Five teams, four parachutes, and the pursuit of unhappiness
Thanks to Alabama's win over Georgia, the College Football Playoff selection on Sunday guarantees nothing but outrage.
There are no fifth Beatles, no fifth Mt. Rushmore dignitaries, no fifth wheels. Not this year, anyway.
Next year, when college football suffers playoff bloat, we’ll be arguing about who the 13th best team in America is, depending on how much breath we need to waste. But throughout Saturday night and into Sunday morning, the arguments are plaintive and desperate.
Three or four things can be true at once. Florida State is undefeated, no matter if Brock Glenn or Tate Rodemaker or Burt Reynolds or Charlie Ward is playing quarterback. Undefeated conference champions don’t miss the College Football Playoff.
And Alabama just took down Georgia, previously the No. 1 team in the game, by a 27-24 score and broke the Bulldogs’ 29-game win streak. Georgia becomes a one-loss team and a SEC runnerup with a non-league schedule that consisted of UT Martin, UAB, Ball State and Georgia Tech.
Yet Alabama lost to Texas, at home, by 10 points on Sept 9. That game happened. There is documentation and actual footage, along with 100,077 witnesses. So if Alabama is included in the CFP, Texas must be, too, especially since Texas had only one loss, a 3-pointer in the last seconds against traditional rival Oklahoma in a neutral Cotton Bowl.
The selection committee, made up of athletic directors, former coaches, former administrators, a former NFL player, and one media representative, probably saw the sunrise outside its Indianapolis hotel window on Sunday. Its decision, whatever it is, will inflame Twitter, alienate at least one state, and prompt them to wonder why they ever said yes to this. Yet it is a noble cause, because some of us remember when writers and coaches ranked the Top 20 in a poll, and sometimes disagreed on the identity of No. 1, and there was no mechanism of resolution. Two teams got to proclaim themselves champions. Today, that only happens in Presidential elections. The football champion is undisputed, or at least certified.
That hotel ballroom must have been hushed by Georgia’s inability to deter Alabama, because a Georgia win would have simplified things. Texas’ win over Alabama would not been its strongest credential because Alabama would have been out of the picture. We likely would have had Georgia, Michigan, Washington and Florida State. But these players and coaches have an impudent way of hijacking your plans.
The Bulldogs began with a majestic 83-yard drive and a touchdown by Kendall Milton. They would not score another TD until the fourth quarter. Tight end Brock Bowers and wide-out Ladd McConkey were hobbled, and Carson Beck rarely had a comfortable pocket.
On the other side, Alabama was able to run 41 times behind an offensive line that, like quarterback Jalen Milroe, has improved by about three light years since Sept. 9. Milroe was benched after the Texas game, sat and watched the Tide nearly lose to South Florida, returned to the job the next week and is playing about as well as any of Nick Saban’s quarterbacks ever has. New offensive coordinator Tommy Rees has come up with enough motion sets to freeze defenses, and let Milroe pick his running lanes. Milroe ran for 68 yards, including a 30-yarder near the end when Georgia badly needed the ball at the end.
Last week Milroe won the Auburn game by finding Isaiah Bond on fourth and goal from 31 yards out. This gave Alabama a familiar bulletproof feeling, but it was combined with the one designation it almost never has and always craves the most: Underdog.
Saban didn’t bother politicking the way Texas coach Steve Sarkisian did, after the Longhorns romped to the Big 12 title. As usual, he won’t get nearly as many Coach of the Year votes as he should. Legends are ineligible for that, generally. He lost Bryce Young to the pros and had to replace both coordinators. In this game he lost ace cornerback Kool-Aid McKinstry and offered up Trey Amos, a senior who had transferred from Louisiana. All of Georgia’s efforts to exploit him were turned away.
Georgia had developed a bad habit of lagging in the first half. The Bulldogs overcame it against South Carolina, Auburn, Missouri and Georgia Tech. It was not a good idea against the Crimson Tide. Afterward, coach Kirby Smart said that losing is the best spur to improvement, because it lets you know what your weaknesses have to be fixed the soonest. Georgia had no experience in such emergency repairs. After the Texas loss, Alabama got some.
This will not be a problem next year, when several 10-2 teams will find a way into the bracket. It will be a kinder, gentler sport. Also emptier and less dramatic. There won’t be another year like 2023, in which SEC commissoner Greg Sankey was asked about the possibility of the SEC missing the playoff altogether. It was like someone had asked him about expansion to Singapore.
“That’s not the real world of college football,” Sankey said. “Let’s go back to Sesame Street so we’re really basic. One of these things is not like the other, and that’s the Southeastern Conference.”
Perhaps Sunday morning’s events will introduce Sankey to a new world, in which the numbers are controlled by Count Von Count, who knows that five doesn’t go into four.
Other confetti from a football weekend:
Pac-12: Washington 34, Oregon 31
– Patrick Nix connected with Traeshon Holden for a 63-yard touchdown on the second play of Oregon’s drive. That cut Washington’s lead to 34-31 with 2:13 left, and Oregon had all its time outs. But coach Dan Lanning, whose fourth-down calls went haywire in the October loss at Washington, chose a low-percentage onside kick that went out of bounds on the Huskies 45. With no field position pressure, Washington converted two third downs and ran out the clock to win the Pac-12 title and take a 13-0 record into what everyone anticipates will be a College Football Playoff semifinal.
