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Written by Jeff Rich

Jeff Rich

SmelleyThe thing is, it sounds like something that could happen.  I mean, why not?  I get how it could sound plausible.  There are some guys who played this amateur game on Saturdays this year, and a fair share that will play it again next year, that not only have the talent to play on Sunday, but a select few that could make an immediate impact in the NFL.  It starts with Jadaveon Clowney at South Carolina, and I’d consider Arizona State’s Will Sutton to be in that category, but neither one of those student-athletes attend Alabama. 

You know Alabama; they’re the team that made quick work of an undefeated Notre Dame in a game that was supposed to determine a National Champion.  What it was, was a formality for Alabama to showcase their football team for about four hours before their semi-annual (annual, for the time being) crystal trophy presentation.  During the game, Browns fans heard jokes, even if not spoken with malice, about why anyone would leave a destination job like the one in Tuscaloosa for lovely Berea, Ohio.  For some of us, the truth that Brent Musburger had implied hurt.

Those with level-heads pointed and laughed at our sensitivity, but I personally don’t care for our business to be aired nationally like that.  It’s the old Delta House philosophy; they can’t do that to our pledges, only we can do that to our pledges.  Suddenly, depending on how long you’ve been subject to Cleveland abuse, it was Johnny Carson or Conan O’Brien all over again.  By the next morning, there’s people awarding our new National Champions a hypothetical victory over our beloved Browns in a game that could never, and would never, be played.

SabanIf you find yourself rolling your eyes in disgust and/or nodding in agreement, you are likely on board with just how ridiculous this sentiment is.  It’s an easy position to defend as a Browns fan, the Browns not currently being the worst team in the league, because you can use any one of the 32 NFL teams in the fictional game, and whatever random NFL team beats Saban’s Crimson Tide 100 times out of 100.  Pick your team; the Jets, Carolina, or the hapless Chiefs, and it doesn’t matter.  With the possible exception of the 1999 Browns, every single bad NFL team in recent memory would rout this year’s Tide, last year’s Tide, and the Crimson Tide of 2009 that didn’t lose a single game.

All things considered, most notably that they wear that SEC patch on their jersey, I actually don’t mind Alabama at all.  Since I don’t get hung up on sound bites, the Miami Dolphins, and bedside manner, I respect Saban.  After they dropped the 2008 SEC Championship to Florida and Tim Tebow, I made a declaration that Alabama would be very good for a very long time.  They lost their time out in the Sugar Bowl, but suffered just five more defeats in the four years to follow.  Monday’s formality suggested they were the best team in the land for the third time in four years.

If there is one team that represents the advantage of men playing a boy’s game, it’s sticking the machine that is Alabama up against other institutions of higher learning in the game of football.  Sure, they lost a game to one of their peers, albeit an SEC peer, but it took the college game’s “Most Outstanding” to pull off that feat, and it still barely happened.  Truth be told, professional football teams might be a greater challenge for AJ McCarron, TJ Yeldon, DJ Fluker, CJ Mosely, and probably some of the guys with actual first names, too.  If you can get a Canadian team or an Arena team to play the 11-man game on a 100 yard field, Alabama may actually be a worthy adversary, but those factions rarely include the best 1600 or so football players on the planet.  The NFL does, and that’s how you make a long story short to deliver this point home.

RichardsonLost from last years team, a group of players that had won 2 crystal footballs in 3 years, were eight players who went to the NFL by way of the draft, which saw 245 other student athletes selected from schools that did not win a BCS Championship.  Four of those players, Dre Kirkpatrick, Josh Champman, DeQuan Menzie, and Brad Smelley combined for a three yard reception and four tackles in their rookie campaign.  The other four were all Top 35 picks, Trent Richardson, Mark Barron, Dont’a Hightower, and Courtney Upshaw were all serviceable, but not particularly sensational in Year One at the next level.  That’s 8 of 22 starters from a BCS Championship team not making much of a splash in the NFL, but 8 spots that needed to be back-filled to repeat as Champions.

