In college football, it’s best to enjoy the journey. The ending? Well, those tend to be pretty predictable.
On Saturday, Alabama topped Florida and was crowned champion of the SEC again, for the fifth time in seven years of the College Football Playoff. The Tide’s trio of offensive superstars took turns making their respective Heisman cases, with Mac Jones throwing for 418 yards and five TDs, Najee Harris rushing for 178 yards and DeVonta Smith catching 15 passes — 16 if you count fielding Florida’s final onside kick try. Still, the Gators fought back, over and over, getting up off the floor to deliver one more blow before the clock finally ran out.
“It was probably good for us to be in a dogfight,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said afterward, “and we were definitely in one tonight.”
Clemson also claimed its sixth straight ACC title with a blowout win over Notre Dame. This one, however, was different. This was a rematch and a chance for revenge. Seven weeks ago, the Irish handed Clemson its first regular-season loss since 2017, a game played without Trevor Lawrence or Tyler Davis or James Skalski. And if Notre Dame was happy with the win, that was all the motivation the Tigers needed to dismiss the Irish in emphatic fashion in the ACC championship game.
“When you listened to some of the things they said,” Skalski offered after the game, “they definitely pushed some buttons they probably wish they hadn’t pushed.”
Ohio State, meanwhile, won its fourth straight Big Ten title, a win that came after the Buckeyes’ season was canceled, then revived, then extinguished when their arch rival canceled a game, then revived again when the Big Ten changed its rules. Even still, Ohio State trailed at the half against Northwestern. But like a horror movie villain, the Buckeyes were resurrected via the magic of RB Trey Sermon, who ran for 331 yards in a 22-10 win.
Oklahoma won the Big 12 for fifth straight time, but this year, it never sniffed the playoff. At least we didn’t need to hear Lincoln Riley’s campaign speech for an invitation, too.
Oregon won the Pac-12 for the third time in the playoff era, but this year it happened only after Washington was forced to opt out of the league’s title game due to COVID-19.
And the Group of 5 has a worthy representative for the playoff, too. Heck, it’s got two of them. Coastal Carolina couldn’t play Saturday, but Cincinnati finished off a hard-fought win over Tulsa to end the regular season without a loss. But, of course, the journey is one thing, and the destination is another. In college football, the destination for the Group of 5 is never the playoff.
It’s been as strange a year as the sport has ever endured, and yet here we are, two weeks later than we normally tally up the results, and we’ve got a familiar refrain: Clemson, Alabama, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Oregon are your Power 5 champions.
Those five teams have won 25 of the 35 conference titles awarded in the six-year playoff era.
The playoff participants will remain a mystery until Sunday afternoon, when the committee offers its rulings. Texas A&M beat Tennessee on Saturday, giving Jimbo Fisher plenty of reasons to make his case, while Ohio State’s limited schedule and Notre Dame’s loss inject at least a small amount of drama. More than likely, however, it’ll be Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Notre Dame — four teams that now have 18 playoff berths between them.
For Alabama, the road to get here included a new star QB emerging, a head-spinning win over the hated Lane Kiffin, two positive COVID-19 tests for Saban (one false positive, one legit) and a final, dizzying showdown with the Gators. Who’s picking against Alabama now? Oh, sure, the defense left a bit to be desired. That might be a red flag if Jones, Harris and Smith weren’t so ridiculously good on the other side of the ball.
For Clemson, the season felt like a series of false starts — a few big steps forward, a few other steps back. The first game against Notre Dame seemed to expose many of the Tigers’ potential flaws — a new-look O-line, a lack of an outside receiver, a defense that couldn’t stay healthy — but as coach Dabo Swinney told his team afterward, “they didn’t hand out any trophies” in South Bend, Indiana. Instead, the Tigers played their best game of the year Saturday.
“Everything we didn’t do in South Bend [in the first game],” Swinney said, “we did tonight.”
For Ohio State, Saturday’s win was probably the last piece needed to convince a committee already hell-bent on giving the Buckeyes every benefit of the doubt, but the overall performance came with some red flags. Justin Fields, with an injured thumb, struggled to throw the football, and it remains to be seen if the Big Ten will once again tweak its COVID-19 rules to allow several key Buckeyes to return from quarantine before a potential semifinal.
Trey Sermon scores two touchdowns and runs for a school-record 331 yards as Ohio State beats Northwestern 22-10.
For Notre Dame, the luster of November’s win over Clemson is gone. It was left to coach Brian Kelly to make his case to the committee after Saturday’s 34-10 drubbing, a stark contrast from his idle threat just a day earlier that Notre Dame might boycott the playoff altogether if families weren’t allowed to attend the Rose Bowl.
Or perhaps the committee should look at Clemson’s throttling of Notre Dame on Saturday, weigh it against Alabama’s dominance against Texas A&M back in October, and decide, instead, it’s time to give someone else a shot at the crown. But, even in 2020, some things remain entirely impossible. Sorry, Coastal Carolina. A crown doesn’t look right on top of a mullet, anyway.
Still, Fisher and Kelly and Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell all made their cases in the aftermath of Saturday’s games. Perhaps this is the beauty of the playoff. The committee is here to make us all wonder about what the future holds, to guess at the thinking of 13 folks apt to decide just about anything, even if it’s unlikely to be a surprise. Because the reality is, as winding as this year’s path might’ve been, we should have all seen where the road was taking us.
Don’t forget the champs
LSU’s championship defense officially came to a close Saturday, but the Bayou Bengals went out in style.
With NCAA sanctions potentially looming, LSU opted out of a bowl game, which as it turns out, might have finally taken all the pressure off the roster. A week after its stunning upset of Florida, LSU managed to steal the show on Championship Saturday, too, coming back to beat Ole Miss 53-48 in the final two minutes.