– Chafed by their status as a 10-point underdog to a team they’d already beaten, Washington bullied the Ducks and took a 20-3 lead. But Oregon (11-2) scored touchdowns on the last play of the first half and on the first play of the second, and that disrupted Washington’s offense. The Huskies called five consecutive runs to take back the lead at 27-24, and then drove 82 yards for a 34-24 lead as Michael Penix went 5 for 7 and also ran for a first down.
– Those who had dismissed Penix as a Heisman Trophy candidate (guilty) now have to regroup. He was 27 for 39 for 319 yards, and Jalen McMillan and Rome Odunze had 100-yard receiving days. Bo Nix was 21 for 34 for 239 yards and was the leading Oregon rusher with 69 yards, because the Huskies held Bucky Irving and Jordan James to a combined 14 carries and 56 yards. Washington ran the ball 37 times and ran 78 plays to Oregon’s 54.
ACC: Florida State 16, Louisville 6
– This would have been a forgettable game in September and October, considering it contained 22 total first downs, a combined 5-for-34 performance on third down, and 18 punts. But it was under a blinding light because the Seminoles (13-0) needed to convince the College Football Playoff committee it belonged in the Final Four. They will find out Sunday at 11 a.m. Tallahassee time. If they do make it, you’ll know that style points don’t exist.
– Freshman Brock Glenn was thrust onto the stage when Tate Rodemaker’s concussion wouldn’t let him play. On crutches, Jordan Travis was there to urge his teammates and to remind everyone he could have been a Heisman contender if he hadn’t gotten hurt in the 11th game. Glenn was predictably unsteady, going 8 for 21 for 55 yards, and the Seminoles were more effective when others handled the ball in the Wildcat formation. But a 73-yard run by Lawrance Toafili set up his own 2-yard touchdown for a 10-3 lead. Louisville had the ball trailing 13-6, but Jack Plummer suffered his seventh sack of the night, on fourth down. The Cardinals gained 188 yards and came up empty on three fourth downs.
– The Seminoles squeezed Louisville (10-3) with their defense and Glenn never turned over the ball. FSU has lost five turnovers in 13 games. Braden Fiske had four and a half tackles for loss and FSU had 14 for the game. The ACC champs rank 10th nationally in points allowed (16.8 per game).
Big 12: Texas 49, Oklahoma State 21
– This was a name-the-score affair from the beginning, as Oklahoma State (9-4) brought the same defense that had been plundered by Central Florida. Quinn Ewers hit 35 of 46 for 452 yards and four touchdowns for the Longhorns (12-1), who said goodbye to the Big 12 by winning the championship for the first time in 14 years.
– It was a powerful closing argument for the Longhorns, who beat Texas Tech, 57-7, last weekend. Here, they held the ball for more than 40 minutes and gained 662 yards, and that’s without injured running back Jonathon Brooks. Just for fun, Ewers flipped a TD pass to T’Vondre Sweat, who goes 362 pounds and is usually one of the best defensive front men in college football. Sweat responded with a Heisman Trophy pose.
– Texas scored touchdowns on its first four possessions and led, 42-14, at halftime. Adonai Mitchell and Ja’Tavion Sanders each had 100-yard receiving days with a touchdown. The big lead effectively removed Ollie Gordon from the Oklahoma State offense, as the nation’s top rusher ran 13 times for 34 yards. The Big 12 will obviously miss the SEC-bound Longhorns, whose presence helped boost the attendance to a title game-record of 84,523 at AT&T Stadium.
Big Ten: Michigan 26, Iowa 0
– The Big Ten does away with its divisions next year, meaning the top two teams will play in this game. That sets up a very possible 2-game series between Michigan and Ohio State, neither of which will mean much if they both qualify for the new 12-team playoff. But it also relieves the Western teams of their annual humiliation. The West has lost all 10 Big Ten title meetings, and Iowa had seven first downs, three turnovers, seven punts and 155 total yards. The Hawkeyes (10-3) have scored 21 touchdowns in 13 games.
– Michigan (13-0) did not have a play that exceeded 17 yards. Blake Corum had two rushing touchdowns and has 55 for his career. He is the only FBS player to score in each game this season. It’s the first time Michigan has won three consecutive Big Ten titles, and the Blue has 25 consecutive wins in Big Ten play. Mike Sainristil forced two Iowa fumbles and Semaj Morgan set up a touchdown with an 87-yard punt return.
– Jim Harbaugh returned after a 3-game suspension. His last two teams have gone to the College Football Playoff and lost both times in the semifinals. This time the Wolverines should be top-seeded, although they allowed four sacks and were 3 for 15 on third downs themselves.
