SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — A final four of sun-drenched questions in the wake of Monday night’s CFP National Championship Game:
1. Is the SEC is back on top?
Sort of. After a two-year championship “drought,” Alabama’s pulsating 45-40 victory over Clemson gives the Southeastern Conference its eighth national championship in the past 10 years (BCS and CFP).
Four of those titles belong to Alabama in the past seven years, the most dynastic run in college football since Notre Dame won four wire service titles in seven years from 1943-49.
The rest of the nation is again playing catch up with the Crimson Tide, but include the SEC’s other 13 members in that number as well. The last SEC team not named Alabama to win a national title was Auburn in 2010, which is approaching something resembling fading glory. So picture the SEC lounging poolside under a palm tree at one of Scottsdale’s swanky resorts while Alabama is climbing a nearby mountain.
How can the rest of the SEC climb past Bama? Recruit better, improve facilities, hire better coaches, you know the drill. It also would help if Nick Saban retired, but even at 64 with his fifth national title in his grip (four at Bama and the 2003 title at LSU), he gives no hint he’s about to slow down. Saban said he has “no timetable for ever not being part of a team.
“I’ve been part of a team since I was 9 years old,” he said. “It scares to ever think of a day when I wouldn’t be.
“The bus doesn’t stop You’ve got to keep rolling.”
He smiled. Barely. The rest of the SEC isn’t even managing a wry grin.
2. Will the CFP cave in to popular opinion?
Despite the thrilling action of Monday’s game, overnight ratings were down 15 percent for Alabama-Clemson compared to last year’s inaugural CFP championship game between Ohio State and Oregon.
Still, that was much better than the fall-off-a-cliff numbers of the semifinals in the Cotton and Orange bowls, down 36 percent from last year’s Sugar and Rose bowls.
The biggest blame for the low ratings is being pinned on the semifinals being played on New Year’s Eve. That’s the same schedule for next season, though with Dec. 31 being a Saturday, college football’s traditional date, that could be a plus.
The Rose isn’t going to budge from its New Year’s afternoon kickoff, and SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey said his conference and the Big 12 want to keep the Sugar Bowl right were it is on New Year’s night with a strong lead in from the Rose.
So what could change? ESPN wanted this season’s semifinals on Jan. 2 (again a Saturday), which is something that should be strongly considered when the semis aren’t in the Sugar and Rose, as they will be again after the 2017 season. Whether the major conferences behind the CFP can be pressured into such a move doesn’t seem likely now, but we used to say that about a playoff, too.
3. Does Clemson have staying power?
The Tigers definitely lived up to coach Dabo Swinney’s directive to B.Y.O.G. (Bring Your Own Guts) to the national title fight. Clemson fought back and fought back against Bama until finally its last gasp onside kickoff bounced out of bounds.
With the scintillating Deshaun Watson returning at quarterback, Clemson could easily be the preseason No. 1 if the Tigers aren’t hit too hard by early NFL draft defections.
4. Finally, can LSU get here next year?
By here, I mean the Fiesta Bowl, site of one of one the CFP semifinals (the Peach Bowl is the other). Got to make that the goal before giving any thought to next year’s national championship game in Tampa, Florida.
After Les Miles won this season’s version of “Survivor,” his Tigers built up a little season-ending good will with their Texas two step (beating Texas A&M and Texas Tech). That and LSU’s wealth of key returning players led by Leonard Fournette — who will be a top-three preseason Heisman front runner with Watson and Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey, assuming Derrick Henry doesn’t return to Alabama — has earned LSU some positive vibes.
LSU is a fixture in several way-to-early top 10s, with ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit putting the Tigers way up at No. 3. USA Today’s Paul Myerberg had LSU No. 10 but with a caveat, asking, “Does LSU have a quarterback? If so, the Tigers may be the best team in college football.”
As great as Fournette is, clearly no team can be great on this level without superior quarterback play. Clemson’s Watson is a tremendous talent. And while Jake Coker won’t make any Alabama fans forget Joe Namath, he still threw for 335 yards and two touchdowns Monday in the Tide’s well-conceived passing attack.
LSU simply has to improve at quarterback whoever is in that role, whether it’s Brandon Harris, Danny Etling, an as yet uncommitted quarterback behind Door No. 3, whoever. The Tigers can be very good in 2016, but they won’t be great enough to make the CFP until their quarterback productivity takes a big step up.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter, @RabalaisAdv.