If you break it down, piece by piece, you can momentarily make a case for the insane David take down of Goliath, if only David shared the odds of sandwich in the battle of Jared versus Subway.  We all know how important the roles of Head Coach and Quarterback are in the scope winning the Super Bowl, and even making the NFL playoffs, so maybe we concede both as advantages to Alabama.  In the present tense, that’s a pretty open-ended comparison because the Browns have no Head Coach to put up against Saban at the moment, and that vacancy creates nearly as much mystery at the quarterback position in Cleveland.  I know it might be unfair to throw this in the face of Saban’s camp, but the man won 15 of 32 games against NFL competition, and that’s with a team of professionals.  Sure his 154-55-1 record in college is a feat, but noted NFL bust Bobby Petrino has managed an equally impressive 76-25 amateur record.  Before we start citing Jim Tressel’s college numbers, let’s be clear that the NFL is a different ball of yarn.

WeedsAs far as I know, Brandon Weeden will be the starting QB for the Browns, come September, but the Browns are capable of the unpredictable and unexplainable.  At first glance, considering where Weeden and Alabama signal caller AJ McCarron spent 2012, you might make a good case for Saban’s guy.  Even as a “Weeden guy”, I’m not sure I can sell anyone on Brandon Weeden over Colt McCoy at this point, and my analysis of McCoy versus McCarron might involve a coin toss.  Instead of rightfully declaring the quarterback position to be a stalemate, a fair solution if you line Weeden’s Oklahoma State numbers up with McCarron’s career at Alabama, let’s give Alabama the edge at quarterback and Head Coach for now.

To lighten the mood a bit, after the serious nature of the quarterback and Head Coach situation, let’s take a look at the specialists, as I put them mano y mano.  Cody Mandell bests the Browns punter in the tale of the tape by 4 inches and statistically, if you’re counting average yardage and punts pinned inside the 20.  His 50 punts to 90 for Reggie Hodges come in a much different context for a 13-1 team than for a 5-11 team, even though you’d expect the NFL veteran not to give away 2.5 yards per punt on average.  In a pure numbers game, I’d give the edge to 6’4” Junior at Alabama.  In reality, he’d be on the field often, while Hodges could show up at this hypothetical game in sandals.

kickerAlabama uses two kickers, Jeremy Shelley and Cade Foster.  Shelley is the short-game kicker, and he’s a Phil Dawson-like 11-11 inside 40 yards, while Foster, who assumes the kickoff duties, is a very mortal 4-9 from 40 +.  Phil Dawson is the gold standard for kicking, nailing 27-of-29 on the year, kicking in the AFC North.  Dawson doesn’t need a bell curve to help him get the advantage over Saban’s kicking game; one of him is better than two of them…every day of the week and twice on Sunday.

Carson Tinker, the Tide’s long-snapper, is a great story, but he’s just a long-snapper.  Christian Yount is the pro, and wins the tale of the tape by being 6’1” 256 pounds to Tinker’s 6’1” 220 pounds.  Yount replaces two-time Pro-Bowler Ryan Pontbriand, so that’s something.  Since I’m not going to offer a true analytic breakdown of long-snappers here, I just want to point out that Mike Polk brought a smile to my face by updating his long-snapper jersey loyalty with an actual Yount jersey to replace his Pontbriand jersey instead of doing the Tim Couch masking-tape thing.

The Browns have Travis Benjamin and Josh Cribbs returning kicks and punts.  The Tide have the tandem of Christion Jones and Cyrus Jones, both underclassmen, as well as superstar cornerback Dee Milliner to handle their return duties.  Cribbs had 11 career return touchdowns against NFL competition; the speedster Benjamin has one in his only NFL season.  Jones and Jones have combined for one at the amateur level.  Advantage:  Browns.  Is it fair?  No.  Should you care?  No.

Back to the meat and potatoes of football, the running back comparison is obvious and perhaps a the most real thing about this fake football game.  Trent Richardson is better than Eddie Lacy because Nick Saban said so, just last year with his depth chart.  For a change of pace, Saban turns to TJ Yeldon; the next Browns coach will have Montario Hardesty as an option.  Though this will change in the years to come, Hardesty is a better option because he has three years of learning how to be an NFL back under his belt; there’s more to it than just running the football.  The Browns have better running backs, but it wouldn’t have mattered if Notre Dame had better running backs on Monday; the running game is more about who wins in the trenches than anything else.

