Keith Strudler: Changing Of The Guards

Jan 9, 2019

Perhaps the most anticipated moment of any family trip to London from the US is watching the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace. I know this because we did a big family trip to London last summer, and I can confirm that about half of the US was crammed into what amounts to a cul-de-sac to watch a bunch of well-dressed military officials march in obsessive precision back inside the castle while a cadre of similarly dressed and trained officers take their place. This takes the better part of the morning, at which point the entire crowd moves in unison over to Big Ben. It’s one of the essential British tourist experiences, even if you’re lucky to see more than obstructed glimpse of a red coat through the scores of people holding iPhones above their heads.

Beyond the pageantry of the affair, there is still some excitement to the literal changing of guards and passing of the torch. What seems equally enthralling is its metaphoric counterpart, where one person or group takes the leading role from another, either officially or otherwise. It happens in music and companies and any place where hierarchy exists. And like Buckingham Palace, it tends to be a fascinating spectacle.

We may have seen just that phenomenon Monday night when Clemson completely overwhelmed Alabama 44-16 in the College Football Championships, a game that most presumed Alabama would win, even if Clemson was also undefeated and playing in their third title game in four years – all against Alabama. And that fourth year, they lost to Alabama in the semifinals. This is also now Clemson’s second win against the Tide in those title games and second championship now in three years, the first real crack in Alabama’s domination of the sport since Bama coach Nick Saban led the Tide to his first of five national titles beginning in 2009. Since that point in college football history, it’s essentially been Alabama against the field, with the occasional upstart trying to steal just a moment of the School’s spotlight. Like Auburn in 2010, or Florida State in 2013, or even Ohio State in 2015 when they upset Alabama in the semifinals. But those moments have been short-lived and seemed only to make Alabama even better the next year. So instead of crowning a new champion, it was more like poking the bear.

That is until now. Clemson poked the bear, but unlike everyone else, they survived. And perhaps even thrived. In the wake of Clemson not just beating Alabama, but completely overwhelming them, the storyline isn’t simply whether Clemson is the better team. It’s whether there’s a new sherriff in town. Whether the Crimson Reign is now over and the Age of the Tiger has begun. The king is dead, long live the new king. Whether Clemson, an important but not necessarily elite college football program, has now taken the seat at the head of the table. That’s the storyline from Monday night’s game.

First, it’s difficult to ever define eras of sports dominance, especially in a college sport where turnover is higher than a Gap in the mall. And the top division of college football has 130 teams – not 32 like in the NFL. And about 40 or 50 spend a lot. And no one can pay salaries or get into a bidding war for talent. So winning multiple titles in the sport is not only difficult, but really a statistical anomaly – which makes Alabama’s run one of the most remarkable in the history of any sport. So I wouldn’t expect that now Clemson is going to win five or six championships, if only because that’s like getting hit by lightning twice in the same day.

Second, before Alabama’s bandwagon empties out too much, just know that the Tide has the top recruiting class for next year – again. So we can talk as much as we want about 44-16 and Clemson’s freakish freshman quarterback and their head coach Dabo Swinney, who comes off as something of a Luke Skywalker to the Vader like Nick Saban, but Alabama reloads faster than shelves at an Amazon plant. If I were want to bet, and I’m not, I’d be hard pressed not to pick the Tide to win it all next year.

And lastly, this entire narrative reminds us of one of the great truisms of sports fandom. Generally speaking, we love dynasties. Everyone talks about parody and finding new champions and all the excitement that comes with it, but down deep, we all appreciate the greatness that comes with a team or a person that keeps on winning – despite the insurmountable odds of doing so, and even if we hate the team itself. Like say the Patriots. Or the Golden State Warriors. And so then we can watch another dynasty in the making, like Clemson, knock of the champs in a game of king of the hill. Rinse and repeat. Over and over again. The changing of the guards, a true site to see.

Just like in London.

Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

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