College football has a problem.
Its national championship race has become predictable. Boring, even.
Since the College Football Playoff started in 2014, Alabama, Ohio State and Clemson have taken 11 of the 14 spots in the national title game. To the surprise of no one, two of those teams (the Buckeyes and Crimson Tide) will meet in Monday’s championship game in Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium.
Odds are, at least two of the three will be in the playoff next year, too, and the next and the next. That leaves only one or two (usually sacrificial) spots for the nation’s other 127 teams.
“That’s not good for the sport,” ESPN analyst Chris Fowler said. “We all know that.”
The blame doesn’t belong with the three teams in the playoff penthouse. It belongs with the other name-brand programs that aren’t at their level.
Starting with the ones in this state.
Florida, Florida State and Miami have combined for 11 national titles but none since the 2013 Seminoles. It’s our longest drought since rising to national prominence in the ’80s. The state’s lone playoff appearance (2014 FSU) ended in a 39-point loss.
The Gators, Seminoles and Hurricanes have spent the CFP era taking turns in college football’s second tier. Each has made it to at least one prestigious New Year’s Six bowl. None has seriously challenged for a championship. Their combined record against the sport’s triumvirate: 1-13. They’ve been outscored by 318 points.
On Monday, their failures will come into focus when the national championship kicks off in Florida, with many high-profile Florida players, but without any Florida teams.
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The biggest problem facing UF, FSU and Miami is the same one two other on-the-cusp programs, Notre Dame and Oklahoma, are battling. They’re not winning championships because they’re not recruiting at a championship level.
“The talent on the roster has a stronger correlation to success than it ever has before,” Fowler said.
Indeed, according to 247Sports, Monday’s game is the most talented title-game matchup of the modern recruiting era; at least 80 percent of the past four recruiting classes at ‘Bama and Ohio State were four- or five-star prospects.
The signing-day gap is easiest to see at the very top. Of the 154 five-star recruits in 2016-20, almost a third signed with either ‘Bama (18), Ohio State (15) or Clemson (14).
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UF, FSU and Miami signed nine. Combined.
The disparity looks even worse when you consider the high-end talent in Florida high schools.
From 2016-20, the state produced 20 five-star recruits, including those at Bradenton’s IMG Academy. Alabama signed six of them. Ohio State snagged five. UF, FSU and Miami got one apiece.
Monday’s title game will resemble the championship four years ago at Raymond James Stadium, when the Tampa Bay trio of Ray-Ray McCloud, Deon Cain and Artavis Scott helped Clemson top ‘Bama for the Tigers’ first title since 1981.
This time, five-star linebacker Dylan Moses (IMG) will try to get the Tide’s defense past five-star tackle Nicholas Petit-Frere (Tampa’s Berkeley Prep) as Ohio State’s All-American, five-star cornerback (Jacksonville’s Shaun Wade) tries to keep up with Alabama’s All-American, five-star cornerback (Plantation’s Patrick Surtain).
“We’re all very excited to come back home and play in the national championship…” Surtain said. “Repping the hometown is an exciting feeling.”
Florida’s talent drain also feeds into the most obvious on-field deficiency between the state’s big three and the nation’s big three. Florida’s lines aren’t good enough.
“We’ve got to get a little better up front on both sides of the ball,” Gators coach Dan Mullen said after his loss to Alabama in last month’s SEC title game.
Four of the Tide’s starting offensive linemen in that game signed as top-200 national recruits, including both tackles (Pensacola’s Alex Leatherwood and IMG’s Evan Neal). The other was former blue-chip prospect Landon Dickerson, who joined ‘Bama as a transfer from … Florida State.
• • •
Although the recruiting gap is the most glaring difference between the top three and everyone else, it’s not the only one.
“I think one of the misnomers is that Alabama and Ohio State are the only ones that sign four- and five-star players,” said Steve Sarkisian, the outgoing ‘Bama offensive coordinator and incoming head coach at Texas. “Clearly we do, but I also think there’s a piece of development that sometimes gets lost.”
He’s right. The Texas job became open because his predecessor didn’t maximize the Longhorns’ top-three classes from 2018-19.
Georgia hasn’t converted its recruiting stars into championship rings. Jimbo Fisher’s elite prospects underperformed during the end of his FSU tenure and are 0-5 against ‘Bama and Clemson in his three seasons at Texas A&M.
The Ohio States and ‘Bamas also have the biggest budgets, which lead to nicer facilities (like the stand-alone complexes UF and FSU have spent years trying to build) and armies of analysts.
“It takes a lot,” Fowler said. “As people have said, winning is simple, but it’s never easy.
“Creating a dynasty is incredibly difficult.”
As this state knows, all too well.