Michigan and Alabama have come to town for a top-10 battle at Jerry World on Saturday and the Tide will roll. I won't waste your time extensively breaking down the matchup in a traditional who will win and why format. The Sabans will humble Big Blue, and Denard Robinson/Antwaan Randle El the Second's glaring flaws will be on full display. But therein lies the most interesting storyline of the game -- in college football, stars and quarterbacks don't win championships anymore; defenses do.
Nick Saban and the rest of the SEC has marginalized the quarterback to the point that his performance is a secondary concern. He literally could have started Case McCoy -- a pre-pubescent sized quarterback with a junior high arm -- under center last year and still won the national title. No joke. (Note: this is not to say A.J. McCarron is a bad quarterback -- he's actually quite good and he's capable of impressive things. But Saban is not interested in developing his quarterbacks to be anything more than game managers because the risks outweigh reward.)
The basic philosophy is simple -- run the ball effectively and have an NFL-caliber defense filled with 4 and 5-star recruits to minimize risk. If you can run the ball and stop the other team from doing what they want on offense, you have complete control of the game. You control the tempo, the clock and force the other team to deviate from what they're comfortable doing. All this without the risk of putting the ball in the air.
The inception of the defensive thinking now identified with the SEC began around a decade ago. Stud offensive recruits were switched to defense and the defensive players ate their way to the next position. Running backs became defensive ends and defensive tackles. Safeties became linebackers. And at football programs like Alabama, they manage to nevertheless remain oversized for their position.
The philosophy began out of necessity at the bigger schools. Big programs over-recruited the skill position players, leaving many of their best athletes on the sideline. Instead of allowing their best talent to languish on the sideline, they molded their athletes to fit other positions. What began at the over-talented schools like LSU and Alabama has begun to spread. TCU has become a national power under Gary Patterson by using the same philosophy, and more and more schools are facing the fact that speed rules. And if you can have speed and athleticism at every position on the defense, the offense has to be that much better.
The response has been a turn to the spread offense. It's essentially an offensive system vs. raw talent game in college football today, and it will be on full display Saturday in Arlington. Problem is, the spread quarterback can't throw, and even his unnatural speed won't allow him to take over the game -- if he manages to stay in it. In the ultimate test of modern college football offensive and defensive philosophy, the defense will win convincingly. And the root of the SEC's dominance will be that much more obvious.