By MIKE HERNDON
Who are the favorites to win college football’s national championship this season?
The names are familiar: Alabama, Ohio State, Florida State, Oklahoma, Clemson. They’re the names we see at the top of the preseason polls pretty much every year. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
When’s the last time we had a team come from nowhere to win a national title? Auburn entered the 2010 season ranked 22nd, but caught lightning in a bottle in Cam Newton. Washington may not have been what you’d call a blueblood in 1991, when the Huskies split the title with Miami, but they were ranked No. 4 entering the season.
You might have to go all the way back to 1990 to find a true out-of-the-blue surprise champion – Georgia Tech, which could hardly be called a football factory but shared the title with Colorado after entering the season unranked.
So why does it always seem to be the same teams at the top? What magic elixir do they have that no one else can seem to emulate? It’s not for a lack of trying or of will – just look at how many programs have hired Nick Saban proteges in hopes of becoming the next Alabama.
We can run through all the clichéd platitudes – success breeds success, creating a culture of winning, hard work and a focus on “the process” – and all of them have at least a little truth to them. But there’s something else, something more tangible.
Championship schools pay for championship programs.
Eight of the nine schools that have won a national championship in the last 12 years are in the top 20 nationally in athletic department spending, according to USA Today’s review of athletic department finances for 2015-16, the most recent year available. The outlier, 2016 national champ Clemson, was 26th – a ranking that’s sure to rise as the Tigers this year settled into their palatial new $55 million football facility, complete with a putt-putt course, a barber shop, a golf simulator, a bowling alley and something called a “nap room.”
Clemson was, however, among 27 schools that spent more than $100 million on athletics in 2015-16.
Eight of the top 15 were from the SEC, perhaps proving the conference’s cheeky new slogan: “It Just Means More.”
What does all that money buy? Elite coaching, for one thing. Three of the last four coaches to win national titles – Saban, Ohio State’s Urban Meyer and Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher – are among the five highest-paid coaches in the country, each making over $5 million a year. Clemson’s Dabo Swinney is 12th at $4.4 million a year.
It buys facilities like Clemson’s Taj Mahal and similar palaces at Alabama and Ohio State, each of which feature waterfalls in their hydrotherapy rooms. And for every recruit like former Auburn defensive end Corey Lemonier – “they’re just buildings,” he once said when asked whether he was impressed with a school’s facilities during recruiting – there are 10 for whom the waterfalls and barber shops will make an impression. We all want to be someplace nice, preferably with a bowling alley.
And since we’re talking about money, we should acknowledge that some is likely going to find its way into the hands of the players. It won’t be part of the millions catalogued by USA Today – it won’t likely ever pass through the hands of anyone employed with the school – but we’d have to be naïve to deny the preponderance of anecdotal evidence that the $100 handshake is alive and well on college campuses across the country.
Since it’s somewhat farcical that a multi-million dollar industry like college football doesn’t share its wealth with its workforce beyond the cost of a scholarship, I’m not even sure why we’re bothered anymore when we hear of players receiving “impermissible benefits.” Truth be told, we usually aren’t, if we’re honest with ourselves — unless it happens at our school’s big rival, that bunch of cheaters.
But that’s a column for another time.
Which of these nine-figure programs will play for the title this year? I’ll say Alabama, Ohio State, Florida State and one interloper, Oklahoma State, which is an anemic 35th in athletic spending. I will then expect Ohio State, second in the nation in spending, and Alabama, which is fourth, to throw money at each other for four quarters to claim ownership of a trophy worth about 1/60th of what each school pays its coach every year to win it.
And you and I, as usual, will help fund all of it with our ticket and merchandise purchases and our TV viewership. Why? Because we love it. Let’s kick this thing off already.
Categories: College football