Mountain West: Boise State 44, UNLV 20
– The Broncos (8-5) held UNLV’s offense to one touchdown and got a massive game from quarterback Jaylen Green, who ran for a 70–yard score, threw 57 yards to Austin Bolt for another, and was responsible for two others. Ashton Jeanty chipped in with his usual 153 yards on 21 carries, and Boise State ran 51 times for 301 yards.
– The win on UNLV”s home turf in Allegiant Stadium soured a breakthrough season for the 9-4 Rebels, who lost their last two games. The two finalists actually finished in a 3-way tie with San Jose State, which had won six consecutive games, but since the three teams didn’t all play each other, the tiebreaker was a computer ranking provided by four consulting firms. UNLV and Boise State got in even though San Jose State beat UNLV in the final regular season game.
– Boise State fired coach Andy Avalos three games ago and made Spencer Danielson the interim coach. The Broncos won all three of his games. He was the first interim coach to win any conference championship game. Danielson, a former Azusa Pacific linebacker, was the defensive coordinator, but now seems the leading candidate to lead the Broncos next year.
American: SMU 26, Tulane 14
– Without injured QB Preston Stone and playing on Tulane’s home turf, didn’t look favorable for SMU in its final game before it joins the ACC. After all, Tulane had blown out SMU 59-24 in the same ballpark on Nov. 17 of last year. Instead, the Mustangs won their first conference title of any kind since it took the Southwest Conference in 1984, as freshman Kevin Jennings completed 19 of 33 for 203 yards and a touchdown.
– Rhett Lashlee’s 11-2 team has only lost to TCU and Oklahoma and has outscored its opponents by 23.2 points per game. It had 40 sacks coming into Saturday and brought down Michael Pratt six times.
– Tulane was 2 for 15 on third down and had the ball for only 25 minutes. The Green Wave finished 11-2 and lost its position as the most likely Group of Five team to play in a New Year’s Six Bowl, after knocking off USC in last year’s Cotton Bowl. Beyond that, the rumors continue to insist that coach Willie Fritz is headed for Houston.
Conference USA: Liberty 49, New Mexico State 35
– Liberty took lots of liberties with New Mexico State’s defense in the title game, played on its own turf in Lynchburg, Va. It rolled up 712 yards, never punted and never had a turnover. Still, it was tied 35-35 early in the fourth quarter, when Billy Lucas ran for a two-yard score, and then Brandon Bishop intercepted a pass by New Mexico State’s Blaze Berlowitz, who was subbing for the injured Diego Pavia. That was Liberty’s 21st interception, most in the FBS. Liberty QB Kaidon Salter dashed for a 35-yard touchdown to wrap it up.
– Liberty thus went to 13-0 and ran for 393 yards. The Flames won the C-USA title in their first year of membership and in the first season for coach Jamey Chadwell, who came from Coastal Carolina. Chadwell wasted little time politicking for Liberty to get the New Year’s Six bowl game that is reserved for the best team from the Group of Five, or second-tier, FBS conferences.
– Salter, a worthy successor to Malik Willis, ran for 165 yards and a touchdown and hit 20 of 25 passes for 319 yards and two touchdowns. He was the greater Dallas player of the year while at Cedar Hill, Tex. and a four-star recruit who signed with Tennessee and enrolled early but transferred to Liberty before he ever played there.
Mid-American: Miami-Ohio 23, Toledo 14
– Revenge wasn’t served cold, since they were playing in comfy Ford Field in Detroit, but the Redhawks savored this win. In the first meeting with Toledo (11-2), they lost 21-17 and also lost quarterback Brett Gabbert to a gruesome leg injury. His replaement, Aveon Smith, rambled for 99 yards in 21 carries in this defensive staredown.
– Miami (11-2) also won because it stuffed Peny Boone, who got only 41 yards in 11 carriies. Boone is from the Detroit public league, as was Jerome Bettis, and at 6-foot-1 and 242 he is nicknamed the Baby Bus. He also ran for 15 TDs and 1,359 yards during the season. But Miami came in with the seventh-best rush defense in the FBS (16.3 points per game).
– Rashad Amos ran for his ninth and 10th TDs of the year for coach Chuck Martin, the former Notre Dame offensive coordinator who took over the program after the Redhawks had gone 0-12. Miami hasn’t had a losing record in MAC games since Martin’s second year, in 2016. The Redhawks’ only other loss this year was to the more familiar Miami, 38-3.
Sun Belt: Troy 49, Appalachian State 23
— Kimani Vidal dominated this one with five touchdowns, including the last two, and 233 yards in 26 carries. Troy only led 21-17 after three quarters but got a 2-run TD from Vidal and then a 10-yard sack-fumble return for touchdown by Don Callis.
– That was only Vidal’s third-highest rushing total of the season. He picked up 1,349 yards for the season, coming into Saturday. It was also the second Sun Belt title in Jon Sumrall’s two years as head coach. Formerly he was Kentucky’s defensive coordinator.
– Troy’s only two losses were against Kansas State (42-13) and Sun Belt rival James Madison (16-14). James Madison, which has been nationally ranked, was then knocked off by Appalachian State (8-5). Troy was driving toward a winning field goal in that game but got foiled by an intentional grounding penalty.