Entering its sixth season of existence, this year’s College Football Playoff may have its deepest field of playoff participants yet. Oh yes, this one is going to be good.
A system that has yielded what appeared to be a definitive two-team race the last handful of seasons with continued dominance by Alabama and Clemson, this year’s field feels as wide open as it has been under this new format. With one undefeated national champion riding a 28-game winning streak (Clemson), an undefeated SEC champion with the likely Heisman Trophy winner (LSU, with Joe Burrow), and an undefeated Big Ten champion with a trio of players that have been mentioned as worthy Heisman candidates (Ohio State), the main ingredients for a dynamic College Football Playoff are locked in. Throw in a one-loss Big 12 champion with one of the hot young names in coaching and a terrific story in the making (Oklahoma with Lincoln Riley and Jalen Hurts), what could there possibly be not to like about this year’s playoff field?
The College Football Playoff will once again have a fairly straightforward decision to make with the top four teams in this year’s playoff. There hasn’t really been much debate about which four teams have been worthy of inclusion in the playoff since its inception outside of the first season depending whom you ask (TCU and Baylor). When it has come time for the committee to make the decision they are put together to do, it’s been pretty easy. That seems to have worked out again this season with undefeated conference champions from the ACC (Clemson), Big Ten (Ohio State) and the SEC (LSU) and just one other 1-loss conference champion in the running (Oklahoma) after Utah stumbled before crossing the finish line Friday night in the Pac-12 championship game. Utah’s loss was the Big 12’s and Oklahoma’s gain once Georgia was handled by LSU in the SEC Championship Game.
Clemson is making its fifth straight appearance in the College Football. The Tigers now own the longest active streak of playoff appearances after Alabama fell short of the playoff this season. Clemson’s five appearances now ties Alabama for the most playoff appearances in the brief history o the College Football Playoff, and the pursuit of a 3rd national title in the era would give Clemson the lead in all-time College Football Playoff national titles. With offensive stars in Trevor Lawrence, Tee Higgins, and Travis Etienne, it’s difficult not to like Clemson’s chances to put some points on the board this year. That’s good because this could be the most explosive College Football Playoff yet. Ohio State (49.9 ppg), LSU (48.7 ppg), Clemson (44.3 ppg), and Oklahoma (44.3 ppg) were ranked in the top five in the nation in scoring at the close of the regular season. Defense wins championships? Not this year, it would seem.
Transfer quarterbacks are also all the rage this year, showing how valuable the transfer market can be for a team hoping to reach the College Football Playoff. Ohio State’s Justin Fields was the Big Ten’s Offensive Player of the Year in his first season after transferring from Georgia a year ago. Ironically, it is former Ohio State quarterback Joe Burrow who has been the catalyst for a playoff run at LSU. Jalen Hurts of Oklahoma is in his fourth College Football Playoff after transferring from Alabama. There is a storybook ending being scripted for any of those three right now, although Lawrence and Clemson are working on their own sequel as well.
We have yet to see a real good showing from the College Football Playoff in terms of the national semifinals. Aside from Ohio State’s upset of Alabama in 2014 and Georgia’s overtime thriller in the Rose Bowl against Oklahoma two seasons ago, the semifinals have largely been a relative bust in terms of entertainment. With this year’s field, however, that should not be the case.
So let the games begin! We should have a dandy of a College Football Playoff on our hands.
For about 20 minutes on Saturday night, it seemed we were in for an interesting Selection Sunday. No. 8 Wisconsin led No. 1 Ohio State 21-7 and, with the 12-0 Buckeyes bid already secured, it became a discussion point as to whether the winner of an Ohio State-Wisconsin Big Ten Championship could jump a 1-loss Big 12 champion at the 11th hour, a la 2014.
And then the second half kicked off.
Ohio State accepted the ball to open the second half and rolled 75 yards in five plays, as Justin Fields found Chris Olave for a 50-yard gain and tight end Jeremy Ruckert for a 16-yard touchdown. Then the Buckeye defense forced a three-and-out, Wisconsin punter Anthony Lotti dropped the ball, and the College Football Playoff selection committee might as well have shut their television sets off and gone home. Ohio State only turned that dropped punt into a field goal, but the writing was on the wall in Sharpie.
Zach Hintze missed a 48-yard field goal that would’ve stretched the Wisconsin lead to 24-17, KJ Hill (who, earlier on the drive, became Ohio State’s all-time leading pass catcher) put Ohio State on top with a 16-yard grab with 2:23 to go in the third quarter, and then put the game away for good with a 13-yard scoring catch with 12:09 to play.
While time will tell if it’s enough to hold off No. 2 LSU for the right to avoid No. 3 Clemson, Ohio State raced past the Badgers with a 27-0 second half to win its third straight Big Ten championship game, 34-21.
After slow starts each, Fields finished 19-of-31 for 299 yards and three touchdowns, while JK Dobbins carried 33 times for 172 yards and a score. After rushing 13 times for 135 yards and a score in the first half, Jonathan Taylor mustered just 13 yards on seven carries in the second half — including a loss of six on a 4th-and-2 pitch from the Ohio State 32 with 2:39 remaining, as Chase Young swallowed the Wisconsin running back and ended the comeback effort before it truly started.
Though it didn’t end well, Wisconsin did indeed come out swinging.
Paul Chryst‘s team won the toss, elected to receive, hit Quintez Cephus for a 27-yard completion on the first play of the game and scored on a 44-yard Taylor run.
