SportsPulse: After a championship Saturday that saw the great redemption story of Jalen Hurts and Kyler Murray leading the Sooners to a Big 12 championship it looks like we have the final four set. Trysta Krick breaks it down.
If not quite the nightmare it could’ve been, Alabama’s 35-28 win against Georgia is a worrisome development for Oklahoma and Ohio State, which now must face the specter of being nudged out of the fourth and final spot in the College Football Playoff in favor of two teams from the Southeastern Conference.
That’s because it wasn’t your typical Alabama win, the sort of 20-plus-point whippings that had come to define one of the great regular seasons by any team in the modern history of the Football Bowl Subdivision. Georgia revealed the Tide as being unbeatable but not invincible — the sort of team that may face even greater danger in the national semifinals and, perhaps, the championship game.
In doing so, the Bulldogs made their case for a semifinal despite holding two losses and not taking the SEC championship. Throughout the past two months, the selection committee has made clear its feelings about the SEC; namely, that this league is by a substantial margin the best conference in college football. In losing by a touchdown — and handing Alabama the win on a platter via a nonsensical decision for a fake punt late in the fourth quarter — Georgia did what no team has done this season: give Alabama all it could handle.
So the path Oklahoma cleared in its 39-27 win against Texas now has a potential roadblock. The Sooners are 12-1, owners of a jaw-dropping offense piloted by Kyler Murray and avengers of their lone loss, to the Longhorns earlier this year on a neutral site. Oklahoma has more wins than Georgia. A conference title. After Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa struggled mightily against Georgia, the Sooners should have this year’s winner of the Heisman Trophy.
Even Ohio State has a claim to be ahead of Georgia, the Buckeyes’ midseason swoon and struggles notwithstanding. But Ohio State has turned a corner in its past two games, with last weekend’s win against Michigan joined by Saturday night’s 45-24 win against Northwestern to take the Big Ten championship. Also on Saturday, Clemson breezed past Pittsburgh, 42-10, to claim yet another ACC crown.
But Georgia has changed the debate. It’s no longer a slam-dunk top four — at the very least, the Bulldogs have given the committee something to consider heading into Sunday’s decision.
Here are the winners and losers from Saturday’s action:
Combined with Tagovailoa’s struggles against Georgia, Murray’s performance in the Big 12 championship game might make him the second Oklahoma quarterback in a row to claim the Heisman. He now owns the program record for single-season offense at 4,945 yards, breaking the mark set a season ago by Baker Mayfield, and did so despite having at least one more game to go in his season. Slowly and steadily, Murray has gained ground on Tagovailoa in the past few weeks; he may have taken the lead on Saturday.
Unlike Georgia, it would not have been a surprise had Alabama lost on Saturday and still found a spot in the committee’s top four. There are two ways to look at the 35-28 win: as proof that Alabama can be beaten and as the best thing that could’ve happened for the Tide heading into the postseason. Georgia did show that physical offensive lines can find some degree of success on the ground against the Alabama defense and that it’s possible to rattle Tua Tagovailoa, who completed just 40 percent of his attempts before leaving with an injury. His replacement, Jalen Hurts, was instrumental in the Tide’s fourth-quarter comeback.
There’s still a positive to how Alabama was pushed to the limit. It’d been an easy season to this point — too easy, maybe. Georgia forced the Tide to claw out a narrow win against a team with similar talent level, and that’s a huge bonus for the Tide heading into possible meetings against Oklahoma and Clemson in the Playoff.
There have been several special wins during UCF’s longstanding winning streak, including last year’s shootout with South Florida and the Peach Bowl victory against favored Auburn. Saturday’s 56-41 win against Memphis to claim another American Athletic Conference title might have been the most memorable of them all — one that saw the Knights crawl out of an early hole and pass yet another test despite playing without star quarterback McKenzie Milton. With the win, UCF clinched another trip to a New Year’s Six bowl as the best team from the Group of Five.
The Mountaineers are one of the great success stories in college football, a former power on the Football Championship Subdivision ranks that has transitioned up to the FBS level and picked up where it left off, relatively speaking. While not a factor in the overall title race, ASU has quickly become the dominant program of the Sun Belt Conference and one of the most consistently intimidating programs among the Group of Five leagues. The Mountaineers clinched another Sun Belt title with a 30-19 win against Louisiana-Lafayette, though it’s not all good news: Louisville and others have taken note of head coach Scott Satterfield, making it far from a given that he’ll be back with the Mountaineers in 2019.
Hats off to the Blazers and coach Bill Clark. Dismantled as a football program in 2014, UAB has returned with a vengeance: Saturday’s 27-25 win against Middle Tennessee State was the Blazers’ 10th on the year and handed the program the Conference USA tile. That’s remarkable for any number of reasons, most of all for the fact that even after its return to action last season few expected UAB to make any noise until Clark had rebuilt a decimated roster.
Fresno State’s 19-16 overtime win against Boise State to claim the Mountain West Conference caps an outstanding two-year turnaround by head coach Jeff Tedford, who inherited one of the worst teams in the league but is now a combined 21-6 since returning to the college ranks prior to the 2017 season. The Bulldogs blocked an extra-point try to eventually force overtime and won despite being gaining fewer yards on offense, committing more turnovers and losing the time of possession battle.
Smart’s decision to go with a fake punt with three minutes left in the fourth quarter will undoubtedly be dissected on message boards and elsewhere for at least the next nine months, if not for as long as Smart remains the head coach at Georgia. It was a gutsy call, sure, but let’s not confuse mental fortitude for intelligence: Smart’s decision was sniffed out in advance of the play by Alabama, which left its defense on the field, and resulted in giving the Tide a short field for Jalen Hurts and the offense to drive for the game-winning touchdown.
It’s hard to picture how Ohio State gets into the top four. The first issue is Oklahoma, which was ahead of the Buckeyes in the last playoff rankings and added the stronger win on Saturday — the committee respects Northwestern but holds Texas in higher esteem. While Ohio State continued to impress in beating the Wildcats by 21 points, the win shouldn’t be enough to shift the committee’s view. And then there’s Georgia, which at the very least cannot be shut out completely from contention. The Buckeyes will be left on the outside of the top four and will head to the Rose Bowl.
There was a regular rivalry game played on Saturday without any major hardware at stake, unless you count bragging rights: California fell to rival Stanford 23-13 in a game rescheduled due to weather, sending the Golden Bears into the postseason at 7-5. Meanwhile, the Cardinal will be 8-4 overall and 6-3 in Pac-12 Conference. Losing to Stanford isn’t a strange feeling, unfortunately.
The Tigers led Milton-less UCF 24-7 at the end of the first quarter and seemed very much on the way to ending the nation’s longest active winning streak and winning the American title. The game ended in the way this series often does: with UCF celebrating at the Tigers’ expense. This one will hurt more than the previous three setbacks in this blossoming rivalry, seeing how the Knights were without one of college football’s biggest stars and the early lead Memphis built on the back of potential All-America running back Darrell Henderson.
The selection committee
It was supposed to be an easy final Saturday for the College Football Playoff selection committee: Alabama was supposed to beat Georgia, leaving the debate centered solely on which of Oklahoma or Ohio State was most deserving to slide into the fourth and final spot. Now things are complicated. Now what?