Monday night in the desert, Alabama and Clemson played an unforgettable game filled with unforgettable moments. The sprawling, soaring showdown showcased the top two teams in college football, and they were truly separated by much fewer than five points.
For years the SEC and its insufferable network of fan bases crowed about how the league was unmatched. It was hard to argue. The conference won nine of the 16 BCS championships, including seven in a row, and has placed its champion (Alabama) into both iterations of the College Football Playoff. The SEC is a power broker in college football and has earned that right. The thing is: the rest of the country is catching up.
Thanks in part to the kickoff return seen above, the ACC won the last BCS title in 2013, as Florida State beat Auburn. Though beaten by a kickoff return Monday night in a cruel reversal of fortune for the ACC, Clemson affirmed its greatness. No one should argue the point for a 14-1 team which clearly belonged on the same field.
Consider the Big Ten, too: It has seen a resurgence with the trio of Ohio State, Michigan, and Michigan State appearing to be playoff contenders for years to come. The Big 12 has Oklahoma, TCU, and Baylor, and the Pac-12 will contend with the likes of Stanford, USC, and Oregon, even if the results weren’t there this season.
All of the leagues play different styles of football, but they are all excelling, and the era of the SEC walking through the season as the unquestioned ace of the country is dead. Clemson took one of Nick Saban’s best Alabama teams to the limit in every possible way. The Crimson Tide did not smother an opponent with defense in a national title game. Kirby Smart, before going to Georgia to coach the Bulldogs, did not have an answer for Deshaun Watson. As great as Alabama’s victory was, the Tide did not overpower Clemson. They won with cleverness. It might not matter to the Tide’s fans, and frankly, it shouldn’t.
However, for Clemson, it should certainly be a point of pride that the Tigers were not beaten in the trenches in this game. Special teams plays and a few coverage busts (some of them with Mackensie Alexander injured in the second half) swung this game Alabama’s way.
This brings to mind a larger point: No one league, or team, can be at the pinnacle for too long a time.
In soccer, Spain was the club everyone wanted to be. The nation won two European championships and a world title within a four-year span, which was a first in world history. It looked like the dominance would never end. Then, in the 2014 World Cup, Spain was manhandled twice and booted in the opening round. Everyone’s place atop the mountain ends.
While the SEC’s run isn’t ending, the conference isn’t alone anymore. The playoff has put everyone on relatively equal footing. What if Oklahoma State and Stanford had a chance to step on the field with Bama and LSU in 2011? How would an undefeated TCU team in 2010 have fared against Cam Newton’s Auburn squad? These questions would have been answered with the four-team playoff we have now, but instead are what-ifs relegated to history.
Now though, there is a chance to answer who is the best. Last season, Alabama was nowhere near the top after getting mauled by Ohio State in the semifinals. This season, the Tide ascended the mountain by the slimmest of margins, pockmarked with the scars of a long journey which was anything but easy in the end, unlike the team’s last two BCS conquests in 2012 and 2013.
The SEC had its time in the sun, in a way no league will ever have again, but the rest of America has caught up with the programs south of the Mason-Dixon line. It’s just a matter of time before the outsiders overtake them.