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Introduction to The College Football Narrative Watch

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(Photo credit: USA TODAY)

College football is a mixture of narratives.  It is a hodge podge of storylines that can be eliminated or magnified based on the result of one single game or play.  One week, a narrative can be featured as the next big idea, the next week it could be erased from memory. For instance, remember when Ohio State destroyed Alabama in the College Football Playoff on New Year’s Day in 2015? Before the start of the 2015 season, many strongly believed that the Bama’s dynasty was done, and Ohio State was about to supplant it:

When Alabama lost at home to Ole Miss early in 2015 season, it extended that narrative.

But the Tide bounced back and won the 2015 National Championship. They won another one last season.  The dynasty is still alive.  The narrative: squashed.

The Alabama example is a common scenario.  Narratives come and go.  I am a narrative enthusiast.  I enjoy tracking their lifelines, seeing them expand or dissolve. Just like a player’s Heisman stock can change from week-to-week, so can a narrative. But while almost every outlet does some sort of Heisman Watch, who tracks the narratives?  I have decided to take on that task.

Each week, the College Football Narrative Watch will list and track narratives permeating throughout college football, and add new ones when they arise.  Keep in mind, the Narrative Watch will neither attempt to create narratives, nor purport to agree with all of the narratives listed (it may agree with all or some) it is simply a list based on the study of reactions of fans, media, and players, from week-to-week, of prevailing thoughts flowing through the college football landscape.  People may feel that some of the narratives are false.  That is okay.  Just like life, narratives are not always fair.  Regardless of their veracity, they exist.

This preseason Narrative Watch features some select narratives that are currently prevalent leading up to the start of this season. Some of these narratives will last a while.  Some will change soon.  Either way, they will be fun to track. Here we go:

GEORGIA IS BECOMING THE NEXT ALABAMA

If the Narrative Watch existed after week seven of the 2016 season, it probably would have listed a popular thought at the time: that first year Georgia head coach Kirby Smart was out of his league and Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity made a mistake in firing longtime head coach Mark Richt and replacing him with rookie Smart.  That weekend, the Dawgs suffered a nightmare home loss to Vanderbilt, their third loss in four games.

It was worse for Kirby and the Bulldogs two weeks later when they lost to Florida.   Georgia finished its 2016 campaign at 8-5 and 4-4 in conference. But last season, UGA broke out, going 11-1 in the regular season, winning most of its games in dominant fashion.  After winning the SEC Championship game over Auburn and the CFP semifinal over Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl, the Dawgs lost the heartbreaker in overtime to Alabama in the CFP National Championship Game.  Now, Smart’s Bulldogs are on the brink of juggernaut status. The program is recruiting at a level that it has never seen. On signing day 2018, according to the 247Sports.com composite recruiting rankings,  Smart pulled in the number 1 overall recruiting class.  Georgia is on their way to a Top 3 recruiting finish next year as well.  The public sentiment about UGA going into this season reflects a complete 180 from last year.  They are are one of the big dogs, and, to some, looking like the next Alabama-esque dynasty:

https://twitter.com/jasonrmcintyre/status/950383747362316288

The trajectory is there.  Georgia’s rise under Kirby after two seasons mirrors Alabama’s under Nick Saban in 2008.  Can they become the next dynasty?  They will have to unseat the current one first.

ED ORGERON IS IN OVER HIS HEAD AT LSU

When LSU named Ed Orgeron its permanent head coach after the 2016 season, it was met with a healthy dose of skepticism.  Except for three tumultuous seasons at Ole Miss, the lovable Louisianan had been almost a career assistant. “Coach O” wasn’t LSU’s first choice for this job either. Although he led the Tigers to a 6-2 record and a bowl win as the Tigers’ interim coach in 2016 after the school fired long time head coach Les Miles after four games, Coach O’s hiring was not met with widespread glee.  Last season, after LSU was dominated at home by Mississippi State, then lost at home to Troy two weeks later, the criticism of Oregeron was at an all-time high.

His competency has been under scrutiny ever since. Coach O is lucky he had a $12 million buyout on his contract last year, or he may have been fired on the spot.  LSU bounced back after the Troy loss, winning six out of their last seven regular season games to close the 2017 season. However, after a bowl loss and the dismissal of ballyhooed offensive coordinator Matt Canada, who bumped heads with Orgeron, LSU fans probably don’t have a warm or fuzzy feeling that their program is in the best hands.   Furthermore, to fill the offensive coordinator role, Orgeron promoted the veteran, but unspectacular, Steve Emsinger.  Coach O has a daunting task.   He has to give the LSU folks confidence that he can run a program that can consistently win ten games per season. He also has to compete for SEC West titles. Many aren’t optimistic.

