Four-Gone Conclusion: Who Can Beat ‘Bama In College Football Playoffs?
The oligarchs who determine the direction and destiny of the college football playoffs and bowl schedule have done their work. Last weekend, after the completion of the conference championship games, they announced who is invited to the College Football Playoff and who is left on the outside, noses pressed against the window wondering what went wrong and why.
Truth is, only the committee knows for sure. With their help of their algorithms, perhaps influenced by preconceived perceptions and the power and money of the Power 5 powerhouses who consider it solely their domain, we know who comprises the Final Four.
Happy Days For Final Four
For Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame and Oklahoma, this is a happy time. They get to prepare for the national semifinals Dec. 29 – the Crimson Tide vs. the Sooners in the Capital One Orange Bowl, the Fighting Irish against the Tigers in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl.
The winners advance to the CFP championship on Jan. 7, where Alabama hopes to defend its title. The next step for Georgia, the SEC finalist, and Ohio State, the Big Ten champion, is splendid, but now less prestigious. The Buckeyes play Washington in the Rose Bowl, the Bulldogs get Texas in the Sugar Bowl.
Trying To Make Sense Of It All
As a public service, Tiebreaker.com will try to sort things out. The aim is to explain why and how the committee came to the decision it did. The pressure on it was enormous. All six teams in contention presented impressive credentials, big wins, superstar players, large fan bases who travel well and root hard.
Any combination of four within the six candidates would have produced showcase spectacles. But we know the decision has created a worthy debate. We understand that as many who are thrilled with it, there are others at Georgia and Ohio State who feel distraught, disenfranchised and disrespected.
There simply could not have been any other choice for the first seed. The Crimson Tide (13-0), which makes its fifth College Football Playoff appearance, was a fearsome force. They steamrolled past every opponent by at least 22 points until the SEC championship when Georgia forced a response by building a lead in the second half.
With Heisman candidate Tua Tagovailoa sidelined with an injured ankle and sore knee, Jalen Hurts sprung from the Tide’s bench and threw for one touchdown and ran for the winning one with just over a minute to play to give the Crimson Tide a 35-28 win.
Hurts So Good Again
This was a storybook event. You’ll recall it was Hurts, the 2016 SEC player of the year as a freshman, who lost his starting job after Tagovailoa’s work in the Tide’s come-from-behind, overtime win over the Bulldogs in last year’s title game. If Hurts was hurt by it, he didn’t show it.
He stayed with the program, determined to be a good teammate and mentor. And now, the Tide may need Hurts more than ever. Tagovailoa is having surgery on his ankle so there can be no way to truly knowing how capable he will be to play against Oklahoma.
Tagovailoa Isn’t Always Perfect
The loss of Tagovailoa would be enormous for just about any team, of course. He threw for 36 TDs and only two interceptions until the Georgia game, when was intercepted twice and showed some indecision in the pocket. He had shown no weakness.
Then Hurts tied the game on a 10-yard TD pass to Jerry Jeudy, which put the punctuation on a 16-play, 80-yard drive that sucked more than seven minutes off the clock. Once Georgia inexplicably failed on a fake punt, Hurts took control again. Using his trademark elusiveness, he sprung through a wide gap and scored the winning TD with 1:04 to play.
Odds Are The Tide Will Roll
The wise guys in Las Vegas seem certain Oklahoma will be no match for the Tide. Alabama, looking for its sixth national crown under the unflappable Nick Saban, opens as a 14-point favorite, even without Tagovailoa. Imagine what it might be if he was.
The Tide’s defense has been as dominating, although Georgia was able to dent it. It scored 21 points in the first half, the most Alabama had relinquished in the first half this season. They have a great secondary and an active middle linebacker, Mack Wilson, who will likely get the assignment of stopping Sooners’ QB Kyler Murray.
If there is an antidote for Alabama’s power, it may very well be Clemson (13-0), a force of nature in its own right. They won their fourth consecutive ACC title by demolishing Pittsburgh 42-10 in the rain. The Tigers have their won superstar QB in Trevor Lawrence – all 6-feet-6 of him. And they can score pretty much at will.
Lawrence replaced Kelly Bryant in September when coach Dabo Sweeney acted on instinct and named him the starter. Lawrence is calm and strong-armed, likely the reason he was ESPN’s No. 2 high school prospect last season – behind Georgia QB Justin Fields.
