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From 2008 season opener to national title dramatics, Alabama and Clemson were made for national title stage

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Alabama and Clemson will meet in the College Football Playoff national championship game Monday night in Santa Clara in what will be the fourth straight meeting in the postseason between the ACC and SEC champions and the third in the last four seasons to determine the national champion. For two programs who met just 13 times from 1904 through 1975, the Tigers and Crimson Tide have developed one of the most unique rivalries in the sport, and what is happening between Alabama and Clemson may be unprecedented. It has become college football’s equivalent to Lakers-Celtics in that these two programs are each individually so dominant but they have done so at a time when there is an equal force waiting to line up on the other side of the field at the end of the year to determine who is truly No. 1.

It is somewhat fitting that the rise of both of these programs can be traced back to the 2008 season when these two schools squared off in Atlanta for the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game. Nick Saban was in his second season coaching the Crimson Tide after going a mediocre 7-6 in his first season at Alabama after leaving the Miami Dolphins. His Tide started the year No. 24 in the AP Top 25 but figured to have a stuff challenge on their hands with No. 9 Clemson, who started the season with Tommy Bowden at the helm. Little did anyone truly expect at the time, but this one game should have been a preview of things to come. Alabama jumped out to a 13-0 lead in the first quarter in Atlanta with a pair of field goals and a short touchdown run by John Parker Wilson. Alabama extended their lead to 23-3 as the game reached halftime and Clemson’s C.J. Spiller opened the second half with a 96-yard touchdown to provide a much-needed spark for Clemson. But Alabama shut the Tigers down from there and tacked on a Julio Jones touchdown and went on to win 34-10.

ATLANTA – AUGUST 30: Quarterback John Parker Wilson #14 of the Alabama Crimson Tide scrambles and avoids a tackle attempt by cornerback Chris Chancellor #38 of the Clemson Tigers at the Georgia Dome on August 30, 2008 in Atlanta, Georgia. Alabama defeated Clemson 34-10. (Photo by Doug Benc/Getty Images)

Alabama would win their next 11 games to finish off an undefeated regular season that included a 41-30 victory at No. 3 Georgia and a 27-21 win at No. 15 LSU. But the Tide lost a No. 1 vs. No. 2 SEC title game against Tim Tebow and the Florida Gators, coached by none other than Urban Meyer, and Alabama was taken down in the Sugar Bowl by Utah. While Alabama was doing that, Clemson made a notable change at head coach in the middle of the season with Bowden giving way to assistant coach Dabo Swinney. Swinney may not have held on to the role if not for a regular season victory against rival South Carolina, but it is a good thing he did.

Over the course of the next six seasons, Saban had continued to keep Alabama as a national title contender, winning three BCS National Championships in 2009, 2011 and 2012. Swinney was slowly but surely building his own juggernaut, although the return of Florida State as a national power under Jimbo Fisher was standing in the way of the ultimate prize. But all of that changed beginning in 2015. Clemson started the season No. 12 in the AP Top 25 and methodically moved their way up the ranking. But in mid-November, Clemson took over the top ranking in the AP poll and never looked back en route to their first College Football Playoff. There was just one final hurdle that Deshaun Watson and company just could not clear.

It was Alabama.

Jan. 11, 2016: No. 2 Alabama 45, No. 1 Clemson 40

The second College Football Playoff National Championship Game was one for the ages. Alabama was the battle-tested national title contending program that had been for years, but Clemson was looking to prove they finally belonged on the big stage after years of working to get here. And although Clemson came up on the short end of the final score, they proved they were not a fluke that was about to go away.

The seeds of the first playoff battle between Alabama and Clemson were supposed to be led by defense, but this was an offensive showcase from the start. A 50-yard touchdown run by Derrick Henry offered an early suggestion that maybe Clemson wasn’t ready for this moment, but Hunter Renfrow caught two touchdown passes from Deshaun Watson before the end of the first quarter to put that idea to rest. Clemson was there to take care of business. Tied at 14-14 at halftime, a wild game was about to burst wide open. O.J. Howard hauled in a 53-yard pass from Jake Coker early in the third quarter but Clemson struck back to take a 24-21 lead into the fourth quarter, much to the joy of then Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin.

