Thanks to industrial-sized fans and a crew the size of Alabama’s scout team, the confetti that blanketed University of Phoenix Stadium hours earlier was gathered in piles and slowly taken out of sight.
Not long after Alabama had retreated to the locker room to spark victory cigars, the grass on the empty stadium started to re-emerge, one patch after the next, until no traces of confetti were left. Another brilliant college football campaign—one of heartbreak, triumph and lasting individual moments—was tucked into storage.
This is the hard part.
There is no easy way to stomach this transition. No words will fill that football-less void. But the start of the offseason is not exclusively dreadful; we are now a wee bit closer to what might be the greatest Week 1 slate of games ever played.
Let us not look back. In fact, with everything still so fresh, let us look forward.
Feast your eyes on the delectable football buffet.
|Kansas State at Stanford||Stanford, CA|
|North Carolina at Georgia||Atlanta, GA|
|Clemson at Auburn||Auburn, AL|
|Wisconsin vs. LSU||Green Bay, WI|
|Notre Dame at Texas||Austin, TX|
|USC vs. Alabama||Arlington, TX|
|UCLA at Texas A&M||College Station, TX|
|Oklahoma vs. Houston||Houston, TX|
|Florida State vs. Ole Miss||Orlando, FL|
|Arizona vs. BYU||Glendale, AZ|
|Missouri at West Virginia||Morgantown, WV|
This is what's coming. And in time, we will get there. When we have exhausted every storyline, overrated and underrated every team, and undoubtedly been handed a fistful of unexpected turns along the way, we will be treated to a weekend-long celebration of the sport we already miss.
So do not bury yourself any deeper than you need to, friend. Do not let the end of the year overpower your senses. Just don’t lose sight on what’s ahead.
Here’s a look at what storylines may greet us before we get there, an early Top 25 that everyone will completely and totally agree on, and a checklist of important matters to accomplish before we do the whole thing all over again.
Five Important (and Unavoidable) Offseason Storylines
1. Playoff Aftershock: After a wonderful debut, here is the current state of the College Football Playoff. Ratings for semifinals plummeted on New Year’s Eve—a development expected by basically everyone except the people running the whole thing. Even a compelling title game saw a drop in viewership of more than 15 percent, according to John Ourand of the Sports Business Journal. As for the overall picture, John Consoli of Broadcasting & Cable magazine reported that ESPN might have to pony up more than $20 million in makegoods to sponsors for falling below projections.
The master puppeteers tasked with pulling all the playoff strings say all is well even though the walls are on fire. They say it’s only one year and semifinals will continue to be played on a night most people have other plans. They say the existing bowl contracts getting in the way of logic are no big deal.
The reality, however, is that no sport cherishes a full piggy bank more than this one. With so much ground lost, the topic of switching playing times and altering bowl contracts will persist over the months to follow.
2. New-Look Buckeyes: Nine Ohio State underclassmen decided they were ready for the NFL, which makes the Buckeyes one of the nation’s most curious teams moving forward. Add in the loss of a handful of seniors, and Urban Meyer will have to replace a significant portion of an immensely gifted roster.
(Spoiler: It's still pretty darn gifted.)
It would be reckless to assume Ohio State could seamlessly fill the holes left by Joey Bosa and the likes. With that being said, this depth chart is densely packed with hungry, talented replacements. This is probably the closest assembly line to what Alabama has to offer out there.
In a sea of change, the return of quarterback J.T. Barrett cannot be emphasized enough. And while many might handicap a major drop-off come fall, it may not be as drastic as we’re led to believe. Stay tuned.
3. SEC West Meat Grinder: A year ago, if you told me that Gus Malzahn, Kevin Sumlin and Les Miles would be sitting on warm, uncomfortable chairs entering the 2016 season, I would have chortled at this take until losing consciousness. But this is where we are now after three different debacles ranging in severity.
All three, despite having vastly different situations and outsider perceptions, need big seasons to keep their jobs.
Looking at the rosters, the most logical of the three to do so appears to be Miles. More on that in a bit. Although at this point, nothing should be assumed for any of the three. The only thing known is that the SEC West will be somehow more cutthroat this spring than it already was, which is saying plenty.
4. Heisman Hysteria: We are on the cusp of one the most fascinating Heisman races the sport has seen in ages—a battle that will undoubtedly generate enough propaganda and declarations to rival this year’s presidential election. The campaigning began during bowl season and the playoff with huge performances, and it will persist until actual games are played.
Just think about the talent we have coming our way for one more season: Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, LSU’s Leonard Fournette, Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield, Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey, Florida State’s Dalvin Cook and many, many others will return with a vengeance in the fall.
The star power is extraordinary, and it’s going to be spectacular when the hype eventually takes a backseat to actual games. Please, for the love of everything, everyone stay healthy. Don’t practice. Don’t go outside. Wrap yourselves in bubble wrap, and let’s invent a time machine.
