-- The following conversation has become tradition for me. Over the past decade I've had variations of this same chat in South Florida, Pasadena, Dallas and Phoenix. Wherever college football's national title game has just been played.
This past Tuesday morning at Tampa International Airport the line to get through security was not long. The line to board the planes was not long. Not even the line at the coffee shop was long.
But the line at the Popeyes fried chicken counter was totally out of control. No one had slept over the nine-ish hours since Clemson's stunning comeback win over Alabama. It was either too late in the going to stop celebrating or too early in the day to keep drowning one's sorrows in amber liquids, so everyone was instead rolling with a quarter dark and Cajun fries.
"I went to Alabama and my brother went to Clemson," a fellow Charlottean named Jack Paxton explained over his bowl of red beans and rice. "How we feel about last night is probably obvious. He's pumped. I'm bummed. But riding over here this morning from the hotel we realized that we're both sad, even him. The damn college football season is over."
Yes, crimson fried chicken guy, it is. And yes, it is sad. But before we completely vanish into a vat of mashed potatoes for the winter, let's take a moment and appreciate what we just saw and how that should make us even all that more excited for what we'll see when America's greatest sport returns to action in -- sigh -- 8? months.
The postseason closed strong
Even a bowl game junkie like me had to admit that as the postseason finally hit New Year's weekend there had been more forgettable final contests than classics. For every Armed Forces Bowl thriller (LaTech!) there seemed to be an Alamo Bowl stinker (Buffs?!) waiting to cancel it out. For a ranking of all 42 games, see my man Ted Miller's story here. But once the biggest of the big boys hit the biggest of the big stages, they not only provided us with entertainment, but also opened a peek through the window of what to expect this fall. In the Orange Bowl, Michigan and Florida State dueled in a one-point thriller of a Seminoles win (every time I say that I want to start singing John Anderson's "Seminole Wind"). Then in a "the two teams no one wants to play right now" edition of the Rose Bowl, USC came back to stun Penn State. Then after a pair of meh semifinal games we had one of the greatest final five minutes in college football history to close out the College Football Playoff national championship. After starting a lap down, the postseason came roaring back to steal the checkered flag in a photo finish (sorry, I'm already starting to get into my Daytona 500 mindset).
The major players in those games will be back
OK, a lot of the actual players will be gone --? Deshaun Watson, Ben Boulware, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Dalvin Cook,? Jonathan Allen, O.J. Howard, and pretty much everyone at Michigan -- but the teams who are always the major players in the sport will be back in full force. Just take a gander at the top shelf of Mark Schlabach's Way Too Early Top 25: 1. Alabama, 2. FSU, 3. USC, 4. Penn State and 5. Clemson. For every superstar lost there are plenty returning, including wunderkind QBs Jalen Hurts at Alabama, Deondre Francois at FSU, Sam Darnold at USC and Trace McSorley in Happy Valley, who will be rejoined by backfield mate and fellow Heisman watch-lister Saquon Barkley.
Oh, and these guys too
Speaking of the Heisman, despite a postseason wave of voters' remorse, Louisville's Lamar Jackson is indeed still the guy who won the bronze man and he'll still be behind center for the Cardinals when they open the season in Indianapolis against Purdue. Unfortunately, his supporting offensive cast will be almost entirely new. That's the same situation in Norman, Oklahoma, where Dede Westbrook, Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine are all gone, though swashbuckling QB Baker Mayfield will be back at the helm and back on all the preseason Heisman lists. He'll be joined on that list by Ohio State's J.T. Barrett, back for what feels like his 18th season in Columbus, though most of his friends from 2016 will have also departed for the pros. Also back but not nearly as lonely will be Washington's Jake Browning, rejoined by tailback bud? Myles Gaskin,?and Oklahoma State's Mason Rudolph, reunited with favorite target James Washington.
And here's a dude you might've forgotten about
While watching Clemson and Bama warm up Monday night in Tampa I ?ran into Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn on the sideline. We chatted briefly about the two teams (for the record, he was all in on Clemson) and then I mentioned his new quarterback. He smiled largely. Jarrett Stidham, one of the Baylor refugees left wandering in the wake of the post-Art Briles scandal supernova, is now on The Plains. In 2015, he threw for 1,265 yards and a dozen TDs with three starts as a true freshman. Though his stats belie it, I've always thought of Stidham as a run threat, too. His new head coach agreed with me on that. No matter who is behind center for the Tigers in 2017, Stidham or incumbent Sean White, they will be in the spotlight early. Auburn travels to face its twin brother university, Clemson, on Sept. 9, aka Week 2.
