There are a lot of angles to talk about Super Bowl LI - the #1 offense against the #1 defense! The Revenge Bowl! - and there’s no doubt this is an exciting showdown. But as this is a college-focused part of the interwebs, let’s talk about some college implications underneath the surface.
Rutgers has become a joke in Big Ten circles, but it wasn’t that long ago that the Knights played with an NFL mentality - thanks largely to their NFL-type coach, Greg Schiano. As a result, Rutgers is actually tied with Alabama and Stanford for the best representation in the Super Bowl with five former players.
Not only that, a few of those guys are going to be decisive for who wins and loses. Wideout Mohamed Sanu is an emerging star for Atlanta and the #2 option in their pass offense behind Alabama alum Julio Jones. And New England has stocked up on Rutgers defensive backs, particularly Devin McCourty and Logan Ryan, who are emerging stars of their own.
While Sanu will probably get his share of yardage, the big question is if New England’s secondary can somehow hold Atlanta’s pass offense in check. If they can at least slow them down, you can bet Chris Ash will bring it up on the recruiting trail as much as he can to convince defensive guys to commit to his Rutgers rebuild.
Rutgers fans: New England Patriots
There are only two guys representing Michigan in the Super Bowl, but they’re kind of important: New England’s Tom Brady and Alan Branch, perhaps the two most important players on the team.
Brady, obviously, is looking for his 5th Super Bowl in 7 appearances, further cementing his legacy as the best ever. (A good Brady stat for you: he is 24-9 now in the postseason, while Joe Montana was just 16-7 and Peyton Manning was 14-13.) Meanwhile, Alan Branch is the backbone of New England’s defense, taking over the “Vince Wilfork” role in the middle of the defensive line.
Michigan fans: New England Patriots
Sure - on the one hand, you couldn’t throw a dart without hitting an NFL team that relied on LSU players somewhere on the roster. Hopefully, pretty soon, Michigan is at that point of being a factory for NFL talent similar to LSU or Bama.
Still, the Tigers will have three starters on the Atlanta Falcons defense, from DE Tyson Jackson to LB Deion Jones and CB Jalen Collins, and just one little-used reserve for New England. Jones, in particular, is a pretty remarkable story as a rookie taking over the reins at MIKE linebacker.
"I'd say over the last five weeks he has really found his voice,” said Dan Quinn in late December, “and that allows other people around you to play faster. So, at that Mike linebacker spot for us we put a lot of communication on him, and it's not always the easiest job as a rookie, not only to get your world in order and what's your assignment, but to help out and call the alerts for the other guys.”
LSU fans: Atlanta Falcons
There are a few other teams that I could have given this last spot to. Stanford will have five participants, but few in impact roles. Minnesota has a starting rookie linebacker of their own on Atlanta’s defense (De’Vondre Campbell) and a key DT in Ra’Shede Hageman. There’s also Oregon, who’s been a good part of New England’s success thanks to RB LeGarrette Blount and safety Patrick Chung.
But, to properly tip my hat to one of the more fascinating storylines in this Super Bowl, at least for me personally, I need to give this last spot to Clemson.
It’s worth noting that the Falcons went 18-30 in the three years before this remarkable Super Bowl run, and while fans will be talking about Kyle Shanahan’s offense finally clicking, Matty Ice’s MVP season, and Dan Quinn’s East Coast version of the Seattle defense, another huge part of this success is because of how quickly, cheaply, and effectively the front seven has been transformed in the last two years into a dominant unit capable of winning the Super Bowl.
A lot of it all started with the 2015 NFL Draft, when GM Thomas Dimitroff picked up Vic Beasley (1st round) and Grady Jarrett (5th round) out of Clemson. Since then, the duo has torn up the NFL to the tune of 23.5 sacks, 8 forced fumbles, and 5 passes defensed, and only cost the team $1.92 million in base salary over two years.
The Atlanta front office then went back to the draft this past season for two more starting linebackers, and also picked up Dwight Freeney in free agency. But Clemson deserves a special nod here for giving this team depth and some terrific play-making at the most important part of the field.
Clemson fans: Atlanta Falcons
Minnesota fans: Atlanta Falcons
Oregon fans: New England Patriots