The first half might not have been a classic, but the second half more than made up for it. One moment, Alabama was on the verge of a repeat, and the next, Clemson was hoisting the national championship trophy in front of a partially exuberant, partially stunned crowd in Tampa.
How else did you expect a national championship rematch between the first and second-ranked teams to go?
After going down to the wire for the second year in a row, in the end, Clemson got its revenge in another nail-biter. It’s just the second national title for the Tigers (1981), and the first time they’ve beaten Alabama since 1905. But it was to be expected. After all, Tiger head coach Dabo Swinney modelled the Clemson program after Alabama, his alma mater.
Can they do it again? Probably not. Clemson is losing arguably the best player ever to wear a Tiger uniform in quarterback Deshaun Watson, who’s declaring for the NFL draft. That said, they do have a few notable players returning, like wide receiver Hunter Renfrow, who caught the winning touchdown with just one second to go in the title game.
Losing Watson isn’t the only monumental hurdle in Clemson’s path. As usual, Alabama is losing a bunch of talent to the pros, especially on defense, but QB Jalen Hurts will be back to build on his sensational freshman campaign, plus Nick Saban has assembled the best recruiting class in the nation (as usual). USC, Florida State, Ohio State, Louisville, Oklahoma, and Washington will all have their proficient pivots back, as well. Watson’s performance in the championship game proved just how decisive a game-changing QB can be on the biggest stage.
The end result is that the Tigers find themselves behind the 8-ball in the early odds, while our first set of Heisman futures sees the returning quarterbacks atop the perch.
If you’re keen to follow Watson’s career path, we’ve also got the odds for this year’s QB class at the 2017 NFL Draft, plus the odds on the college game’s best coaches moving to the pros.
A ludicrous number of Bama players are going to go in the first round of the draft (upwards of six: Jonathan Allen, Reuben Foster, Cam Robinson, Tim Williams, Marlon Humphrey, and OJ Howard). Why is Alabama number one when it’s losing so much? Besides the return of Hurts, Saban has taken the Tide to four titles since 2009. He doesn’t rebuild; he reloads. For every key player they’re losing, there’s basically a four or five-star prospect ready to step in.
As mentioned, along with Alabama, a bevvy of other 2016-17 contenders will be strong again next year. Two of this season’s biggest surprises, Penn State and Washington, should continue their recent success. Penn State is a little better situated than Washington. Like Bama, the Huskies are losing a lot of defensive talent to the NFL; yet, the return of QB Jake Browning keeps hopes high in Seattle.
The Buckeyes are as high as no. 2 in some other, less thoughtful futures. Urban Meyer has another great recruiting class coming in, and I don’t doubt that they’ll challenge for another Big Ten title. I don’t but into JT Barrett as a championship-caliber quarterback, though. His, and his team’s, dismal play against Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl (31-0 loss) says enough.
Florida State and USC both saw freshman QBs turn in great seasons last year. Deondre Francois and Sam Darnold will be two of the most electrifying players in the game next season, and both will be surrounded by talent. Playing in the comparatively weak ACC and Pac-12 (compared to the SEC and Big Ten, that is), they’ll have a great chance to win their conference tournaments and reach the playoff.
This is a massively early prediction, and as we know, anything can happen between now and then. But a few things are certain: (1) Jackson is the reigning Heisman winner and had a season for the ages (51 total TDs). There’s no reason to expect much less next year; if he can progress, he’ll run away with another trophy. (2) Sam Darnold is the real deal. After he took over as quarterback early in the season for USC, he led the Trojans on a nine-game win streak to end the year, including a huge comeback against Penn State in the Rose Bowl. (3) Baker Mayfield can beat you in a lot of ways and may have to be Mr. Everything for the Sooners with Dede Westbrook, Samaje Perine, and Joe Mixon off to the NFL.
You have to remember that these guys are still young and developing, though. That’s why we see surprise names jump into the mix every year (like Jackson this season). The field is going to yield some real contenders.
While Watson is obviously a first-round talent, it’s not set in stone he’ll be the first QB off the board. CBSSports has pocket passer Mitch Trubisky as its top QB prospect. WalterFootball gives the nod to DeShone Kizer, a dual-threat who has both a height weight advantage over Watson. Watson has Sports Illustrated in his corner, and it helps his case that his Tiger’s are the reigning National Champions. Most NFL coaches and scouts love a winning pedigree.
Which QB goes first will largely depend on which team is doing the drafting, and whether they want a big arm or fast feet.
It’s not clear the Cleveland wants to take a QB with the first overall pick. They could trade down with a QB-needy team. The Niners (no. 2 overall) desperately need a quarterback, but it’s anyone’s guess who the San Fran brass would prefer. The team doesn’t even have a GM or coach right now.
Photo credit: Jim Ferguson (http://www.flickr.com/photos/gotigersjf/251002843/) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.
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