ATLANTA — As the College Football Playoff celebrates its sixth birthday this week, it’s become clear that giving more teams access to play for a national title has not actually given more of them a chance to win it. If anything, the divide now is even greater between the handful of programs that stockpile the best talent in recruiting and the plucky overachievers who might have been able to pull off one upset in the BCS era but now have to do it twice.
We’re getting to the point, though, where even that standard doesn’t paint a complete picture of how difficult it’s becoming to win a national championship in this era of college football. Not only do you need a roster full of blue chips and luck to be on your side, but unless you have an elite quarterback, you can probably forget reaching the ultimate prize.
“You look at the four teams in it right now — and I don’t watch sports and I don’t watch ‘SportsCenter’ — but the best four quarterbacks are on the top four teams,” LSU offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger said. “I think that’s the key to college football right now.”
For the first time in the history of the CFP, all four participants would consider the quarterback position the strength of their team. Though a slow start hurt his numbers, Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence is still on track to be the No. 1 NFL draft pick in 2021. Ohio State’s Justin Fields had an absurd 40 touchdowns to 1 interception ratio in his first season as a college starter and made a late Heisman Trophy push. Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts, who finished second in the Heisman voting, not only threw for 3,634 yard but was also the Sooners’ leading rusher by a pretty significant margin. And LSU’s Joe Burrow, who won the Heisman in a runaway, put up a historically great 76% completion rate on nearly 37 attempts per game.
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It’s the most talented and accomplished collective group of quarterbacks ever in the Playoff, and it illustrates how important that position has become in an era in which teams that struggle to score are increasingly destined to fall short.
“You have to have a guy driving that machine,” Oklahoma co-offensive coordinator Cale Gundy said. “I just think there’s more and more teams that are running the offenses we’re running nowadays, so it’s a different time. And it’s probably because there’s just more talent out there and it’s being better developed through high schools and 7-on-7s and individual instruction.”
It’s no great revelation that having an elite quarterback can change the complexion of a team. In the most extreme examples, like Cam Newton in 2010 at Auburn, that one player can turn an otherwise ordinary team into something historic.
But far more often in college football, you’d see great teams that didn’t necessarily have great quarterbacks. Even as recently as 2015, Alabama won a national title with Jake Coker, who now sells insurance in the Mobile area after a very brief attempt to play in the NFL.
That isn’t meant to disparage Coker, who had a solid season as Alabama’s starter and made a couple key throws in the national title win over Clemson. But Alabama winning championships with guys like Coker and Greg McElroy was reflective of the notion that elite-level quarterback play was a bonus, not a necessity.
“I think those days are done,” said Quincy Avery, a private coach in the Atlanta area who has been associated with a number of top quarterbacks including Hurts and Fields. “When you look at the national championship game — those aren’t like the old days where it’s 20-17. People are putting up points and if you’re not in a position to do that with a guy who can throw the football, you won’t be able to win at the highest level.”
Decades from now, we’ll probably look at Deshaun Watson as a key turning point in the history of college football. Though Watson and Clemson lost a 45-40 shootout to Alabama for the national title in 2015, everyone understood coming out of that game that something had changed.
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Though others had broken Nick Saban’s defense before — Newton, Johnny Manziel — Watson felt like the culmination of an idea that spread quarterbacks with great arm strength, intelligence and mobility were now being programmed to have the advantage over any kind of defense. Even when Saban made the right defensive calls, Watson regularly made plays against them, to the point where he almost immediately overhauled his own offense and implemented a more aggressive, wide open style.
And that’s the never-ending nightmare all defensive coordinators now have to live with, particularly this year when every Playoff team is scheming against a quarterback who can individually turn a bad play into a good one.
“You feel like you did right by confusing them in coverage and your reward is that they scramble and go find a guy for a 50-yard gain and you sit there from a coordinator standpoint wishing you’d called something else,” Oklahoma defensive coordinator Alex Grinch said. “But early in the down, you couldn’t have made a better call. When you can’t fool a guy or reap the benefits of a disguise or you brought pressure that wasn’t what they expected and they reap the benefit and you don’t, you go back to, what’s the answer to that? What’s the next thing on the list? When our good calls turn into bad calls, that’s a difficult Saturday.”
It’s hard to see college football reverting back anytime soon to an era where the so-called “game managers” are winning at the highest level. No disrespect to former Alabama quarterback Blake Sims, former Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant or Michigan State’s Connor Cook, all of whom led teams to the Playoff, but the days of making it this far without a dynamic passing game are likely coming to an end.
When even Alabama and LSU have converted to quarterback-friendly systems that place a high value on throwing it accurately and scoring points, it’s now a minimum requirement to win at the highest level. The fact that three Heisman finalists and a reigning national champion are the four quarterbacks left isn’t a coincidence — it’s the new baseline.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken.