by Chad Peltier
With wins by Clemson, Georgia, Oklahoma, Ohio State, and USC in the Power 5 championship games, the College Football Playoff semi-finalists are in:
Ohio State, despite beating Wisconsin 27-21 in the Big Ten Championship Game, was left out of the playoff at fifth place in the rankings. We can debate the committee's choice for the fourth spot, but first let's review how the championship games went down.
Let's start with the Pac-12 Championship. Stanford made this more of a game than expected, only losing 28-31, but the Trojans won by slowing Bryce Love and getting explosive passes from Sam Darnold. Love finished with 22 carries for 125 yards (5.7 yards per carry), but apart from a 52-yard run, he was mostly contained by the Trojans defense and finished with a 41 percent rushing success rate. Darnold went 17-of-24 for 325 yards and no interceptions, including eight passes of 15-plus yards and three of more than 48 yards. But the key series was with ten minutes left in the fourth quarter. Stanford was down 21-24, and the Cardinal had a fourth-and-goal at the 1. Instead of kicking the field goal on fourth down to tie the game, Stanford's Cameron Scarlett was stopped for no gain by linebacker Uchenna Nwosu. The Cardinal went on to lose by just three points.
Both Alabama and Ohio State fans watched the Big 12 Championship Game closely, as a TCU upset could have sent both the Crimson Tide and the Buckeyes to the playoff over Oklahoma. But the Sooners scored 14 points on three plays at the beginning of the third quarter to go up 38-17 and put the game out of reach for the Horned Frogs. Despite the lopsided final score, the Sooners didn't play their best game, actually finishing with a worse success rate than the Horned Frogs, 39 percent to 43 percent. But the Sooners used explosive plays -- a fumble return and two 50-plus-yard touchdown passes -- and some strong field position to outpace a TCU offense that couldn't create enough big plays.
The ACC Championship Game was extremely lopsided, as Miami could never move the ball on the Clemson's second-ranked S&P+ defense. The Hurricanes' tall task was made much more difficult as the injuries piled up in the week leading up to the game, dealing a devastating blow to the offense's relatively thin depth. Tight end Chris Herndon, who was second on the team in receiving yards, had an MCL tear against Pitt that ended his college career. Then star receiver Ahmon Richards, who was third on the team in receiving yards, tore his meniscus in practice, ending his season as well. That's on top of leading running back Mark Walton, who has been out since the Florida State game. The result? Just a 30 percent offensive success rate and only two Miami drives that achieved a first down inside the Clemson 40-yard line. The Hurricanes managed to make Clemson one-dimensional, holding the Tigers to 1.9 yards per carry, but Kelly Bryant was efficient enough through the air that he and the defense could quickly put the game out of reach, taking a 21-0 lead into halftime. 17 more points in the third quarter would crush any hopes of a Hurricanes upset.
After Auburn's first drive of the SEC Championship Game, you could have been forgiven for thinking that Georgia would get dominated like they had just three weeks earlier. Auburn calmly went down the field, taking advantage of two Georgia penalties and connecting on a 21-yard pass to go up 7-0. That would be the last time Auburn would score, and just one of three total drives that would gain a first down inside the Georgia 40-yard line. At the beginning of the second quarter, during a promising ten-play, 60-yard drive, Davin Bellamy sacked Jarrett Stidham, forcing a fumble that Butkus Award winner Roquan Smith recovered, setting up an 83-yard touchdown drive for the Bulldogs. From that point on, Georgia felt entirely in control, if not totally dominant. Georgia would finish with just a 36 percent overall success rate, but Kerryon Johnson finished with just 44 yards on 13 carries (although playing with a hurt shoulder) and Stidham finished with just a 31 percent passing success rate and 4.5 yards per attempt. Georgia exacted revenge on the Tigers similarly to how the Bulldogs have won their other 11 games this season: incredible defense, efficient passing, and explosive running.
