Nick Saban closes in on the Bear as ‘Bama bests Clemson in title game for the ages

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A week ago was the 10th anniversary of the epic 2006 BCS championship game between Texas and USC.  While the second College Football Playoff title game couldn’t quite match that level of iconic history, it did its damnedest in trying to get there.

In a back-and-forth affair that featured a plethora of long-range scores instead of the expected body shots — and the normally-reserved Nick Saban channeling his heretofore unknown inner riverboat gambler for good measure — No. 2 Alabama used a wild fourth quarter surge fueled in large part by special teams to drop top-ranked and undefeated Clemson 45-40.  With the win, Saban has now won five national championship — four with the Tide — one behind ‘Bama coaching legend Paul “Bear” Bryant for the most in FBS history.

And, in the end, this one was unlike any of the previous four in that it was both literally and figuratively “special.”

The Tide entered the fourth quarter down 24-21; seven and a half minutes later, the Tigers found themselves on the wrong end of 38-27 score.  The keys to the lightning-quick half-quarter turnaround were a pair of special teams plays.  With 10:34 remaining and coming off a field goal that tied the score at 24, Saban called for an onside pooch kick that was recovered by UA; two plays later, Jake Coker hit O.J. Howard on a 51-yard touchdown pass, the tight end’s second busted-coverage score of the game after not catching a touchdown pass of any kind since 2013 (watch that play here).

The ensuing possession for Clemson ended with a field goal that cut the lead to 31-27.  That four-point deficit lasted all of 16 seconds as Kenyan Drake returned the kickoff 95 yards to push the lead back out to 38-27.

A Deshaun Watson touchdown pass, his third of the game, with 4:40 remaining trimmed the deficit to five at 38-33 — the same score, incidentally, by which Texas trailed USC with four minutes remaining in that epic Rose Bowl.  Howard, of all people, helped ensure there would be no Vince Young-like fairytale ending for Watson and the Tigers as the tight end rumbled 63 yards on a second-and-12 screen pass to set the Tide up at the Clemson 14 with just under four minutes left on the clock.

Five plays and and nearly three minutes later, Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry put the final nail in Clemson’s comeback coffin, bulling into the end zone from a yard out with just over a minute remaining.  Henry’s third touchdown of the game pushed the lead back out to 45-33 and essentially ended the SEC’s mini title drought at two straight seasons.

Watson did connect on his fourth touchdown pass with :12 left, but Clemson was unable to recover the onside kick to officially end the instant classic.

Howard was the unlikely offensive star of the contest, outshining even the reigning Heisman winner.  Coming into the game with just 394 yards receiving, the immensely-talented junior totaled 208 yards on his five receptions.  Henry, who broke Shaun Alexander‘s school rushing record in the third quarter, would finish with a game-high 158 yards rushing, and became the first Heisman winner to win a national championship in the same season since Florida State’s Jameis Winston pulled off that trick in 2013.

Henry also became just the fifth running back to pull that off, joining Alabama’s Mark Ingram (2009), Pittsburgh’s Tony Dorsett (1976), Army’s Doc Blanchard (1945) and Minnesota’s Bruce Smith (1941).  Henry’s teammate, quarterback Jake Coker, also made some history as the Florida State transfer become what we believe is just the third player to win two national championships at two different schools — Cam Newton won titles at Florida (2008) and Auburn (2010), while J.T. White won two at Ohio State (1942) and Michigan (1947).

Watson, a Heisman finalist himself, threw for 371 yards and ran for another 73 in a losing effort.  He also became the first quarterback in FBS history to throw for 4,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards in the same season.

Clemson, which was looking for its first national championship since 1981, had entered this title game having won an FBS-best 51 straight games when leading entering the fourth quarter.  The Tigers had also been looking for its first win over the Tide since October of 1905, a stretch of 40,255 days.

Instead, it was Alabama that claimed its fourth national championship in the last seven years, an unprecedented feat in this day and age.  One final note: Saban and Urban Meyer-coached teams now own seven of the last 10 titles.

In any discussion of the best current coaches in the game,it begins and ends with those two titans.  And, based on how both teams are constructed, a head-to-head title matchup at some point down the road is certainly within the realm of possibility.

Conference USA releases 2018 schedule

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Conference USA released its 2018 schedule on Tuesday, confirming that once again the league will play football this fall.

The league slate kicks off Sept. 8 with FIU’s visit to Old Dominion, while the first game involving a C-USA team is set for Aug. 25, when Rice hosts Prairie View A&M. Conference games are scattered throughout the month of September, with the first full Saturday slate coming on Oct. 6 with Old Dominion at Florida Atlantic, UAB at Louisiana Tech, Middle Tennessee at Marshall, North Texas at UTEP and UTSA at Rice.

While the MAC has opted for a full embrace of midweek football, Conference USA has gone in the exact opposite direction. Not one C-USA game is scheduled as of today for a weeknight — Thursday or Friday included — and only one game will be played on a day other than Saturday, a Friday, Aug. 31 visit to Wisconsin by Western Kentucky.