GLENDALE, AZ – JANUARY 11: O.J. Howard #88 of the Alabama Crimson Tide catches a pass to run 53 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter against the Clemson Tigers during the 2016 College Football Playoff National Championship Game at University of Phoenix Stadium on January 11, 2016 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Alabama took the lead once again with a long pass to Howard, this time a 51-yard play with 9:45 to play. Clemson made it a four-point game with a field goal but Kenyan Drake responded with a 95-yard touchdown return on the ensuing kickoff to make it 38-27 midway through the fourth quarter. The Tigers cut the lead to five points with another Watson touchdown pass with 4:40 to play, but Alabama’s offense would not yield with another touchdown run by Henry with 1:07 to play for a 45-33 lead. Watson added one more late touchdown pass to finish off an otherwise brilliant performance for Clemson with 405 passing yards and four touchdowns and 73 rushing yards against the Tide, but the loss would merely serve as motivation for unfinished business as Alabama celebrated their first national championship in the young playoff era. The win was a bit of unfinished business for Alabama too as they were upset in the semifinal the previous season by eventual national champion Ohio State.

Jan. 9, 2017: No. 2 Clemson 35, No. 1 Alabama 31

The 2016 season was given a landscape that looked like it would be a season-long journey to get to the rematch between Alabama and Clemson. The Tide were given a preseason No. 1 ranking in the AP top 25 and the Tide never relinquished that ranking all year. Clemson, despite being the defending national champions and having Watson back at quarterback, started the year at No. 2 and floated within the top five all season long and headed to the playoff ranked No. 3 in the AP poll. Both teams easily took care of their semifinal opponents in the College Football Playoff, with Clemson blanking Ohio State 31-0 and Alabama dispatching of Washington 24-7 to set the stage for the rare college football national championship game rematch. Once again, we were in for a show.

Alabama took a 14-0 lead early in the second quarter on the strength of a second touchdown run by running back Bo Scarbrough, but a touchdown run by Watson provided a much-needed spark for Clemson midway through the second quarter against a stingy Alabama defensive presence. With Alabama leading the Tigers 17-7 midway through the third quarter, Watson connected with Renfrow to bring Clemson to within three points. But later in the third quarter, a long pass play to Howard would bring up some horrible flashbacks to a season ago. A 68-yard pass to Howard from Jalen Hurts gave Alabama a 24-14 lead late in the third quarter. But Clemson would not give in. The Tigers cut into the lead in the first minute of the fourth quarter with a touchdown pass from Watson to Mike Williams and nearly 10 minutes later, Clemson had their first lead of the game when Wayne Gallman scored a short touchdown run. Down for the first time all game, Hurts responded and gave Alabama the lead with his own 30-yard touchdown run with 2:07 to play.

Too much time.

Clemson executed a two-minute drive to perfection and capped the drive and the game with a Watson touchdown pass to Renfrow from two yards out with one second to play. A field goal would have tied the game, but Watson delivered the long-awaited national championship to Clemson in arguably as dramatic fashion as Vince Young did for Texas against USC in the Rose Bowl. For the second year in a row, Alabama-Clemson delivered the dramatics with flair, this one more enticing than the previous.

Jan. 1, 2018: No. 4 Alabama 24, No. 1 Clemson 6

The third meeting in the playoff era between Alabama and Clemson was not at all close to living up to the high bar the previous two meetings had set. For starters, the third meeting took place in the semifinal round instead of the national championship. Watson had moved on to the NFL, with Kelly Bryant stepping in as the new starter for the Tigers. Clemson was still incredibly good, but Bryant was no magician like Watson. Alabama had suffered just one loss all season long, the regular season finale against Auburn that knocked Alabama out of the SEC Championship Game picture and left Alabama hoping the selection committee would allow them an opportunity to wiggle into the playoff. They did, placing Alabama as the fourth seed, unfortunately for Clemson.

Just as Ohio State had done to them in the first year of the playoff, Alabama used the four-seed to take advantage of their playoff opportunity by dominating Clemson defensively. The Tigers managed just six points in the Sugar Bowl semifinal, both by way of field goals in the second and third quarters. Alabama took a 10-0 lead in the first quarter and that was all they needed. There would be no magical fourth quarter for the ages and the highlight reels this time. Neither team scored a point in the fourth quarter. Perhaps the previous two meetings led to the coaching staffs of both programs to tighten things up in the fourth quarter. Or, perhaps, Clemson just did not have the same firepower on offense they needed to make a game of it this time.

Alabama would go on to top SEC champion Georgia in overtime in the national championship game in Atlanta the following week, with Tua Tagovailoa coming to the rescue after a rough showing by Hurts. Tagovailoa would keep the job for the 2018 season as Alabama once again has strung together a No. 1 ranking from the start of the season to the national title game. Clemson, who started the season No. 2 and made their own quarterback change with the departure of Bryant and the rise of freshman Trevor Lawrence, now has the offense that may be needed.

Will this year’s fourth consecutive meeting between Alabama and Clemson go down in the memory banks of college football fans as an all-time classic like the 2017 meeting? We’ll have to wait until Monday to find out.

