College Football Needs to Get Rid of Divisions, Plus: When Will Nick Saban “Fall Off”?

Joel Klatt brought this up recently. Starts around the 17:49 mark:

The basic gist of what he’s saying here is that divisions within college football conferences are dumb and outdated and are actually hurting the sport. The reason we have divisions is because there was a time when they were required in order to have a conference championship game, but this was back in the 1990s and that rule no longer exists. You can have a conference title game without having divisions–in fact the Pac 12 and Big 12 already do it.

The main issue here is that the divisions today are pretty lopsided. Take the Big Ten, for example. The Big Ten East features Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Michigan State. It’s clearly stronger than the Big Ten West. While the big boys in the East slug it out for the division title, and only one of them can actually make it to the Big Ten championship game each year, they will always end up playing an inferior team from the West. Now it’s true that in past years, Wisconsin has been a really strong program that makes it to the Big Ten championship a lot (since moving to the east/west split, Wisconsin has made it in 2014, 2016, 2017 and 2019, losing all four times).

But there’s no reason to decide the conference title game participants based on geography. And perhaps if Wisconsin had to play the Big Ten east gauntlet, they wouldn’t have been posting such strong conference records over the past decade.

The ACC, while it is an extremely weak conference this year–easily the worst in the power five from top to bottom–usually has the same problem. Clemson, FSU, Wake, NC State, Syracuse and Louisville are all in the same division. And from the looks of it, Clemson and Syracuse are the two best teams in the conference right now, although UNC, which is on the other side, has a claim as well.

The problem with the SEC is on full display after the Tennessee-Bama game. See, they don’t play in the same division, so technically that game didn’t really hurt Bama all that much. They still control their own destiny in the SEC West. Yes, they have a conference loss, but it doesn’t affect their head-to-head record when it comes to their division foes. So if Bama runs the table, they make the SEC Championship game, no questions asked.

Meanwhile, Tennessee, if they lose to Georgia next month, they are going to basically be screwed in the SEC East division title hunt. Tennessee will need to run the table AND have Georgia lose TWICE. Georgia losing just once will not cut it because then they’ll still hold the tiebreaker over Tennessee with both teams having one division loss. Meanwhile Bama, the team Tennessee beat, will advance to the SEC Championship game while Tennessee will be sitting at home. How does that make any sense?

It doesn’t. It’s a scenario that is only possible because of arbitrary divisions within conferences. In a more just system, Alabama would be knocked down to tied for 4th place in the SEC with LSU, and behind the undefeated teams Georgia, Ole Miss and Tennessee. In a fair and rational system, Alabama would not control their own destiny in the SEC–they would need to beat Ole Miss, and then they would need to be rooting for Tennessee to lose twice in conference in order to pass them.

Divisions are stupid, they’re outdated, and there’s no legitimate reason for them to still be in place. They’ve also created weird scheduling quirks, like where Iowa and Ohio State only play each other 3 times in over a decade despite being in the same conference. More on this later, but did you know the last time Ohio State and Iowa played was 2017? That’s just not right for teams in the same conference.

Florida and Texas A&M have only played three times since 2012, when A&M joined the SEC. They played in 2012, 2017 and 2020. That’s just ridiculous for teams in the same conference. Before they played in 2020, the last time the Florida Gators had played a game at Kyle Field in College Station, TX was in 2012. Eight years. That’s just wrong.

But it happens because divisions basically put the conference schedulers in a straitjacket. You have to play all the teams in your division every year, so in 14-team leagues like the SEC, Big Ten and ACC, that means there’s not much leeway to play teams on the other side of the conference. The Big Ten plays a 9 game conference slate, so that leaves just three games per year to play teams from the other side of the conference. The SEC and ACC, however, play only 8 conference games, so there’s only two games per year for teams in those conferences to play against teams from the other side.

Just take the division barriers away, and let the teams duke it out, with the two teams that finish with the best conference records making the conference championship game.

Now, the only problem I see with this is that in the Big Ten, in some years, you would have and Ohio State-Michigan rematch in the Big Ten championship. The fact that they always play each other in the final game of the regular season–it just wouldn’t feel right if they were to habitually meet again in the Big Ten championship game a week later. It would happen quite a bit, actually.