Lawrence Has Multiple Weapons
Against Pitt, Lawrence tossed two TD passes to Tee Higgins, one of the many fleet weapons he works with. If nothing else, the Tigers hope Lawrence provides the difference when they play Alabama for the fourth straight season in the playoffs. The Tide has won two of the first three.
Clemson, which is a 11 ½-point favorite, has the best offensive line in the nation, highlighted by left tackle Mitch Hyatt. Behind this line, its running game has excelled, led by Travis Etienne. Its only poor performance came against Syracuse, a day Lawrence was injured and the Tigers had to be rescued by third-string QB Chase Brice.
Renfrow Made His Mark
Lawrence has another target with an interesting background. Hunter Renfrow began as a walk-on, rare in the places where the college game rules the land. Earlier this week, he won the Burlsworth Trophy, which annually goes to a guy that’s exceled after a humble beginning.
Renfrow, now a senior, has been a factor his entire career. This season, he has 41 catches for 472 yards and one TD. He’s made 180 catches for 2,061 yards ad 15 TDs in his career. None was more significant than the game-winning TD he snagged from Deshaun Watson to win the 2016 national championship.
Tigers Defense Can Maul
Defensive tackle Christian Wilkins is dynamic. Dexter Lawrence, Austin Bryant, Tre Lamar and Clelin Ferrell are not far behind. The defense has allowed less than 100 rushing yards per game. Notre Dame’s Dexter Williams, who missed the first four games, still managed 941 yards rushing.
But it also has shown vulnerability. Texas A&M had success against its secondary. And South Carolina racked up 35 points in their rivalry game Nov. 24. Notre Dame has a good offense, but not one known for quick strikes. The Fighting Irish rely on ball control and QB Ian Book excels more on short patterns.
Fighting Irish fans naturally feel their team should always have a place in the Final Four, what with Knute Rockne, Joe Montana and their television deal with NBC providing evidence of their perennial national status. The thing is, the Irish (12-0) haven’t been unbeaten since 2012 and there has always been someone else around to knock them down a peg.
Not so in 2018. The Irish laid the groundwork for their first bid by beating Michigan in week one, dumping Syracuse at Yankee Stadium and them coming from behind to quiet USC to end the season. It’s been a big year.
A Lot To Deal With
We’ve talked about the potency of Clemson’s offense. It’s going to be the most prolific the Irish have faced in years. The Tigers have outscored opponents 166-29 in the third quarter, a clear sign they can switch gears at the half.
So, you might think Clemson has had trouble scoring in the second quarter. You would be very wrong. This is how the Tigers roll: 177-31. Pull out the calculator. Clemson’s 343 points in the middle quarters almost match ND’s 405 all season. There may one hope. Fight fire with fire. The Tigers allowed 510 yards passing against South Carolina.
Pitt Coach Loves Clemson
Ah, but Clemson might be a challenge not even a leprechaun can overcome. Pittsburgh coach Pat Narduzzi, who played ND and the Tigers this season, told ESPN there was “no comparison” between the teams. He felt Clemson will win the national championship. You can assume this means the Irish might be in for more than they can handle.
Like Clemson, the Irish made a QB change after their third game, coach Brian Kelly replacing incumbent Brandon Wimbush with Book. Book has been on Kelly’s mind since throwing the TD pass they lifted that lifted ND over LSU in the Citrus Bowl.
Book Turned The Page
Book responded by spending a few weeks leading the nation in completion percentage, connecting on 71 percent of his passes in his first five games. What’s more impressive is he threw at least two TD passes in each of his eight starts. Notre Dame also has a stellar defense.
The Irish held eight teams under 17 points and did not allow more than 27 points to any opponent. If the Irish have a possible edge over Clemson it’s in their secondary. Safety Alohi Gilman and corner Julian Love will at least give Lawrence, with only four interceptions, something new to deal with.
The Sooners’ (12-1) ticket to the semifinals was punched with a win avenging its only loss, to Texas in the Big 12 title game. Had it not won, it’s likely Ohio State would be in its place right now. But Oklahoma won its seventh straight game and their fourth consecutive outright conference crown. Enough said.