ESPN unveiling First-And-10 cam during CFB Playoff National Championship

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ESPN has a knack for rolling out new ideas during the College Football Playoff since taking over the contract for the postseason format after previously obtaining the rights to broadcast the BCS bowls. Tonight, when Alabama and Georgia play for the CFB Playoff National Championship in Atlanta, ESPN will introduce for the first time the brand new First-And-10 cam, a small camera embedded in the first down marker that will be moved throughout the game. The camera angle will be looking directly down the first down line wherever it may be, providing a potentially definitive camera angle to determine whether or not a first down has been obtained in close calls.

It has been this college football blogger’s long-winded crusade to fight for adjustable first-down marker cameras for years to help improve the accuracy of any instant replay being used to determine if a football managed to reach the first down line or not. By having a camera fixated inside the first-down marker, the hope is the accuracy of any instant replay involving spotting the football at the first down line will be improved. Mind you, this is not a fail-proof system, because the angle could potentially be blocked down the line on the field by a player or an official standing in the wrong position, but this is a step in the right direction for maximizing the accuracy of instant replays. Far too often, replays have relied on camera angles that were askew, leaving doubt over just where a ball may be spotted.

Here’s hoping this is just the beginning of something that will become the norm. If we are going to have instant replay in college football, then these big money conferences and media partners should feel an obligation to make it the most controversy-free system it possibly can using the technology made available to them. And since we are not going to lasers and microchips just yet (be on the lookout for artificial turf with LED lights embedded to add first down lines on the field and more… it’s coming), then relying on simple camera technology like this has to be what we look to improve everywhere possible.

We’ll see if these cameras come into play for any instant replays tonight, and hopefully, it does. If it proves beneficial, we could see First-And-10 cams more often starting next regular season.

Alabama the new No. 1 in College Football Playoff ranking; Clemson moves to No. 2, Oklahoma and Miami crack top four

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After quite an active weekend in college football, the selection committee for the College Football Playoff had some work to do with their weekly rankings. Having the benefit of letting the dust settle from the flurry of activity seen over the weekend, the committee gathered as they do on a weekly basis, discussed their thoughts and cooked up a fresh batch of rankings, including a familiar name as this week’s new No. 1.

The Alabama Crimson Tide are back on top of the College Football Playoff rankings for the first time since the final rankings of the 2016 season. What may have been a bit surprising was the rise of Clemson to No. 2, ahead of No. 3 Miami and No. 4 Oklahoma. The committee appears to be giving Clemson credit for their earlier wins because the Tigers have not particularly have been as good as Oklahoma, or Miami. But Clemson was unquestionably going to be in the top four, and the rankings at this point really mean very little as far as the specific seeding is concerned, especially with Clemson locked into the ACC Championship Game against Miami.

What was questioned was how the committee would rank an unbeaten Wisconsin against a two-loss Auburn after last week. The Badgers stayed just ahead of the Tigers, and Wisconsin is the first team out at this point. If Wisconsin wins out, the Badgers will have the door left open with the assumption they would move past either Clemson or Miami after one takes a loss in the ACC Championship Game.

The committee also moved Ohio State and Penn State into the bottom fo the top 10 this week, providing a good path to a possible late playoff push for Wisconsin or Ohio State. USC is the Pac-12’s highest-ranked team at No. 11 this week, suggesting the Pac-12 still needs a good amount of help to get a team in the playoff this year.

UCF remains the highest-ranked team in the Group of Five hunt, but they continue to be joined by their conference allies from the AAC with Memphis moving up one spot this week. There is also a new Group of Five challenger on the selection committee’s radar with Boise State rounding out the top 25 this week.

  1. Alabama
  2. Clemson
  3. Miami
  4. Oklahoma
  5. Wisconsin
  6. Auburn
  7. Georgia
  8. Notre Dame
  9. Ohio State
  10. Penn State
  11. USC
  12. TCU
  13. Oklahoma State
  14. Washington State
  15. UCF
  16. Mississippi State
  17. Michigan State
  18. Washington
  19. NC State
  20. LSU
  21. Memphis
  22. Stanford
  23. Northwestern
  24. Michigan
  25. Boise State

 

Was Week 1 a step toward an eight-team playoff?

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Ask anyone associated with the College Football Playoff and they undoubtedly tell you the playoff field will remain four teams for the duration of the current contract, which expires at the end of the 2025 season. It is up to you to decide whether you accept that statement at face value or remain skeptical. The precedent for changing the stance from the playoff has already been made after just two years with the decision to alter its scheduling to be more accommodating for fans and, more importantly, their television partner ESPN. So what is it going to take for the College Football Playoff to expand the playoff beyond four teams before the culmination of the inaugural contract?