JTAt Left Tackle, Joe Thomas is the best the NFL has to offer, and is therefore the best Tackle in the world.  Even though you might compare him against someone that is more powerful, in this case Cyrus Kouandjio from Alabama, Thomas’s finesse trumps all.  If it were a prize fight, they would rule in Joe’s favor before the opening bell.  On the other side, the Browns took Mitchell Schwartz early in the 2nd Round a year ago to anchor the line opposite Thomas.  In April, a team will likely select Fluker in the 2nd Round to echo what the Browns did with Schwartz.  I’m not sure I’ve conceded that the Browns are terrible overall just yet, but it isn’t because of their offensive line.  The year of learning under Thomas gives Schwartz an obvious edge here, but time will balance the scales here.

It gets interesting at Guard, where Chance Warmack’s 320 pounds make him the best Guard in Nick Saban or Jimmy Haslam’s organizations, but the tandem of Jason Pinkston and Shaun Lauvao bests Alabama at the Guard position when you add Anthony Steen to the mix.  It may sound like a broken record, but the NFL experience on the line is an automatic advantage.  NCAA success does not always translate to NFL success at Guard either.  The sure-fire Stanford product, David DeCastro struggled in Pittsburgh this year, while the late pick Jason Pinkston took advantage of an unexpected starting role at Left Guard for the Browns in 2011 as a rookie, now possessing a strong-hold on the spot, even though he missed the majority of 2012 with an illness.

At Center, Alex Mack is the clear choice.  Barrett Jones will be invaluable to an NFL team, due to his versatility, but to compare the actual center position, the Ironman Mack is one of the NFL’s best.  Though he was a quick study, and many expect the same from Jones, be it at Center or Guard, Mack is the exception and also the better Center right now.  Granted, these offensive players aren’t going up against each other, on a pass/fail scale; the Browns versus Alabama’s defensive front is a passing grade for Cleveland, but not so much for the Tide.

MccThough both teams have indisputably great college quarterbacks, and the Browns have two with great track records, that college success matters little when there are 11 NFL-caliber players on the other side of the ball.  Based on the draft numbers cited earlier, the Tide are going to have no more than 5 or 6 NFL players on each side of the ball in a given season.  The minimum requirement is that the Browns have 11, though injury will take them down to as few as 8 or 9.  Remember, no matter what Musburger preaches about Alabama depth, it doesn’t include a true NFL-caliber backup at each position on the field.  That’s the fundamental truth of this whole argument, and the fabric of what makes it silly.

The Browns don’t have a an elite receiving corps, but they still have three players that anyone in their right mind would select over Kevin Norwood, Amari Cooper, and Christion Jones.  Norwood is a reliable possession receiver, what Browns fans hope Greg Little can be, but it’s much easier to catch passes when you’re wide open.  Jones speed is impressive against SEC competition, and more impressive against 18-22 year-olds that don’t go to school in the South, but he’s not quite Travis Benjamin right now.  Cooper seems like he’s the good, he even reminds me of Josh Gordon, but Gordon is more of a natural specimen and an almost natural fit as the Browns #1.  If you’re new to the Browns, they haven’t found anyone to assume that role since Braylon Edwards 80 catch, 16 TD season of 2007, and before that, you’re going back to Webster Slaughter, who left town after 1991.

Michael Williams is the Tide’s Tight End, and he’s bigger than Ben Watson, but Watson is a better run blocker and pass-catcher.  The numbers tell you, but beyond the stat sheet, Watson is a contributor.  Williams is big at 6’6”, and that’s kind of the thing with this Alabama team; they are so big.  That’s what opens the door for this conversation, as silly as it is.  Kelly Johnson plays the position that Shurmur had Alex Smith play.  Smith tops Owen Marecic and Brad Smelley on the depth chart.  We know that even Smelley is a better option than Johnson because Saban told us so, just last year.

Even if they aren’t better throwing the ball, it’s a given that they are better at running it and catching it. 

Where the Browns aren’t bigger, they’re faster.  Where they lag in the talent department, they make up for in NFL intelligence.  No matter what Saban does with his allotted time to practice, he can’t possibly teach these kids on an actual NFL.  If he had that in him, he’d probably still be working in Miami.  This we know, 15-17 is terrible, but it’s still better than Pat Shurmur’s 9-23 turd that wasted 24 months of our time and attention as Browns fans.

