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.