It would have happened last year. Both Ohio State and Michigan were 8-1 in conference play, but since Michigan won, Michigan went to Indianapolis. It would’ve also happened in 2018, as Ohio State, Michigan and Northwestern all finished with 8-1 conference records. Ohio State beat Michigan head to head, and Michigan even beat Northwestern head to head 20-17 earlier in the year, but Northwestern was in the other division, so losing that game didn’t even matter (nor did winning it for Michigan). But if there were no divisions, Ohio State and Michigan would’ve had a rematch in the Big Ten championship one week after playing (Ohio State won the game 62-39).

They would have also rematched in 2016. So 2021, 2018 and 2016 would have seen Ohio State and Michigan play each other in back to back weeks if the Big Ten didn’t have divisions. I don’t like that, and I don’t think anyone would like that. It would just be a weird situation. Imagine if one or both teams knew that no matter the outcome of the first game, they would be rematching a week later. Would they limit their gameplans in the first game as to not tip their hand for the real matchup? Would they even rest starters knowing that the first game is essentially an exhibition? I mean, I understand that it’s the fiercest rivalry in sports, but at the same time, it could be a situation where the game doesn’t even count. Obviously the conference championship game is what counts. So it creates weird scenarios.

This is why I actually support getting rid of conference championship games altogether. Now that we are moving to a 12-team playoff, why do we need conference title games? I mean, assuming the teams that participate in the SEC and Big Ten Championship games are highly ranked, which they usually are, they’re both going to make the 12-team playoff no matter what. Imagine Georgia and Bama playing for the the SEC Championship, then both making the playoff, and then playing each other in the playoff. It’s not really necessary.

I am in favor of rematches of regular season games, but conference title games are not regular season games. They’re part of the postseason. They’re supposed to be for all the marbles. I would be okay if Georgia and Alabama played in the regular season in like October, and then met up down the road in the 12-team playoff. But if they don’t play in the regular season, meet for the first time in a conference championship game, and then play one another in the playoff, that just doesn’t sit right with me.

So I’m in favor of getting rid of conference championship games when the playoff expands. If CFB is going to be moving to a more NFL-like postseason system, then it makes sense to do this. The NFL does not have division championship games. It’s just whichever team finishes with the best record wins the division, simple as.

Conference championship games in the era of the 12-team playoff are going to be more like exhibitions, and I think it will be silly to keep them. Consider right now, the SEC Championship game would be Bama vs. Georgia. They’d both make it to a 12-team playoff no matter what. As would Tennessee. So why make them play a conference championship game?

So that’s where I stand on things. Get rid of the divisions, and then get rid of conference championship games once we move to the 12-team playoff.

More on Michigan-Penn State – Blake Corum for Heisman?

This is how bad Penn State was against Michigan. Outside of the 62 yard Sean Clifford run and then the pick six in the second quarter, they gained the following on their drives:

  • 3 plays, 8 yards, punt
  • 3 plays, 6 yards, punt
  • Then the TD drive with the Clifford run, but it was a 7 play, 75 yard drive and he picked up 62 of those yards on one play. Meaning the remaining 6 plays went for a total of 13 yards
  • 9 plays, 70 yards for a field goal to open the second half. Somewhat impressive. They got all the way down to the Michigan 10 but were forced into a field goal.
  • 9 plays, 36 yards, turnover on downs at the Michigan 39 yard line
  • 5 plays, 16 yards, punt
  • 6 plays, 22 yards, turnover on downs

Michigan would score another TD after that turnover on downs to make it 41-17 with about 5 minutes to play, and that was the ballgame. The next Penn State possession–their last of the game–went 9 plays and 42 yards and ended with a turnover on downs at the Michigan 43. But we’re not including that since the game had long since been decided.

So right there we have, excluding the Clifford run, 41 plays that went for a total of 171 yards. That’s a piss-poor 4.2 yards per play. That’s Iowa levels of bad.

And if we also exclude the one drive to open the second half where they got a field goal (the 9 play, 70 yard drive) it was 32 plays for 101 yards, or 3.15 yards per play.

This was a beatdown.

I heard someone say “Michigan beat Penn State like Georgia would beat Penn State.” And that’s a great way of putting it, I think.

But this idea, though, that Blake Corum is carrying Michigan to all these victories, I think that’s significantly overstated.

