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Four big takeaways from the 2017 season

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The 2017 college football season is over, what did we learn?

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship Game-Alabama vs Georgia Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The 2017 season was pretty interesting overall, even though it had some of the more ho-hum narratives in recent history. Most people will remember this as the year when the committee left out the Big 10 champion again, the SEC dominated the playoffs, and the playoffs gave us two overtimes but Alabama won again, even with a freshman QB. Everyone loved the overtimes and hated most everything else (save for SEC fans and even they weren’t all thrilled to watch Saban hoist the trophy again), but I noticed a few fascinating subplots that captured my attention.

Alabama is the default champion in a year without a playoff team led by an elite QB

Now technically those weren’t the conditions of the inaugural, 2014 playoffs in which Ohio State beat Alabama at their own game with Ezekiel Elliott running for 200 yards. However, Alabama has been in the playoffs every year and the only teams to knock them out of it were that Buckeye team and the 2016 DeShaun Watson Clemson Tigers who (like OU in 2017) were historically great on offense and also great on defense.

To overcome Alabama’s consistent cocktail of dominant line play and extreme turnover aversion, you need a truly potent formula of your own. What’s more, 2017 revealed for the umpteenth time that running the ball well on the Tide is typically so spectacularly unlikely as to be beyond consideration as a focal point of the gameplan. Alabama went into the title game against Georgia with a third string inside linebacker, second string strong safety, second string outside linebacker, and their star DB wearing protective padding over his kidneys...yet they still shut down Georgia’s run game on standard downs.

The only way that Georgia was able to get after Alabama was in the passing game, and it wasn’t even that terribly difficult to do there. Their best play of the game came on a dropback pass against the Alabama dime package:

This was a fun call that Georgia had used to great effect before. It’s basically the Y-stick passing combination, except that instead of running the go route with the outside receiver while the slot runs a flat route, the slot runs the go route isolated on the nickel while the outside receiver runs a hitch-in that serves to replace the flat route:

Alabama had Minkah Fitzpatrick as the dime, matching the stick route by the flexed out tight end. Then they had Tony Brown in on the slot and the nickel was unable to keep up with Mecole Hardman when he had a free release to run a go with no help outside from the corner. It’s a call that’s designed to attack the specific personnel of Alabama, who even in dime never seems to be matchup-proof against good passing.

Presumably against a two-high defense Fromm would have looked to hit the stick route but it’s possible they knew Alabama would be in single-high and they wanted to use this call to take a deep shot. Expect to see this combination more often next year from every team, it’s a great way to get a speedy receiver open down the field.

You can’t win without defense but...

Oklahoma is likely your national champions if they had an even decent defense this season. They took Georgia to overtime and were within a blocked FG or a decent squib kick of winning that contest. Then Georgia proved to be superior to Alabama until the Tide inserted their bluechip freshman QB and changed the dynamics of the game with his downfield passing.

Could Alabama have defeated Oklahoma? Probably but an Oklahoma team with say, a top 40 defense rather than S&P+’s 101st ranked unit are very likely your national champions. Ironically, defensive mastermind Bob Stoops left his OC and replacement Lincoln Riley with a brilliant offense in Oklahoma that was anchored by a two-time Heisman finalist QB, five returning starters on the OL, and a TE/FB tandem that posed unique challenges to opposing teams.

On defense, the Sooners had some major question marks but also a solid number of NFL-caliber athletes at every level of the unit. The big problem on defense? Bob Stoops’ nepotism, which left it all under the care of his younger brother Mike Stoops who’s arrival in Oklahoma had been marked by inconsistent units and a general decline from what the team had enjoyed under Brent Venables. Stoops’ 2017 defenses were bafflingly terrible and regularly thwarted by pretty basic tactics. What if the Sooners had just been run by an average DC that had focused on simple, sound gameplans and schemes?

