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College Football Has Never Had Anything Like a Clemson-Alabama Title Rematch

The Tigers and Crimson Tide rolled in the playoff semifinals, setting up a championship that’s at once familiar and breathtaking. Plus, appreciating Bo Scarbrough’s star turn and more analysis.

Deshaun Watson (Getty Images)
Deshaun Watson (Getty Images)

There was no drama in the College Football Playoff semifinals on New Year’s Eve.

No. 1 Alabama did to no. 4 Washington what we expected, the football equivalent of an actual elephant fighting an actual husky. Washington raced out to a 7–0 lead, much like Florida raced out to a 7–0 lead on Alabama in the SEC championship game on December 3. The Gators lost that contest 54–16. The Huskies dropped this one 24–7, crossing midfield only twice as Alabama’s defense slowly suffocated them. Watching Bama is like watching a nature documentary. The Crimson Tide destroy their competition in a horrible way, and while it’s disconcerting for us to watch, it’s perfectly normal for them. (If I ever see a nature documentary that features an elephant fighting a husky, I will turn it off so quickly.)

No. 2 Clemson did something to no. 3 Ohio State that we didn’t quite expect: The Tigers rolled 31–0, the first time the Buckeyes have been shut out in more than 20 years. This was supposed to be the competitive semifinal matchup. Instead, it let college football fans dip out to parties with a few hours to spare before the ball dropped.

Dabo Swinney (Getty Images)
Dabo Swinney (Getty Images)

This brings us back to where we started. Bama and Clemson met in last January’s thrilling title game, when Tigers quarterback Deshaun Watson threw for 405 yards and ran for 73 more, but the Crimson Tide won 45–40 after using a brilliant onside kick to gain an extra possession. Alabama was crowned the champion, but Clemson made the Tide seem tantalizingly mortal. Alabama hasn’t lost since, and honestly, it hasn’t even come close to losing, unless you count a quickly squashed scare against Ole Miss in September. And so this works out perfectly: The rare team that made Bama bleed will get a second shot.

But second shots aren’t supposed to happen in college football. This sport has had dynasties, but seldom do two powerhouses concurrently reel off back-to-back top-notch seasons. Other sports have temporal rivalries, matchups between teams that call to mind a specific era. In basketball, Bulls-Jazz was part of the fabric of the 1990s, just as Warriors-Cavs is part of the fabric of this decade. College football programs have permanent rivals, the ones they play every year at the same time — hate week — and make gatherings with family from the other side of the state awkward. But those matchups don’t happen in the national championship game. At the end of the year, a team gets plopped in a bowl against X school from Y conference, an opponent whose games fans have possibly seen on TV.

We’ve never had a national championship game rematch — not in the BCS era, not in the Bowl Alliance era before that, not in the Bowl Coalition era before that. Now serves as a good time to point out that this stupid sport we love didn’t even come up with the idea to have a true national title game until the 1990s. This is also the first time since 2005 that the teams ranked no. 1 and no. 2 in the preseason AP poll both ended the year in the national championship: Rarely do the two teams we think will be the best in August actually end up being the best by January.

After all, this is the sport of chaos, not consistency. This season seemed like it brought plenty of the former. Remember Clemson’s 43–42 loss to Pitt on a last-second field goal — or how the Tigers narrowly avoided disaster against NC State, blocking one potential go-ahead field goal and watching gratefully as the Wolfpack missed a game winner as the clock expired? Remember Ohio State losing to Penn State on a blocked field goal attempt returned for a touchdown, and Iowa upending Michigan 14–13, and Ohio State and Michigan being so close that a billion internet sleuths couldn’t determine whether the Wolverines actually should have won?

All those bumps and turns are supposed to lead us someplace different. But the playoff brought clarity. We threw the best four teams in a pool, and two turned out to be sharks.

By giving us something we’ve seen before, college football is giving us something we’ve never seen. Last year, Bama and Clemson throttled their semifinal opponents and met in a thrilling championship game. This year, both teams throttled their semifinal opponents. We can only hope the rest is just as exciting.