Yet people in the sports media have been positively gushing over Blake Corum, calling him the best running back in college football, a surefire Heisman finalist. It’s getting out of control.

For one thing, Donovan Edwards, the “other” Michigan running back, actually had a better game against Penn State than Corum did. Edwards had 16 carries for 173 yards and 2 TDs with a long of 67, while Corum had 28 carries for 166 yards and 2 TDs, long of 61.

That’s 10.8 yards per carry for Edwards, and 5.9 for Corum. 5.9 is still good, but 10.8 is amazing.

They’re probably both high quality running backs. I’m not denying that at all. But more likely Michigan’s offensive line deserves the lion’s share of the credit for that game.

That, and Penn State just played like crap. I mean, Michigan didn’t run for anywhere close to 400 yards in any of their games against far lesser opponents:

  • vs. Colorado State: 40 rushes, 234 yards, 4 rushing TDs
  • vs. Hawaii: 33-265-5
  • vs. UConn: 43-192-6
  • vs. Maryland: 40-243-2
  • at Iowa: 42-172-2
  • at Indiana: 40-165-1
  • vs. Penn State: 55-418-4

Penn State let up more rushing yards to Michigan than Iowa and Indiana combined. Come on. That’s not all on Michigan, that has to be partly on Penn State just playing like crap.

More on Bama… When Will Saban be Too Old to Coach?

Alabama in their last 17 games against power five opponents (2022, 2021):

  1. at (6) Tennessee: L, 52-49 ❌
  2. vs. Texas A&M: W, 24-20 ✅ 😰
  3. at (20) Arkansas: W, 49-26 (Young got injured, game was 28-23 at one point in 4th quarter) ✅
  4. vs. Vanderbilt: W, 55-3 ✅
  5. at Texas: W, 20-19 (knocked Texas QB Ewers out for game) ✅ 😰
  6. vs. (3) Georgia in 2021 CFP National Championship: L, 33-18 ❌
  7. vs. (4) Cincinnati in 2021 CFP Semifinal: W, 27-6 (not a P5 team of course but a playoff game) ✅
  8. vs. (1) Georgia in 2021 SEC Championship: W, 41-24 ✅
  9. at Auburn: W, 24-22 in 4OT ✅ 😰
  10. vs. (21) Arkansas: W, 42-35 ✅ 😰
  11. vs. LSU: W, 20-14 ✅ 😰
  12. vs. Tennessee: W, 52-24 ✅
  13. at Mississippi State: W, 49-9 ✅
  14. at Texas A&M: L, 41-38 ❌
  15. vs. (12) Ole Miss: W, 42-21 ✅
  16. at (11) Florida: W, 31-29 ✅ 😰
  17. vs. (14) Miami (neutral site): W, 44-13 ✅

Now, Bama is 14-3 in those games, including wins over 7 teams that were ranked at the time of the game. However, 6 of those wins were one-possession games for the Tide.

I went over earlier in the season how last year’s Alabama team was in more one-possession games than any Nick Saban Alabama team since 2007, his first year there which we will not count.

Combined losses and one-possession wins totaled 6 for Alabama last season. They had 5 in 2014 and 5 back in 2008, but never 6 before.

This season, they’re already at 3, with 5 more regular season games to go, plus potentially an SEC Championship game, and at least one bowl game, potentially as many as two if they make the National Championship.

It’s highly likely that not only will last weekend not be Bama’s last close game of the season, but I think they’ll probably lose another game, maybe two.

This is very atypical of Alabama under Nick Saban. They are normally just steamrolling any and everyone that gets in their way. It now feels like Alabama no longer has a death grip on the rest of college football. It’s starting to feel like they are no longer even the scariest team out there.

Think of it from an Ohio State fan’s perspective. Knowing what you know about your team and its strengths, after watching Bama play Tennessee, would you be afraid to play Bama? I don’t think so. Ohio State fans probably believe they have a better quarterback than Hendon Hooker. They know they have better receivers, running backs and offensive linemen than Tennessee. And their defense is probably better than Tennessee’s. Ohio State fans are probably thinking that their team could do exactly what Tennessee did to Bama, but worse.

And they’re probably right, too. I think Ohio State would be favored over Alabama if they played this weekend. And maybe by a decent amount, too.

