Then there were four. The best four teams in a college football season filled with disruption, changes in schedule, players and coaches stricken with COVID-19, now determine who will contest the national championship.
There have been calls for the playoff to be extended to eight or even sixteen teams, to raise the excitement and brutal honesty the knockout phase of a tournament brings. That's another discussion though, and the finale to this season brings together, albeit with some disagreement from Texas A&M and Cincinnati, the four best teams.
No.1 Alabama (11-0) vs. No.4 Notre Dame (10-1), Arlington, Texas. 10pm UK time.
No.2 Clemson (10-1) vs. No.3 Ohio State 6-0), New Orleans, Louisiana. 2am UK time.
Championship Saturday and form coming in...
SEC Championship - No.1 Alabama 52-46 No.7 Florida
This wasn't quite the blowout I'd predicted. Nonetheless, Alabama marked their intent to regain their national championship with an impressive win over a very good Florida team who had stopped Georgia's annual run to the SEC Championship Game.
Florida's offense has been potent this year, but they couldn't match the Crimson Tide. On six first half possessions, Alabama scored touchdowns on five. The most telling came after an interception made by Florida defensive back Trey Dean III, a turnover ended by a big hit from Alabama wide receiver John Metchie III who tackled back and knocked the ball loose for 'Bama to recover. On the very next play Mac Jones threw a 31 yard touchdown to fellow Heisman trophy nominee DeVonta Smith and Alabama were back in front. It is their ruthlessness and refusal to give up the football that makes them so hard to beat.
Alabama fans must be breathing a huge sigh of relief that Offensive Coordinator Steve Sarkisian resisted Auburn's overtures to interview for their head coaching position. Sarkisian's calls have given opposition defenses nightmares this season. Najee Harris is the best pass catching back in college football and Sarkisian showed off his full range of skills. Harris ran for 178 yards and scored five touchdowns, three receiving and two rushing, taking his total for the season to an astonishing 27.
"The resilience our team has shown throughout the season to win 11 games is pretty phenomenal." - Nick Saban.
Florida QB Kyle Trask, also on the shortlist for the Heisman Trophy, threw for 408 yards and three touchdowns and kept the Gators close. They were within four points at 35-31 down early in the fourth quarter. Alabama had too much for them and Notre Dame will be worried going into their semi-final. In addition to Harris, they will need to stop Mac Jones who threw for an SEC championship game record 418 yards and five touchdowns and DeVonta Smith, the best receiver in college football. Smith caught two touchdowns and had 184 receiving yards. The Tide ran up 605 offensive yards vs. Florida and could yet welcome back top receiver Jaylen Waddle, coming back after an ankle injury vs. Florida.
ACC Championship-No.3 Clemson 34-10 No.2 Notre Dame
This game had been brewing for weeks, since Notre Dame won a double-overtime thriller vs. Clemson on November 7th. The Fighting Irish, famously independent, were playing in their first and possibly only conference championship game. Clemson, missing their superstar quarterback Trevor Lawrence due to COVID-19 protocol in the first game, exacted revenge comprehensively.
The Tigers overwhelmed Notre Dame's offense and Ian Book. They sacked him six times and restricted the Fighting Irish to just 10 points as opposed to the 47 they scored in their earlier season win.
Lawrence threw for 322 yards and two touchdowns with a 34-yard touchdown run. He quite simply dissected Notre Dame. A 67-yard throw to Amari Rodgers, who had 121 yards on the night, put Clemson 7-3 up. His next scoring throw found 6'3" freshman receiver EJ Williams for a 33-yard touchdown. Williams offered an insight into the talent lining up for the Tigers next season. This team, though, is amongst the best according to their head coach:
"Of all the teams I've had, this team deserved it the most." - Dabo Swinney
Travis Etienne, held to just 1.6 yards per carry in their first meeting, ran for over a hundred yards, including a 44-yard run which put Clemson up 24-3 at the half, and effectively out of sight.
Notre Dame's win over Clemson earlier in the year effectively enabled them to hang on to their place in the top four, denying Texas A&M who finished their season 8-1, all against SEC opposition. They can count themselves a little unlucky, but Notre Dame, with a win over the Tigers and an impressive away win in Chapel Hill, finished 10-1 and move to a semi-final showdown with Alabama in Arlington. Clemson also finish 10-1 and travel to New Orleans to take on Ohio State.
Big Ten Championship - No.4 Ohio State 22-10 No.14 Northwestern
Ohio State's disrupted season culminated in a gritty 22-10 Big Ten Championship win over Northwestern. Down 10-6, thanks to a Cam Porter touchdown run for the Wildcats, Ohio State had to roll their sleeves up after a slow first half.
Justin Fields, as he had been against Indiana, struggled to get going and was intercepted twice in the first half, one from Brandon Joseph, who made his sixth pick of the season, leading the nation. Fields threw for just 114 yards and his stock as the potential second pick in the 2021 draft might be slipping.
The Buckeyes' defense won possession three times, keeping Ohio State in the game, but the star of the show was Trey Sermon. The running back, a transfer from Oklahoma, had 344 yards for the season coming into the game. He almost doubled it against Northwestern. Sermon ran for a conference championship record 331 yards, 271 in the second half. His two touchdowns eased Ohio State away and to a fourth straight Big Ten title.
The Buckeyes finish 6-0 and take on Clemson for a place in the national championship game. Fields knows he has to improve if they have any chance of winning, but their coach is optimistic:
"If we have the opportunity to play anybody in the country in one game, I'm gonna take the Ohio State Buckeyes." - Ryan Day
Alabama 51-22 Notre Dame
Clemson 44-21 Ohio State
Alabama and Clemson are rightly the top two ranked college football teams in the country. They meet for their fourth national championship match up on January 11th.