There are a couple scenarios that are likely to lead to the playoff to fell the pressure to expand on an accelerated timeline. The first would be one conference getting two teams into the College Football Playoff, thus ensuring two power conferences are left out entirely, as opposed to the one guaranteed to be left out as currently structured. The Pac-12 missed out last season while it was the Big 12 left locked out in the first year. Another worst-case scenario would involve Notre Dame or a Group of Five conference champion making the playoff, again presenting the scenario in which a second power conference loses out on the playoff.

One development from this past weekend was the emergence of Houston. The Cougars of the American Athletic Conference pulled away from Big 12 favorite Oklahoma, presenting quite an interesting debate down the line if the season plays out as Houston fans expect. If the committee is faced with deciding on a playoff spot between an undefeated Houston (including wins vs. Oklahoma and Louisville) and a one-loss Big 12 champion, Houston has to get the nod, no? Well, that depends. Is it a one-loss Texas or a one-loss Oklahoma? If it is a one-loss Oklahoma, the value of a head-to-head win will be weighed heavily by the selection committee, and it should favor Houston. But a one-loss Texas? That’s a different story. Did Texas lose to Oklahoma? If yes, then give the nod to the Cougars. If not, do the Longhorns get the benefit of playing in power conference where Houston does not?

One variable that may have already been wiped out by the Longhorns is the Notre Dame scenario. The Irish are independent so will never have a conference championship to put on their playoff application. This gives Notre Dame a small margin for error compared to most others. An 11-1 Notre Dame is hard to overlook though, and a 12-0 Irish team brings a pot of gold to the postseason tournament. Despite losing to Texas in the opener, Notre Dame can still cause a problem for the College Football Playoff’s foundation. An 11-1 Notre Dame would likely take the Pac-12 out once again as it would mean having wins against Stanford and USC. Don’t count out the Irish just yet, although they have some concerns to sort through (getting Brian Kelly to stick with Deshone Kizer, for starters, as well as defense).

ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit said on Tuesday he believes it is “probably inevitable” the playoff is expanded to eight teams while making a guest appearance on The Dan Patrick Show, although he says it will happen at the end of the current contract.

“As you know, money drives this whole thing,” Herbstreit said. “At some point somebody’s going to say ‘You know it would be really nice if we opened this thing up to more teams and give more teams a chance.’ I like four. I think it still gives us that urgency.”

That’s fair. With only four spots available, the weekly mission to impress the selection committee is real. The argument against expansion suggests moving to an eight-team model eliminates such a possibility. Herbstreit suggests the urgency would still be there with an eight-team playoff model, and that may very well be true depending upon how the playoff system is then constructed. Would eight spots be up for grabs? If so, then the wide-open race would likely keep the games most interesting. One possibility for an eight-team playoff would reserve one spot for each power conference championship game. What to do with the three remaining spots is up for debate.

For the record, my eight-team playoff model is as follows;

  • One guaranteed spot for conference champion from ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC.
  • One guaranteed spot for highest-ranked champion from AAC, Conference USA, MAC, Mountain West and Sun Belt
  • Two at-large bids to be determined by selection committee
  • Selection committee ranks all eight playoff teams from 1 through 8.
  • Top four teams host first round of playoff on campus.
  • Second round continues to be played in New Years Six rotation, championship game continues to be up for bid by cities.

If you want the playoff to be expanded before the current contract is set to expire in 2025, then here is what you need to root for this season;

  • Houston goes undefeated (13-0), Oklahoma goes 11-1 and wins the Big 12. Big 12 misses playoff for second time.
  • Notre Dame goes 11-1, knocking out the Pac-12 champion along the way if possible (Stanford?). Pac-12 champ goes 11-2 to miss playoff for second straight season
  • Someone other than Alabama goes 12-1 and wins the SEC, handing Alabama their only loss of the season. Both teams get in the playoff.
  • Boise State or San Diego State goes undefeated (13-0) and gets left out (Sorry Boise State fans, you know I love you)
  • BYU goes undefeated, or 11-1 perhaps (BYU plays Boise State).
  • The selection committee is dared to leave out a one-loss Ohio State (for a second season in a row) or a one-loss Michigan. One of them is guaranteed to lose, of course.

Welcome to Team Chaos.

Divergent paths of Jake Coker, Connor Cook converge in Texas

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ARLINGTON, Texas – Near the end of Alabama’s post-game press conference after its 38-0 win over Michigan State in the 80th Cotton Bowl, head coach Nick Saban had a moment when he wasn’t being asked a question.