Now there could be any number of reasons why Bama has “fallen off” as of late (by their standards at least). For one thing, I will just say that the transition from Steve Sarkisian as the Bama offensive coordinator to Bill O’Brien has been noticeable. Steve Sarkisian was brilliant, and he’s a big reason why Bama’s offense was so elite in 2020. I went back and watched that National Championship game between Bama and Ohio State, and Sark’s brilliance was on full display. The pre-snap motions he had for Devonta Smith to scheme him open were just incredible. He was open on every play. Ohio State just lost him and let him run wide open on numerous occasions. Obviously DeVonta Smith is Really Good At Football, but for him to be as wide open as he was, that was Sark being clever and designing plays. Ohio State back then ran a very basic zone defense, and Sark just found the gaps and holes in it every time.

And you saw just how great a gameplan Sark had for Texas when they played Bama earlier this season. Even when Ewers went down, Hudson Card kept it extremely close. If Ewers hadn’t gotten hurt, Texas probably beats Bama comfortably. Sark is a really good offensive playcaller, I have a ton of respect for him and his craft, and I think a big part of the drop-off you’ve seen at Bama offensively is due to him no longer being there. I always say that when a college football team gets worse on one side of the ball from year to year, check to see if they lost their coordinator, as that’s usually the culprit. Coordinator turnover is one of the biggest, yet most low-key, reasons why college football teams go up and down from year to year, especially among the top programs, where there is high turnover among the coordinators.

But the thing is, Bama’s offense wasn’t the problem against Tennessee. The offense scored 42 points and racked up 569 yards. You could say it was mostly due to Bryce Young’s brilliance, and not because BOB’s playcalling, but either way, the offense held up its end of the bargain.

The real culprit against Tennessee was their defense. And while Bama has a defensive coordinator named Pete Golding, the defense is really Nick Saban’s baby. That’s his background–he played DB in college, he’s coached defense his whole career dating back to the mid-1970s, and his teams have always been known for strong defense. Specifically, Saban specializes in the secondary. And that was the major problem for Alabama against Tennessee.

I’m not saying Bama fans should be freaking out, but that is definitely concerning. Bama’s secondary was getting eaten for breakfast by the Tennessee receivers, and the secondary is Saban’s unit. That’s his speciality, his forte. I mean, you’d think that after the first 2-3 touchdowns they’d do something about Jalin Hyatt, but he ended up catching 5.

There’s a lot of Bama fans out there who, when they’re not blaming the refs, want to blame Pete Golding for the Tennessee game, and that’s a somewhat valid criticism. Golding has been the DC at Bama since 2018–well, really since 2019 as that was his first season as sole defensive coordinator. In 2018, his first year at Bama, he shared the role with Tosh Lupoi, who went to the NFL after 2018 and is now the defensive coordinator for Oregon under Dan Lanning.

Bama’s defenses have been good, but not great, under Golding. In 2021, they ranked 10th in the nation in Yards Per Play allowed, 18th in the 2020 National Championship season, 13th in 2019, 25th in 2018. Again, those are decent numbers, but they’re not quite to the level that we had come to expect out of Alabama over the first decade or so of Saban’s tenure there.

In 2017, under Jeremy Pruitt, they ranked #1 in the nation in YPP allowed. Same with 2016. They were 3rd in the nation in 2015, which was Kirby Smart’s final year as the Bama DC. They ranked 23rd in 2014, 13th in 2013, 2nd in 2012, 1st in 2011, 10th in 2010, 3rd in 2009, and 5th in 2008. 2008 was Kirby’s first year as the Bama DC.

Under Kirby, they were pretty much elite every year other than 2014. They had stability at coordinator and they were a well-oiled machine defensively.

So to recap:

  • 2008-2015 with Kirby Smart: average national ranking of 7th in YPP allowed.
  • 2018-present with Pete Golding: average of 16th in YPP allowed.

They were elite with Kirby, but under Golding they’re good-not-great. During the in-between years under Jeremy Pruitt, they were elite defensively, but Pruitt bolted after just two seasons to take the head coaching job at Tennessee, where he only lasted three seasons.

And so you would not exactly be wrong to point the finger at Golding (and Saban) for the way Bama’s defense has kind of regressed a bit over the past few years. Maybe the old man has lost his touch, maybe Golding just isn’t an elite-level DC, maybe both.

