Saturday Football: Gap between Alabama and Ohio State, Tennessee's staff and early Heisman favorites
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Good morning and happy Monday! After yesterday’s Super Bowl, the NFL season has drawn to a close. There will be some lower-level football games taking place in the college ranks over the next couple of months, but for now, we have to wait until spring football kicks off for more FBS action.
That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to discuss, though! In today’s newsletter, we’ll break down the gap between Alabama and Ohio State. Then, we’ll dive into Tennessee’s search for a defensive coordinator. Finally, we’ll look at some early 2021 Heisman favorites. Let’s get started, shall we?
ALABAMA VS. OHIO STATE
Another strong recruiting class has some saying Ohio State is narrowing the gap on Alabama. Are the Buckeyes close?
The final score from Miami on January 11 in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game indicated that Alabama had a team that was head-and-shoulders above Ohio State. The 52-24 victory for the Crimson Tide proved that, as good as the Buckeyes were, they still had some work to do to catch up to the most dominant program in the sport.
A handful of analysts believe that Ohio State is closing the gap, though. The 28-point loss last month isn’t what everyone is talking about, but rather the work Ryan Day and his staff are putting in on the recruiting trail. While Alabama still signed the No. 1 class this year according to 247Sports — the eighth time in 10 years it has done so — the Buckeyes are getting a lot of praise for their No. 2-rated class. Here’s what they’re saying about the gap between Ohio State and Alabama:
- Analysts love Ohio State’s 2021 class and the quality depth. Following the conclusion of National Signing Day, RJ Young was quick to discuss how impressed he’s been with Ohio State’s recruiting. He says bringing in strong recruiting classes, as well as keeping players away from the transfer portal, is what’s allowing Ryan Day to build the Buckeyes like Nick Saban “built Alabama.” Former Ohio State star J.K. Dobbins agreed with that take, telling The Spun that “the gap is pretty close” between the two programs.
- Even though it ranks No. 2, the Buckeyes’ incoming class is ridiculous. Alabama’s class was the highest-ranked in the history of recruiting rankings. So, compounding that on top of the 28-point win in the title game might indicate the gap is actually widening. But Eleven Warriors points out that the 2021 class marks just the second time the Buckeyes have landed 5 5-star recruits in a single cycle. The last time was 2017, when Chase Young, Jeff Okudah, Baron Browning, Shaun Wade and Wyatt Davis all committed in the same year. That was a ridiculously talented group. Plus, there are already high expectations for some members of Ohio State’s incoming class. Zack Poff of MaxPreps says 5-star running back TreVeyon Henderson will leave Columbus as one of the program’s top 3 all-time backs.
- Ohio State’s NFL success is a great recruiting tool. Chase Young was named the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year for the 2020 season. That, alone. is a pretty strong advertisement for the Buckeyes. Even better, Ohio State has had a former player named the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year four times in the last five seasons, with Joey Bosa, Marshon Lattimore and Nick Bosa all claiming that honor, as well. That’s the kind of next-level preparedness high-level recruits are looking for in a program.
So, what’s the final verdict? There’s no question Day has done an excellent job on the recruiting front since Urban Meyer’s departure. That trend is continuing with the 2022 recruiting class, with the Buckeyes currently having 10 pledges and sitting No. 1 nationally in the 247Sports Composite Rankings. But as long as Saban is in charge in Tuscaloosa, “closing the gap” is going to be tough. USA Today’s Danny Sheridan thinks Saban will be around for at least another decade, which could be problematic for Ohio State and everyone else in the sport.
- Kentucky RB Chris Rodriguez is one of the fiercest runners in the country. Despite not starting a single game during his first three years in Lexington, he ended the 2020 season on a tear and will be a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses in 2021. Saturday Down South’s Connor O’Gara spoke with Rodriguez for this in-depth profile of the rising star.
- The Big Ten figures to play a more complete season in 2021. That means we’ll have more time to get to know some key players. So, who are the best bets to become breakout stars? Saturday Tradition’s Phil Ervin broke down 10 B1G offensive players to know and 10 B1G defensive players to know.
- The 2021 season will see a return of big-time nonconference games. That was missing in 2020 as most conferences did league-only schedules. Ahead of the 2021 campaign, Bleacher Report’s Joel Reuter put together a list of the most-anticipated games of the year.
- The NCAA transfer portal is loaded with guys looking for new schools. Meanwhile, coaches will be scouring the portal looking for guys who can help them win in 2021 and beyond. Saturday Down South’s Connor O’Gara named one player currently in the transfer portal who can help each SEC team in 2021.
TENNESSEE COACHING STAFF
Josh Heupel has to rebuild Tennessee’s coaching staff. Who is he trying to hire?
Tennessee coach Josh Heupel has yet to be on the job for a full month, but he’s hit the ground running. He’s already been through his first National Signing Day and has met all the players left on the Vols’ roster. Now, he’s working on putting together his coaching staff.
