by Chad Peltier
The College Football Playoff semifinal results perfectly captured where the sport is right now.
First, we had one of the best Rose Bowls, playoff games, bowl games... or really just games, period, in a long time. Georgia's thrilling (and that's an understatement) 54-48 win over Oklahoma in double overtime solidified Kirby Smart's Bulldogs as the rising challenger to Alabama in the SEC.
And appropriately, Georgia now advances to the championship game to face Alabama -- a team that didn't win its own division, but was nevertheless one of the best teams in the country this season, as they have been since Nick Saban's second year in Tuscaloosa. The Sugar Bowl, the third-straight playoff meeting between Clemson and Alabama, was boring in comparison to the previous two years' shootouts, and definitely in comparison to the Rose Bowl that immediately preceded it. But Alabama's 24-6 win typified another reliable standby of college football we've come to know: what the Solid Verbal calls an Alabama "crock-potting." There were big plays (please note the back-to-back Piesman Trophy moments for Da'Ron Payne) but mostly Alabama's win was just a dominating defensive performance where even a modest lead seemed insurmountable.
This year's all-SEC Championship may be nauseating for some fans outside the South, but it shouldn't be. Just the fact that this matchup happened at all proves the craziness of college football: Georgia beat the Big 12 champions in the Rose Bowl, and Oklahoma had convincingly beaten the Big Ten champions at the beginning of the season, but Ohio State was left out of the playoff in favor of Georgia's opponent in the national championship. And just to tie everyone in: Ohio State, champions in the Big Ten (a conference that went 7-1 during bowl season) beat Pac-12 champions USC by double digits in the Cotton Bowl. Oh, and Alabama's only loss of the season came to a team that also beat the Bulldogs (even though Georgia later got revenge), but then Auburn just lost to a Group of 5 school in the Peach Bowl. That team, Central Florida, wrapped up the only perfect season in the FBS, but was only ranked tenth in the final College Football Playoff rankings. And no matter who wins the national championship, 10-4 Auburn will have beaten them during the regular season.
Let's start our look at the playoff with the Rose Bowl first. Both offenses came out hot in the first half, but only the Sooners were able to convert third downs (converting six-of-eight, while Georgia managed just one-of-five), and therefore took a 31-17 lead into halftime. Baker Mayfield was on fire from the beginning, going 13-for-18 for 200 yards, and also had a touchdown reception on a third-and-goal reverse-pass with six seconds left in the half.
Mayfield's performance wasn't necessarily surprising. Georgia's defense had been elite this season, but its primarily vulnerability had been allowing explosive passes. Missouri's Drew Lock averaged 10.1 yards per pass, while Auburn's Jarrett Stidham had three receivers average over 21 yards per catch in the Tigers' first matchup with the Bulldogs. Georgia's defense ranked a strong 23rd in passing IsoPPP and sixth overall in opponent-adjusted passing S&P+, but if the Bulldogs defense had any vulnerabilities to exploit, Mayfield would find them.
But what was surprising from the first half was Oklahoma's Rodney Anderson. The Sooners running back had 13 carries for 125 yards, including runs of 45 and 41 yards in the first half. Those were the only two 40-plus-yard runs Georgia allowed all season.
Georgia's offense kept the game within striking distance, though, thanks to relatively efficient passing from freshman quarterback Jake Fromm and, more than anything, incredible runs from the senior duo of Sony Michel and Nick Chubb. The two only had eight carries in the first half, but totaled an incredible 184 rushing yards on those plays, thanks to runs of 25, 20, 75, and 45 yards. Georgia averaged 10.4 yards per play to Oklahoma's 9.0, but also ran 12 fewer plays due to the trouble keeping drives alive on third downs. Georgia showed that they might be up for a shootout, provided the defense could get at least a few stops (Oklahoma had just a single punt in the first half).
Then, with just six seconds left in the half following Oklahoma's reverse-pass touchdown to Mayfield, an errant squib kick set up a Rose Bowl (and personal) record field goal from Georgia's Rodrigo Blankenship. The improbable 55-yarder would end up assuring a tie at the end of regulation, and gave the Bulldogs just enough life at the half to set up an incredible third quarter.