But I think there’s a recruiting element to it as well, which isn’t entirely Saban’s fault. I think Bama, in addition to having to deal with turnover at the coordinator spots, is dealing with a new landscape in recruiting after having dominated it for so long prior.

Now, don’t get me wrong, Bama is still elite in recruiting. They’re #1 in the nation in composite roster talent this year as they are pretty much every year.

But not by as wide a gap as they used to be. Georgia has really come on strong under Kirby Smart and gone from being a fringe-top 10 program in the country to being a perennial top-3 program, winning their first National Championship since 1980. Ohio State is recruiting at an elite level, and Texas A&M with all that NIL money just pulled in the #1 recruiting class in the nation. And Saban was pissed about it.

Then you’ve got a resurgent USC, which is a problem for Bama because under Saban they have traditionally recruited California well. It’s where they got Najee Harris and then Bryce Young, for example. But if USC is “back,” then that makes it harder for Bama and all the other big programs to poach California talent.

So these other programs have closed the gap with Bama in the recruiting department in recent years, and that has a major effect on Bama’s overall roster construction.

I was talking about this recently, and I just want to just expand on it a bit.

I’ll give an example.

Say Bama usually gets six 5-star recruits in a given year.

But now, due to other programs stepping their NIL games up, Bama is now averaging, let’s say, four 5-star recruits a year. Maybe one guy goes to Georgia instead, another guy goes to A&M. That’s two fewer per year. Might not seem like a lot, but it is.

Because it compounds over time. After four years of two fewer 5-star players per year,, they now have 8 fewer 5-star players on their roster than they would have if they’d maintained their pace of 6 per year.

After four years, they now have 16 5-star players on the roster instead of the 24 they would’ve had if they maintained the 6 per year average.

8 fewer 5-star players on your roster is no small thing. You obviously have a 22 man starting lineup between offense and defense.

If you have 24 5-star players, in theory you can have all 22 starters as 5-star players.

In practice, it doesn’t work out that way. A quarter of those 24 players are going to be freshman, so they’re probably not going to get much playing time. And then, sometimes 5-star players don’t pan out. Yes, there are busts at the college football level. Some will transfer. Sometimes a 3 or 4-star player will outperform and develop into a really special player. And then of course there’s injuries. So you’re never going to be starting all 5-star players.

So let’s just say due to attrition, the 24 5-star players you recruited over a 4 year period is actually 20 by that fourth year (we’ll just say 1 per year lost to general attrition).

And then of course probably 4-6 of those 20 5-star players are freshmen who don’t play much. So you’re down to 14-16 5-star players now on a 22 man starting lineup.

That’s when you’re averaging six 5-star players a year.

If you start averaging four 5-star players a year, you are already down 8 by year four. That means you’re at 16 instead of 24–best case scenario.

Say you lose 4 to general attrition, that puts you at 12 now instead of 15.

And then 4 of them are freshmen who get no playing time, so you’re down to 8 out of 22 players as 5-star talents.

You were at 14-16 guys out of 22, now you’re at 8-10, maybe less.

Now instead of the majority of your players being 5-star recuits, they’re majority 4-star players. You’re still a really, really good team at that point, but you are not quite as good as the Bama teams of yore, where they were just overflowing with 5-star talent.

And people are wondering why Alabama doesn’t have the offensive pass-catching talent that they used to. Kobe Prentice and Jermaine Burton don’t really compare to Jameson Williams and John Metchie, much less DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle.

In reality, Bama averages 4.2 five-star players a year dating back to 2010 (16 four-star players). Just in case you were wondering.

So I would say there’s a variety of reasons that Bama is no longer as dominant as they once were. First is coordinator turnover. That’s a given. Then you have increased recruiting competition.

And then third is, and I mentioned this earlier, maybe the old man Saban, who is about to turn 71, is starting to lose his touch just a bit.

I mean, it’s inevitable that this will happen as he gets older. When you think about it, there is going to be an age at which Nick Saban is no longer able to coach at an elite level anymore. Whether that age is 73, 74, 75, or even like 76, 77–hell, maybe even 80, I wouldn’t put anything past him–no one knows for certain. He seems to be in great health, sharp as ever, fit as a fiddle–honestly, just looking at the guy, if I didn’t already know his age and how long he’s been around, I would guess he’s in his early to mid 60s, not his early 70s. Probably like 63-64 I’d guess if I knew nothing about him.

