Georgia and Michigan Dominate, Upsets for TCU and USC - Championship Week Highlights
The final places in the College Football Playoff have been determined as Georgia and Michigan sealed the top seeds, TCU stumbled and USC fell out of the picture after a humbling championship loss to Utah. Ohio State and Alabama waited in the wings to see if they could sneak into the playoff places. Here's my highlights of the week...
SEC Championship Game - No.1 Georgia 50-30 No.14 LSU
While LSU's upset loss to Texas A&M dented a stunning run of form, the Tigers still had a tilt at an SEC championship no-one would have predicted at the start of the season. Georgia have been impressive all season in defence of their national championship, but were determined to land the conference title that has eluded them for five years.
Stetson Bennett IV further outlined his Heisman credentials, peppering the LSU secondary from the safety of a pocket that must have felt like a fortress behind the Bulldogs' offensive line. Bennett completed 23 of 29 passes for 274 yards and four touchdown passes, one to Ladd McConkey who left the game with tendinitis in his knee and faces an anxious wait until Georgia's semi-final match with Ohio State.
Georgia seized the initiative with a blocked field goal in the opening drive, the ball falling loose into the Bulldogs' backfield. While LSU's players were trudging off the field, and a couple of Georgia players high-fived on the block, the quick-witted Christopher Smith looked around, picked up the ball and returned it 95-yards for the opening score. The defending champions never looked back, and head into the College Football Playoff as firm favourites with the No.1 ranking. Their 13-0 record is their best start to a season ever.
"Our team kinda played this game like they played the whole season - unbelievable well in spurts, unbelievably poor in spurts and answered the bell when they had to." - Georgia coach Kirby Smart.
Big 12 Championship Game - No.10 Kansas State 31-28 No.3 TCU (OT)
AT&T Stadium in Dallas was decked in purple as TCU, travelling a short journey along I-30, took on Kansas State. Racing to a 21-10 lead, Kansas State unleashed star running back Deuce Vaughn who rushed for 130 yards and added another thirty receiving yards. This would be his fifteenth career game with over 150 yards from scrimmage.
TCU had put together five second-half comeback wins in a historic unbeaten season, but fell agonisingly short. While the headlines will deservedly reflect Kansas State's victory, the story of the game and often of the season, was TCU's quarterback. His grit and will to figt has driven TCU to an unlikely postseason playoff spot. Max Duggan threw for 251 yards and a touchdown, adding another 110 yards on the ground with an eight-yard score. In a season where the Heisman Trophy finalist has carried this team at times, his offensive line had to help carry him as their battered quarterback hauled himself through series after series to pull the Horned Frogs back to 28-28 and overtime.
Two stops at the 1-yard line on third and fourth downs gave Kansas State their last possession, culminating in a 31-yard winning field goal from kicker Ty Zentner.
TCU's loss may have dented their momentum, but they have their well-deserved spot in the end of season College Football Playoff, where they will take on Michigan. Kamsas State capped a memorable season with their first Big 12 championship since 2012.
"I would say over the last five to six weeks there may not be a more valuable kid on the football field than Ty Zentner." - Kansas State coach Chris Klieman.
Big Ten Championship Game - No.2 Michigan 43-22 Purdue
Riding high on the back of their thrashing of Ohio State, Michigan held off a spirited Purdue team at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. Purdue kept the game honest, but couldn't convert on a series of promising drives, having to settle for field goals on five drives that could have delivered more. Boilermakers' quarterback Jack O'Connell threw for 366 yards and, critically, two interceptions.
Having lost star running back Blake Corum to knee surgery, Donovan Edwards, as he did against the Buckeyes the previous week, stepped up. Edwards ran over Purdue in the second half, racking up 216 yards and two touchdowns. J.J. McCarthy marshalled the offense around Edwards, feeding Kalel Mullings who ran in for two scores, and threw scoring passes to Ronnie Bell, Colston Loveland and Luke Schoonmaker.
