After all that, it’s possible — perhaps even likely — that we will be given another serving of Alabama-Clemson. If both teams win in the playoff semifinals Jan. 1, college football’s mightiest, familiar giants will once again touch gloves.
It has become an annual tradition. Since 2016, Alabama and Clemson have faced each other four times: three times in the national championship and once in the semifinals. Two of those games were all-time epics and two were blowouts. Each team is 2-2.
A fifth installment likely won’t be largely appreciated, given the familiarity. But if these two meet in the national championship, I, for one, would be thrilled.
To me, greatness doesn’t get old. And although the storylines connecting Dabo Swinney to his Alabama roots grow tiresome, the excellence on the football field would be worth it.
I understand why many would be fatigued. We’ve seen it plenty. But the drama surrounding Trevor Lawrence’s final college game against a historic Alabama offense (and a future Heisman Trophy winner still to be determined) would be delightful.
We have two games to go before we get there. One is much easier to solve than the other. If we do end up with Alabama-Clemson V, however, don’t be mad at the familiarity of it all. Embrace the greatness.
THE APPETIZER: FOOTBALL TIDBITS AND OBSERVATIONS
1. The Cure Bowl, which looked like a great matchup on paper, turned out to be a great game in reality and perhaps the best bowl of the season. Liberty blocked Coastal Carolina’s field-goal attempt in overtime to win 37-34 as a 6.5-point underdog. But the biggest moment came when the Flames were trying to run out the clock and set up a game-winning field goal. They fumbled in the process — somewhat spectacularly I might add. Coastal recovered just outside the goal line and the teams went to overtime. That fumble is one of the strangest plays I have seen on any level — a mix of analytics, over-coaching, panic and madness. That Liberty didn’t just take a knee and instead ran a bizarre, mutated play remains baffling. But, hey, it ultimately worked out.
2. Zach Wilson is delightful. The BYU quarterback delivered a flawless performance against Central Florida in the Boca Raton Bowl as the Cougars easily covered the 6-point spread with a 49-23 win. His final stat line: 425 passing yards and five touchdowns. I’m curious to see what the draft process looks like for a fascinating prospect with so much potential. We know Trevor Lawrence is No. 1. The rest is a mystery. It wouldn’t be shocking to see Wilson land in the top 2-5.
3. Speaking of Lawrence, here are your Heisman finalists: Alabama’s DeVonta Smith and Mac Jones, Florida’s Kyle Trask and Lawrence, Clemson’s star. If you’ve been reading this column, you know where I stand. Give Smith the award and don’t think twice about it. Quarterback isn’t the only important position when it comes to highlighting greatness. A shakeup is long overdue.
4. This year has been tough in many ways. But as we reflect on the college football season — a disjointed, chaotic and maddening mess of a year — I am still incredibly thankful that we got any football at all. And, perhaps most surprising, the football we were served really looked and felt much like the product we are used to. I cannot begin to express my gratitude to players, coaches and all the other people who make these programs run for pulling it off. Much love.
5. Happy New Year. Out with 2020, in with 2021. I hope it is a safe, welcoming year for us all.
THE BUFFET: BREAKING DOWN THE COLLEGE FOOTBALL PLAYOFF
Rose Bowl: Alabama (-19.5, 65.5) vs. Notre Dame
The worst bet I ever made came the last time these teams played. It took about three minutes to know I had the wrong side in the 2013 national championship game. Notre Dame was overwhelmingly overmatched against Alabama with a spread that hovered around double digits. I liked the Irish for reasons long forgotten, and they were promptly throttled 42-14.
Nothing about that game should factor into this game. And yet, an undeniable truth still lingers. Alabama has the talent advantage at just about every position. They have the star power. They have three of the top five Heisman finalists. They have the best coach to ever angrily pace a sideline. They have, well, the type of advantages you expect a 19.5-point favorite to have.
Nick Saban’s team is a dominant 11-0 and a superb 8-3 against the spread. Alabama did not cover against Florida as a 16-point favorite in the SEC championship game, however, and the Gators demonstrated that Alabama’s improving defense wasn’t completely fixed when it scored 46 points.
Notre Dame doesn’t possess the same offensive pieces or philosophy as Florida. It’s not nearly as explosive, which was evident against Clemson in the ACC championship game. The Irish lost 34-10 as an 11-point underdog, and it frankly didn’t feel that close. Despite going 10-1, Brian Kelly’s team went 5-6 ATS.
It’s certainly possible that Notre Dame covers. It’s a big number. It’s also possible that this game unfolds how you expect it to: The Irish can’t go blow-for-blow with the best offense in the country and the game quickly spirals.
