Clemson, Michigan State Wrap Up Conference Titles and Likely Playoff Spots – College Football Week 14
While the last week of the season didn’t deliver playoff chaos, it did give us several exciting moments to whet our appetites for the college football playoff. Here are some things we learned in this final week of college football.
Clemson is Still Number 1, But Not Without Controversy
Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson showed why he is a leading Heisman candidate, leading the Tigers to just their second conference title since 1992 with a win over North Carolina in the ACC championship game. The sophomore kept Clemson’s unbeaten season and national title hopes alive with 420 total yards and five touchdowns, both ACC title game records.
The Tigers got off to a sluggish start and trailed the Tar Heels 16-14 late in the second quarter. But Clemson then went on a 28-7 run to take a lead it would never give up. While much of the focus was understandably on Watson, much credit should go to the Tiger defense, which forced North Carolina to go three-and-out six times, their most in a game since 2012. The Tar Heels and only gone three-and-out 13 times this entire season, best in the FBS.
But in a season with so many blown calls and officiating controversies, it seems only fitting that the top-ranked teams’ playoff spot would involve some drama. With 1:13 to play, North Carolina scored to pull within 45-37. The Tar Heels recovered the subsequent onside kick, but were called for offsides. Was it the correct call? You be the judge.
Regardless, Clemson recovered the second onside attempt and ran out the clock from there to keep the Tigers alive for a shot at their first national title since 1981.
Michigan State Won With a Drive For the Ages
The Iowa/Michigan State matchup was a Big Ten stereotype come to life, with pounding defenses, stout running games and the two teams trading punts and field goals for much of the game. Neither team found the end zone until the end of the third quarter. But when smash mouth football is working, it is truly a thing of beauty.
Trailing 13-9 with 9:31 left to play, Michigan State drove the length of the field on a 22-play, 82-yard drive that drained over nine minutes off the clock and gave the Spartans the go-ahead touchdown. Out of 22 plays, 17 were runs, including the final 12 plays.
The final play, a one-yard touchdown run, really summed up the drive, as freshman running back LJ Scott escaped a hit in the backfield and fought through six Iowa defenders before finally lunging across the goal line.
This was old-school Big Ten football at its best and, if Michigan State can win a national title, this drive will forever have a place in Spartan history.
Alabama is More Than Derrick Henry
Derrick Henry, the bruising Alabama running back, is the Heisman frontrunner for a reason. All he’s done so far this year—with at least one more game to go—is tie the SEC record for rushing touchdowns in a season and break Herschel Walker’s SEC single-season rushing record. He needs just 14 yards to become the first SEC back ever to top the 2,000-yard mark.
But for all the well-deserved focus on Henry, it is the other side of the ball that is just as much responsible for the Crimson Tide likely headed back into playoff. Nick Saban has always had crushing defenses, and this year is no exception. Alabama leads the nation in rushing defense, is second in total defense and third in scoring. Since the early-season loss to Ole Miss, the Crimson Tide defense has held all but one opponent to less than 17 points and 317 yards. Saturday’s SEC title game was no exception, as Florida’s offense never had a chance.
The Gators took an early 7-2 lead on a first-quarter punt return touchdown but Florida would not sniff the end zone again until late in the fourth quarter. The Gators managed just 21 rushing yards while quarterback Treon Harris went just 9-of-24 for 165 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Florida had only seven first downs and failed to convert a third down in the game, both worsts for the Gators since the 1999 SEC Championship game. Florida literally went in reverse most of the night—62 percent of their plays were for zero or negative yards and their average distance to go on third down was 13.2 yards.
Defense doesn’t always win championships (3-9 Boston College leads the nation in total defense). But when combined with a bruising running game and efficient if not flashy quarterback, it definitely will put you in the mix.
No One Can Explain Texas
I don’t care how much football you watch or what kind of expert you think you are, there is simply no logical way to explain how Texas can choke away games against Cal and Oklahoma State, get blown out by Iowa State and West Virginia, but then win neutral site or road games against Oklahoma and Baylor.
On the plus side, the Longhorns now have more “quality wins” than any other 5-7 team in the country.
Christian McCaffrey is Good
Most observers expect Alabama running back Derrick Henry to take home the Heisman Trophy this year. And we can argue about whether Deshaun Watson or Baker Mayfield is the more deserving quarterback this year. But Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey might be the best Heisman candidate of which most people have never heard.
All McCaffrey did in the Pac-12 championship game win over USC was account for a school record 461 all-purpose yards. The do-it-all back rushed for 207 yards and a touchdown, caught four passes for 105 more. Oh, he also racked up 149 return yards and threw the game’s opening touchdown on a halfback pass. This was McCaffrey’s 11th game this season with 200+ yards. In the victory, he actually broke Barry Sanders’ record for single-season all-purpose yardage (although it must be noted that Sanders set the record in 11 games, while this was McCaffrey’s 13th).
After the game, Stanford coach David Shaw said, “[McCaffrey] is the best player in the nation. I don't know if that's even a question. There's nobody in the nation doing what he's been doing. It's not even a debate." While Heisman voters might not 100 percent agree with that last statement, there’s no doubt that McCaffrey should get an invite to the ceremony and, as a sophomore, will have at least one more year to make his name known.