Updated: Dec 11, 2021
Fairy-tale endings happened, dreams were shattered and rules were changed as college football’s regular season drew to a close in a historic weekend where conference championships were decided and the College Football Playoff places were announced.
Here’s my highlights of the week…
SEC Championship Game – No.3 Alabama 41-21 No.1 Georgia
The Unstoppable Force vs. The Immovable Object. Georgia’s defense, having conceded just 230 yards per game all season, met an Alabama offense that clicked into gear, typically, when it mattered most. Heisman-favourite Bryce Young pulled out his full repertoire, leading Alabama to 536 total yards against the top-ranked defense in the nation, a 42-21 win and their eighth SEC championship under coach Nick Saban.
Young highlighted his Heisman credentials, completing 26 of 44 passes for 421 yards and three touchdowns, running through the heart of the Bulldogs’ defense for another. He opened up with a 67-yard touchdown pass to the outstanding Jameson Williams, pulling the Crimson Tide back to 10-7 after an early Georgia lead. Alabama’s offensive line, which had looked a little shaky in recent weeks, stepped up and gave their quarterback plenty of time in the pocket. With all day to pick out his speedy receivers, Young dissected the Georgia secondary, with 286 yards in the first half. If a passing option wasn’t open, he scrambled through the gaps and improvised. His run and sideways pitch to Brian Robinson showed his confidence to adapt when his scripted play broke down, again when the quarterback’s scramble for a touchdown just before half-time gave the Tide a critical 24-17 half-time lead.
Georgia couldn’t keep up. Alabama scored again - quickly after half time, Young’s throw to Jameson Williams put two touchdowns between them. Kirby Smart’s team, so dominant all season and used to building on steady leads, were playing catch up. Stetson Bennett looked harassed without the platform to control the game he is used to. His backup, J.T. Daniels, cut a frustrated figure on the touchline, calling out to offer his fellow quarterback assistance and advice on plays, but you wonder whether the USC transfer might have been the wiser choice under center. Brock Bowers, at tight end, gave a standout performance that will have NFL coaches on notice to visit Athens next season. The freshman tight end carried the fight to Alabama’s underrated defense, catching 10 passes for 139 yards.
Georgia’s 16-game winning streak was ruthlessly snuffed out by Alabama, who go into the postseason at their familiar No.1 spot and a semi-final clash with Cincinnati. Georgia will face Michigan in their semi-final with an opportunity for revenge in a potential rematch in the final and the highest possible reward, the national championship, at stake.
AAC Championship Game – No.4 Cincinnati 35-20 No.21 Houston
An extraordinary season for Cincinnati culminated in an undefeated run to the AAC Championship and a historic first appearance, for the Bearcats and any Group of Five conference team, in the prestigious College Football Playoff. It’s a quite superb story.
Cincinnati made a fast start against Houston and stretched away in the second half.
Quarterback Desmond Ridder has been the Bearcats’ talisman in their impressive season. In his last home game, he completed 11 of 17 passes, modest numbers by his own heady past statistics, but accounted for three touchdowns and willed the Bearcats to a well-deserved semi-final spot. Running back Jerome Ford hit form at the right time, rushing for 187 yards against the Cougars.
Coach Luke Fickell, frequently mentioned in the feeding frenzy for new head coach roles at USC, Oklahoma and Florida, has built a very impressive program at Cincinnati that excels in all three phases of play - offense, defense and special teams. In Sauce Gardner and Coby Briant, they have arguably the best cornerback pairing in college football and a stingy defense for whom linebacker Joel Dublanko was a highlight. He made four tackles for a loss, one interception and two sacks. The Bearcats defense mauled the Cougars, sacking quarterback Clayton Thune eight times.
Cincinnati, finishing the regular season unbeaten, recorded their 27th straight home win. Their fairy-tale season continues with a trip to AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, where they take on Alabama, for the Cotton Bowl, in the first semi-final. It’s been quite the story so far.
Big Ten Championship Game – No.2 Michigan 42-3 No.13 Iowa
It feels a little bit like the Changing of the Guard in the Big Ten this season. No Ohio State hoisting the trophy aloft for the first time in five years, or even reaching the final. Northwestern, winners of two West division titles in the last three years, and Wisconsin, winners of a further five West titles, didn’t feature. Indiana, who showed glimpses of a potential title challenge at times last year, faded quickly. Michigan State and Penn State improved significantly on last year, but the biggest story was the rise of Michigan.
In my Big Ten Season Preview, I wrote that “Michigan’s new-look defense could be the key to Jim Harbaugh’s future in Ann Arbor”. They held a tough Iowa team, who reached No.2 in the AP rankings earlier this season, to just 279 yards and three points, handing Jim Harbaugh his first Big Ten title. A year on from possibly Harbaugh’s lowest ebb as a coach, staying on with a reduced contract and increased pressure, his defense have delivered. The payoff could be a national championship and a top pick in the NFL Draft for the hugely impressive Aidan Hutchinson.