That’s not exactly bold commentary, so let me summarize it the best way I can: It would take a lot for Notre Dame to make this a game.
Possible? Of course. Likely? Given what we’ve seen, no.
Sugar Bowl: Clemson (-7.5, 66.5) vs. Ohio State
There is real animosity brewing between these teams and coaches ... and that’s a good thing. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney ranked Ohio State No. 11 in his final coaches poll ballot — information that is very public and likely featured prominently in the Ohio State locker room.
Ryan Day, videotaped in the locker room after the Big Ten championship game, uncorked a solid, NSFW rant about how he felt Ohio State stacked up with the other contenders.
Oh, and they played last season in a semifinal that was rife with officiating controversy. Clemson won and covered as a 2.5-point favorite in a fantastic football game.
Animosity is good. In fact, for a playoff game, it’s pretty rare. Given the nature of 2020, we’ll take all the good drama we can get.
Ohio State remains a bit of a mystery heading into the postseason. We know the Buckeyes are 6-0 and only 3-3 ATS. We know quarterback Justin Fields can look like a superhero at times and mortal at others. We also know the Buckeyes finished with a passing defense outside the nation’s top 100, which could be an unfair way to assess their talent — or a fairly accurate way.
That’s the difficult aspect of this game given the sample size, and Clemson certainly complicates matters. With Lawrence back at quarterback, Clemson completely overwhelmed Notre Dame in their rematch.
Clemson was 10-1 this season but only 5-6 ATS. It’s worth noting that two of those ATS losses came in the two games Lawrence missed, and the Tigers covered in their last three games.
The Clemson defense also seemed to improve late in the season, which made the victories, like we saw against Notre Dame, more complete. The difference between this offense and the one Ohio State saw last season, however, is the weapons. While running back Travis Etienne is an all-world receiver at running back, the departure of Tee Higgins and the injury loss of Justyn Ross changes the matchups. Clemson still has plenty of capable pass-catchers -- it is Clemson, after all -- but not at the same level.
Still, the Ohio State secondary has not been great and Lawrence is, well, on a completely different level from anyone on the field.
The obvious play is Clemson. It might be the right side too. And yet, I feel like we could get a similar game to last season’s.
LEFTOVERS: BREAKING DOWN OUR FAVORITE POST-DEC. 31 BOWL GAMES
1. Peach Bowl: Georgia (-7, 50.5) vs. Cincinnati
We, or at least many, clamored for Cincinnati to have a shot at the playoff after an undefeated regular season. The Bearcats can prove their worth against a team that epitomizes athleticism. Georgia has been a much different team and offense since JT Daniels took over at quarterback — covering in three of its final three games.
2. Orange Bowl: Texas A&M (-7.5, 67.5) vs. North Carolina
Opt-outs have hit the North Carolina roster hard heading into the bowl game, most damaging being the departure of Javonte Williams, who blossomed into one of the nation’s elite running backs this year. Texas A&M, meanwhile has to settle for the Orange Bowl after missing out on the playoff. While the Aggies have covered three of their last four games against the spread, motivation is certainly an intriguing element given the circumstances.
3. Fiesta Bowl: Iowa State (-5, 57.5) vs. Oregon
After a late surge, both straight up and against the spread, Iowa State finally fell to Oklahoma in the Big 12 Championship Game — largely due to Brock Purdy’s turnover-happy ways. Oregon had the opposite fate in the Pac-12 Championship, winning outright as a three-point underdog. The Cyclones are still getting the respect from the oddsmakers in the Fiesta Bowl, which shows in the spread. While the Ducks had their struggles, the 'dog feels live.
4. Outback Bowl: Indiana (-7, 66.5) vs. Ole Miss
Indiana’s award for one of the best years in program history is a tussle with a four-win team and Lane Kiffin. That said, this matchup has plenty of pop. Kiffin’s offense at Ole Miss has been plenty explosive, averaging more than 40 points per game. The Hoosiers counter with a solid defense and a balanced team that allowed them, even after losing their starting quarterback, to go 7-0 ATS.
5. Citrus Bowl: Northwestern (-3.5, 43.5) vs. Auburn
I get it. It’s not sexy. One team just paid its coach a boatload of money to go away in order to bring in its new leader from Boise, Idaho. The other is coming off a hard-fought loss against Ohio State in the Big Ten title game. Northwestern is 6-2 straight up and ATS, and has showed it can play with bigger, faster teams. They’ll have to do that again against the Tigers, who may present a bigger challenge than many expect.