The 2023 season is a week away, but what lessons from the 2022 season should we apply to the upcoming season?
David Ubben and Ari Wasserman discussed on an episode of “Until Saturday,” The Athletic’s college football podcast, this week. Here’s what they learned last year.
Lesson No. 1: In the portal era, stars may not matter quite as much to a team’s bottom line as they once did.
Ubben: In the portal era and in the College Football Playoff era, there are ways around cheating your total talent level and doing more than what had previously been possible.
Wasserman: I can buy that thought process, especially given what TCU did a year ago.
Ubben: Yes, this is a TCU argument. It did something that you would have said was impossible this time last year. Not TCU specifically, but that a team that ranked 32nd in team talent composite could play for a national title. You might need all the breaks TCU got — the Big 12 was down; it won a bunch of close games; got in (the Playoff) despite losing in the Big 12 title game; and Michigan made a parade of errors (in the semifinal). Stars mattered in the title game of course, but it made me reassess the reality that a new coach can take over a 5-7 team, hire a good staff, add some guys from the portal and do what TCU did. It stretched the limit of what is possible if you’re not inside the blue-chip ratio.
Wasserman: TCU was the beneficiary of an incredibly advantageous path. That isn’t to invalidate what it accomplished or how good of a team it was at the end of the year, but the Horned Frogs lost in the national title game by 100 and didn’t even win the Big 12. This was a Cinderella story because TCU outplayed its stars and managed to side-step teams built like Georgia until the very end. When TCU played Georgia, the stars mattered. TCU is a good example of how a team can overachieve based on those star ratings — which makes this sport fun, especially as the Playoff expands — but a real test of the “stars matter” theory has to be Michigan this year. Michigan isn’t loaded in the blue-chip ratio, but it could win a national title this season. Which brings me to the next point.
Lesson No. 2: Michigan isn’t a fluke. Take the Wolverines seriously.
Wasserman: They’re really talented because they developed well, could have more than 10 draft picks this year and are playing a sport that right now that doesn’t have a bona fide program proven to be exceptional already. All the big-time programs they need to beat to win a national title this year — Ohio State, Georgia, Alabama — they aren’t complete super teams with their quarterback situations. I’m sure one of those teams will become a monster because that’s how talent works, but there’s a window for a team like Michigan: older, more experienced, has been to the Playoff the last two years, has a ton of draft picks. The Wolverines match up in a season where the biggest dogs are kind of limping coming into the year.
Michigan would be a huge exception to the talent rule, but it’s more equipped to do it than TCU was last year. Whether Michigan can beat Ohio State before going on to beat a team like Georgia remains to be seen, but the Wolverines could be the perfect combination of mid-tier star levels and top-notch experience and evaluation.
Lesson No. 3: Loyalty is dead. Money is king.
Ubben: I remember the halcyon days of conference realignment when schools were torn on leaving their in-state rivals behind and moving to new leagues. But that time is over. Money has always driven all of this but now, no one is even trying to convince you of anything otherwise.
I hope we can now officially do away with the idea that anything other than the deciding school’s bottom line matters in this. We already have a bicoastal Big Ten. We’re trending toward a bicoastal ACC, hilariously. There were always other things people at least wanted to pretend mattered. Those days are over.
Wasserman: All is fair in love and war and conference realignment. Realignment, historically, has always been pivotal in shaping this sport. But now, more than ever, it seems like programs are trying to latch onto something that not only will bring in more money, but protect their ability to make money in the future.
Lesson No. 4: And yet, money can’t fix everything.
Ubben: In the collective era, I don’t think cash just fixes a roster overnight. If you’re a school with a collective that’s aggressively handing out checks in recruitment, it might complicate things a bit, even if it’s a big talent upgrade.
Texas A&M was the poster child for this. Chemistry issues are real. If guys aren’t buying into the program, coaches have to be very careful building a roster. When money gets involved, it’s not as simple as talent. Do you really want to be there because you believe in the program? We saw an exodus after the season of some really good players. What does that mean?
The idea you can build a roster with a bunch of money with a collective? It’s just not that simple. It will work somewhere. It will not work everywhere.
Wasserman: There are multiple teams right now who are more equipped to spend money when it comes to NIL. If those teams remain out front for years to come, they will likely get to a point where they will have much better players on their roster. And what happens when you have better players than your opponent in college football? You win more. Obviously chemistry is going to play a huge role in that — and simply spending hasn’t been enough in college football to this point — but it’ll be interesting to see how it plays out with more years of NIL data.
Lesson No. 5: Plug-and-play QBs and new coaches can fix your offense overnight.
