Sports

SEC, Alabama true No. 1, but Clemson has magic to win College Football Playoff

Clemson quarterback and Offensive MVP Deshaun Watson, middle, and head coach Dabo Swinney, right, celebrate after defeating Oklahoma, 37-17, in the Capital One Orange Bowl at SunLife Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla.
Clemson quarterback and Offensive MVP Deshaun Watson, middle, and head coach Dabo Swinney, right, celebrate after defeating Oklahoma, 37-17, in the Capital One Orange Bowl at SunLife Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla. TNS

In the immortal words of Dennis Green: They are who we thought they were.

I’m referring, of course, to the College Football Playoff and accompanying bowl games. Except for Clemson, that is, the Tigers proved many around the nation wrong: They didn’t “Clemson.”

Here are some observations heading into the dead week before the College Football Playoff championship between Alabama and Clemson on Monday, Jan. 11.

THE ACC WAS A ONE-TEAM SHOW: I’m sorry North Carolina fans, but it’s true. And while the Tar Heels did remain competitive in the ACC championship and against Baylor in their 49-38 loss in the Russell Athletic Bowl, remember that was a three-loss Big 12 team (see note below) that was missing its top two quarterbacks, a Biletnikoff-winning receiver and a 1,000-yard rusher. The offense and system will be there, but until UNC can step up on defense – and realize scheduling two FCS schools is a quick and easy way to lose credibility – it will struggle to get over the hump. Oh, and Florida State, uhhh, losing to Houston … not exactly endearing for the conference’s clout.

But let’s keep in mind one thing: Last year’s RAB matchup was an upstart Clemson team vs. a vaunted Big 12 offense in Oklahoma. So if the bowl game’s magic has rubbed off again, we may be looking at two CFP teams for next season.

THE BIG 12 CAN’T SEEM TO GET OUT OF ITS OWN WAY: Oklahoma State and the vaunted Oklahoma – flops. And while TCU (minus Trevone Boykin) pulled off a ridiculous comeback over Oregon in the Alamo Bowl, good teams don’t have to recover from a 31-point deficit. The conference was snubbed in the inaugural College Football Playoff, and now we know why. It didn’t do itself any favors this year, and unless it opts to add a conference championship it will have to suffer the same hand-wringing in future seasons.

THE SEC IS THE THE DEEPEST CONFERENCE, BY A WIDE MARGIN: There were certainly bad teams this year (see South Carolina or Florida’s bowl performance), but this was a conference featuring the nation’s best team (Alabama), possibly the next legendary running back in Leonard Fournette, an Ole Miss team that ran roughshod over a “vaunted” Big 12 team in Oklahoma State … the list goes on. They fell flat last year, but they seem primed to be the first conference to land two teams in the top four as the playoff format heads toward its third season.

WHAT’S MISSING? BUCKEYES AND CARDINAL: When I made my prediction for the College Football Playoff field in Week 10, I had two misses: Stanford and Ohio State. Watching how they performed in their respective bowl games (Ohio State a 44-28 dismantling of Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl and Stanford using a Christian McCaffrey monster game to rout Iowa 45-16), it looks like I did hit on the four best teams, however. And when you look at the fact that an insane, game-ending botched punt by Michigan was what essentially allowed Michigan State into the Big 10 title game, and a flukey loss by Stanford to Oregon late in the regular season kept the Cardinal just out, you see how close it came to being those four.

Would that have made for better CFP semifinal matchups? Maybe not. But adding in the title-defense scenario and a record-breaking McCaffrey certainly couldn’t have hurt.

CLEMSON CAN WIN IT ALL: Now, will they? That’s a different question. They have the best quarterback in Deshaun Watson, and they proved against a good Oklahoma offense that their top-notch defense the past few seasons has nothing to do with the competition. But they’ll have difficulty battling the massive Alabama offensive line in the trenches, with Derrick Henry serving as a battering ram. It may be too much to overcome in the end, but a few turnovers could throw a wrench into things, and where there’s a Watson, there’s a way. Aren’t you tired of betting against this Tigers team? I know I am.

The celebration carries through as Tigers reach national title game with a win over Oklahoma in the College Football Playoff semifinals.

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Of note

It’s the NFL playoffs. I know I’m ready. Are you? Well, if you’re a Panthers fan you’ll have to wait a week, but that’s the tradeoff when you decide to be all dominant and stuff. The Wild Card round always seems to offer at least one upset, so keep a close eye this weekend. And find a full schedule here. … The Beach Ball Classic is behind us, but that means region play for area high school teams is set to ramp up. Follow along with The Sun News as we keep you up to speed on all your area high school basketball action. … It’s winter time, so that means the PGA Tour’s best go hang out in Hawaii for a while. Jordan Spieth headlines a field of 32 tournament winners from 2015 at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions at Kapalua.

On Your Mark” is a weekly planning column, meant to preview the best of what’s coming in sports. Have any suggestions as to what should be included? Send your suggestions to jnowak@thesunnews.com.

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