Championship Game or College Football Playoff). The numbers can be debated, but for Saban to match Bryant in this day and age with a program that went through as many injuries as Alabama did makes him the unquestioned king of college football.
2. Trace McSorley will be the 2018 Heisman Trophy front-runner: Odds will change throughout the offseason, but when the dust settles and it’s time for toe to meet leather for the 2018 football season, the Penn State quarterback will — and should be — the Heisman Trophy front-runner. The last time we saw the electric dual-threat quarterback for the Nittany Lions, he was an astonishing 12-for-12 on third-down passes — 10 of which moved the chains — in a 35-28 win over Washington in the Fiesta Bowl. He’s fearless, electric and now the biggest show in town for a Penn State program that should be in the College Football Playoff mix even without star running back Saquon Barkley.
3. Pac-12 football has a major problem: The Pac-12 didn’t land a team in the CFP in 2017, and it isn’t looking good for 2018 either. The highest ranked team in Stanford at No. 12 with USC chiming in at No. 13 and Washington at No. 17. That’s indicative of where the conference is right now — it’s just average. Star quarterbacks like Josh Rosen, Sam Darnold and Luke Falk won’t be there. Washington lost a ton of impact players. Oregon, UCLA, Arizona, Arizona State and Oregon State went through coaching changes. Picking which team can emerge from the chaos and contend at an elite level is a crapshoot.is
4. We can stop thinking true freshman can’t handle the big stage: Next year, can we please stop the assumption that freshmen can’t handle themselves as starters and team leaders? That’s a fallacy, a myth, an offseason talking point that was proven factually inaccurate in 2017. Jake Fromm took over at quarterback for Georgia in the first quarter of the first game of a season in which he was likely going to redshirt and led his team to an SEC title and overtime of the College Football Playoff National Championship. Tua Tagovailoa was inserted into that same game at halftime after a lifeless half of football by Alabama and won with five other freshmen on the same offense. Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor finished third in the nation in rushing with 1,977 rushing yards, leading his team to the Big Ten West title and a New Year’s Six Bowl. Ohio State running back J.K. Dobbins was clearly a force from the get-go when he wowed the country with 181 rushing yards vs. Indiana on the first Thursday night of the season. Don’t fall into the offseason magazine trap and think that youth is a hindrance. Sometimes, it’s an asset.
5. The Big 12 really isn’t that bad: Remember when the Big 12 was the punchline to a mediocre college football joke? Those days are long gone. Oklahoma made the playoff and fell in a Rose Bowl national semifinal for the ages, Oklahoma State and TCU were in the CFP mix throughout the season, and only three of the conference’s 10 teams missed the postseason. Sure, the Big 12 has its issues. Defense sometimes is mythical, Kansas is still Kansas, and the conference hasn’t won a national title since 2005 (Texas). But the 2007 season proved that it can produce top-tier teams capable of competing at the highest level, and is deeper than most anticipated.
6. Football can be played at a high level in the Group of Five: UCF was the only unblemished team in FBS in 2017 and celebrated by preemptively claiming and celebrating a national championship without an accredited outlet awarding one to the Knights. But the bigger picture is that Group of Five teams can and do compete with the FBS powers on a consistent basis. The Knights pushing Auburn around at the line of scrimmage in the Peach Bowl win, San Diego State stunning Stanford and Memphis topping UCLA were among some of the major wins the lower level of FBS enjoyed in 2017. Does that mean they can run through a Power Five schedule and have the same success? That’s a hypothetical that can’t be answered. But there’s no doubt that the best teams in the Group of Five are not pushovers.
7. Lane Kiffin can coach, y’all: Those three years as Nick Saban’s offensive coordinator served Kiffin well. In his first year as FAU’s coach, Kiffin went 11-3, posted an 8-0 Conference USA record, won the conference championship, won the Boca Raton Bowl and became the second-winningest coach in program history. Not a bad debut for a guy who was once written-off as a failure as a coach after bailing on Tennessee after the 2009 season and not leading USC back to national glory in the face of massive scholarship restrictions. Maybe, just maybe, Kiffin figured everything out.
8. The ACC is going to be fun for years to come: While Florida State didn’t live up to expectations generated from a preseason top five ranking, the 2017 season showed that Clemson is still a monster even without quarterback Deshaun Watson, Miami is back and at least relevant on the national scene, and Justin Fuente will keep Virginia Tech at a level in which it is always in contention. The Seminoles? Well, this season was dreadful in Tallahassee. But the arrival of new coach Willie Taggart and a more flexible offensive system should bring them back into the mix in short order. For the first time in more than a decade, the high-profile teams in the ACC should all be relevant. Get your popcorn ready.
9. Get used to Georgia being in the CFP mix: Kirby Smart spent nearly a decade in Tuscaloosa as an assistant under Alabama coach Nick Saban, and his has rapidly built the Alabama of the SEC East. Georgia’s SEC title and appearance in the CFP National Championship wasn’t a flash in the pan, it was a sign the right man has the job in Athens and has awoken the sleeping giant. Fromm was an important piece of the puzzle in a pinch, running back D’Andre Swift was all year long, Mecole Hardman and Riley Ridley showed out vs. the Tide and Smart has a roster loaded with young talent. Smart had his own issues in the title game, including a rather conservative second half game plan and not enough Sony Michel in the running game. As long as he learns from those lessons, watch out for Georgia. The Bulldogs aren’t going anywhere.
10. The CFP Selection Committee doesn’t care about geography: The SEC got two teams into the College Football Playoff (Georgia and Alabama), but the more surprising thing is that the presence of Clemson and Oklahoma essentially made it a regionalized event. No, Norman, Oklahoma, isn’t technically in the southeast or the sun belt, but it’s pretty darn close. The CFP exists because of a regionalized national title game (LSU vs. Alabama in January 2012), and chose to make this year’s CFP very regionalized despite Ohio State having a case and USC on the periphery. That’s a good thing. That’s proof that “getting the best four teams in” actually is its goal. That should only strengthen after No. 4 seed Alabama won it all and the all-SEC title game between the Tide and Georgia had stellar ratings.