Orgeron is not going to have the benefit of patience.  The Tigers have not beaten Alabama since 2011, and the LSU brass are tired of being an afterthought in the national landscape.   He certainly will have to bring the program beyond the stagnant level around which Les Miles was hovering before he was fired, but slight improvement probably will not be enough. Reportedly, his buyout this season is $8 million.  If anything can save him after another disappointing season, that may be it.

JIM HARBAUGH IS OVERRATED

If you took a straw poll from Michigan fans, it’s hard to imagine that a consensus wouldn’t agree that Jim Harbaugh’s first three seasons have gone worse than expected. It is the prevailing thought of an overwhelming majority of the college football media.  Since taking over as head coach in 2015, Harbaugh has turned around Michigan’s fortunes to some degree, but has yet to even win the Big 10 East. He is also a combined 1-5 against rivals Michigan State and Ohio State including 0-3 against Urban Meyer and the Buckeyes.  To make matters worse, recruiting has regressed.  Last season’s recruiting class was a failure. It ranked 21st (according to the 247Sports composite team rankings) and somehow didn’t sign a single player from the Top 100 of 247Sports.com’s overall individual player rankings. While Michigan’s underachieving records are a big talking point after the first three seasons, the stronger narrative is that Harbaugh is not nearly worth his $7 million salary, especially given the hype surrounding him when he arrived.

The overrated label will stick with Harbaugh until he, at a minimum, wins a conference championship.  He certainly has to beat Ohio State at least once.

URBAN MEYER IS A LYING DIRTBAG

Amidst the recent controversy surrounding the Ohio State program and the reported allegations regarding former Buckeyes wide receiver coach Zach Smith and his wife, along with Urban Meyer’s actions (or lack thereof) in response, Meyer’s personal reputation is currently at an all-time low. Fair or not, the prevailing sentiment throughout the nation is that Coach Meyer is a scumbag who will do anything to win at all costs.

Although he has made it out okay professionally (Ohio State handed him a three game suspension), his character has been raked through the coals. Other coaches have been through reputation staining events, and have persevered.  But Urban faces a more difficult challenge, particularly the fact that a lot of people never really liked him in the first place.  Much of that was probably because he wins, and people love to try and bring down the best. But, also in the mix, is the fact that Urban has been preaching about values his entire career, yet doesn’t adhere to them himself. For instance, when he was at Florida, he said he would only take the “top one percent of one percent of people,” but throughout his time in Gainesville, a laundry list of his players faced numerous arrests and allegations.  Here is a passage from Meyer’s 2015 book Above the Line: Lessons in Leadership and Life from a Championship Season (co-authored by Wayne Coffey) (via Saturday Down South):

“We don’t control the events in life, and we don’t directly control the outcomes. But we always have control over how we choose to respond. How we respond means everything.”

There are plenty more of these moral platitudes from Meyer.  Many thought they were disingenuous then, and his alleged actions in the recent abuse scandal serve as their confirmation.

https://twitter.com/jdubs88/status/1032600140425637894

The recent abuse scandal will referenced by anyone who wishes to diminish any future professional accomplishments Urban achieves. In that sense, this sentiment about his character will be tough for Urban to shake.  But then again, does Urban really even care about his detractors or what they think? Doubt it.

WILL GRIER IS A DEFINED HEISMAN CANDIDATE

This season doesn’t open with many “defined” Heisman candidates.  To me, a “defined” Heisman candidate is one who the media and college football world considers a plausible winner, and whose candidacy the player’s school has embraced.  For instance, some people are touting Alabama CFP Championship Game hero quarterback Tua Tagovailoa as a Heisman candidate. However, he has yet to be named to a starter for the Tide’s opener (he is expected to soon) and Alabama has not even broached the idea of a Heisman campaign. He is not a defined candidate. On the other hand, after four long years, West Virginia redshirt senior quarterback Will Grier appears to be one, and could be the prominent of them all (albeit maybe not the overall favorite). The Florida transfer has all the makings of a Heisman contender, an accurate veteran gunslinger in a pass-first offense. West Virginia has fully embraced his candidacy and is all-in on his Heisman campaign. He’ll need to consistently put up big numbers to stay in contention.  It all starts for Grier with the Mountaineers’ opener against Tennessee Saturday in Charlotte.  Will we be discussing the fall of Will Grier’s Heisman candidacy in next week’s Narrative Watch? Probably not, but that game should be fun.