The weekend's final big contest, the Big Ten Championship Game, came down to a final Wisconsin drive with the Badgers down six and with less than three minutes remaining. Ohio State had just opted to kick a field goal on fourth-and-1 from the Wisconsin 3-yard line and then gone three-and-out, setting up a dramatic, potentially game-winning drive for the Badgers. Despite being less efficient offensively than the Badgers over the course of the game (34 percent to 38 percent), it always felt like the Buckeyes were barely holding themselves back from blowing the game wide open. For example, right before the half, Ohio State mounted a 49-yard drive that ended with a blocked field goal, and also featured three misfired passes from J.T. Barrett where open receivers likely would have walked into the end zone. Further, Wisconsin scored 18 points off of Ohio State turnovers, including their first score, which was a pick-six with a 9-yard return by Wisconsin linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel. Wisconsin capitalized on two other turnovers that gave the Badgers the ball at the Ohio State 11-yard line and the Wisconsin 48 for two other scores. Without the benefit of the turnovers, the Badgers managed just a single field goal offensively. Ohio State's defense held star freshman running back Jonathan Taylor to just 41 total rushing yards and a 13 percent opportunity rate.
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Ohio State's offense, meanwhile, had just a 31 percent passing success rate (where Barrett completed only 12 of his 26 passing attempts) and a run game that was reliant on big plays. Four big plays ended up being the difference in the game: early 50-plus-yard passes for touchdowns, then two 50-plus-yard runs from J.K. Dobbins. Ohio State, like it had the rest of the season, flashed glimpses that it could be the best team in the country -- if only it was consistent enough to realize its talent.
Ultimately that inconsistency cost Ohio State the final spot in the College Football Playoff. There were really two reasons that the Buckeyes missed out on the fourth spot to Alabama: the 31-point loss to an average Iowa team (ranked 48th in the S&P+), and the fact that the Buckeyes' win over Wisconsin wasn't dominant. While many argued that the Iowa loss was by itself disqualifying, there's a case to be made that a dominant win over the Badgers could have boosted the Buckeyes' resume just enough for their inclusion.
- The Power 5 conference's championship games were either lopsided or all about defense, but Central Florida and Memphis combine for 117 points and nearly 1,500 yards of offense, ending in a double overtime win to keep the Knights undefeated despite four turnovers (two more than the Tigers). Both quarterbacks threw for more than 470 yards; three running backs hit 100 rushing yards; and four receivers totaled at least 145 receiving yards.
- Fresno State sat at 25th in the College Football Playoff rankings entering the Mountain West Championship Game against Boise State. Normally this wouldn't have been a game that too many Alabama fans watched very closely, but the Bulldogs happened to be one of Alabama's three wins over ranked teams this season, so a Fresno State loss to Boise State might have put the Crimson Tide at a critical disadvantage to Ohio State in quality wins. The two teams were evenly matched, with a one percent difference in offensive success rate for the entire game, but an interception on the Bulldogs' final drive ended any hopes of reclaiming the lead. Fresno State dropped out of the final rankings in favor of Boise State, but the Crimson Tide still got the nod, so there was ultimately no need to sweat.
- Kelly Bryant, QB, Clemson. Clemson may have lost Deshaun Watson, but Kelly Bryant has still led the 19th-ranked passing S&P+ offense, and had a 44 percent passing success rate against the 25th-ranked Miami passing S&P+ defense. His 252 passing yards were essentially the entire Clemson offense against Miami.
- J.K. Dobbins, RB, Ohio State. J.K. Dobbins broke the Ohio State record for freshman rushing yards, set by Maurice Clarett way back in 2002, with 17 carries for 174 yards against the Badgers. The majority of his yards came on two carries -- a 53-yarder and a 77-yard run. Dobbins averaged 7.5 yards per carry this season with a 44.2 percent opportunity rate and 8.0 highlight yards per opportunity.
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- Roquan Smith, LB, Georgia. Georgia's Roquan Smith has been the lynchpin of the Bulldogs defense all season, often making the biggest impact despite not piling up interceptions or sacks. Instead, Smith usually leads with solo tackles, where he ranks tenth overall in the country with 72; the next Georgia player has just 34. But Smith added some highlight reel plays against Auburn, picking up ten solo tackles, a sack, another tackle for loss, and two fumble recoveries, including the decisive recovery in the second quarter.
- Andrew Van Ginkel, LB, Wisconsin. Andrew Van Ginkel was essentially the entire Wisconsin defense in the first half. The linebacker snagged a pick-six from J.T. Barrett for the Badgers' first score, then added a fumble recovery that gave Wisconsin a field goal. Without his big plays, Wisconsin could have been in blowout territory.