We are five days away from the first game of the season and 10 days away from the best opening weekend in memory, and everywhere you look, youth is favored over experience. That’s not how it’s supposed to work in the Official Sport of Autumn, when seniors are supposed to beat sophomores as surely as Florida beats Kentucky (29 straight and counting).
According to Phil Steele’s math, Alabama has the least experience in the SEC. The Crimson Tide are ranked No. 1. Clemson has the least experience in the ACC. The Tigers are ranked No. 2. Ohio State has the least experience in the FBS — No. 128 in your program — and is ranked No. 6. Stanford and Notre Dame also are in the bottom 10 in experience and the top 10 in the polls.
It could be that the polls are wrong. Naaah, never happen.
It could be, as the noted sports analyst Lin-Manuel Miranda put it, the key to success is to be young, scrappy and hungry. Tide coach Nick Saban is on guard against complacency as his team attempts to win its fifth national championship in eight seasons.
(A word here to sympathize with President Obama. Eight national champions during his two terms, and Obama got to welcome only four head coaches to the East Room: Saban, Urban Meyer, Gene Chizik and Jimbo Fisher. Saban has gone so often that the Secret Service should give him his own code name. What should it be? Headset?)
In fact, now that Frank Beamer has left Virginia Tech, this will be the first season since 1983 — the year after Bear Bryant left Alabama — that there isn’t a single coach in the FBS who has been at the same job for the last 20 seasons. (Yes, the ageless Hall of Famer Bill Snyder is starting his 25th season at Kansas State, but he took a three-year break from 2006 to 2008).
Kirk Ferentz of Iowa and Bob Stoops of Oklahoma each begin their 18th seasons at their schools, the most in the FBS. Butch Jones of Tennessee and Mark Stoops of Kentucky, in their fourth seasons, are the longest-tenured coaches in the SEC East. Then there’s the entire ACC, which doesn’t have a coach with even 10 years at his current school.
The College Football Playoff Selection Committee has chucked gray hair at the top, too. The new chair, Texas Tech athletic director Kirby Hocutt, is young enough (44) that he played linebacker for Snyder at Kansas State. And the championship game will be played in a new site, Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida.
Back on the field, five of the top seven finishers in the Heisman Trophy voting return for the first time in five years. All of them — Stanford do-everything Christian McCaffrey, quarterbacks Deshaun Watson of Clemson and Baker Mayfield of Oklahoma, and tailbacks Leonard Fournette of LSU and Dalvin Cook of Florida State — are in their third year of eligibility.
And that is the key to this season.
It just could be that that the best teams, like the best players, now meld youth and experience. McCaffrey touched the ball 434 times last season, exactly 31 times per game. Fournette averaged 25 carries per game. Watson threw or ran on more than two of every three snaps for Clemson, and accounted for 5,209 yards of total offense while doing it. Mayfield was responsible for more than 5,000 yards as well.
That’s where we find the best of college football on the eve of the new season. A decade ago, USC coach Pete Carroll made it fashionable not to redshirt players. Freshmen get to their first game more ready than a generation ago because they get to campus in January or June, not August.
It barely qualifies as news that Texas and Georgia, two of the elite programs in the game, appear as if they will start true freshman quarterbacks Shane Buechele and Jacob Eason, respectively. Both enrolled in January and set about learning what to do, as opposed to classmate Malik Henry of Florida State, who learned what not to do. Henry, who had risen to second on the depth chart after senior Sean Maguire broke his foot, has been suspended indefinitely for a violation of team rules.
Michigan defensive lineman Rashan Gary, the top recruit in the nation last February, is expected to contribute to the Wolverines’ quest for their first Big Ten championship in 12 years.
Washington begins the season at No. 14 with six sophomores projected to start on offense, including quarterback Jake Browning, who threw for nearly 3,000 yards last season, and tailback Myles Gaskin, who rushed for 1,302 yards despite starting only six games. The Huskies haven’t won the Pac-12 in 16 years.
And then there’s team trying to do it the old-school way. Tennessee, led by three-year starting quarterback Joshua Dobbs, is projected to start 16 juniors and seniors in its attempt to win its first SEC championship in 18 years. The Vols also won the national title that year. Not that it has been a long time, but the quarterback on that 1998 team, Tee Martin, is the USC offensive coordinator.
The Vols, who begin the season at No. 9, play only three games outside state lines. They are set up to succeed. If they do, it will be an indication that, even as the game skews younger, the old rules still apply.