But there is going to be a day where Nick Saban can no longer coach at an elite level.

Joe Paterno was the head coach of Penn State from 1966 to 2011. That’s a long-ass time. The man was born in December of 1926, and became head coach at age 39. He coached until he was 84, obviously resigning in disgrace and dying shortly after. But he won his 2 national championships in the 1980s (1982 and 1986). He didn’t win nearly as much after hitting about age 73 in 1999. Yes, Penn State did have a few pretty good years in the 2000s when he was old as shit (2005 they went 11-1, 2008 they went 11-2, same with 2009). But his best years were from about 1968-1999, roughly. From 2000-2004, Penn State failed to qualify for a bowl game four out of five years.

So when JoePa was about 73, he started to fall off–obviously he could still coach, and he somehow had a resurgence in the late 2000s when he was in his upper 70s and early 80s, but I wonder how much he was really the true head coach by that point. I mean, it’s not like he’d become a better coach in his late 70s than he was in his early 70s, right?

I know there was one incident in 2006 where a player ran into him on the sideline and he got hurt and had to coach the rest of the season from the booth. I think by the late 2000s he was coaching more from the booth than from the sidelines, although I do at least have some memories from around that time of him pacing the sidelines, no headset on or anything, just a rolled up piece of paper in his hand. I’m sure the assistant coaches were really the ones running the show by the time Paterno was in his mid-upper 70s; I mean, you can’t really be a successful head coach from the booth. I’m going to guess by the early to mid-2000s he was more or less the head coach in name only. I think that was kind of the consensus around college football by that time–that he was more or less a figurehead.

So, bottom line, by 2000, when he was 73, he was no longer what he once was.

Another coach that persisted for a very long time was Bobby Bowden, who was head coach of Florida State from 1976-2009. Bowden was born in 1929, which would have made him 80 during his final season with the Noles. However, while the Noles were arguably the best team in college football from about 1987-2000 (14 consecutive top-5 finishes including National Championships in 1993 and 1999), they started to fall off a bit after that, once Bowden hit about 71-72. They were still good from 2001-2005, but they were finishing top-25 instead of top-5. They were no longer elite.

Then, after 2005, when Bowden was 76, they really started to fall off, going 30-22 in Bowden’s final four seasons as head coach. Let’s just put it this way: Bobby Bowden was 105-27 in ACC Conference play during his coaching career (FSU only joined the ACC in 1992; they were independent prior to that). 16 of those 27 conference losses came in his final four years on the job. After going a ridiculous 89-11 in conference play from 1992-2005, Bowden went 16-16 his final four years.

He remained until 2009, but like with JoePa, I’m not sure how much he was really running things toward the end there. I know starting around 2006/2007, Jimbo Fisher was named the head coach in waiting, so I’m sure Fisher was largely calling the shots behind the scenes for Bowden’s last few years. He was in his late ’70s by this point.

So to recap:

  • JoePa started falling off in 2000, at age 73.
  • Bobby Bowden started to fall off in about 2001 at around 70/71, but really started to fall off noticeably starting in about 2005, when he was 74/75.

The JoePa fall-off was pretty sudden. Penn State joined the Big Ten in 1993, and from 1993-1999, Penn State won no fewer than 9 games, including going 12-0 and winning the Rose Bowl in 1994. They went 10-3 in 1999, but then, in 2000, they went 5-7. From 2000-2004, Penn State would amass a combined record of 26-33 and only one winning season. They somehow had a resurgence from 2005-2011, but there’s no way JoePa was anything more than a figurehead by that point. He was in his 80s.

And as for Bobby Bowden, the fall-off was more gradual. They were elite up through 2000, the season in which he turned 71, even making it to the National Championship for a third straight year. But from 2001-2005 they were a good-not-great team. They went from being a team where 10 wins was their floor to being a team where 10 wins was their ceiling. And then from 2006-2009, Bowden was a shell of himself.