WASHINGTON IS THE CLASS OF THE PAC 12 AND THE CONFERENCE’S BEST HOPE TO MAKE THE PLAYOFF

If there was any doubt that Chris Petersen was incapable of running a big-time program after his spectacular run at Boise State (t here wasn’t much doubt), the job he’s done at Washington laid it to rest.  After turning Boise State into the premier non-Power 5 program in the country, Petersen took Washington, a program that hadn’t really been all that relevant since their Rose Bowl appearance in 2001, to the 2016 College Football Playoffs in his third season in Seattle. The Huskies are now the class of the Pac 12, and look to stay that way for a while. Until 2015, the conference was dominated by Oregon, USC, and Stanford. The Trojans have been solid as of late and have shown flashes of its dominant past, but have not been able to unseat UW.  The Ducks are still trying to pick up the pieces from the disastrous end of the Mark Helfrich era, and had a good jolt last year with a decent 8-5 season, but are now faced with their third coach in three seasons. Stanford has remained consistent under David Shaw, winning tons of games, but has been unable to put itself in playoff contention.  The Huskies are the clear favorite to win the conference this season, and according to many, the only hope for the Pac 12 to make the Playoff:

The Huskies will be put to the test right away against Auburn in Atlanta. A loss could derail the Huskies playoff campaign as quick as it began. For someone like Chris Peterson, who bemoans the lack of exposure his team receives, an opener against a top SEC opponent is likely very big deal.

TEXAS IS STILL NOT BACK

The Longhorns have made strides in their first season under Tom Herman, winning seven games, but are not yet ready to be declared “Back.”

Texas, like Miami from 2007-2015, and Florida State from 2005-2012, has joined a prestigious list of programs who folks are desperate to declare “back.” One must ask, however, exactly what is “back” for Texas? Back to Oklahoma’s level? Back to being conference contenders? Championship contenders?  We’ve heard some ill-fated declarations of Texas’ backness before (I’m looking at you Joe Tessitore), but as of this moment, the Longhorns still have work to do to officially change the narrative.

MATT CAMPBELL AND JEFF BROHM SHOULD BE CONSIDERED FOR ALL BIG-NAME HEAD COACHING VACANCIES

Although almost every single coaching hire is initially deemed a “home run hire,” where the coach “wins the press conference,” the shine often fades.  At the end of every season, numerous coaches are fired and there are coaching candidates that end up mention in relation to most major coaching searches until they are hired by a major school.  Kirby Smart was once one of them. So were James Franklin and Scott Frost. Also, Tom Herman. The current list is headed by Purdue’s Jeff Brohm and Iowa State’s Matt Campbell. Brohm led Purdue to an amazing turn around in his first season, and Campbell, in just his second season in Ames, led a once-flailing ISU program from obscurity to eight wins in 2017, including a historic upset in Oklahoma and a bowl win. It was a bit of a surprise that Campbell even stuck around this year. Some had him pegged as good as gone:

In fact, many had him pegged as the front-runner for the Ohio State job if Urban Meyer didn’t survive the Zach Smith scandal. Brohm’s name was also featured in many coaching searches.  In November, he was the subject of an inaccurate report that he was the next coach at Tennessee. Unfortunately for both Purdue and Iowa State, this type of speculation likely won’t go away.

NICK SABAN IS THE CONSENSUS BEST COACH IN COLLEGE FOOTBALL

Not so long ago, after leading Ohio State past Alabama in the 2014 College Football Playoff semifinal en route to a National Championship, Urban Meyer was inching close to, and to some surpassed, Nick Saban as the best coach in college football.

That sentiment quickly changed. After their 2014 title, the Buckeyes have not been back to the Championship Game and Saban has led the Crimson Tide to three straight, winning two. With the exception of anonymous coaches who decry his “cheating,”  and Skip Bayless (who thinks Jim Harbaugh is the best), it would be hard to find too many people who believe that he’s the top coach in the game right now. Given the recent abuse scandal, coupled with three straight disappointing seasons for Ohio State (using Urban standards), Urban has lost a bit of standing. For Saban, the college football world has moved beyond the question of whether he is currently the best coach, but rather whether he is the best coach ever.

How long will Saban hold this title?  Recency bias is a big factor in informal ratings.  All it takes is one big season or win to close the gap.  Imagine if Clemson won the National Title this year over Alabama.  I bet people would start taking a good hard look at Dabo Swinney.

Fred Segal is an attorney from West Palm Beach, FL. He operates the popular Freezing Cold Takes twitter account (@OldTakesExposed) which highlights, among other things, hilarious unprophetic and inaccurate takes and predictions. 

You can follow Freezing Cold Takes on Facebook here, and Instagram here (username: freezingcoldtakes).

 

Written by Fred Segal