The most-anticipated non-conference games involving C-USA teams are Florida Atlantic’s opener at Oklahoma and on Sept. 1 and the Owls’ Sept. 22 visit to reigning American and Peach Bowl champion UCF. North Texas also has two shots to win nationwide respect for the league in its opener against SMU on Sept. 1 in Denton and a Sept. 15 visit to retooling Arkansas.

The highlight of the league schedule comes on Nov. 17 with a rematch of the 2017 title game when Florida Atlantic visits North Texas. The Owls won both meetings last season by a combined score of 110-48.

The 14th C-USA Championship will be held on Dec. 1 at the home of the division winner with the best conference record. FAU will look to become the second straight back-to-back C-USA champion, joining Western Kentucky in 2015-16.

Former LSU offensive coordinator Matt Canada reportedly lands at Maryland

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It’s good to be Matt Canada.

He parachuted into Baton Rouge for a year, got paid a bunch of money, then got paid even more money to leave. And now he’s set to get paid from another school.

According to ESPN’s Adam Rittenberg, Canada is set to join the Maryland staff as offensive coordinator. Rittenberg notes that Canada signed a multi-year agreement with the Terps, though salary terms were not revealed. Walt Bell, who left to become the offensive coordinator at Florida State, made $500,000 in 2017, according to USA Today.

Maryland will be Canada’s seventh school to call plays for in this decade alone. He spent 2010 (and three years before that) at Indiana, then moved to Northern Illinois in 2011. He parlayed that into one season at Wisconsin, three at NC State, and then one season stints at Pittsburgh, LSU and now Maryland.

Report: Oklahoma State signs 27-year-old Australian punter

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Australian punters are the hot new commodity in college football, and word has made it back to the Land Down Under: punt the ball far and high enough and you, too, can receive a full scholarship to an American university.

According to the Latrobe Valley Express — which you now is legit, because its header as of press time already reads Wednesday, January 24 — 27-year-old Australian punter Tom Hutton has signed with Oklahoma State. Hutton hails from Newborough, Australia, about a two hour ride from Melbourne, and in December attended a training session at Prokick Australia.

“I was told about [American football] a few years ago so I thought ‘I’ll probably be too old for it now’, thinking that it was like Aussie Rules and that if you were over 21 then you had no chance,” Hutton told the paper. “But then I saw a few older blokes getting scholarships so I thought I may as well give it a go.”

Prokick Australia claims the last five Ray Guy Award winners as alums, including 2017 victor Michael Dickson of Texas. Oklahoma State saw his ability up close, as Dickson punted 11 times for a 50.9-yard average in October, nearly booting his way to victory in a 13-10 Cowboys overtime victory. “Their punter is — did he win the Ray Guy Award last year?” Mike Gundy said after that game. “He should have won it. He changed the field on us. I don’t know what the yardage is, I just know that every time we go a little bit of field position, he changed the field … he was fantastic for them.”

The story of how Hutton was approved for an Oklahoma State offer doesn’t go into details, but Hutton’s recollection of how Hutton, who works overnights at a paper mill in addition to playing Aussie rules football in the Mid Gippsland Football League, received the offer is perfect.

“I woke up after night shift on two hours sleep and this person said ‘we know where you’re going, you’re going to Oklahoma State and we’ve got the coach on the phone,'” he said. “I thought ‘Jesus Christ, can you give me half an hour? I need to have a shower and actually wake up and make sure this is not a dream.'”

According to the Oklahoma State blog Pistols Firing, Hutton will arrive in Stillwater in July and have four years of eligibility.

Arkansas adds TCU signee who signed with New York Yankees

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Austin Aune‘s circuitous sports journey, one which Chris Weinke and Brandon Weeden would approve, has taken its next stop in Fayetteville.

According to 247Sports.com, Aune has joined the Arkansas football program and is enrolled in classes at the university.  At least initially, the quarterback will be a part of the Razorbacks as a walk-on; it’s expected he’ll take the field with the rest of his new teammates when spring practice kicks off month after next.

According to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Aune had also considered TCU and North Texas before the SEC’s mystique proved to be too much.

“The allure of the SEC and the SEC West and Chad [Morris] and Coach [Joe] Craddock, and everybody being on the same page up there as far as the opportunity goes,” the player’s father, Greg Aune, told the Democrat-Gazette. “He likes their system. It’s a fast-paced system, wide-open system. That’s what he played in high school. It’s a pass-oriented offense. He’s a read-run oriented guy, so that’s a lot of what those guys do.”

The fact that Aune considered TCU as a potential landing spot before settling on Morris and UA shouldn’t come as a surprise as he actually signed with the Horned Frogs back in 2012.  However, he was drafted by the New York Yankees that same year and, after signing a contract that included a $1 million signing bonus, embarked on what turned out to be a six-year career in the minor leagues.  Despite that financial commitment, Aune never made it past Single-A ball.