Bottom line, I would not expect Bama to be at that super elite level past like 2024 or 2025 at the latest. Again, Saban is going to be 71 later this month. By 2025, he will be 74, and I’m just not sure he’ll be able to coach at that super elite level at that age. You could even argue that we’re seeing the very beginning of the Saban Fall-Off, although that’s by no means for sure at all.

Okay, I know comparing Saban to JoePa and Bobby Bowden is a small sample size, but there aren’t many other instances of elite-level college football coaches coaching into their 70s. So this is all we really have to go off of.

By no means is the game passing Nick Saban by or anything; it’s not like he’s some dinosaur out there who has completely lost touch. Not even close. I still think Nick Saban is the best there is.

But not by leaps and bounds anymore. He used to be head and shoulders better than everyone else. Nobody else was on his level.

Now Bama is starting to look less and less scary.

And in terms of discipline, Alabama is the most penalized team in the country. Think about that. No team in the FBS has committed more penalties than Alabama. That should never happen with Nick Saban at the helm. They committed a whopping 17 penalties against Tennessee, and 15 against Texas in week 2. It’s fair to ask what the hell is going on with Alabama.

Maybe it’s premature to be talking like this–the “Is Saban falling off?” talk. But I think the results kind of warrant it. Most penalized team in the country?! Tennessee, Texas A&M, Texas this year, and all those close games last season–Bama doesn’t feel like Bama anymore. And it’s only natural to starting wondering just why that is.

Ohio State: Once Bitten, Twice Shy

You know the old expression. You have an unpleasant experience with something once, you’re wary of it in the future. Call it PTSD or what have you, it’s a real thing.

And Ohio State fans have it over Iowa, big time.

The last time the two teams met it was in Kinnick Stadium, on November 4, 2017. Ohio State came into the game ranked #6 in the country and 7-1, having just won a thrilling, emotional game over Saquon Barkley and Penn State in the Horseshoe the week prior. Despite losing at home to Oklahoma earlier in the season, Ohio State had gotten things back on track and was once again in the playoff hunt. But those playoff hopes went up in smoke on that cloudy day in Iowa.

Iowa won the game 55-24, one of the most shocking blowouts of a highly ranked team in recent memory. Ohio State was a 20.5 point favorite going into the game and wound up losing by 31. JT Barrett–like CJ Stroud today–was considered a Heisman frontrunner going in to the game.

In short, Ohio State’s entire 2017 season slammed right into the brick walls of Kinnick Stadium that day. JT Barrett threw four interceptions, including a pick-six on the first play of the game, and they were just insurmountable. They also couldn’t stop Iowa at all, either.

So Ohio State fans are understandably a little uneasy about this game against Iowa on Saturday.

Now, this time around, Ohio State is probably better than they were in 2017, and Iowa is way worse. Back then, Iowa had future NFL tight ends TJ Hockenson and Noah Fant just running wild all game long, and Ohio State had no answer for them.

Today, Iowa enters the game with quite possibly the worst offense in FBS college football. They have nowhere near the level of offensive talent as they did in 2017. Spencer Petras is a terrible quarterback, there is no TJ Hockenson or Noah Fant on the Iowa roster–it’s just not the same.

Iowa ranks 127th in the country in scoring offense at just 14.7 points per game. They average 4.1 yards per play, which ranks 130th in the country.

Iowa is dead last in the country in total yards per game at just 238.8.

Iowa’s offense is so bad it’s basically causing a mutiny among the Iowa fanbase against head coach Kirk Ferentz, the longest-tenured coach in the FBS who has been running the show in Iowa City since 1998. It’s really getting ugly. Kirk Ferentz has his son, Brian, in charge of the offense and obviously it’s not going well to put it nicely. But the familial ties likely ensure that Brian is very secure in his job.

At the same time, Ohio State rolls into this game–a home game for them this time–with probably the best offense in the country. They average 8.1 yards per play, which is tops in the nation by a good margin (#2 TCU averages 7.7 YPP). They’re #2 in the nation in total yards per game at 543.7, behind only Tennessee’s 551.0. Ohio State boasts the nation’s second-most efficient passing attack at 10.8 yards per attempt behind only Tennessee’s 11.0 YPA.

Ohio State and Iowa couldn’t be more different this year. Iowa has a pretty damn good defense, but so does Ohio State. And Iowa’s defense, as good as it is, usually gets worn out by the second half given the fact that their offense is basically a guaranteed three-and-out every time they touch the ball.