There are still some openings, particularly on the defensive side of the ball, so it’s worth taking a look at that. Who is Heupel trying to hire? Here’s the latest on Heupel’s search for some key assistants:
- The biggest opening is at defensive coordinator. Heupel is an offensive-minded head coach, so hiring a top defensive assistant to run things on that side of the ball will be crucial for his success. On Thursday, it was reported that the Vols wanted a coordinator in place by the end of the weekend. As of Sunday evening, though, no hire had been made. However, there were rumors connecting Ohio State LB coach Al Washington to the position. He has never called plays at the FBS level, though. Interestingly, it also seems as though Kevin Steele, who was hired by former coach Jeremy Pruitt right before getting fired, is still working for the Vols on the recruiting trails. He served as the interim coach before Heupel was hired, so we’ll see if there’s a spot for him on Heupel’s staff or not.
- The offensive staff will have a distinct UCF flavor. A pair of UCF assistants have already followed Heupel to Rocky Top. Could more soon follow? KnoxNews.com’s Blake Toppmeyer breaks down Heupel’s hires and where he could look to fill out his staff. Dan Harralson of VolsWire takes a look at some of Heupel’s defensive options. One guy who won’t be on the staff is Tennessee legend Tee Martin, who has reportedly taken an NFL job after not being retained by Heupel.
Finding top assistants is key to a head coach’s success. Look at what Joe Brady did for the LSU offense in 2019. Look what Steve Sarkisian did for the Alabama offense in 2020. Can Heupel find the right guys to help rebuild the Tennessee program? That will go a long way toward deciding if he’s on Rocky Top for years to come or whether the Vols are searching for a new coach in a few years.
JUST FOR FUN
Former Heisman Trophy winner Charles Woodson (Michigan, 1997) is one of the headliners of this year’s Pro Football Hall of Fame class, along with Peyton Manning, Calvin Johnson and five other NFL legends. Woodson becomes the 10th Heisman winner to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. For today’s quiz, can you name the other nine guys to accomplish the impressive feat?
Scroll down for the answers to today’s quiz.
EARLY HEISMAN FAVORITES
The 2021 season will feature plenty of star players. Who are the early favorites to win the Heisman?
Predicting who will win the Heisman Trophy prior to the season is often a fool’s errand, as the preseason favorites hardly ever win the award. In 2019, LSU QB Joe Burrow took a huge step forward from “serviceable starter” to “record-setting quarterback.” This previous season, Alabama WR DeVonta Smith broke up a string of four-straight quarterbacks to win the award.
But, just because it’s tough to project a Heisman winner before the season, plenty of people are still willing to give it a shot. So, let’s take a look at what’s being said about the potential 2021 Heisman winners:
- Despite Smith’s win in 2020, the favorites are mostly quarterbacks. Oklahoma’s Spencer Rattler and Clemson’s DJ Uiagalelei are projected as the favorites by FOX Sports analyst RJ Young and Sports Illustrated’s Marcus Krum. ESPN’s Trevor Matich cited Uiagalelei’s performance against Notre Dame while Trevor Lawrence was out as a reason why he’ll win the Heisman in 2021.
- How about some non-QB candidates to win the award? ESPN’s Chris Low put together his way-too-early preseason All-America team. He has North Carolina’s Sam Howell as his quarterback, but Iowa State RB Breece Hall and Ohio State WR Chris Olave are some interesting non-QB possibilities. Defensively, Oregon DL Kayvon Thibodeaux is perhaps the most likely candidate.
Again, it’s possible none of those guys are even finalists for the award, let alone the winner. But, it’s also safe to say those guys will all have big years. Spring football will provide us an opportunity to get our first look at stars across the country. Who will stand out?
The 10 players who have won the Heisman Trophy and have gone on to be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame are:
- Doak Walker, RB, SMU
- Paul Hornung, QB, Notre Dame
- Roger Staubach, QB, Navy
- OJ Simpson, RB, USC
- Tony Dorsett, RB, Pitt
- Earl Campbell, RB, Texas
- Marcus Allen, RB, USC
- Tim Brown, WR, Notre Dame
- Barry Sanders, RB, Oklahoma State
- Charles Woodson, CB, Michigan
Who will be the next player to join this exclusive club? It might be awhile before any other Heisman winners get the call from Canton.
QUOTE OF THE DAY
“What stood out to me the most is that if I caught the ball I would’ve never been in that situation. That’s what I think about the most is just if I would have caught that pass, my finger wouldn’t be like this.
“Honestly it wasn’t painful until we went to the tent and they started pulling on it. When it happened, it didn’t really hurt. I just looked at it and it just looked weird. I was like, ‘Okay, let me go in here and see what they gotta say about it.’”
– Heisman-winning WR DeVonta Smith explains how he could have avoided a broken finger in the College Football Playoff title game. The elite receiver had a big first half for Alabama before missing the second half.
TWEET OF THE DAY
Reading the fine print is always important, even on graphics released by college football teams. As you can see above, the graphic touts that a Penn Stater has appeared in every Super Bowl. Then, when you look at the fine print, it adds the important “except for five since 1967” caveat. Naturally, other football programs and lots of fans had fun trolling the Nittany Lions for that graphic!