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Have elite wide receivers become the key to winning a national title?

Long gone are the days of ‘defense wins championships’ in college football.

The CFP Semifinal presented by Capital One - Alabama v Notre Dame Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

When one of the greatest head coaches in college football history says something about the state of the game, I am inclined to believe him. In 25 years at the helm of four different programs, Nick Saban has amassed a career record of 260-55-1. Taking over the Alabama job in 2007, Saban has gone 169-23 as the leader of the Crimson Tide, winning six national titles in his career (including one at LSU in 2003) and has made the College Football Playoff in every year but one since its inception.

To be so successful for so long in the volatile market that is college football, you must be willing to adapt. The sport has changed drastically over the years, especially in the last decade. Gone are the days of ‘three yards and a cloud of dust’ football, as passing offenses have become more prolific than ever. The old adage used to be that defense wins championships, but as Saban himself admitted back in October, that is simply no longer the case.

“It used to be that good defense beats good offense. Good defense doesn’t beat good offense anymore,” Saban said. “It’s just like last week. Georgia has as good a defense as we do an offense, and we scored 41 points on them [in a 41-24 Alabama win]. That’s not the way it used to be. It used to be if you had a good defense, other people weren’t going to score. You were always going to be in the game. I’m telling you. It ain’t that way anymore.”

We saw this play out first hand in this year’s CFP Semifinal games. Clemson entered the Sugar Bowl allowing just 17.5 points per game — good for the 11th-best scoring defense in the country — before Ohio State hung 49 on them. It was the same thing on the other side of the bracket, as Alabama scored 31 points (taking their foot off the gas late) on a Notre Dame team allowing just 18.6 points per game (No. 12 in FBS).

So what gives? Well, for the past few years we have said that it takes dominant quarterback play to win a national title, but if you dive into the championship games in the CFP era, even that doesn’t tell the entire story.

Plenty of great quarterbacks have made it to the national title game and lost — and not always to a quarterback that is more talented than them. Marcus Mariota was a better college QB than Cardale Jones, but Ohio State still blew out Oregon in 2014. Deshaun Watson was clearly a better QB than Jake Coker in 2015, but he came up short as well. In last year’s title game, we saw two pretty evenly-matched star QBs between Joe Burrow and Trevor Lawrence, but LSU won in a blow out.

While having an elite quarterback certainly makes your life infinitely easier, it does not by any means guarantee you will win a national title. However, there has been a new emerging trend in college football the past few years. There is another position that has seemingly matched QBs in terms of their importance to taking home the trophy at the end of the season: wide receiver.

Let’s take a look at the four teams in this year’s College Football Playoff. All four have great quarterbacks, with Justin Fields, Trevor Lawrence, Mac Jones and Ian Book being among the best players at their position in the sport. All of these QBs have played well enough this season to give their team a legitimate shot to win the title. While some of these guys are obviously more talented than others, the real differences in the teams that won this past weekend and the teams that lost are their wide receivers.

In both instances, the team with the far superior wideouts came away with easy victories. At Alabama, DeVonta Smith is likely about to become the first wide receiver to win the Heisman Trophy since Desmond Howard in 1991. Even with Jaylen Waddle out with injury, guys like Smith and John Metchie III are lightyears ahead of anyone on Notre Dame’s roster. Can you even name a wide receiver on the Fighting Irish without looking it up? Because I can’t.

This was even more pronounced in the Sugar Bowl, where the level of talent between the two quarterbacks involved was largely even. Fields and Lawrence are undoubtably the top-two QBs in the game, but where their teams differ greatly is in the wide receiver room. The Tigers’ Amari Rodgers and Cornell Powell are great players, and Powell specifically played really well against Ohio State, but they are not quite at the level of Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson on the other sideline.

Looking back through some of those recent CFP title games we touched on earlier, this same sentiment rings true. Ezekiel Elliott obviously carried OSU in 2014, but Jones’ life was made easier by having Michael Thomas and Devin Smith to throw to. Clemson beat the Tide in 2016 thanks in part to Mike Williams. Alabama beat Georgia in 2017 because they had Calvin Ridley, Henry Ruggs, and DeVonta Smith, and the Bulldogs... didn't. Burrow was able to get the best of Lawrence last year because he had Justin Jefferson and JaMarr Chase to throw to.

Which brings us to this season, where the two teams playing in the national title game also just so happen to have two of the greatest wide receiver rooms in the country. Quarterback play is still incredibly important, as both Fields and Jones have been a huge part of their team’s success. Having a great running back is also huge, as both Najee Harris and Trey Sermon have helped their offenses achieve balance. However, when talent equates elsewhere on the field, the deciding factor in winning a national title or coming up short comes down to elite play at the wide receiver position.

If you don't think these coaches notice this shifting of the tide, just take a look at how teams like Alabama and Ohio State are recruiting. The Tide have four top-100 receivers committed in 2021, including five-star WR Jacorey Brooks. This follows up a 2020 class where they hauled in a trio of four-star pass-catchers. Ryan Day is really putting the pedal to the metal on this front, as he and Brian Hartline have signed/committed four five-star receivers from 2020 to 2022, as well as a handful of other top-100 guys at the position in that stretch.

Times have changed in college football, and as Brad Pitt says as Billy Beane in Moneyball, “adapt or die.” The great programs in the sport continue to get better across the board as they bring in more and more talent at each and every position. However, at the end of the day, one of the most important spots on the roster necessary to compete for a national title has quickly become the wide receivers.