Welcome to the final Weekend in College Football of the season. This week, we'll take you through everything you missed on Saturday (or, God forbid, Friday night), tell you the things worth learning, and look ahead to the College Football Playoff field. Enjoy.
1st and 10
Oklahoma steamrolled TCU 41-17, a nearly note-perfect recreation of the Sooners’ 38-20 triumph over the Horned Frogs on November 11th. The consistency is notable for two reasons.
First, the Sooners once again flashed their trademark balance on offense. Baker Mayfield was his usual, soon-to-be Heisman-winning self, efficient and ably spreading the ball across his receiving corps. Rodney Anderson ground out 93 yards, with Mayfield and Trey Sermon combining for 128 more. The offensive line, one of the country’s best, turned back Gary Patterson’s defense in both phases. By now, we’ve come to expect nothing less from what is far and away the best offense among the playoff field.
But it’s a second strong defensive performance that provides more optimism for a possible national championship run. As Sooner fans are well aware, Oklahoma has all the talent necessary to field a plus defense. Some of the individual cogs, such as sophomore linebacker Caleb Kelly, have flourished, too. But the unit ranked 100th in the S&P+ rankings heading into Saturday, which is embarrassingly low no matter how potent Big 12 offenses generally are across the board.
The Horned Frogs’ offense checked in at 45th, so the Sooners didn’t quite lock down one of the conference’s scariest attacks. Nevertheless, it was enough of a statement to beget optimism that Oklahoma can deliver on defense almost as well as they do on offense. Point blank: Two more strong defensive efforts probably means they’re winning the national title.
2nd and 8
The Sooners are the upside play, but Clemson is the safe bet.
Some of this, of course, is because they won it all last year and a not insignificant amount of that national championship team is back. The Tigers also have much of the Sooners’ offensive balance, if not their explosiveness, and augment that with the nastiest front seven in the country. The talent, production, intangibles, and resume—their one loss came when quarterback Kelly Bryant left early with a concussion—make Clemson the prohibitive favorites.
Still, confidence in the Tigers is inextricably tied to a belief that Bryant can drive an offense through an elite defense when the chips are down. DeShaun Watson did it last year and even his brilliance was barely enough to carry Clemson past Alabama. Now Bryant will be tasked with doing the same thing and, despite Watson’s proclamations to the contrary, the junior is not yet on par with the greatest quarterback in program history.
Still, Bryant’s potential is abundant, and his performance in the Tigers’ 38-3 demolition of Miami—23 of 29 for 252 yards and a touchdown—is an extremely promising tune-up. But if Alabama takes away the run game, will Bryant be ready? It comes down to timing, and whether he can develop into what Clemson needs him to be before it costs the Tigers a game.
Clip of the Week
Bronze: The play itself—the mechanics of it—are fairly mundane. USC senior linebacker Uchenna Nwosu bursts around an edge and drags Stanford’s Cameron Scarlett down by his shoelaces. Impressive, but not spectacular. It’s the context that elevates it.
Nwosu makes this stop on 4th and goal from the USC 1-yard-line with eight minutes remaining in the game and Trojans bleeding momentum. A few more inches and Scarlett delivers the Cardinal a 28-24 lead. Instead, it’s a turnover on downs and the Trojans march 99 yards for a game-sealing touchdown and their first conference title since 2008. Sam Darnold and Ronald Jones get many of the plaudits, but Nwosu was the hero on Friday night.
Silver: Speaking of big plays at crucial moments, Georgia’s coup de grâce came from true freshman tailback D’Andre Swift, the heir to Nick Chubb and Sony Michel’s throne in Athens. Swift was similarly regarded coming out of high school, but he has the edge on the upperclassmen—and most everyone else—in top-end speed. Case in point, this 64-yard bolt of lightning down the left sideline that even had Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart running along with him. Georgia went up 28-10, walling off any hope of an Auburn comeback.
Gold: Given how TCU got flattened by Oklahoma, the Horned Frogs’ John Diarse can’t match these last two in dramatics. No, this is about pure aesthetics and degree of difficulty. Here’s why the last week of the regular season delivered one of the very best catches of the year:
3rd and 1
Georgia’s 28-7 win over Auburn in the SEC Championship Game was a clinic in what the Bulldogs do best: pounding opponents into submission, both with a deep, physical defense and a hydra of running backs on offense. There is no transcendent strength on par with Oklahoma’s offensive skill position talent or Clemson’s front four, but Georgia’s offense is far less of a question than the Sooners’ defense, and while true freshman Jake Fromm carries many of the same questions as Bryant, he also has a much stronger TD:INT ratio (19:5) and his running backs are far more established.
