At this point, we should all be used to some unexpected upsets every Saturday, but it still seems like one or two truly head-turning surprises occur in college football each week.
That was perhaps never more evident than at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, where a Stanford team that failed to score a touchdown in an anemic offensive performance at Northwestern somehow managed to put up 474 yards and 41 points against trendy College Football Playoff pick USC—the preseason favorite to win the Pac-12.
It wasn’t the first time the Cardinal had played spoiler to their adversaries in the South, and the contest was just the latest in one of the most competitive rivalries in the country over the past nine seasons.
A common thread between the start of the back-and-forth games of the past decade and last week was on the sidelines for Stanford in former quarterback and current QB coach Tavita Pritchard.
Pritchard may not be well-known to most, but USC and Stanford fans know all too well why he could be the answer to a question on Jeopardy. In his first career start as a 41-point underdog, Pritchard engineered the Cardinal’s remarkable upset of the second-ranked Trojans back in 2007. The game easily ranks among the greatest upsets in recent memory.
Losses like that tend to stay with a team or a program.
Then-head coach Pete Carroll seemed to rally the troops, though. The Trojans finished second in the country in both 2007 and 2008 as they stretched their unprecedented streak of BCS bowl appearances and 11-win seasons to seven consecutive years.
Still, it’s hard not to look back to that 2007 loss—at home, while allowing two fourth-down conversions on the game-winning drive—and see the beginning of significant cracks in the aura around the USC program.
The program finally fell hard two years later when Andrew Luck and Jim Harbaugh put the nail in the coffin with a 55-21 beatdown best known for Carroll uttering, "What’s your deal?" in the postgame handshake.
The deal, as was clear at the time, was that Carroll’s dynasty was over well before the NCAA even stepped in to ensure it. That much was set in motion when the audacious Cardinal had declared that the gap between the conference bottom-feeders and the establishment wasn’t quite as large as everybody thought.
It’s been that way ever since.
After Troy fell, the label of the dynasty du jour was passed to Urban Meyer’s program at Florida following a pair of national titles in a three-year span.
That was a short-lived era, however, as Alabama’s upset of the Gators in the 2009 SEC Championship Game served as a de facto torch-passing ceremony. Meyer was gone from Gainesville less than two years later, and in his place atop the mountain came Nick Saban, who turned the Crimson Tide into the envy of all of college football with three national titles in four years to go with a few near misses.
It is difficult to maintain a level of excellence so far above one’s peers forever. Other sports have seen similar stretches of dominance by one team come and go, and the same is true in nearly every decade of college football.
It’s almost Newtonian the way some programs rise to the top...before they’re eventually knocked off course.
That brings us to the other big upset of a playoff contender last week in Alabama. Although there have been some notable losses over the past few seasons, something seems different about the Crimson Tide’s loss to Ole Miss—and that’s beyond the fanbase's normal "sky is falling" reaction to every loss.
USA Today’s Dan Wolken suggested as much in his column from Tuscaloosa, noting that Saban is just 4-5 against Top 15 opponents over the past two seasons.
Fox Sports columnist Stewart Mandel went even further in pointing out that’s not even the most concerning thing about Alabama’s recent performances, citing how much the defense has slipped in terms of giving up big plays, points and yards in key games.
"We certainly think we're at a point now where it's not a shock," Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said after the game on Saturday. "I don't think it surprises the people in our locker room. Our pregame was as short as it's ever been. I said, 'You're good enough to win.'"
There’s no longer a myth about Alabama being the top dog in its own division, the SEC as a whole or even nationally.
We’ve seen the cracks develop. Whether it be the Kick Six Iron Bowl of 2013, the Sugar Bowl losses or Ole Miss in the past two years, it’s become readily apparent at Alabama and other places that the talent and coaching gap between the elite teams and the middle and lower tiers simply isn’t as great as it once was.
Just ask Ohio State safety Tyvis Powell:
The rise of spread and/or uptempo offenses that have become fashionable across the sport has only accelerated this narrowing of the gap. No amount of 5-star recruits can make up for that. it seems.
Toss in a few plays that simply don’t go your way—and the Crimson Tide have seen more than their share recently—and there are plenty of reasons why folks are saying the dynasty is done in Tuscaloosa.
Things still can get turned around for Alabama—it’s a long season, after all—but the fact that we’re at this point prompts an even greater and far-reaching question. Are college football dynasties themselves done as Alabama appears to be exiting stage left?
Those in Columbus would have reason to argue, but close calls like what Ohio State had with Northern Illinois only underscore how razor-thin the margin for error is with any top team nowadays.
College football itself has also fundamentally changed its entire structure to the point where the question needs to be asked. It’s simply harder than ever before to dominate on and off the field, and Alabama is a perfect example of the field rising to the top much more than the big wigs falling downward.
The talent gap has closed. The coaching gap between good and great has more or less disappeared. There’s increased coaching and player turnover to deal with. More players are enrolling early in college as freshmen than ever before and just as many are leaving school before their senior years come around.
By far the greatest obstacle, however, is a completely new postseason format that has altered the landscape and makes sustaining success even harder.
Now it’s no longer about winning one’s league and then putting it all on the line for a single game.
To win national titles (plural), one likely needs three postseason wins in multiple years to earn that label of being a dynasty. That’s asking a lot.
Meyer discussed the new format with reporters prior to last year's Sugar Bowl:
[It] used to be 11 games and a bowl game. Now, what is it, 12 plus [a conference title game]. You're talking about 14, 15 games, and that is getting very NFL‑ish. We're very leery of it. I think it's great for college football. But I think it's something that we all need to consistently monitor. And I know we have very closely, because the wear and tear on a student‑athlete is real. It's never been like this. This is the first time in college football history that you're asking a student at a university to spend this much time—you're talking about August until [January] and your 15 games.
The elite college football programs will always enjoy a leg up on their have-not brethren due simply to the amount of resources they can invest, but even that is no guarantee when hoping a bunch of 18- to 24-year-olds can perform at a consistently high level time after time.
Throwing another game into the mix isn’t an opportunity to pick up a 15th win, but rather a coin flip to add an additional loss to the yearly record.
Teams can have a good run during a season and win a title. It will take even more to do it again...and again and again.
And, like it or not, a loss in the College Football Playoff Semifinals will likely be seen as a failure and not looked at as the ending to a remarkable campaign. The definition of success for elite programs in college football is therefore changing.
It all adds up to a steep hill to climb. We’ll see if it’s impossible, but at this moment in time at least, it’s looking rather improbable.
The Alabama dynasty may be done, but at least Crimson Tide fans can take comfort in the fact that they could be the last one for quite some time. Though it might not offer much solace, it certainly is a reflection of this day and age in college football.
All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise noted. You can follow Bryan Fischer on Twitter at @BryanDFischer.