Will Jalen Hurts become Oklahoma’s third consecutive Heisman QB?
College football at 150 is still a game of surprises even when it’s the same old, same old, too
“The essence of football was blocking, tackling, and execution based on timing, rhythm and deception.”
— Knute Rockne, Notre Dame football coach 1918-1930
In 1869, Rutgers beat Princeton 6-4 in the first college football game. By his college graduation in 1919, Paul Robeson, a Princeton, New Jersey, native, had won two All-America football awards at Rutgers. And college football had taken its place as America’s second favorite team sport after major league baseball.
Today, 150 years after the first college game, we’re poised for the unscripted drama of a new college football season. Clemson’s 44-16 mauling of Alabama resulted in it winning last season’s big-time football national championship, its second championship in the last three seasons. It is No. 1 in this season’s coaches preseason poll.
That’s remarkable. Clemson lost three players from the defensive line to the first round of this season’s NFL draft. The offensive and defensive lines are the foundations of programs that enjoy perennial success. That Clemson can replace three first-round picks is another indication of Clemson’s recruiting, depth and player development. More important, it is a relative interloper among college football powers.
Fifty years ago, Alabama, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Penn State and Oklahoma were in the preseason top 25. And they are there in this year’s preseason top 25, too. Clemson, which would finish 4-6 in 1969, has muscled into the top tier in present-day college football and looks determined to stay there.
While the identity of perennial powers has changed little in 50 years, the demographic changes among big-time players at big-time schools have been stark. Black players now can be found at Clemson and other top schools in numbers few imagined in 1969, especially in the South and Southwest. At the same time, future NFL stars from historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have declined. In the April draft, a little more than a handful of HBCU players were chosen, including Tytus Howard, offensive lineman and Alabama State star, who was chosen by the Houston Texans in the first round. The time when HBCUs consistently produced NFL Hall of Famers such as Walter Payton (Jackson State), Jerry Rice (Mississippi Valley State) and Michael Strahan (Texas Southern) appears to be over. Nevertheless, the rivalries at black colleges remain intense, especially between competing marching bands at the halftime shows.
Furthermore, the allure of NFL riches is so great that college players can’t afford to stay in programs where they do not start and star. And some top players won’t play injured or play in postseason bowl games, either. Jim Harbaugh, the head football coach at Michigan, says players who skip bowl games risk hurting their legacy. But the players, unsalaried NFL apprentices, face a bigger risk: the risk of injury that could foreclose them getting paid for their talents in the NFL.
Big-time college football has become a billion-dollar business. For decades, big-time college football has been willing to risk the health, futures, NFL dreams and aspirations of its players for wins and profits. Still, the stewards of college football have expected their players to make a strong emotional investment in their sport (and many have), while not seeking to reap financial rewards beyond athletic scholarships. But some of today’s college players are willing to lose their allegiance to specific programs if it means they and their families can win big NFL money.
Consequently, quarterback Jalen Hurts, the former starter at Alabama, has transferred to Oklahoma, where Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray played the last two years. Both won the Heisman Trophy there before being drafted No. 1 overall by the NFL. Both had begun their college careers at other colleges.
With its high-scoring offense, Oklahoma has borrowed its sensibility from basketball: It plays fast-break football. If Hurts can succeed at Oklahoma, as Mayfield and Murray did, he will solidify the Sooners as the nation’s top transfer destination for elite quarterbacks.
Can he? Will he?
Later this month, college football tips off with the answer to those and other tantalizing questions spiraling in the air.
Let the blocking and tackling begin.