Welcome to Fact or Fanatic, a bi-weekly column where we put college football fanbase buzz up against the stats. No team, no division, no conference’s fans are safe.
If it’s college football and fans are talking about it, it’s fair game for us. As we head into football season, we’ll sprinkle in some game previews, player performances, and top stories as seasoning. But the meat will always be the fans – their smack talk, their expectations, their superstitions, and their love for their teams – up against the cold, hard, indisputable facts. If you have a “fact or fanatic” truism you want us to explore, drop us a line in the comments.
This inaugural column kicks off with the buzz from SEC Media Days. The annual rite of summer in Hoover, AL has served as a mecca for SEC fans for years. Now that the event is covered from beginning to end by the SEC Network, the pageantry of football in the South descends upon the Birmingham suburb. Fans show up to cheer their coaches and players, and to troll their rivals. Every year has its stories, and every year has its fanatic commentary.
Let’s take a look at a couple of the more prevalent fan claims in 2016.
The University of Tennessee is picked to win the SEC every year
This is probably the most consistently voiced opinion this week by fans on social media, and definitely the most easily refuted. All the hullaballoo made me curious, so after a few hours of digging through search engines I uncovered every SEC Media Days pick for the East since the year 2005.2015 – UT 2nd
2014 – UT 5th
2013 – UT 5th
2012 – UT 5th
2011 – UT 4th
2010 – UT 5th
2009 – UT 4th
2008 – UT 3rd
2007 – UT 2nd (won the East – lost to LSU in championship game)
2006 – UT 3rd
2005 – UT 1st (also picked SEC Champions – went 5-7)
Yes, you’re reading that correctly. The Vols were picked first once, second twice, third twice, fourth twice, and fifth four times. Hardly overhyped, and definitely not picked to win their division every year.
Perhaps Florida DB Jalen Tabor should have researched the facts before he went public with this Twitter rant of falsehoods back in April:
“They” picked UT to win the east the last 3 years— Jalen Tabor (@_31Flavorz) April 13, 2016
I feel sorry for “they”— Jalen Tabor (@_31Flavorz) April 13, 2016
For years, the “Tennessee is always picked to win/overhyped” rhetoric has been a common refrain from other SEC fanbases. When put up against the stats, this hyperbole is clearly fanatic.
Doesn’t Matter Who the QB Is, Alabama Will Win Anyway
In August, 2015 Ward Bickford opined on Fanbuzz.com:
Get ready to hear the phrase “game manager” again, but so what? Game managers win national titles at Alabama.
It is true that since 2014, Alabama has broken in a new quarterback every year. It is also indisputably true that six of the last seven national championships have been won by first-year starting quarterbacks.
2016—Jake Coker, Alabama
2015—Cardale Jones, Ohio State
2014—Jameis Winston, Florida State
2013—AJ McCarron, Alabama (second year starter)
2012—AJ McCarron, Alabama
2011—Cam Newton, Auburn
2010—Greg McElroy, Alabama
But if you take a look at the statistics for those games, a different story emerges. The national championship games don’t appear generally to have been won by outstanding pass play. In fact, most of those games had pedestrian QB stats.
Last year was the only year with great passing numbers. Bama QB Jake Coker connected on 16 of 25 pass attempts for a respectable 335 yards, but was eclipsed by Clemson QB Deshaun Watson’s 30-47 for 405 yards.
Winning Ohio State QB Cardale Jones (the three-game third stringer) went 16 of 23 for 223 yards in 2015. FSU’s Jameis Winston went 20 of 35 for 237 yards in 2014’s contest against Auburn. 2012 saw Alabama QB AJ McCarron completing 20 of 28 for 264 yards, while Cam Newton of Auburn went 20 of 34 for 265 yards against Oregon the year before. And Alabama’s Greg McElroy needed only an anemic 6 of 11 for 58 total yards to defeat Texas in 2010.
So at first glance, this fan trope seems to have a glimmer of truth. Maybe all a team like the Tide needs is a game manager at quarterback to win championships.
That leads to a third football cliché we should consider before making our final determination.
Defense wins championships
According to ESPN Analytics writer Sharon Katz, the statement that defense wins championships is consistently true. Her January 25, 2016 article says in part:
The Broncos and Panthers are set to face off in Super Bowl 50, continuing a trend of defenses winning championships across all sports. Since last June, every major sports champion has been defined by amazing defensive play.
And as any football fan knows, Super Bowl 50 was won by defense as well. Peyton Manning’s ride into the sunset was a 13 of 23, 141-yard passing performance. Cam Newton’s 18-41, 265-yard game was marred by a pair of fumbles and an interception. Denver and Carolina went into the Super Bowl as the top two teams in defensive efficiency league-wide.