LSU lost its starting QB early in the year, but by Saturday, it was clear the Tigers had an emerging star in Max Johnson, who accounted for 470 yards of offense.
Kayshon Boutte scores his third touchdown of the day in style, spinning out of one tackle and carrying two more defenders into the end zone for a go-ahead score.
Every receiver since Dwayne Bowe seemed to opt out this year, but that only cleared room for Kayshon Boutte to emerge, and he hauled in 14 catches for 308 yards and three touchdowns Saturday.
Bo Pelini’s defense was roundly criticized on a near-daily basis after getting scorched by Mississippi State in the opener, and … well, OK, that part is still a problem.
Of course, that’s also what made Saturday’s affair so much fun. The two teams combined for 101 points, 1,151 yards and 54 first downs.
Third school’s the charm
Nick Starkel was once a promising QB prospect at Texas A&M, but that didn’t work out.
Then he transferred to Arkansas, where he was installed as the starter in 2019, but that didn’t work out, either.
So Starkel transferred to San Jose State, and that has turned out to be a really nice fit.
He threw for 453 yards and three touchdowns in a 34-20 win over Boise State on Saturday, and in seven games, Starkel has thrown 18 touchdown passes — just four shy of his career total entering 2020.
Nick Starkel throws for 453 yards and three touchdowns as San Jose State defeats Boise State 34-20 to capture the Mountain West championship.
After winning the ACC championship, Dabo Swinney didn’t simply say his QB was deserving of the Heisman. He said the award might not be deserving of Trevor Lawrence.
Swinney called it “a stats award,” which, of course, it is, but the question is whether it should also be worth more than that. Swinney’s case for Lawrence, who does not have the best stats, is that the Clemson QB offers something that can’t be captured by numbers alone. There’s no concise metric to showcase that, but he was the top recruit when he arrived, and he’ll leave as the No. 1 overall draft pick, so logic — and any viewing of his performance Saturday — suggests that he has been the best in the interim, too.
But Heisman voters have to prioritize what actually happened on the field over what they *think* deep down in their guts.
1. Alabama WR DeVonta Smith
Alabama senior DeVonta Smith details the trust between he and Mac Jones after winning the SEC Championship.
Take Swinney’s argument at face value: It’s a stats award, but it should be about the best player. Well, let’s blend those two perspectives and ask, of the most talented players in college football, who had the best stats? The answer is Smith. In a normal year, where he’d have gotten to pad some stats against nonconference opponents, he might have had a shot at the FBS record for receiving yards. But that’s just the thing: Smith didn’t pad his stats anywhere. Some of his biggest games — 167 yards vs. Georgia, 203 vs. Mississippi State, 144 vs. Kentucky, 171 against Auburn — were against the best competition.
2. Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence
If he had played against BC and in the first showdown with Notre Dame, he might have had the numbers to put him over the top. But to give Lawrence credit for the games he didn’t play would undermine the impact of what Mac Jones and others actually did on the field. And so, instead, he’ll join Deshaun Watson on the list of Clemson QBs who probably should have won, but didn’t.
3. Alabama QB Mac Jones
It’s nearly impossible to separate Jones’ success from Smith’s, and both are worthy of the award. But here’s the question it came down to for us: Did Smith elevate Jones’ game or the other way around? There is perhaps a good argument to be made on both sides, but watching Alabama play, it was hard not to think about how much easier Jones’ life was because of Smith.
4. Florida QB Kyle Trask
Trask picked the wrong time for a two-game losing streak. Sure, it’s not his fault the Florida defense couldn’t hold, and his numbers against LSU and Alabama weren’t awful, but when the competition is this tight, there needs to be a little something extra, and for all of Trask’s success, it wasn’t enough to elevate the Gators when it mattered most.
5. BYU QB Zach Wilson
Wilson was always playing to an inside straight, and the loss to Coastal Carolina was his ultimate doom. But his season was special, and his stat line — 30 TD passes, 3 INT — should earn him a spot as a finalist.
Big bets and bad beats
There’s nothing quite like betting an over and being able to relax throughout the second half. That’s what happened in the Illinois-Penn State game, where the total was set at 55, and the two teams topped that with 5:32 left in the second quarter. As bad as things looked for Penn State after an 0-5 start, the Nittany Lions finished with a four-game winning streak and 580 yards of offense.
Notre Dame closed as a 10.5-point underdog in its rematch with Clemson on Saturday. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, Notre Dame was the first team 10-0 or better to enter a game as a double-digit underdog since — well, Notre Dame, which also had that happen back in 2018 against — well, Clemson. The Tigers won in a rout both times.
If you played a drinking game and had a beer for each touchdown in the Army-Air Force game, you were pretty thirsty at the end. The Black Knights came from behind to win 10-7 in a game where the under was safe virtually from the opening kickoff. The total closed at 37.5, which was a low number only if you’ve been unaware of the history when two service academies face off. The under is now 37-9-1 in such games dating back to 2005.
San Jose State won the Mountain West title after toppling Boise State 34-20 on Saturday. How stunning was the Spartans’ emergence? Caesars Sportsbook by William Hill had San Jose State at +2500 odds to win the league back on Nov. 5 — meaning a $100 bet on the Spartans would’ve paid out $2,500 on Saturday.
Friday night’s championship action was a good night for the ‘dogs. All three underdogs in title games won, with UAB (+175) beating Marshall for the Conference USA title, Ball State (+400) toppling Buffalo in the MAC and Oregon (+130) ending USC’s season in the Pac-12. If you laid down a $100 parlay bet on all three, according to ESPN Stats & Information, you’d have pocketed a cool $3,062.50.