There’s a reason Ohio State is favored in this game by 29.5. The over/under is 49, so basically Vegas sees Ohio State winning the game 40-10.

Giving Iowa even 10 points seems about right, in my view. In four of their 6 games this year they’ve scored 14 points or fewer, and against Power Five opponents they average 13.5ppg. If anything, they’ll be down like 40-3 late in the game and score a garbage time touchdown or something like that. Or perhaps they catch CJ Stroud slacking and get a pick-six off of him–they are great at forcing turnovers and scoring the ball on defense. The Iowa defense knows that they probably have a better chance of scoring points than the Iowa offense.

So while Ohio State fans are probably scarred from the last matchup, this one is not likely to be a repeat of that. Even as tough as this Iowa defense is, they are unlikely to be able to hold Ohio State down for very long. Even if they hold Ohio State to half their season scoring average in points (which would be about 24-25 points) there is no way the Iowa offense can score more than that.

In all likelihood, the Iowa defense will simply break at one point in the game after repeated three-and-outs by the offense. Defenses simply can’t function when the offense is a guaranteed punt.

And while that last game took place five years ago, there are still some remnants on the Ohio State coaching staff who were there for the game. Ryan Day was in his first year in Columbus, as co-offensive coordinator, a role he shared with Kevin Wilson, who is the Buckeyes’ current OC today. Defensive line coach Larry Johnson and running backs coach Tony Alford are longtime Ohio State stalwarts, and they were on staff in 2017 as well.

So there is a definite revenge factor in play for Ohio State. Those guys remember that 2017 game. They remember that Iowa kinda piled it on towards the end. I’m wondering if maybe this time, Ryan Day does not take his foot off the gas if his team is up big late. He might just keep scoring.

In short, I don’t think Ohio State fans have reason to worry about Iowa this time. The last time Iowa won consecutive games against Ohio State was 1959 and 1960. Since 1960, Ohio State is 35-7-1 against the Iowa Hawkeyes:

It is kind of strange that Ohio State and Iowa have only played twice since the 2011 season–2017 and 2013. But that’s just the reality of playing in a 14-team conference with separate divisions. Big Ten teams play nine conference games a year, and Ohio State has to play Rutgers, Penn State, Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State every year as they’re in the same division. Iowa has to play Nebraska, Purdue, Wisconsin, Northwestern, Minnesota and Illinois each year.

So that leaves only three games per year for each team to play teams from the other side of the conference. This year Ohio State has Iowa, Wisconsin and Northwestern, while Iowa unfortunately got Michigan and Ohio State this year (but also Rutgers).

What’s weird is that Ohio State and Iowa have only played twice since 2011, while Michigan and Iowa have played 6 times over that same span (7 times if you include the Big Ten Championship last year).

Anyway, Iowa is really bad offensively. They rank in the bottom-five in just about every major offensive category. That means there are at least 125 offenses in college football that are better than they are.

To really put things in perspective, there are 131 teams in the FBS.

But there are only 65 teams in the Power Five–that’s the big conferences, the SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac 12 and ACC. The remaining 66 teams in the FBS are Group of Five teams–the AAC, the Sun Belt, C-USA, Mountain West, the MAC–or Independents (Notre Dame, UConn, UMass and a few others).

For a Power Five team like Iowa to be ranked in the 50s or 60s in any category is bad. It means you’re near the bottom of the Power Five.

But to be ranked in the 120s or 130s is just a stunning level of incompetence.

That means you’re not just bad for Power Five standards, you are bad for Group of Five standards.

I’m just trying to really illustrate how bad Iowa.

They are beyond the basement of the P5, they are in the basement of the G5.

In theory a Power Five team should be ranked no lower than 65 in any category. I know it often does not work that way at all, but just in theory. Because Power Five teams have more money, better players, better coaches (in theory)–there’s no way you should be getting outperformed by G5 programs, especially when you’re a school like Iowa that won 10 games last year.

Iowa’s terrible offense has become a funny meme on college football Twitter, but when you really sit down and think about it, it’s pretty mind-boggling just how bad they actually are.

Iowa’s offense is beyond just being bad for Power Five standards–they are worst than most Group of Five teams on offense.

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