Jim Harbaugh, under pressure two seasons ago has now led Michigan to back-to-back Big Ten championships for the first time since 2004 and marches into the Playoff with the No.2 ranking. Can they win their first national title since 1997? Their conditioning may play a huge factor, as alluded to by several Wolverines players in post-match interviews.
"Every game we come together in the second half. I think it's just the offseason work we do. By the second half we're just more ready than the other team, really." - Michigan DB Will Johnson.
ACC Championship Game - No.9 Clemson 39-10 No.23 North Carolina
What might have seemed like a disappointing season for Clemson given the perenially high expectations of them as a national championship contender, still resulted in an 11-win season, an ACC conference championship win over North Carolina and a tantalising glimpse at their quarterback of the future.
The top-ranked high school quarterback of the 2022 class, Cade Klubnik, was launched into the game early, Dabo Swinney hooking starter DJ Uiagalelei. The freshman signal-caller reinvigorated a stuttering offense that had relied heavily on Will Shipley to bail them out on numerous occasions. Klubnik drove Clemson to four straight touchdowns and a 24-10 halftime lead. Swinney's bold switch was reminiscent of him sending in Deshaun Watson and Trevor Lawrence to replace more experienced starters. If Klubnik can have a similar impact over the next three to four years, Clemson fans will be thrilled. He completed 20 of 24 passes for 279 yards with one passing touchdown and another on the ground.
Fellow freshman Drake Maye, the Tar Heels' promising young quarterback, turned the ball over three times, one for a pick-six that Nate Wiggins ran in to give Clemson an unassailable 32-10 lead. Maye, having briefly flirted with the portal, has committed to North Carolina and gives them an excellent shot at returning to the ACC title game. Clemson has the Orange Bowl to look forward to and both teams have the future under center sewn up for what looks like a bright rivalry in the ACC.
Pac-12 Championship Game - No.11 Utah 47-24 No.4 USC
USC must be sick of the sight of Utah. Having lost 43-42 in their October meeting in Salt Lake City, the Utes handed their Trojans their second loss of the season to win the Pac-12 Championship in Las Vegas.
Utah have won back-to-back championships and a second successive appearance in the Rose Bowl, knocking USC out of the College Football Playoff picture and allowing Ohio State to leapfrog them into the coveted final semi-final place.
The supremely talented Caleb Williams threw for 363 yards and three touchdowns but a first quarter injury knocked him off his stride and the physical Utah defense sacked him five times. His opposite number, Utes' quarterback Cameron Rising shook off some indifferent recent form, throwing for 310 yards and three touchdown passes as Utah racked up 533 yards of offense.
In the Group of Five...
Big news from the SWAC where Jackson State beat Southern 43-24 in Coach Prime's last game to take the conference title. Deion Sanders announced he will become head coach of Pac-12 Colorado next season, taking his son and star quarterback Shedeur with him. Sanders finished with a 27-5 record at Jackson State.
The lowest scoring game in MAC championship history saw Toledo edge out Ohio 17-7. Fresno State won their eighth consecutive game to win the Mountain West, beating Boise State on their famous blue pitch, 28-16.
Troy took the Sun Belt conference title, winning their tenth straight game to beat Coastal Carolina 45-26. D.K. Billingsley ran in three touchdowns. The AAC went to No.18 Tulane, whose running back Tyjae Spears ran for 199 yards in their 45-28 win over No.22 UCF. The Green Wave's championship win capped an extraordinary turnaround. Tulane finished 11-2, having been 2-10 last year.
The next step to the national championship starts on New Year's Eve. College Football Playoff Schedule: Peach Bowl – No.1 Georgia vs. No.4 Ohio State, 31st December 2022 – Atlanta, GA Fiesta Bowl – No.2 Michigan vs. No.3 TCU, 31st December 2022 – Glendale, AZ National Championship – Georgia/Ohio State vs. Michigan/TCU, 9th January 2023 – Los Angeles, CA.
The Heisman Trophy ceremony takes place this Saturday 10th December in New York.
Caleb Williams - QB, USC.
Max Duggan - QB, TCU.
Stetson Bennett IV - QB, Georgia. C.J. Stroud – QB, Ohio State.