Speaking of September
Opening weekend 2016 was labeled the greatest ever and it should have been. This year's first stanza of the season won't be as packed as last year. That was inevitable. But to quote Dabo Swinney, it ain't chopped liver, either. My man Chris Low has the complete breakdown, but here's the Cliff's Notes version: BYU will face LSU in Houston in the Hey Texas People You Really Should've Asked Us To Join the Big 12 Classic as NC State takes on South Carolina in Charlotte in the Lou Holtz Used To Coach Here Too Bowl. The real star destroyer showdowns will be at the Jerry Dome and the new Mercedes Dome in Atlanta, where Florida will face Michigan and Alabama meets Florida State. (I know, right?!) The action wraps up on Labor Day night when Georgia Tech and Tennessee finish out the Chick-Fil-A kickoff doubleheader in the Bobby Dodd Used To Coach Here Too Classic.
I'll let you kids out there research exactly who Bobby Dodd was. Who knows? Maybe I'll go to Atlanta that opening weekend and dress up like the College Football Hall of Famer at Dragon Con. Sadly, I've got plenty of time to work on my costume and you've got plenty to time to look him up. Not so sadly, I might need all that time to digest that airport jambalaya. In the meantime, let's get on with Flipping The Field.
What's old is new again ... and it's very orange:. On Saturday morning an estimated 70,000 fans showed up for Clemson's celebratory parade and pep rally in Death Valley. Seventy thousand!!! Among those in attendance were dozens of former Tigers representing Clemson teams from the Swinney era, but also dating all the way back to the Danny Ford glory days of 1980s and even Frank Howard's teams (he who set his rock atop The Hill). That was by design. On Saturday's Marty & McGee on ESPN Radio we chatted with former Clemson quarterback Rodney Williams (as a child of the 1980s I can still hear the "Rod-neeeee! Rod-neeeee!" chant), now an analyst for the Clemson Tigers Sports Network. He said it's no accident that the past two national championship games and Saturday's celebration were attended by so many old school Tiger stars. "That's something Dabo has been very adamant about, making former players feel like they are a part of this, that we are all a part of it. There were guys in charge for a while who didn't feel that way. ... When they were planning Saturday's parade he insisted that they invite back every former player within a three-hour radius, or really just anyone who could get there. He said they had to be a part of it. It's created something really special around here."
Speaking of those former players ... Just in case you were wondering who was the coolest looking of those former Tigers in attendance, well, every longtime Clemson knows that the answer to that question will always be another former QB from back in the day, Charlie Whitehurst.
About that stadium in Atlanta: Anyone who made it to the SEC Championship or the Peach Bowl knows that the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, slated to host a pair of kickoff games over Labor Day weekend as well as the 2018 College Football Playoff championship game, is still very much a work in progress. On Friday my pal Brett Jewkes of Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank's AMB Group reminded that it's still very much a hard-hat zone.
From the Ridonculous Stats Department: My mathlete pals over at ESPN Stats & Info tell me that Clemson's 14-point comeback was the second largest since college football moved to a single championship game in 1998, trailing only FSU's Jameis Winston-led erasure of an 18-point deficit to Auburn in 2014. Deshaun Watson is the only player to pass for 400 yards in a national title game -- and he's done it twice. Both those performances came against Bama, becoming just the fifth QB to toss for 400-plus against a Nick Saban-coached Tide team and the only one to do it twice. Clemson ran 99 offensive plays, the most ever against Alabama. Bama was 2-of-15 on third down and zero for its last 12 attempts, a span that covered the final 3.5 hours of the game.
We're going streaking! Clemson has finished 14-1 the last two seasons. Watson's 32 wins as Clemson's starting QB ties Tajh Boyd and Rodney Williams for most all-time ("Rod-neeeee!"). Watson could break that tie easily with a full year of eligibility remaining, but instead will enter the NFL draft.
Get in the car, Frank: The loss to Clemson snapped Alabama's 26-game winning streak. Prior to the loss in Tampa, Nick Saban-coached teams were 97-0 with a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter. Clemson snapped a 34-year national championship drought, the second-longest in FBS. Auburn holds the record at 52, with titles in 1957 and 2010.
SMU Super Chargers: When the Los Angeles Chargers revealed their new logo on Thursday, the "LA" with a bolt hastily bolted on became an instant internet sensation for all the wrong reasons. Everyone from Tampa Bay Lightning to a slew of minor league baseball teams all quickly tweeted out their shoddy new versions of the Chargers' shoddy new logo. The winner from the college football realm was SMU. Check out the tail on that up-tempo Pony.
The Purdue Buzzermakers? No offense to Jeff Brohm, but when I saw this I thought for a second that Purdue might have hired the second man to walk on the moon as their new football coach.
One more tribute: From Army to Nebraska, the 2016 season was one that was filled with entirely too many tributes to fallen current and former teammates. But as sad they as were, they were also touching. The last came from USC, who honored Joe McKnight, who was shot and killed on Dec. 1.
Has anyone made sure this guy is OK? I've been worried about this Clemson fan ever since I saw this on my hotel TV on Monday morning. I guess I should have kept an eye out for him in that Popeyes line.?