Alabama Stashed Another Monster

Bo Scarbrough (Getty Images)
Bo Scarbrough (Getty Images)

Alabama running back Bo Scarbrough punished Washington for having the gall to attempt to tackle him. His touchdowns, of 18 and 68 yards, exhibited his breathtaking combination of power and speed. The 6-foot-2, 228-pounder with biceps the size of my head and triceps the size of my neck is built more like a linebacker than a running back — here he is standing next to former Crimson Tide defensive end D.J. Pettway — and showed it Saturday, carrying 19 times for 180 yards. (Washington had only 194 yards … total.)

It wasn’t strange to see Alabama with an enormous running back who powered past defenders. This is what it does: Each year it gets a bigger, faster running back model, from Mark Ingram to Eddie Lacy to Derrick Henry. By 2030, Bama will have a half-human, half–Range Rover who weighs 863 pounds and runs a 2.7-second 40-yard dash.

Still, it was weird that this game belonged to Scarbrough, a sophomore who entered the afternoon fourth on Alabama’s roster in rushing yards, behind quarterback Jalen Hurts, starting tailback Damien Harris, and freshman Joshua Jacobs. Scarbrough had just 539 yards before Saturday’s outing. His yardage against the Huskies now makes up a little more than a quarter of his output on the season.

Scarbrough’s place in Alabama’s running back hierarchy belied his talent. This was a five-star recruit coming out of high school, one of the top 20 prospects in the nation. Apparently, this is Alabama’s M.O. nowadays. Last year, tight end O.J. Howard entered the national title game with 394 total yards; he racked up 208 receiving yards and his only two touchdowns of the season in the win over Clemson. Like Scarbrough, he was a five-star recruit and one of the top 20 players in his high school class, and like Scarbrough, Alabama had the luxury of not using him until everybody forgot about how dangerous he could be.

I look forward to Alabama recruiting that half-human, half–Range Rover and then stashing him as a third-stringer until he runs (drives?) for a few miles in the Crimson Tide’s one close game during head coach Nick Saban’s pursuit of his 16th consecutive national title. The MVP trophy will fit nicely into his cupholders, and then the next year he’ll fall even lower on the depth chart, behind that thing that eats cars at monster truck rallies.

What the Hell, Ohio State

J.T. Barrett (Getty Images)
J.T. Barrett (Getty Images)

Let’s talk about this egg Ohio State cooked.

The Buckeyes hadn’t been shut out in a game since November 20, 1993, when they lost to Michigan 28–0. Urban Meyer had never been shut out in his 15 years as a head coach, and had never lost a game by 30-plus points. Ohio State’s defense hadn’t allowed 30 points in a game in either of the past two seasons, not even in November’s double-overtime classic against a Michigan team that averaged over 40 per game.

But pretty much everybody on the Buckeyes failed in extravagant ways. Quarterback J.T. Barrett threw two interceptions for the first time since his freshman year. (He’s a junior now.) Running back Mike Weber fumbled twice in five carries after fumbling the same amount of times in his previous 177 touches. Kicker Tyler Durbin had missed three field goals all year, one of which was blocked. He missed two against Clemson, both from 47 yards out. Even center Pat Elflein, who won the Rimington Trophy that is awarded to the best in the country, got called for an illegal snap. When the act of snapping the ball is an issue, you know it isn’t your night.

And somehow, the most disappointing part of Ohio State’s showing was its game plan. Its strength throughout 2016 was the running game, and the team had given Weber at least 11 carries in every contest during the regular season. On Saturday, Weber and Curtis Samuel combined for 11 carries.

Two years ago, Ohio State was the last team into the playoff. It then proved to be unstoppable, parading past Alabama and Oregon, a testament to the program and to Meyer, who transformed a squad that lost critical parts into a juggernaut as that season wore on.

This was the opposite of that. I’d say it was a complete failure, but that would be a lie: Punter Cameron Johnston really kicked the hell out of the ball all night. Great job, Cam.

Defensive Lines Will Win the War

Jonathan Allen (Getty Images)
Jonathan Allen (Getty Images)

Alabama has the best defensive player — best player? — in the country in senior tackle Jonathan Allen, and he showed what he is capable of on Saturday. The Crimson Tide sacked quarterback Jake Browning five times (Allen had one), tallied seven tackles for loss (Allen had two), and completely neutralized Washington’s running game. The Huskies had 14 drives; seven ended with them facing situations of fourth-and-at-least-10.

