Sports analysis is all about overused catchphrases and key words.
Team and player scouting are full of similes, metaphors and parodies.
Among those oft-utilized renderings is the word “parity.” But I will give that particular combination of letters a free pass because we often see a truly wide-open landscape in a variety of popular American sports. And if you look back at the history of elite college and professional athletics results in sports like football, you’ll see enough evidence to agree. Yes, there are eras where a team dominates for a number of years, but that period always comes to a close and yields another favorite or two.
When I look at the 2016 college football landscape with a preseason perspective—because that’s the only way I can view it ahead of time without knowing how things shake out as we move along—I see parity slotted at every ranked and unranked position in the national polls. A team that is 10th or 15th now could just as easily be in the top three or five as the season winds down. And we’ll quickly find out who moves up and who moves down as the first several weeks on the schedule offer some very important matchups. By October, we will certainly knock a few teams from the list below. (But more on that in a moment.)
There are legendary names among the schools expected to contend for the national championship, and there’s a legendary coach or two and a few Heisman favorites among them, but there’s no one team that looks complete. I don’t see any one team that has all the pieces before the season’s first kickoff that align to make me coronate a champion before we play a single snap. Here’s a look at what I’m talking about, among some of the favorites. (And be sure to check out the awesome work done by SB*Nation to preview each team’s season with far more expertise than I will ever dream about.)
Alabama—The defending national champion has Coach Nick Saban, who is just one title away from tying Bear Bryant for most all time in NCAA Division I football. But the Tide will enter the season with questions about who will play quarterback and how they will perform, and maybe more importantly they will be reloading their defense under the leadership of a new coordinator. Alabama always has the bodies with the talent and athleticism. There’s no question about that this year either, as their recruiting is always rich. But how long does it take all of those talented players to fit together and how do they gel?
Clemson—Last year’s runner up seems to be as good a candidate as any to claim this year’s title. Coach Dabo Swinney returns Heisman hopeful QB DeShaun Watson and playmakers on offense. But simply put: the defense of a year ago must fill many holes to be a legitimate contender. And the Tigers face both a national power in its own right in Florida State in their own division, among others in an ACC that has been on the rise the past few years.
Oklahoma—Strong QB Baker Mayfield leads a deep and talented offensive backfield heading into this season, but like Clemson there are questions on defense, chiefly who will rush the opposing team’s quarterback from the defensive line. Teams that score a lot of points are only most valuable when their defense makes a lot of stops, too.
Florida State—Heisman candidate RB Dalvin Cook leads a talented returning offensive group, and the defense looks solid. But like Alabama there are questions about QB play. There are certainly leading candidates, but who emerges and how they play will be crucial to how far the Seminoles actually go this year.
LSU—The Tigers return as many important starters from last season as any team competing for a national title this year. And the most notable of those is familiar Heisman hopeful RB Leonard Fournette. The question for LSU may be just as much about other teams as their own group: Who else rises and falls in the SEC, and how far? It’s tough matching up against Alabama, Auburn and the other contenders in that West division year in and year out.
Ohio State—Much-chronicled QB JT Barrett returns, but other than that I see a Buckeyes team that has as many question marks as any top contender heading into the season. This team lost so much talent to the NFL (a testament to its success, absolutely) that it may be difficult to turn a quick profit with the young crop coming onto the scene.
Stanford—RB Christian McCaffrey is back as the star name on offense and the defense should be more than adequate to compete in the Pac 12, but what kind of quarterback play do the Cardinal get?
Michigan—There’s a new defensive coordinator and a new quarterback in Ann Arbor this season, but all we keep hearing about is Jim Harbaugh. Head coaching, no doubt, is a key element, but the Wolverines don’t completely ebb and flow with Harbaugh, do they?
Notre Dame—The Irish have all the talent at the skill positions and return some key leaders on defense, but like Stanford, who fits in best at quarterback and how do they play. Notre Dame feels like a team that could surprise and rise extremely high or fall out of the national talk mix altogether with a very vanilla season.
Tennessee—We keep hearing about Tennessee as a SEC East contender, but I think we need to see results on the field before we can schedule a rise and a spot in the conference title game in December. QB Josh Dobbs is very talented, and there are pieces around him on both sides of the ball, but the SEC is the SEC. No one gets anything until the scoreboard says so.
With all that in mind, we’ll quickly receive answers to many of my questions.
In Week One alone:
* Alabama battles Pac 12 mainstay USC.
* Clemson visits Auburn.
* Oklahoma takes on potential BCS-crasher Houston.
* LSU takes on perennial Big 10 contender Wisconsin.
* Notre Dame visits Texas.
* Florida State battles top-15 Ole Miss.
Two weeks later in the third week of the season, we’ll get:
* Alabama-Ole Miss
* Ohio State-Oklahoma
* Florida State-Louisville
I’m a terrible prognosticator, and this is not the year for me to turn around my fortunes in picking winners for games. Any or none of those teams above could walk away with the trophy in January.
The only prediction I’m 100 percent comfortable in making is this:
We’re in for one exciting season of NCAA college football, no matter who wins.
Get ready to hold on and watch the polls move every week.
Yep, it’s all about parity once again.