Last year’s College Football National Championship game was similar. As Katz noted:
Alabama and Clemson entered the CFP Playoff as the top two defenses in the FBS, according to ESPN’s defensive efficiency ratings. The Tide won the championship and finished the year as the third-most efficient defense in the last 10 seasons.
So “defense wins championships” is fact, not fanatic.
But what about the idea that it doesn’t matter who the Alabama quarterback is? That a “game manager” wins championships for the Crimson Tide regardless? Is that fact, or fanatic?
A bit of both, actually. It’s not always either.
Alabama quarterback Blake Sims set school records in his one year as starter for the Tide—in fact, he broke AJ McCarron’s single-season passing yards record. In 14 starts, he threw for 3,487 yards and 28 touchdowns, capped by a 445-yard outing against Florida. Blake Sims was hardly a game manager. In the playoff loss to Ohio State, his numbers were comparable to OSU’s Jones—going 22 of 36 for 227 yards.
But quarterback play didn’t decide that game. Ezekiel Elliott’s 230 yards rushing, including an 85-yard run “through the heart of the South,” was the game-winning stat in that contest.
The key to winning championships is to get there in the first place. This year’s SEC is light on star power at the quarterback position, with only Ole Miss’s Chad Kelly and Tennessee’s Joshua Dobbs returning as veteran impact players. Alabama plays both schools—and this year both games are away. Both opponents feature offenses directed by mobile, dual-threat QBs.
Alabama has an elite receiving corps, with WRs Calvin Ridley and ArDarius Stewart. Title game hero TE OJ Howard is also returning and offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin gets to anticipate the incredible WR transfer from Bowling Green, Gehrig Deiter, plus the expected return of the injured Robert Foster. There’s little doubt: Alabama is set up for success with receivers.
However, the Tide also lost Heisman Trophy winner RB Derrick Henry and his backup Kenyan Drake. While the early buzz is about freshman RB Bo Scarborough, Nick Saban has yet to name a starter. When you factor in the loss of star center Ryan Kelly and RT Dominic Jackson, the Bama offense going into camp has some major issues. The Tide defense is undeniably stout, returning the majority of last year’s starters.
But the uncertainty at the quarterback position is the key issue for Alabama’s team moving forward into the fall of 2016. For the first time in Nick Saban’s decade in Tuscaloosa, he not only has to find answers at quarterback but two-deep at running back. And while the Tide is stacked with elite recruits, replacing the entire backfield is both new and troubling. The passing game should be this offense’s strength, but in order for those star receivers to catch the ball, someone’s got to be able to get it to them.
AlabamaNews.net’s John Longshore opined during SEC Media Days that Saban hinted that junior Cooper Bateman would get the starting QB nod—which would make sense. He’s the only quarterback on the roster to appear in a college game when he started against Ole Miss last fall—a game the Tide ultimately lost. He’s a pro-style passer who’s athletic enough to throw downfield and could be a viable dual-threat candidate.
But he hasn’t won over the locker room, Saban, or a significant proportion of Tide fans, who are excited about the possibilities that true freshman Jalen Hurts presents after a strong spring game performance. Bateman, by contrast, had accuracy issues, especially on downfield throws the receiving corps is designed to excel at.
And we cannot overlook the fact that Alabama’s opponents boast some of the finest defenses in the nation – Ole Miss, Tennessee, LSU, Texas A&M, and Auburn all bring back strong defensive units and preseason All-SEC star power – while the Tide lost veteran Defensive Coordinator Kirby Smart to Georgia, and has handed the reins to new DC Jeremy Pruitt.
There are a lot of questions in Alabama this season that must be answered, which makes the selection of a starting quarterback far more important than it’s been in previous seasons.
So—can Alabama repeat as national champions with a “game manager” in 2016-17? While in the past seven years, first-year starting QBs have taken the Tide to three national titles, the situation this year is significantly different. The Tide must replace their entire backfield and two key linemen including an outstanding center.
Taking all this into consideration, we’re calling this one fanatic, not fact.
This year, of all years, the Alabama Crimson Tide must have a quarterback capable not just of running the offense by managing the clock and handing off the ball. In order for Alabama to get through a brutal schedule starting with PAC-12 opponent USC, they must have outstanding QB play. Average isn’t enough with an inexperienced backfield going up against elite defenses. For Alabama to get back to the Final Four, Saban and Kiffin will have to find a starting quarterback with a legitimate deep pass threat.
But never fear, Tide fans. If Alabama repeats as NCAA Champions, we’ll revisit this topic right after the championship game. We have no qualms with calling this fact. But considering the challenges in Tuscaloosa this season, only a fanatic would proclaim this as fact before the first snap of fall camp.