Think of the Bulldogs as a faster, more dynamic Wisconsin. Opposing teams know what’s coming but there’s still the matter of actually stopping it. Except, unlike the Badgers, Georgia dispatched more than enough opponents to verify that their strategy is the real deal.
As is the case with Clemson and Bryant, the best hope of beating the Bulldogs will be to take away the run and force Fromm to win with his arm, something Auburn achieved when they defeated Georgia in their first matchup back in November. Also like Bryant, Fromm boasts superstar potential—but while Bryant gets thrown into the fire against Alabama, Fromm has a date with the softest defense in the playoff field. If his play takes a jump against a vulnerable Sooners secondary, the Bulldogs could play for their first national title since 1980.
On dissecting the debate for the final playoff spot, because the anticlimactic truth is that Alabama and Ohio State each had a case making the field.
For Crimson Tide, it’s the fact that, for the overwhelming majority of the season, Alabama looked like the best team in the country, and their only loss came on the road against a top-ten team. They’ll also enter the postseason healthier than they’ve been since September, with Mack Wilson, Christian Miller, and Terrell Lewis set to bolster a decimated linebacking corps.
An Alabama–Clemson rubber match will also be catnip for television ratings, which almost certainly played a role in this outcome. But there’s ample reason to believe that the Tide offer the best hope of giving Clemson a really great game, not only on account of the last two season but because Alabama is the most balanced team in the field. Everything I said about taking away the Clemson run game and forcing Kelly Bryant to throw? Yeah, Alabama can do that.
But Auburn provided a blueprint for defeating Nick Saban just last week, and Clemson’s defensive front combined with Bryant’s efficiency—his 67.4 percent completion percentage ranked sixth nationally—give Dabo Swinney the tools to stem the Tide for a second straight season.
Player Who Deserves to Be Paid This Week
For the second week in a row, undefeated UCF needed quarterback McKenzie Milton to go blow for blow with another highly regarded signal caller. Once again, Milton led the Knights to victory. Memphis’ Riley Ferguson was nearly as good in Saturday’s frenetic 62-55 AAC Championship Game, but Milton was just a tad better, completing 28 of 40 passes for 494 yards and five touchdowns.
Soon after the game ended, UCF coach Scott Frost was announced as the new head man at Nebraska, where he’ll earn $5 million annually. It’s only fair he donates some of it to his now-former quarterback.
Coach Who Does Not Groundskeeper Who Does
There was no egregiously bad coaching performance on this week’s short slate, so let’s keep things light and pay homage to Eric Harlow, the humble groundskeeper at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Late in the fourth quarter of the Big Ten Championship Game, Wisconsin’s Chris James scored a one-yard touchdown so violent it literally ripped the turf off the ground. The game must go on, so in stepped Harlow, the Winston Wolf of faux horticulture, who proceeded to pour on rubber pellets and do field triage for the next ten or so minutes as a capacity crowd plus millions of people on television watched him work. You could argue that it’s the most high-pressure field-repair job in football history. (I do not have a list of other contenders, don’t @ me.)
If this does not merit a performance bonus, I don’t know what does.
Obscure College Football Team of Note
One of the chief casualties of the College Football Playoff’s hegemony is a tendency to downplay the significance of what a bowl game, any old bowl game, can mean. On Saturday, New Mexico State issued a heartwarming reminder.
The Aggies entered the week needing a win over South Alabama to clinch bowl eligibility for the first time in 57 years. Here is an obligatory list of notable American events in 1960, the year they last made it:
- John F. Kennedy announced his presidential campaign
- Joanne Woodward received the first-ever star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
- The U.S. sent more troops to Vietnam
- Ben-Hur won best picture at The Oscars
You get the picture. Consequently, you can empathize a bit when, following NMSU’s 22-17 win, the Aggie faithful stormed the field and head coach Doug Martin cried during his postgame interview. And, as fate would have it, NMSU’s opponent in the NOVA Home Loans Arizona Bowl is none other than another set of Aggies: Utah State, who remarkably enough was NMSU’s opponent all the way back in that last bowl appearance in 1960.
Bowl are great and don’t let anyone try to convince you otherwise. Speaking of…
Something to Look Forward To
Bowl season. A month’s worth of football, in varying shapes and stakes and times. Some of them will be memorable; many more won’t be. There will be goofy sponsors and exotic matchups and at least a few memorable performances. Even in the low moments, bowl season is the best college football has to offer. Take a cue from New Mexico State and make sure to savor it.