With glasses perched at the end of his nose, the 64-year-old coach looked at a stat sheet and saw quarterback numbers that may have surprised some, but not the winner of four national titles on the verge of a potential fifth.

On the right side of the sheet were the stats for Alabama, which has been led by senior quarterback Jake Coker.

Coker, a 2014 transfer from Florida State, had just played his 31st college game and started just his 13th.

It was Coker who got the ball rolling toward Alabama’s first official Cotton Bowl win since 1982 and kept it rolling. Halfway through the second quarter, a 50-yard toss to freshman receiver Calvin Ridley set up a one-yard touchdown run from Heisman winner Derrick Henry.

Two quarters later, Coker, who had never set foot on the field for a bowl game, had 286 yards and two touchdowns on 25 completions and five misses. The game’s  Most Outstanding Offensive Player helped send Alabama to the National Championship Game against undefeated Clemson.

But Saban wasn’t surprised.

“He’s pretty much done a good job all year long in terms of whatever we’ve asked him to do,” Saban said. “He’s not a selfish guy at all. He never complains about when we don’t throw it down the field enough. He just tries to do what he can do for his team.”

That includes contributing to the first Cotton Bowl shutout since 1963 and continuing an 11-game win streak that began after Coker didn’t start against Ole Miss and failed to mount a comeback in the 43-37 loss.

“I think that’s why he was elected captain by his teammates and he’s respected so much because of his toughness and his competitive spirit and how he’s a real team guy,” Saban said. “Tonight he had to make the plays because they were there, and he certainly made them. But I think in each game that we’ve asked him to do that, he’s come through for us very nicely.”

Both of Coker’s touchdowns went to Ridley, who now has seven TD catches on the year. His 1,031 yards gives him the single-season receivers mark for freshman at Alabama.

“Calvin did a great job of just getting up and making plays,” Coker said, sitting to the left of Saban. “It makes things a lot easier on me, a lot easier than it should be. He’s one heck of a player. And so are all the other guys out there, man. They just got up and made plays and made me look better than I should have.”

They made him look better than the quarterback that had sat in his seat just minutes before.

On the left side of the state sheet Saban gazed at was the state line for Michigan State’s Connor Cook.

365 days ago, Cook sat before the Cotton Bowl media following “one for the ages.”

The junior quarterback had orchestrated MSU’s three touchdown fourth quarter to storm back and defeat Baylor 42-41. It was the Spartan’s fourth bowl win in as many seasons, which came after losses in their previous seven bowl games.

Cook, the winningest Michigan State QB at 34-5, was part of three of those, including MSU’s first Rose Bowl win since 1988, a 24-20 victory over Stanford.

A full calendar year after its triumph over Baylor, Cook and his Spartans were on receiving end of the first Cotton Bowl shutout in more than 50 years. It was a long night for a quarterback who had seen and accomplished more than any of his predecessors.

“There’s no comparison the feeling that I had last year to this year,” Cook said after going 19 of 32 for 210 yards, two interceptions and four sacks. “You can’t compare the two at all. So, obviously, last year was — everyone was so happy. Everyone was on cloud nine, a 20-point comeback in the fourth quarter. That was something for the ages. So everyone was stoked about that.”

No one was stoked on the night MSU was shut out for the first time in 195 games (vs Michigan, 2000). But there were no words of bitterness coming from Cook, just those of humble gratitude for being part of the ride. A ride that led to Michigan State being one game away from competing for its first outright championship.

“Looking back, we’ve been so fortunate to play in so many big-time games, to win so many games,” Connor said. “The ride has been so fun. And the last thing I want to do is look at the downside and say, ‘Our last game as Spartans we lost.’ We want to be positive people. We want to look at the bright side. We’re just so lucky to play for Coach (Dantonio) and all the other coaches.”

It was a ride that saw Cook help make MSU the best program in the state after years of playing second fiddle to the University of Michigan, which had spiraled during Cook’s time under center in East Lansing.

“Walking in as a freshman, I would have never experienced or never expected to have an experience like this,” Cook said. “I saw Kirk Cousins and I thought I would be lucky to play one season. So to be able to play in all the games we’ve been able to play in, you just got to look at the bright side and all the positives.”

Earlier in the week, Cook said his pre-game ritual was to listen to John Mayer music.

One of Mayer’s biggest hits is “Waiting on the World to Change.”

The song was released in 2006, the year before Mark Dantonio’s first season as head coach. In title alone, the song could have been the theme for Spartan faithful who were waiting for their school’s time to come.

Seven years later, Cook started his first game.

Then Michigan State’s world changed.