This dynamic of a one-dimensional team appearing in the playoffs has happened before, btw. The 2014 Florida State Seminoles were legendary on offense and very much not so on defense. It finally caught up to them against Oregon when the offense failed to carry their bad defense and turned the ball over five times. Meanwhile, that Oregon defense was also about “decent” and that wasn’t quite good enough. The Ducks were prone to yielding yardage and even points in 2014 but they had a bizarre knack for forcing lots of turnovers. Against Ohio State they gave up lots of yards, forced a few more turnovers, but still came up short.

It’s not clear what the balance needs to be but it seems that something less than “top 10 on both sides of the ball” will do the trick, we just haven’t seen what the balance has to look like yet. The 2017 Oklahoma offense paired with a top 40 defense or a top 10 special teams squad probably strikes the right chord but we’ll never know for sure.

If you can already run the ball, you want a passing QB

The benefits of a running QB factor in when you A) need help generating a standard downs run game and B) when you need a way to reliably push the pile on predictable run downs like first and goal or third and two. If you can run the ball on first down without involving the QB and you can go big with extra blockers and do so in short-yardage, you may not need a running QB at all.

We’ve seen two national champions now who substituted unproven back-ups with the ability to stretch a defense vertically in for starters who’s best attribute was their legs. The 2014 Buckeyes were forced to bring in Cardale Jones for J.T. Barrett IV when their starter went down but then found that they didn’t need to run the option in order to spring Ezekiel Elliott in the run game. What’s more, their speedy WR corps became more dangerous with a QB at the helm that could hit downfield routes outside the hash marks. Since Jones left, while Ohio State has won regularly with J.T. Barrett IV they’ve never been able to match the heights of the 2014 season.

A similar dynamic played out for Alabama this season. Tua Tagovailoa’s ability to hit deep go routes, posts, and “glance” routes on RPOs opened up the deadly Alabama WR corps and the offense in general against Georgia. Of course Tagovailoa also adds a running dimension to the Alabama offense and his compact frame and lower body strength make him a good fit for third and two, but he throws down the field much better than other running QBs with a knack for picking up tough yardage. He’s basically the total package...

Speed kills AND boosts the importance of the big men

One of the big stories this season was the emergence of multiple high-quality defenses in the Big 12 in a year when nearly every team was returning their starting QB. Things looked bleak for defenses around the league but then TCU, Iowa State, and Texas all managed strong seasons. This was due in part to all three teams finding high quality nose tackles (more on this in a future post) but also on all three teams playing pseudo-dime defenses that allowed them to eliminate the easy matchup and spacing advantages that Big 12 offenses are designed to feast on.

Texas and Oklahoma really revealed the considerable divide with their respective seasons on defense. Oklahoma had multiple big OLBs and DTs that they wanted to feature this season, so they tried to play them all at the same time with a 3-4 hybrid defense that utilized two traditional OLBs on the field at the same time in Obo Okoronkwo and Caleb Kelly. The result was that Okoronkwo was often forced to drop into coverage rather than being able to utilize his prodigious pass-rushing talent while Caleb Kelly was constantly getting exposed in space.

Meanwhile Texas dominated on defense making extensive use of a 3-2-6 dime package that dared teams to try and win games with methodical drives running the ball on their DL and LBs. By flooding the field with DBs, they actually elevated the value of their star nose tackle Poona Ford and middle linebacker Malik Jefferson because teams couldn’t avoid them by just taking quick shots on the perimeter from the spread. Instead, Texas dared teams to beat them by either pounding the ball through the A-gaps or else facing the Longhorn’s superior speed on the edge and in space.

Even Alabama downsized on defense this season and regularly played personnel packages with three true DL, a pass-rushing OLB, hybrid LB Rashaan Evans, one true ILB (Mack Wilson in the playoffs), and then five DBs and sometimes six. You’d think that the answer to that would be to run the ball from spread sets but now you’re making Da’Ron Payne and Raekwon Davis the focal points of the action again...good luck with that.

Not only does speed kill, but teams that have advantages on the lines are actually better off going small in order to move the focal point back back to the trenches where they can feast.

What were your big takeaways from 2017?