That field goal started a 24-0 run for Georgia thanks to a dominant third quarter. Georgia's defense forced three-and-outs on Oklahoma's first two drives of the second half, while Nick Chubb took the Bulldogs' first carry of the second half 50 yards for a touchdown, breaking three tackles near the line of scrimmage in a highlight run that mirrored runs from early in his career.
Georgia tacked on another touchdown on a balanced drive with a 38-yard Michel run to tie the game at 31 with 41 seconds to go in the third quarter. Georgia then grabbed its first lead of the game as Dominick Sanders grabbed a 39-yard interception, which Jake Fromm and senior receiver Javon Wims turned into six points just two plays later.
With just a quarter left to go, a run game that hadn't been slowed yet, and a defense that had finally gotten to Mayfield, Georgia looked like it might be able to ride out the rest of the game. The offense picked up right where it left off from the first half, but the defense added three sacks in the third quarter and held Oklahoma to an astounding 29 yards on 16 total plays, including a defensive score. Oklahoma had a 68 percent offensive success rate along with seven plays of 15-plus yards in the first half, but had just a 19 percent success rate in the third quarter, forcing two three-and-outs and an interception.
But the game would turn again. Oklahoma managed an 88-yard drive with three plays of 15-plus yards to tie the game at 38. Then on Georgia's subsequent possession, Oklahoma's Caleb Kelly put his helmet right on the ball during a Sony Michel run, allowing Steven Parker to return the fumble 46 yards for a score and the lead again. There were just under seven minutes left in the game -- plenty of time for Georgia to retake the lead, but Oklahoma seemed to find its footing on offense again, too.
It all came down to two drives. First, Georgia had to score with 3:15 left. Fromm completed three passes between 15 and 17 yards to get the Bulldogs to the 2-yard line, and Chubb grabbed another touchdown out of the "Wild Dawg" formation to tie the game with just 55 seconds left. Baker Mayfield then started the potential game-winning drive with a 12-yard pass that stopped the clock, but the Georgia defense held at midfield, sending the game to overtime.
Georgia started overtime with a field goal after a third-down pass slipped out of tight end Issac Nauta's fingers. Oklahoma responded with a field goal thanks to a third-down stop by Roquan Smith, leaving Jordan Smallwood a yard short. Lincoln Riley thought about going for it on fourth down, but opted to kick the field goal, sending the game to double overtime. Then, on Oklahoma's last possession, senior outside linebacker Lorenzo Carter blocked the field goal, coming through the line nearly unblocked. Two plays later, Michel took another direct snap 27 yards for the touchdown and the win. It's almost ironic that Georgia's most critical final touchdowns -- Chubb's 2-yard run at the end of the fourth quarter and Michel's to win the game in double overtime -- were both out of the "Wild Dawg," which is a play Georgia fans love to hate.
On to the Sugar Bowl, where it's important to remember to never, ever bet against Nick Saban in a revenge game.
Saban has an incredible ability to make his team feel like they're the underdogs in almost every game, no matter the actual spread or how many national titles the Crimson Tide add during his tenure. Throughout the entire offseason, Alabama preached revenge against Clemson, with players saying after the game that they were well aware that Dabo Swinney voted them fifth in his final Coaches' Poll vote.
Alabama won in classic fashion: just enough offense and an absolutely overwhelming defense. The Crimson Tide surrendered 550 yards in 2016 and 511 in 2017 to the Deshaun Watson-led Tigers, but only 188 in this semifinal matchup. Clemson went three-and-out on its first three drives, threw back-to-back interceptions (the second one returned for a touchdown), and allowed five sacks and nine total tackles for loss. Clemson had just a 37 percent rushing success rate and a 27 percent passing success rate, failing to score a touchdown for just the second time under Dabo Swinney according to ESPN.
