Nick Saban isn’t exactly right, but he has a point about the spring being a JV season
Alabama coach Nick Saban made headlines Tuesday when he opined on “Get Up” that the spring season might be like a JV season with a ton of players opting out to train for the NFL Draft.
Saban is probably right that a team like Ohio State would have some players opt out, but I think that most are overestimating how many from other teams would also opt out. The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman surveyed 20 FBS head coaches over the summer about a spring season, and 10 estimated they would have 2 or fewer players opt out. I don’t think missing a few players off each team qualifies as a JV season.
While Saban is right that early-round picks likely won’t play, that’s not the reason spring — which is a terrible option for a multitude of reasons — will be a JV season. Look at a team like Ohio State, which will lose some players, no doubt. But the Buckeyes will replace them in the starting lineup with other 5-star and 4-star recruits, and they’ll just become household names a year earlier than expected.
Saban does have a point, though — a spring season will feel like a JV season, even without the opt outs. The players have nothing to do with it.
One of my unfortunate discoveries during the pandemic is that sports just aren’t the same without fans. When the Cubs got off to a great start this summer, I wasn’t nearly as excited as I thought I would be. I’ve been going to games at Wrigley Field since I was a little kid, and even when I no longer lived in Illinois, I’d listen to most of the games on the radio. This season is just … different. It doesn’t feel like a real season. I have a friend who is a diehard Milwaukee Bucks fan and has been waiting his whole life for a season like this — and he is absolutely furious that this season ended up in a bubble. Even if the Bucks win it all, he doesn’t believe history will look back on it as a real championship.
That’s what college football has to look forward to in the spring season, regardless of who is playing. It won’t feel like college football. It will be impossible to build the excitement and momentum that programs like LSU, Clemson and Ohio State felt in 2019.
Heck, the fall might not even feel like a real season, either. No sport relies more on the pageantry and presentation than college football. It’s all of the little game-day traditions that take a great sport and make it special. It took me a while to understand it because I grew up in the Chicago suburbs without a college team to root for (sorry Northwestern), but there really is nothing like heading out to a tailgate on a Saturday in the fall. For my money, college football fans are as passionate as any in the country.
I’ve tried to imagine what college football will look like without all that, and I can’t envision it. It’s one thing for professional sports to do it, as MLB and NBA fans aren’t nearly as raucous as college football. Will it feel like a real season without thousands of people crammed around a College GameDay set?
What I’ve realized is that having NBA games on all day on a weekday is great for a basketball junkie, but it’s not great for an actual fan of those teams. There’s no buildup. There’s no hype. That’s part of the allure of college football — the feeling on a campus you get as the game is approaching, the buzz around town during a game week, the water cooler talk at your office about the starting quarterback. That will all be lost. Football junkies will love a spring season because it means we’ll have football all year. But for fans of a specific team, it will feel like a JV season regardless of who is playing.
Plus, with all indications that the SEC, ACC and Big 12 are moving forward in the fall, any season without those 3 will have a JV feel, even if Ohio State has a full complement of players. I wrote last week about the legitimacy of a spring national championship, and spoiler alert, there isn’t one without the SEC and Clemson. Anyways, if those conferences play in the fall, a team like Ohio State is going to have virtually nothing to play for in the spring. The Buckeyes play for national titles, not conference titles, and I don’t think players or fans are going to feign excitement at going unbeaten without the chance at Clemson or Alabama. That’s what makes this as JV season.
I’m not trying to minimizing having potential early-round picks opt out. It would be an absolute shame to not have that star power in college football. But there will be talent on the field, regardless. It may feel a little more like college basketball, where there aren’t as many established stars because they mostly bolt to the NBA after one season, and we have to discover the new stars as the season goes along.
For example, it would stink if Justin Fields opted out. But that would likely mean getting to see stud freshman CJ Stroud at QB for Ohio State. Without Chris Olave, that means Garrett Wilson, Julian Fleming and Jaxon Smith-Njigba take center stage — all of which will probably be NFL receivers someday. If Penn State running back Journey Brown opted out, I’d be jacked to see Noah Cain and Devyn Ford with a more complete workload.
See what I mean? It would still be incredibly compelling, and to call these guys “JV” doesn’t really fit for me. They are the stars of tomorrow getting an extended opportunity one year early. With all due respect to the players, they are replaceable. We get them for a few years, and then they are off to the NFL, and then we fall in love with new players. How is this any different?
It’s the elements outside of the actual game that make college football so much fun that would be missing, and that’s where the feeling of a JV season would come from — more so than the players themselves.