MosleySaban runs a 3-4, but Shurmur had the Browns drop the 3-4 in favor of Dick Jauron’s 4-3.  Kirby Smart does some good things with disguise and surprise, things we didn’t see from Romeo Crennel or Rob Ryan while the Browns ran it without viable personnel.  In Billy Winn, John Hughes, Ahytba Rubin, and Phil Taylor, the Browns bring talent to their front 4 that Saban and Kirby can’t replicate.  They count on CJ Mosely to make plays from the weak-side linebacker spot; it’s the role that D’Qwell Jackson plays for the Browns.  Again, it’s a matter of NFL experience, even Craig Robertson’s on the practice squad in 2011, being an advantage.

I don’t value TJ Ward the way that the scribes at Sports Illustrated do.  I’ll grant Ward the fact that he plays hard, and has improved in each of his three seasons at the Strong Safety position, but the same could be said for Vinnie Sunseri in Tuscaloosa.  I don’t think the coach’s kid is an NFL starter.  I do think Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix is more of a ball hawk than Usama Young or Eric Hagg.  It’s an admitted area of need for the Browns, but not enough to make a noticeable difference, considering how little time the secondary would need to work against a constantly hurried AJ McCarron. 

On the edges, Dee Milliner is a good player, but he’s not a gamebreaker like Joe Haden.  The Browns went 0-5 without Haden, and arguments can be made that the Haden turns a few, if not all, of those losses into wins if he plays in any of those games.   The same could not be said about Milliner; Alabama is likely still 13-1, even if Saban has to go down the depth chart to the freshman Geno Smith.

A and MSay whatever you will about Johnny Manziel, but the Browns don’t have one of him.  He’s the one who laid out the blueprint to beat Alabama.  That plan is to get 20 points on the Tide before the smoke clears from the pre-game pyrotechnics.  What Texas A & M does have is a set of NFL-caliber bookends, not quite what the Browns have with Thomas and Schwartz, but Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews are the best pair of college Tackles that I can ever recall.  Since the Browns have a more talented, even if less mobile, thrower, and what’s obviously a better set of skilled players offense, they should be able to score with the same ease that the Aggies did against the Tide in the first quarter at Bryant-Denny Statdium.

Consider the noted talent gap, especially on defense, whether it’s comparing Kirby Smart’s unit for the Championship game against the assembly of players formerly led by Dick Jauron or the Tide’s D against the Browns in the trenches, and the Browns score at will while the amateurs struggle to get first downs.

And remember, this isn’t specific to the Browns against Alabama.  This is any college team against any NFL team.  The result is a lot for the NFL against nothing more than perhaps a mop-up or pity score, but more likely a shutout of the most disgusting proportion.  It’s a numbers game, really, with 53 NFL-ready players on the professional roster, compared to no more than 10 players that are a year away, with the rare exception of a beast like Clowney that could dominate the league tomorrow.  Never mind the fact that the tenth player drafted has no guarantee of being one of the 53 to make it out of Training Camp.

When you allow men to play a boy’s game, which doesn’t happen, the dregs of the NFL become juggernauts.  In 100 games, the NFL team wins 100 times, no matter how impressed we are by the size and discipline of super-duper college program.  My guess is those 100 games, that we’ll play on the moon to further abandon reality, would yield an average score of 45-6 in favor of the Browns, but that implies a few long field goals from Cade Foster, who doesn’t deserve to be in the same sentence with Phil Dawson.  I get the Bill Swerski Superfan itch, just thinking about it.  I better stop before I start dreaming up Hurrican Rutigliano or golf games between Marty and God.

SabanSo, to answer the question at hand, the Browns would absolutely beat the best team, provided it’s not the best, or even a random mediocre team.  But, in all fairness to Alabama, the Browns would destroy the best Arena team and anything north of the border that doesn’t include the Buffalo Bills of Toronto Week.  We aren’t out to be condescending, it’s horrible when the media types treat citizens like peasants, but this is really just remedial learning for people who don’t have a handle on what the reality of this hypothetical entails.

They say there are no stupid questions, but I’m willing to make an exception for this one.  Would “fill-in the blank College Team” beat “fill-in the blank NFL team of little universal respect”?  The answer no, 100 times out of 100.

Roll Damn Browns!  You got that right.

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