5. The Great Unknown: Piggybacking off the point above, the offseason’s most significant storylines are off in the distance—out of sight and buried beneath the surface. They are the things we couldn’t possibly predict.
Outside of national signing day, spring practice and media days, you don’t want to hear your team mentioned over the next seven months. No news is usually good news—especially after a season that saw an outbreak of injuries unlike any we have seen in some time.
The only constant over the months to follow is that there is no distinct pattern: injuries, legal issues (ugh), unexpected transfers and other unknown developments will ultimately shape where we go from here.
Hopefully these negative developments don’t involve your team. Hopefully they don’t involve any team, for that matter.
So…Will Alabama Still Be Good?
On the flight home from Arizona, Nick Saban was caught watching film of the national championship. He wasn’t celebrating or decompressing. He was watching film. After a brief nap, he woke up and tossed on the game tape without another game on the schedule—something ESPN caught a glimpse of while tagging along for the ride home.
"We always evaluate how we did in the game on offense, defense and special teams," Saban told ESPN’s Marty Smith. "We don't have a lot of time to do this when we get back because we have to go recruiting as soon as possible.”
In short, coaches, this is what you are up against. This is what you have to deal with until he says he’s had enough, which isn’t coming this year.
“I know you can't do this forever,” Saban said when asked about retirement. “But I certainly enjoy the moment and certainly look forward to the future challenges that we have and really have no timetable for ever not being a part of a team.”
To answer the question originally generated in the above subheadline: Yes.
Now, let’s dive a little deeper.
Saban has crafted the kind of machine that can lose a Heisman winner, its starting quarterback, plus a plethora of quality defensive talent and still return a team that will be a popular choice to repeat.
The focus will likely be at quarterback for the third consecutive offseason, and, more specifically, on soon-to-be redshirt freshman Blake Barnett. If Barnett struggles, Cooper Bateman could win the gig.
As for replacing Henry, Alabama will likely lean on two former 5-star talents who are both incredibly talented and gifted. Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris, while lacking experience, will give Alabama one of the most dynamic backfields in the country. (Seriously, if you have not seen Scarbrough yet, you are in for a treat.)
Defensively, Alabama will have to absorb the losses of some key members up front. But given the unbelievable depth (and youth) still on the roster, the drop-off between this year’s dominant unit and the one in line may not be much.
Alabama undoubtedly has questions entering this offseason, but these are the kind of questions only a team like Alabama has to answer.
It’s not a matter of good; it’s more like how good?
What About Clemson?
Keep in mind that the Tigers soared well beyond all reasonable expectations without Mike Williams, their talented wideout, who was lost in the very first week after suffering a serious neck injury.
So many offensive pieces, headlined by quarterback Deshaun Watson, will return next season. They will give opposing defensive coordinators night terrors. Watson has a chance to do something extraordinary, and he has everything around him to function at such an elevated level.
The big question, of course, is the defense. For the second year in a row, Clemson must replace a slew of NFL talent along that side of the ball.
The Tigers filled these holes somewhat seamlessly in 2015. But now Mackensie Alexander, Shaq Lawson, Kevin Dodd, Travis Blanks, Jayron Kearse and T.J. Green will need to be replaced after saying farewell.
In most games, it won't matter. The Tigers offense will bury an opponent in so many points that the defense will just need to sign in. But that may not fly in games with higher stakes, like playoff games, and that's precisely what the expectations are moving forward.
The defense has questions, but you might as well start game-planning for Watson now, opposing coordinators. Did you see what he just did to one of the best defenses of the last five years?
Three Teams That Will Be Sold Excessively and Repeatedly This Offseason
Tennessee: THIS IS THE YEAR. THIS ONE—THIS ONE RIGHT HERE—IS MOST CERTAINLY THE YEAR.
You know what? The gentleman who commandeered my computer momentarily dressed as Smokey in a Peyton Manning jersey might not be wrong. The offense will remain almost entirely intact, and the defense, already chock-full of good, young players, will now have the services of recently acquired defensive coordinator Bob Shoop.
That’s an excellent hire at a critical time. It’s also an outstanding time to play in the SEC East—a division the Vols will be heavily favored to win.
It’s hard to argue with the building buzz here, quite honestly. I get it. But be prepared regardless.
LSU: Having survived The Great Baton Rogue Booster Apocalypse, Les Miles returns in 2015 with a team loaded in many places. Running back Leonard Fournette is back and could be better, which is moderately terrifying. The defense, having lured Dave Aranda from Madison, is poised to be one of the nation’s best.
The concern exists in a place it has existed before: quarterback.
Can Brandon Harris be just good enough—not outstanding, but acceptable—for this team to match significant expectations? The assumption for many will be probably, which is why it will be sold en masse and repackaged until fall.
Michigan: Let me start by saying that I will be one of many carrying the offseason Michigan torch. With the exception of quarterback—and even this part of the roster has options—the Wolverines have all of the ingredients, not to mention an elite recruiting class coming in, to be a team that competes for a national championship.