Last season, the Sooners offense was ignited by QB Baker Mayfield, who won the Heisman. Had Tagovailoa not had the season he did, Murray might have made it two straight. And why not? Oklahoma averages almost 50 points and Murray has broken Mayfield’s record for total offense.
How Bad Is Bad
The Sooners defense comes to the Orange Bowl with the worst defense, statistically, of any of the 20 programs to participate in the CFP. Oklahoma allows an average of 448.1 yards. The 2014 Oregon team allowed 429.7. That team lost the national championship to Ohio State. Oklahoma allows 6.03 yards per play, a little more than its defense in 2017 (5.84).
Oklahoma’s opponents have scored on 93.6 percent of their red zone visits, again worse than last year (87.8). And the Sooners’ defense has only 11 turnovers. The Sooners allowed 704 yards to West Virginia, 524 to Kansas, 473 to Texas Tech.
Can Sooners Score Enough To Win?
It seems unlikely Oklahoma can score enough to compensate for its defense, despite speedsters like Marquise Brown and CeeDee Lamb. Freshman Kenny Brooks also excelled. Oklahoma’s defense stinks. It was so bad, the program fired defensive coordinator Mike Stoops in October after Texas rang up 48. No team since 1936 had won four straight while allowing 40 points in each.
Alabama has a wide range of quick receivers, three of whom are only sophomores. The Sooners secondary has been decimated by passing attacks all season and unless they put on some pressure on Tagovailoa (of Hurts), the Tide might roll.
Why are the Bulldogs not in the Final Four? Easy question. It lost to by 20 to LSU in October and then couldn’t figure out a way to hold onto another lead against Alabama in the SEC championship. Not even having a better strength of schedule than Oklahoma and Ohio State was enough to counter two defeats.
According to multiple reports, some of the 15-member playoff committee felt Georgia was one of the four best teams in the nation, certainly better than Oklahoma. Rob Mullens, Oregon’s athletic director and committee chair, admitted so during this press conference on Sunday afternoon.
Some Fought For Georgia
Mullens categorized the debate as sometimes contentious. Those who supported the Bulldogs did so with much vigor. But in the end, they were outshouted by those who did not agree. Ultimately, it came down to mathematics; strength of schedule, plus quality wins and conference championships. Oklahoma’s offense was considered more potent. And the Sooners won their conference.
So what does Georgia have to complain about? Alabama’s average margin of victory coming into the SEC championship game was 35, broken down to a 49-14 margin. Despite it all, the Bulldogs still managed to build a pair of 14-point leads, the last 28-14.
Bulldogs Can Blame Themselves
And the Bulldogs folded, allowed 21 straight points. For the second straight time against Alabama, in a game that really mattered, it imploded down the stretch. Seriously, how could the committee have overlooked that, especially when Georgia’s inclusion would have likely meant the No. 4 seed and a semifinal rematch against Alabama.
What’s more, how could the committee have canonized a team – and a coach, Kirby Smart – that essentially through away the SEC title by trying, and failing, an ill-advised fake punt near midfield that gave Alabama great field position in the fourth quarter and helped it win the game?
One Kick Might Have Done It
And what about the 30-yard field goal that Rodrigo Blakenship, one of the nation’s top placekickers, missed that could have increased Georgia’s lead to 31-14. That might have been an insurmountable lead. The Tide immediately burst through the hole when Tagovailoa threw a 51-yard TD pass. The comeback had commenced. Georgia had its chance.
“Sick,” Smart said. “We couldn’t close the deal. Everybody is going to point to whether it’s a field goal, whether it’s a fake punt, or whether it’s a breakdown on third-down contain or fourth-down contain and they score, a fumble. It’s so many things. It’s inches.”
Ohio State did not lose its chance to play in the Final Four by winning the Big Ten championship. In fact, it only strengthen its credentials by pounding Northwestern, 45-24. The Buckeyes have won three conference titles in the last five years for Urban Meyer. It was the conclusion of another notable season.
The Buckeyes lost their chance Oct. 21. That’s the day that allowed unranked Purdue to bury them, 49-20, in West Lafayette. It was eerie familiar to the 2017 season when Ohio State went to Iowa a three-touchdown favorite and lost 55-24, the worst defeat in Meyer’s career.
