Nick Saban won his first college football championship at Alabama in 2009. Since that year, let’s look at the non-Alabama title winning teams.
- 2010: Auburn, QB Cam Newton
- 2013: Florida State, QB Jameis Winston
- 2014: Ohio State, QB Cardale Jones
- 2016: Clemson, QB Deshaun Watson
- 2018: Clemson, QB Trevor Lawrence
- 2019: LSU, QB Joe Burrow
One of these teams stands out more than Hugh Freeze as the compliance officer in an athletic department.
Newton, Winston, Lawrence and Burrow were all selected number one overall in their respective NFL drafts. Watson wasn’t the top pick, but his on the field NFL play suggests he was worthy.
In contrast, Cardale Jones has thrown 11 career NFL pass attempts. To beat Alabama, history suggests a team needs the top pick in the next NFL draft at QB or to get lucky with Cardale Jones.
In addition, Saban has changed his approach to winning. In 2015, he relied on Jacob Coker at QB, who is now working in commercial insurance back in his hometown of Mobile, Alabama.
Since then, he won the 2017 title by putting in freshman QB Tua Tagovailoa at halftime of the championship game against Georgia. Tagovailoa might have been the top pick in the 2020 draft if not for an injury, and he went 3rd overall.
QB Mac Jones led Alabama to the title in 2020 before getting selected 15th in the 2021 NFL draft.
Saban has been explicit about the changes to college football. In 2020 ESPN article, he said:
It used to be that good defense beats good offense. Good defense doesn’t beat good offense anymore. It used to be if you had a good defense, other people weren’t going to score. You were always going to be in the game. I’m telling you. It ain’t that way anymore.
Nick Saban evolves like a pro sports bettor capable of sustaining a long career. This constant work on improvement has kept Alabama at the top of college football.
Which teams can use this formula against Alabama in 2021?
Let’s look at North Carolina. QB Sam Howell enters his true junior season with two full seasons as the starter. DraftKings has Howell as the favorite to be the top pick in the 2022 NFL draft.
To evaluate Howell, let’s look at success rate adjusted for opponents with my quantitative methods. In 2019 and 2020, North Carolina’s offense ranked 10th and 16th respectively. Howell lost two wide receivers to the 2021 NFL draft but should still have plenty of talent at the skill positions.
Having the top pick in the next NFL draft at quarterback is not always enough to win a championship. Ask Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray about this.
Defense, and pass defense in particular, matters. In 2020, North Carolina had the 22nd best pass defense by my adjusted success rate. This is remarkable considering that three defensive backs opted out and CB Storm Duck didn’t play due to injury after two games.
Duck returns for 2021, and North Carolina also gets CB Tony Grimes back after a stellar freshman year in 2020.
The most likely result for North Carolina is an ACC Coastal title and loss to Clemson in the championship game. However, if any team is going to mess with college football royalty in 2021, it is North Carolina and QB Sam Howell.
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