John O'Korn, a Houston transfer, is the quarterback who will be mentioned plenty this year. He could be the missing piece for a team with few questions outside of linebacker, which needs to be completely overhauled.
Oh, and then there’s that Harbaugh individual. That seems important. Last offseason really was The Jim Harbaugh Show. Let’s see what he has planned for an encore.
Five Names You Need to Know by Fall
Saquon Barkley (RB, Penn State): Hopefully many of you know him by now. Penn State fans are certainly well aware. Saquon Barkley’s freshman season was one of production and jaw-dropping moves. He finished the year with more than 1,000 yards rushing and also caught 20 passes. Moving forward, he will be the key cog in James Franklin’s offense and a budding superstar.
Jake Browning (QB, Washington): Chris Petersen has his quarterback. That much became apparent late in the year when Jake Browning, only a freshman, started to get cozy in the offense. Browning had two four-touchdown games in the second half of the season. He made mistakes along the way, as most freshman QBs will do, but he improved a great deal. While the focus in the Pac-12 will be on UCLA’s Josh Rosen, don’t be surprised if Browning makes a big splash next year.
Sam Hubbard (DE, Ohio State): The next great defensive lineman for Ohio State—the one tasked with replacing Joey Bosa—is already on the roster. Sam Hubbard finished with 6.5 sacks in his redshirt season despite logging limited snaps, and he’s still only learning the position and growing into his body. By the end of 2016, Hubbard will be one of the best defensive players in the Big Ten. I'm not sure he's quite at Bosa's level, but he has a chance to be awfully close.
Marlon Mack (RB, South Florida): Next year’s running back class is unimaginably talented and deep. And while we salivate over known commodities, don’t forget Marlon Mack, who has rushed for more than 1,000 yards in each of his first two years at the collegiate level. In 2015, he ran for nearly 1,400 yards and averaged 6.6. yards per carry. South Florida is poised for takeoff next season now that there is stable ground, and Mack could be in line for a monster 2016.
Dakota Prukop (QB, Oregon): The Ducks are back to the graduate-transfer well once again. After hitting a home run with Vernon Adams Jr., Dakota Prukop is the new quarterback in Eugene, Oregon. At Montana State, Prukop was a star. He scored nearly 40 touchdowns last season and is a true dual-threat. He's big, fast and can push the ball downfield. He's a much different player than Adams, although he could provide a similar impact. At the moment, he seems like the favorite to be Oregon’s starting quarterback next fall.
The Entirely-Too-Early, Make-You-Unreasonably-Incensed Top 25
Here’s the thing about ranking teams days after the national championship and weeks before national signing day: It doesn’t carry much weight, and it enrages just about everyone.
With those factors fully recognized, let’s rank some teams.
Yes, things will look different. Players leave. Injuries (unfortunately) will reshape expectations. The rosters in mid-January will vary significantly from those in early August. Change is the only assurance.
Plus, anger is a good color on you.
5. Florida State
6. Notre Dame
8. Ohio State
13. Ole Miss
14. Michigan State
15. Oklahoma State
19. North Carolina
Teams that barely missed, aka the last chance to cool your Internet rage: Arkansas, Miami, Northwestern, South Florida, TCU, Washington State, Wisconsin.
Offseason Checklist Items
There is indeed a life outside of computer screens, box scores, stadiums and airports. Or, so I have been told.
It’s always hard to ease back into this life, but let’s attempt to do so regardless.
Family: Three days after I arrived home from the national championship, a new kitchen set arrived for my 16-month-old daughter. I assumed it would be a seamless assembly until I opened the box.
I will be putting together this kitchen until August. I also look forward to that extra family time—the most anticipated perk of the season coming to a close.
Fitness: The season ruined me. It’s time to get back on the ol’ horse until I abandon that horse later in the year. I can report that the first few intense treadmill sessions have been slightly less awful than expected. Great start.
Golf: I love golf. I am bad at golf. I am writing this sentence while sitting in a house caked in snow and ice. But eventually, we will get to a point when I can go outside again and play bad golf. Come quickly.
Find New Television Shows: I am locked in for Better Call Saul and The Americans. That is about it. I am anxious to start BoJack Horseman after many reviews, although I need more. I welcome your suggestions.
Fallout 4: This is the Alabama football of games. It might consume me to the point where I do nothing else on this list.
Rearrange/Finish the Basement: Of all the things listed here, I feel quite comfortable saying that this is the least likely to get done. In fact, thinking about it now, this has almost no chance of happening. Maybe next year.
Thanks for a great season. Thank you for reading. This sport, as you know, doesn't have an offseason these days. There will be things to discuss. We'll get by.
That glorious Week 1 slate of games will be here before you know it. Cheers.
Unless noted otherwise, all quotes obtained firsthand.