In a conference renowned for gritty, in-the-trenches attritional football, Michigan’s offense sparkled at times. Offensive coordinator Josh Gattis has balanced the Wolverines’ offense with a fast style of play and talented playmakers. Michigan averaged 223.8 rushing and 228.1 passing yards per game and will likely have two 1,000 yard backs in Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum. Their offensive line allowed the fewest sacks in the nation (just 10 this season), opening up huge gaps for Haskins who added two touchdown runs to the five he racked up against Ohio State last weekend. Gattis deservedly won the Broyles Ward for the top assistant coach in college football this year.
Corum set the tone with a 67-yard touchdown run to put the Wolverines 7-0 up while true freshman back Donovan Edwards made the highlight reel trick play, running out of the backfield to throw a touchdown pass to Romeo Wilson. Luke Schoonmaker will be on the wish list of NFL teams. The 6’5” 250lb senior tight end showed his receiving skills with a one-handed catch to set up another Michigan touchdown.
Harbaugh delivered, against all expectations at the start of the season, the Wolverines’ first Big Ten title since 2004 and led his team to a No.2 ranking. I can’t help but admire his resolve to change the record. He and Michigan travel to Miami on New Year’s Eve for a semi-final Orange Bowl match with Georgia and a shot at the national championship.
Big 12 Championship Game – No.9 Baylor 21-16 No.5 Oklahoma State
In a game littered with numbers of yards gained, the Big 12 Championship was decided literally by a matter of inches. Oklahoma State’s Dezmon Jackson, running for the corner of the end zone on a fourth-and-goal play from a yard out with 30 seconds left, dived for the line to win the game, championship and a potential (long) shot at the College Football Playoff, and came up agonisingly short. The resolve of a staunchly determined Baylor team was scarcely better illustrated than in their goal-line stand which won them their third-ever Big 12 title, a remarkable turnaround under coach Dave Aranda for a team that finished with a 2-7 record last year.
Oklahoma State, in their biggest game of the season, arguably delivered their worst offensive performance. Quarterback Spencer Sanders was intercepted four times and the Cowboys were held to a miserable 1.8 rushing yards per carry.
Baylor, on the other hand, were inspired. Freshman quarterback Blake Shapen, making only his second start in place of injured starter Gerry Bohanon, threw 17 straight completions for 151 yards to open the game, settling his and the Bears’ nerves quickly. Baylor raced to a 21-6 lead and held on for a famous victory.
ACC Championship Game – No.15 Pittsburgh 45-21 No.16 Wake Forest
Rarely has one piece of play so quickly resulted in a rule-change in college football. Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett made the play of the game in a 58-yard run which featured an extraordinary fake slide that resulted in a touchdown but could have ruptured his ACL. Pickett was unscathed, fooling the Wake Forest defense into backing off, as rules dictate, as he part slid and then rose quickly without touching the floor, leaving the defenders in his wake. Moving forward “any time a ball carrier begins, simulates, or fakes a feet-first slide, the ball should be declared dead by the on-field officials at that point” declared the NCAA in a bulletin this week.
It was an outrageous play to open the scoring and one of three touchdowns Pickett accounted for which broke the great Dan Marino’s school record with 181 career touchdowns for Pitt. His 42nd passing touchdown this season also broke the ACC record.
Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman, quite uncharacteristically, delivered his worst performance in an otherwise hugely impressive season, throwing four interceptions.
The day and season, however, belonged to Pickett. Pitt won their first ACC championship in school history, and their first 11-win season since 1981, when Marino was the quarterback. Like Marino, Pitt’s quarterback has an excellent chance to be a first-round pick in the NFL Draft and added Heisman finalist to his growing list of career landmarks.
Pac-12 Championship Game – No. Utah 38-10 No. Oregon
This was an almost repeat performance from both teams who met recently when Utah took the legs from Oregon’s season with a 38-7 win on November 20th.
Utah dominated Oregon with a solid offensive performance from dual-threat quarterback Cam Rising who passed for 170 yards and a touchdown, and rushed for 61 yards. His opposite number, Ducks signal-caller Anthony Brown never hit his stride, harried and harassed by an aggressive Utes defense who sacked him four times, and intercepted him twice, the highlight being a pick-six by Devin Lloyd that gave Utah a 14-0 lead.
A strong performance from Utah gave them the Pac-12 championship and a first appearance in a Rose Bowl game. Oregon will be licking their wounds after a disappointing end to a season that promised so much after their upset of Ohio State. Their quest to regain the Pac-12 next year will be not be an easy one with the improvement of UCLA and the
arrival of Lincoln Riley at USC.
The next step to the national championship starts on New Year's Eve.
College Football Playoff Schedule:
Cotton Bowl – Alabama vs. Cincinnati, Friday 31st December 2021 – AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas.
Orange Bowl – Michigan vs. Georgia, Friday 31st December 2021 – Hard Rock Stadium, Miami, Florida.
National Championship – Alabama/Cincinnati vs. Michigan/Georgia, Monday 10th January 2022 – Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis, Indiana.
The Heisman Trophy ceremony takes place this Saturday 11th December at the Lincoln Center in New York.
Bryce Young – QB, Alabama
Aidan Hutchinson – DE, Michigan
Kenny Pickett – QB, Pittsburgh
C.J. Stroud – QB, Ohio State.