Being Boiled By Purdue Hurt
In the blowout loss to Purdue, Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins Jr. threw for a school-record 470 yards 49 of 73 passes — also school records –but the Buckeyes only scored only 20 points against a defense that came into the game ranked 92nd in the nation defensively.
There are some indiscretions a tournament committee can forgive. But losing to by three TDs to Purdue, one year after losing by 29 points to Iowa, are not among them. Ohio State would have needed Georgia and Oklahoma to lose to get in. Georgia did. Oklahoma didn’t. Thank you for playing our game.
Ohio State Had Its Moments
And we are talking about a Buckeyes program that drilled Michigan 62-39, a game that Wolverines had hoped would catapult them into playoff contention. But we are also talking about a team that struggled mightily at Maryland before finally winning 52-51 in overtime. Which Ohio State team should the committee taken seriously? We found out.
The Buckeyes tried making amends against Northwestern. Haskins threw five more TD passes. He was 34 of 41 for 499 yards with just one interception. It wrapped up their fifth straight win. They scored 107 points in their final two games against Michigan and Northwestern.
Buckeyes Offense Was Potent
There was also this: If it had chosen to do so, the committee could have determined Ohio State’s offense as potent as Oklahoma’s. Haskins was a force of nature all season. In their first four games, the Buckeyes scored 77 against Oregon State, 52 against Rutgers, 40 vs. TCU and another 49 against Tulane.
Then it could have offset that by concluding that its defense was far superior. But it could not overcome the trauma of the Purdue loss. In NCAA parlance, that was considered a quality loss, certainly more damaging that the three-point loss to Texas that ruined Oklahoma’s perfect season.
No Second Chance
During his comments on Sunday, Mullens made a point to note Oklahoma had avenged the Texas loss. What was left unsaid was Ohio State never had a chance to show how sorry it was about losing to Purdue. Would have Ohio State been listed as an underdog in a hypothetical semifinal game against Notre Dame, Georgia or Oklahoma? Probably not.
“In the end, one-loss conference champion (Oklahoma) with their only loss on a neutral field, a close loss to a ranked team, was avenged,” Mullens said. “And their defense has made some big plays in the last couple of weeks.”
It Is What Committee Says It Is
In the end, we are left with what the committee has left us. That is two national semifinal games that are lining up to be routs. This will be the first time in the history of the playoffs with a pair of double-digit favorites.
As it is, Clemson and Alabama are just the third and fourth teams ever to be double-digit favorites in such a format. According to ESPN, teams favored to win by 10 or more points have won 88.2 percent of the time in the last three seasons. That news must trouble Georgia and Ohio State very much.
Three Heisman Finalists Out Of Six
We’ve exhausted a lot of cyberspace explaining how talented Tagovailoa, Murray and Haskins how. We were not kidding. The trio will be in New York City on Saturday to see who wins the 84th Heisman Trophy. Remember, Mayfield won it last year. No school has ever had back-to-back Heisman winners that were QBs.
That’s not to say schools have stacked Heisman Trophies in the past. USC (Matt Leinart in 2004 and Reggie Bush in 2005, Army (Doc Blanchard in 1945 and Glenn Davis in 1946) and Yale (Larry Kelley in 1936 and Clint Frank in 1937) have all done it.
Both Semifinals Could Be Routs
A spokesman for SuperBook at the Westgate in Las Vegas told ESPN that Tagovailoa’s injury did not influence the 14-point spread. He said if Hurts plays, the bookmakers expect much the same result against the Sooners questionable defense. The Tide has been favored in 125 its last 126 games. In 2015, they were a one-point underdog to Georgia.
Still, it doesn’t appear the nation is ready to expand the playoffs to alleviate these perennial arguments. “There’s been no talk about a format change in the meetings of the commissioners and the presidents who manage the CFP,” said executive director Bill Hancock.
What About Central Florida?
Truth is, the Big Ten champion has been excluded for three straight season. But imagine being Central Florida, the champion of the American Athletic Conference. The Knights completed their second consecutive unbeaten season – and extended their winning streak to 25 – by coming back to beat Memphis in their conference title game.
The No. 8 Knights consolation prize is a New Year’s Day match with No. 11 in the Play Station Fiesta Bowl. If any scenario imaginable, there is likely no program from outside a Power 5 conference ever will have a chance to play for the national championship.