Ubben: We’re in a new era of college football: The microwave offense era. We saw it with Michael Penix Jr. and Kalen DeBoer at Washington. We saw it with Caleb Williams and Lincoln Riley at USC. We saw it, to a lesser extent, with Bo Nix and (offensive coordinator) Kenny Dillingham at Oregon.
This year, what does that mean for Tanner Mordecai, Luke Fickell and Wisconsin? This kind of overnight change was basically not possible for most of the history of this sport. Wisconsin ranked 63rd last year in offensive yards per play. What kind of spike will we see with a new offense behind a proven coach and proven quarterback?
Lesson No. 6: Brian Kelly is for real at LSU.
Wasserman: Maybe it was because Kelly did a phony Southern accent shortly after taking the LSU job. Or maybe it was his reputation as someone who didn’t love recruiting while he was at Notre Dame. But part of me felt like it was a complete culture mismatch when he took over the Tigers’ program. I was wrong.
Kelly is a hell of a coach and LSU responded to him in Year 1. Now the Tigers bring back the bulk of the impact players they had a year ago and are a legitimate national title contender entering this season. With Jayden Daniels on offense and Harold Perkins on defense, there’s no question LSU should at least be the favorite to win the SEC West. Though I’m not fully on board with the idea that LSU could win it all this year, I have completely changed my thought process as it pertains to Kelly’s fit with that program.
It seems like an inevitability that he’ll finally win a national title there, which is probably the reason he took the job to begin with.
Lesson No.7: Alabama doesn’t have the benefit of the doubt anymore.
Wasserman: There are folks that truly believe the CFP committee is biased toward Alabama and will do anything in its power to get the Crimson Tide in. Well, if the committee wanted to, it absolutely could have put Alabama in the CFP a year ago, ahead of TCU.
This year, Alabama comes in as a fractured version of itself, despite the fact it is the No. 1 most-talented team in college football in the 247Sports Team Talent Composite. If Alabama is going to make the CFP this year, it is going to have to do it by finding the right quarterback and winning hard games in a way to sway doubters back into believing the Tide is elite. This is the first time that I can remember Alabama coming into a season with real doubts.
Lesson No. 8: Portal evaluation is still key.
Ubben: These days, everyone assumes, “Well, our team has a personnel problem. We can just go fix it in the portal.” But the portal hit rate is still about the same as the juco hit rate: Around 50 percent that you get a guy that you can rely on to be productive.
Wasserman: And a lot of that 50 percent is guys you already know are good. “Oh, Sam Hartman’s in the portal?”
Ubben: Yes. But a lot of other guys are still in the portal for a reason. You have to do your homework. That is a very hard undertaking, especially when considering portal recruitments can be five days or less.
Lesson No. 9: Breakthroughs at hungry places are incredible.
Ubben: Texas A&M, you might be next.
Last year’s Alabama game at Tennessee was an amazing night. It surpassed Nebraska’s game at Texas A&M in 2010 as the most memorable night of work I’ve ever had and the wildest game I’ve ever covered.
When places have been hungry for so long and finally get that “we’ve arrived” moment? Man. It’s college football at its best.
Lesson No. 10: Do you need a first-round quarterback to win a national title?
Wasserman: Last year’s national title game featured two quarterbacks in Max Duggan and Stetson Bennett who are in the NFL now, but weren’t first-day NFL draft picks. There was this notion where you had to have a truly elite NFL prospect leading your team to win it all, likely because of guys like Trevor Lawrence, Joe Burrow, Deshaun Watson and Tua Tagovailoa.
I’m not sure that’s true. What is unquestionably true is that you need a difference-maker at that position, but being a difference-maker doesn’t always translate into being a high-end NFL prospect. There are plenty of difference-makers at the quarterback position that won’t start a game in the NFL. That’s fun.
Lesson No. 11: Don’t fall for the midseason darlings.
Ubben: Last year, Kansas started 5-0. Syracuse started 6-0. They combined to win two total games in their final 15 contests. The Jayhawks were much improved, but there’s plenty of fool’s gold at midseason. Inspect it carefully.
Lesson No. 12: Stop overlooking Utah.
Ubben: Don’t do it. Just don’t do it.
Wasserman: The Utes are two-time defending Pac-12 champions and they play a style that seems to be kryptonite to the finesse teams on the West Coast. They play bully ball and if you’re not right up front, you’re going to get punched in the mouth on both sides.
Ubben: I picked them to go to the Playoff last year and backed off when they lost to Florida. Then all they did was win the Pac-12.
(Photo of TCU vs. Michigan in last season’s College Football Playoff semifinal: Matt Kartozian / USA Today)