MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – Years from now, when the details of Alabama’s College Football Playoff semifinal blowout of Oklahoma have cobwebbed in our minds, there will be one moment that stays seared into the memory. Early in the second quarter, Alabama’s Josh Jacobs caught a pass alone in the flat and squared his shoulders to sprint for a touchdown.
All that remained between Jacobs and the end zone was Oklahoma safety Robert Barnes, a 6-foot-2, 220-pound sophomore who braced to make the tackle. The ensuing collision ended up as a microcosm, that one perfect moment in time to encapsulate all of the night’s prevalent themes – utter domination, futile resistance and a juggernaut chugging along to its inevitable destination. Jacobs ran over Barnes – think Mack Truck vs. Mack Brown – leaving him crumpled on the Hard Rock Stadium turf equal parts injured and embarrassed.
A season lacking high-end drama, defined by the lack of interlopers among the aristocrats, ends exactly where we expected – Clemson vs. Bama IV. You’ve heard of a trilogy? Well, now we’ve got a Tetralogy, as these teams meet with high stakes for the fourth consecutive season.
And after a College Football Playoff semifinal day that had about as much suspense as a game of hide-and-seek in a phone booth, a sport desperately in need of high-end drama should get it in the College Football Playoff title game on Jan. 7 in Santa Clara. The first two championship games between Alabama and Clemson were high-end thrillers, with an Alabama onions onside kick the difference in the 2015 title game and Deshaun Watson’s last-second heroics winning the 2016 game for Clemson. Last year’s semifinal matchup was a shutout dud, but it led Dabo Swinney to eventually have the guts to have Trevor Lawrence usurp Kelly Bryant as the starting quarterback.
We’re looking ahead – and way back – because the proceedings on Saturday night in the Orange Bowl at Hard Rock Stadium were as predictable as they were forgettable. Sure, we got to see Tua Tagovailoa make the clinical appear routine, as he completed 24-of-27 passes for 318 yards and four touchdowns. And we got to see Kyler Murray’s NFL first-round projections get a little more cloudy, as he completed just 19-of-37 passes and generally played down to the fears that his size would become an issue at the next level.
But what we saw, mostly, was another rendition of an Alabama team grounding, pounding and tidily dispatching an allegedly elite opponent. The Tide went up 28-0 and did enough to never allow Oklahoma to get within one score. It reminded some of Alabama’s steamrolling of Notre Dame here to conclude the 2012 season. This wasn’t that lopsided, but the game was in doubt for just as small a period of time.
Now credit to Oklahoma, they adjusted, ripped off some chunk plays and resuscitated interest in this as a game. They didn’t quit and finished with 471 yards. Congrats, Sooners, for hanging in there. As Alabama and Clemson have run away from the competition in college football – with Georgia nipping their heels – that’s what this era of college football has become. Let’s give Oklahoma some orange slices and a trophy for not getting run out of the building and covering the spread. There was a brief oxygen mask placed on the suspense of this game late in the third quarter when Murray threw a dazzling 49-yard touchdown to cut the lead to 31-20.
But Nick Saban is the Grinch of hope, and a suffocating 9-play, 85-yard drive seemingly borrowed from the 2012 playbook churned nearly five minutes from the clock and left everyone looking ahead for something compelling to happen in the Bay Area next week.
Want the good news? Yahoo Sports polled some coaches familiar with both teams and they offered optimism for a competitive game.
“I think it’s going to be really hard for someone to knock off Alabama,” said a head coach familiar with both teams. “But if anyone can do it, it’s Clemson. You’re going to have to be able to slow them down offensively. Clemson has a chance because of what they have up front defensively.”
An assistant familiar with both programs summed up the matchup this way: “I think it’s going to be a great game,” he said. “I think they’ll both challenge each other. I don’t know if either team can win it without playing their best.”
Ultimately, Alabama won on Saturday night without playing their best. They appeared a bit prone to human nature after building a four-touchdown lead. They committed foolish penalties, got twisted up on defense and showed some vulnerabilities against the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback.
So Alabama will shift from a two-touchdown favorite to a one-touchdown favorite on Jan. 7.
“Clemson is the team that’s closest to them athletically, especially on the defensive line,” said a third coach familiar with both teams. “Clemson has an SEC feel to their team. They have big, long and rangy receivers and skilled athletes. And they have a quarterback who can do whatever you need him to do.”
What we really need is a good game, after trudging through two semifinals where the most interesting thing to emerge was an argument for inviting Georgia instead of the Sooners. What we need is the fourth playoff meeting and third title-game matchup between Clemson and Alabama to mirror the first two. We’ve slogged through a season where there’s been two clear-cut dominant teams. And now that perception meets reality in the title game, college football is due a compelling contest.
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