Ohio State moved into Badger territory on its first possession, but Fields was stuffed for no gain on a 4th-and-7 run from the Wisconsin 34. The Buckeyes moved into Wisconsin territory again on their second try, but Fields was sacked on 3rd-and-10 from the Wisconsin 34 and this time Ryan Day punted.
Taking over after the punt at its own 20 with 1:20 to play in the first quarter, Wisconsin pieced together a vintage Wisconsin drive: 14 plays, 80 yards, six and a half minutes and capped by a 6-yard Taylor run, who became the seventh player to top 6,000 yards in the process of putting the Badgers up 14-0 with 10:19 to play in the first half.
Wisconsin again sacked Fields on 2nd-and-10 on the ensuing possession and Ohio State appeared headed for a three-and-out, but Day dialed up a pass from punter Drue Chrisman to Luke Farrell for 21 yards, keeping a drive alive that eventually reached the Badger 4, where Fields fumbled the ball away on a 3rd-and-goal run.
However, Ohio State forced a Wisconsin punt and then finally got on the board when Dobbins leaped into the end zone with 42 seconds left in the half. Wisconsin might’ve been content to take its 14-7 lead to Lucas Oil Stadium’s home locker room, but Taylor popped a 45-yard run to the Ohio State 30 — in the process becoming the first 100-yard rusher against Ohio State all season. Another Taylor run pushed the ball to the 25, and then Jack Coan hit Cephus for a leaping 24-yard grab, and Coan did the rest, putting Wisconsin back up 14 with 10 seconds left before halftime.
The defending national champions are back for some more. No. 3 Clemson (13-0, 8-0 ACC) locked up a fifth consecutive ACC Championship Game victory Saturday night with a 62-17 victory over No. 23 Virginia (9-4, 6-2 ACC), and with that all but officially submitted their R.S.V.P. for this season’s College Football Playoff. What’s not to respect?
Trevor Lawrence passed for 302 yards and four touchdowns before getting an early exit in the fourth quarter, with Clemson leading 45-14 at the time. Travis Etienne rushed for 114 yards and a touchdown and star receiver Tee Higgins hauled in nine passes for 182 yards and three touchdowns. Virginia’s Bryce Perkins had some positive moments with 265 passing yards and two passing touchdowns with 52 rushing yards, but he was picked off twice. His first interception came at the end of the game’s opening possession in the end zone.
Clemson’s 62 points are the most point scored by a team in the ACC Championship Game, which was first played in 2005. Clemson has now outscored its opponents in the ACC Championship Game by a cumulative score of 229-102 over the last five seasons. Clemson has held each of their last three ACC Championship Game opponents to 30 points (3 vs. Miami in 2017, 10 vs Pitt last season, and 17 against Virginia). Clemson is now 5-1 all-time in the ACC Championship Game with their only loss coming as an underdog in 2009 against Georgia Tech.
After 13 consecutive wins this season, on top of the 15 straight wins Clemson had last season en route to a national title, Clemson is going to be riding a 28-game winning streak back into the College Football Playoff. With Alabama being knocked out of the playoff race last week, Clemson will now own the longest active streak of playoff appearances with five straight. That matches Alabama’s record set last year with the Crimson Tide’s fifth consecutive appearance. This will be the first College Football Playoff without Alabama. All that is left to determine is what seed the defending champs will have. Whether Clemson is ranked No. 2 or No. 3 ultimately wouldn’t matter as the Tigers wouldn’t get to have a say which bowl destination they’d prefer, nor would it change the opponent. While Clemson will feel they made a case to be considered as the No. 1 team in the field, that decision now rests with the selection committee, which will make their final decisions on Sunday. A matchup with either LSU or Ohio State is likely the pairing for Clemson. Dabo Swinney will certainly have his team ready for whatever comes next, as his fight for respect will continue even if nobody is actually disrespecting his program these days.
Virginia’s bowl outlook is also likely fixed. Win or lose, Virginia was likely to be in the Orange Bowl, either as the ACC champion or the bowl’s pick from the ACC. When the ACC champion is in the College Football Playoff and unavailable for the Orange Bowl, the next highest-ranked ACC team fills the slot. Virginia being the only other ranked ACC team this week by the committee seems to suggest Virginia will be the locked pick for the Orange Bowl, although if Virginia manages to slip out of the playoff rankings, the Orange Bowl could choose from any available ACC team that is bowl eligible. But even in that scenario, Virginia would likely still be the pick. Virginia would play a team from the SEC or Big Ten, with the opponent being the highest-ranked available team from either conference. The Florida Gators may be the most likely opponent, with Penn State as the alternative. Regardless of how the first experience in the ACC Championship Game went for Virginia, Bronco Mendenhall continues to be doing a terrific job in building the Virginia football program, and a chance to play in the Orange Bowl is a significant step forward.
The bad news for North Dakota State? Its record for the longest winning streak at the FCS level was broken. The good news? NDSU was the one doing the breaking.
Saturday, top-ranked and undefeated North Dakota State beat 19th-ranked Nicholls State 37-13 in the second round of the FCS playoffs. The Bison held the Colonels to a season-low in not only points but total offense (265).
The win was North Dakota State’s 34 in a row. It breaks the record of 33 in a row previously held by the same Bison in 2012-14.
NDSU can extend its streak to 35 straight when they face Illinois State (10-4) in the quarterfinals next weekend.