Clemson's best chance to change the game came on its second drive of the second half. It had already forced an Alabama fumble and three-and-out, and kicked a field goal in the first three drives of the half, and was moving the ball well. But then defensive lineman Da'Ron Payne intercepted Kelly Bryant's pass and took it 21 yards. Just to get another Piesman-worthy moment for the lineman, he then lined up in the backfield on second-and-goal from the 1 and caught a Jalen Hurts touchdown pass to go up 17-6. Things weren't looking great for Clemson at that point, but the game was wrapped up on the following play as Bryant threw his second interception in two plays, which Mack Wilson took in for the pick-six. Alabama's offense wasn't spectacular -- they finished with a 40 percent success rate, Hurts averaged just 5 yards per pass, and the team averaged only 3.4 yards per rush -- but Clemson's vaunted defensive line was mostly negated with only two sacks and five total tackles for loss.
We'll now get the first national championship with two teams from the same conference of the playoff era. Two teams with incredibly deep and talented groups of running backs, young quarterbacks, and dominant defenses. Nick Saban against yet another Saban disciple. And probably the two actual best teams in the country.
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- Oklahoma had just the 62nd-ranked S&P+ rushing defense, but Sony Michel and Nick Chubb took full advantage of that weakness, rushing for 326 yards on just 25 carries (13 yards per attempt). They also set an FBS record: with 8,284 yards (and counting), they set the record for career rushing yards by a pair of running backs, taking the title from SMU's Craig James and Eric Dickerson.
- Central Florida finished a perfect season and sent head coach Scott Frost off to Nebraska with a win over seventh-ranked Auburn. Central Florida held Kerryon Johnson to 3.2 yards per carry on 22 rushes; piled up six sacks and ten total tackles for loss; completely nullified Auburn's defensive line (allowing just two total tackles for loss); and forced two interceptions (one a pick-six) and a fumble from Jarrett Stidham. That balanced effort showed that the Knights were for real, and gave the Group of 5 more ammunition for inclusion as a real playoff threat for future years.
- The Big Ten went 7-1 in bowl season. Its only loss came in the conference's final game, where Michigan blew a 16-point lead to South Carolina. But only three of those outcomes were upsets for the Big Ten. Michigan State ranked 35th compared to Washington State at 30th in the F/+; Penn State was ninth compared to Washington at seventh; and, in the biggest upset, Michigan was 23rd but lost to 72nd-ranked South Carolina.
- Sony Michel, RB, Georgia. If you had to pick just one Georgia running back, it would probably be Michel, though Nick Chubb's big runs were just as instrumental in the comeback win. But Michel's 11 carries for 181 yards -- including runs of 75, 20, 38, and 27 yards -- were incredible.
- Rodney Anderson, RB, Oklahoma. If you would have said pregame that Rodney Anderson would lead all running backs in total rushing yards, then I would have guessed that Oklahoma won in absolute blowout. But Anderson was just incredibly explosive against the Bulldogs' stout rushing defense, equaling if not outshining Baker Mayfield. Anderson's 201 yards on 26 carries included a 54 percent rushing success rate and four runs of 15-plus yards.
- Alex Hornibrook, QB, Wisconsin.Alex Hornibrook's game wasn't all that flashy, averaging 7.6 yards per attempt with a 68 percent completion rate and 258 total passing yards, but he was incredibly efficient in must-get situations, with five converted passes on third downs (of 18, 20, 10, 21, and 18 yards). Miami had the 25th-best passing S&P+ defense.
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- Da'Ron Payne, DL, Alabama.The Sugar Bowl didn't have any offensive players on either side that really stood out -- after all, the longest play of the game was 22 yards (a pass to Najee Harris) and neither team had more than a handful of plays go for more than 10 yards. But Da'Ron Payne was probably the defensive player of the game for the Tide, recording two tackles, an interception, and a touchdown catch on offense. While the whole Alabama defense played at an elite level, Anfernee Jennings also deserves a shout-out for his three tackles for loss (one sack).
- Sam Hubbard, DE, Ohio State. Sam Hubbard played in his final collegiate game against USC, but gave the NFL scouts some additional highlight film, recording 2.5 sacks and 3.5 total tackles for loss to lead the Buckeyes (who had 14 total tackles for loss).