The Fiesta Bowl told a similar story. Last week, I highlighted the matchup between Clemson’s defensive line and Ohio State’s offensive line as the most important in the playoff. It was completely one-sided, as the Tigers walloped a Buckeyes front featuring two All-Americans. Barrett was on the move all night, and many runs were dead on arrival. Please, ignore every nice thing I said about the Buckeyes in that post I linked to above.

I’m sure most of the promos for the championship game will show a picture of Alabama quarterback Hurts and Clemson quarterback Watson, and for good reason. Yet there’s a high chance the title will be decided by the incredibly powerful world-wreckers lined up a few yards away.

Washington Did As Well As It Could

Elijah Qualls (Getty Images)
Elijah Qualls (Getty Images)

I’m guessing Washington had a script. It likely predetermined the first bunch of plays it would run against Alabama and then practiced them in order. Teams do this, mapping out the first 15 or 20 plays of a game, so that guys are comfortable when the lights come on.

Washington’s plan worked. The Huskies easily marched down the field on their second drive, picking up 64 yards on eight plays capped by a beautiful touchdown pass to receiver Dante Pettis. On one play, Washington had five wideouts run routes on the outside, allowing Browning to scamper up the middle while Bama’s man coverage left that area unguarded. On the next, Washington called for a screen, coaxing the Tide’s defensive line to pursue Browning before he dumped the ball off to running back Myles Gaskin for a 20-yard gain.

As soon as Alabama adjusted, though, the Huskies didn’t have anything else. Taking away that one drive, Washington had 130 yards on 68 plays, averaging a little bit less than 2 yards per play.

All told, the Huskies played pretty well. They executed early and made only one big offensive mistake, Browning’s pick-six toward the end of the first half. And the defense was magnificent: It completely shut down Alabama’s passing game, held Hurts to 7-of-14 passing, and stifled the talented freshman as a runner, too, with the exception of one big 33-yard gain.

But that’s the Bama problem. You can play pretty well and still lose by three scores.

Penn State Is Probably Mad

The top four teams in the College Football Playoff selection committee’s final rankings make the field, and Penn State finished fifth. At the time the rankings were released, we laid out why we agreed with the decision, even though the Nittany Lions beat Ohio State 24–21 in October and went on to win the Big Ten championship game.

But then the Buckeyes scored as many points in the playoff semifinal as they did in the Big Ten championship game, which is a problem, because they didn’t play in the Big Ten championship game. Predictably, it led to questions: Should Penn State have gotten their spot? Should the selection committee ever pick a team that didn’t win its conference again?

I don’t think now is the time for revisionist history. Nothing about the first 12 games Ohio State played could have predicted such a flop. Nothing about Penn State’s three-point home win over the Buckeyes suggests that the Lions would have been five or six scores better than Ohio State was on Saturday.

I won’t stop Penn State fans from getting mad about this. It is their right. I will, however, advise them to turn their attention to Monday’s Rose Bowl against USC. You can holler about Ohio State’s inclusion in the playoff from now until eternity, and it won’t change anything. You can choose to enjoy the hell out of being in the Rose Bowl, though, and it will change your life for the better.

The College Football Playoff Will Never Own New Year’s Eve

In 2015, College Football Playoff executive director Bill Hancock boldly proclaimed that the national semifinal games would “change the paradigm of New Year’s Eve.” That was the first year the semifinals fell on December 31, and Hancock was confident that the playoff would transform New Year’s Eve from a night when people went to parties, bars, and clubs to a night when people would make watching college football a priority.

Big Al (Getty Images)
Big Al (Getty Images)

That didn’t go so well. The games were bad last season, and so were the ratings. The games this time were equally lopsided. Neither the Peach Bowl nor the Fiesta Bowl was a one-possession contest at any point in the second half. Surely, the ratings will be poor as well.

The playoff announced in July that it would end the New Year’s Eve experiment after this season. From now on the semifinal games will be played on the last Saturday of the calendar year, allowing fans to travel to watch the afternoon games without skipping work, and to watch the night games without missing parties. The semis won’t be held on New Year’s Eve again until 2021.

So as 2016 ends, so does a dumb idea that never caught on. Hancock will be fine: This was the same man who spent years saying why a playoff would ruin college football, and then ended up in charge of the playoff when it was ultimately put into place. Hancock would try to sell water to a well, and if he failed, he’d end up with a PR job telling everybody that the well had more than enough water.

An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts threw two interceptions in the game against Washington; Hurts didn’t throw any interceptions in the game.