A Classic and a Slog: 6 takeaways from the SEC's Playoff triumphs
1. The Rose Bowl was one of the great college football games of all-time.
“Instant classic” doesn’t quite do this one justice. It was everything you could possibly ask from the sport, pretty much from the opening kick: Four hours of big plays galore, wild momentum swings, and down-to-the-wire drama after sunset, all of it unfolding with the highest stakes on the line, in the most iconic setting in any sport. Some big games build slowly to unforgettable finishes; in this one, it was immediately obvious what kind of afternoon we were in for — the offenses combined for five touchdowns in the first 16 minutes — and as the afternoon turned into evening and then into night it repeatedly delivered on that promise.
The star players were up to the stage, the defenses resilient enough to keep it interesting, the outcome in doubt right down to the last moment before Sony Michel hit the crease from 27 yards out on 2nd-and-12 in double overtime. The electricity in the stadium was palpable. Georgia fans today must feel like they’ve survived a full-scale battle, and in a sense they did.
As historic victories go, the only thing missing from the Bulldogs’ triumph was a national championship trophy at the end. But it was the first truly great semifinal in the brief history of the College Football Playoff (six of the other seven semifinal games to date have been decided by at least 17 points, the only exception being Ohio State’s 42-35 win over Alabama in 2014) and by virtue of its surroundings arguably matched the classic Alabama-Clemson championship tilts for sheer spectacle. And if it’s not the greatest win in Georgia history, full stop, it’s certainly the greatest a large percentage of the fan base will be able to remember. Now they get seven days to collect themselves for one more.
2. Jake Fromm’s not a freshman anymore.
For most of the season I’ve harped on the notion that Fromm is more of an accessory to the offense’s success than a driving factor, a caretaker who was asked to do relatively little in a run-oriented system and looked every bit the part of the overwhelmed true freshman on the lone occasion that he didn’t have the ground game propping him up. After his performance down the stretch on Monday that line of thinking is permanently closed for business.
Given the magnitude of the game, Fromm’s final stat line (20-of-29, 210 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INTs) could realistically stand as his best performance of the season even without getting into the details. But the final drive of regulation was the stuff of budding legend: Trailing 45-38 with 3:15 to play, Fromm proceeded to hit 3-of-4 attempts on Georgia’s last-gasp possession, accounting for 48 of the Bulldogs’ 59 yards en route to the game-tying touchdown that forced overtime.
That included a play that, for my money, is very much in the running for Play of the Game, when Fromm calmly sidestepped an oncoming rusher at midfield — eluding a huge, potentially drive-killing loss if he’d been dropped for a sack — and somehow still had the wherewithal to find Michel on the run for an ad-libbed, 17-yard gain inside the OU 25-yard line:
1/1/18 (Rose Bowl) – Jake Fromm scramble, 17-yard completion to Sony Michel vs. Oklahoma pic.twitter.com/s3Cu8RpFar
— College Football Clips (@CFB_Clips) January 2, 2018
Three plays later, Fromm connected with Terry Godwin for a 16-yard gain on 3rd-and-10, setting up first-and-goal; two plays after that the Bulldogs were in the end zone with renewed life.
Thanks to those heroics, Fromm is in a position to finish the mission that oh-so-narrowly eluded Jalen Hurts last year by becoming the first true-freshman QB to start for a national championship team in more than three decades. In fact, Hurts is the only other rookie starter in the meantime who’s even come close, which is a good indication of just how unlikely it is that the streak would be threatened two years in a row, and of just how far ahead of the standard learning curve both of the signal-callers in this year’s title game really are.
If the kid’s far enough along to navigate a do-or-die drive in the closing seconds of the dang Rose Bowl, in his 13th consecutive start, then continuing to talk about him in terms of maturity or lack thereof is beside the point. Fromm wasn’t the star in Pasadena (see below), but when the walls were closing in he was indispensable.
3. Why are you throwing?
All of that said, it’s possible that Georgia never would have been in the position of having to come from behind late if it had leaned more heavily on Michel and Nick Chubb, who (along with UGA’s offensive line) ran roughshod over Oklahoma’s defense to an almost comical extent. Between them, the Bulldogs’ senior headliners combined for 326 yards rushing on a truly absurd 13 yards per carry, easily exceeding Fromm’s 7.2 yards per attempt as a passer. At no point did Oklahoma hold the running game in check for more than a handful of plays a time before giving up yet another huge gain.
So how to square those numbers with the play selection, which for some reason called for Fromm to put the ball in the air more often (29 times, matching a season high) than he was asked to hand off to the two most dominant players on the field any time Georgia had the ball (25 times)?
The usual paeans to “balance” are generally based on the assumption that it’s going to be hard to run at a decent clip if the defense doesn’t respect the pass, and vice versa. But when the equilibrium is that out of whack — and when the opposing offense is moving at an equally ferocious clip, as the Sooners were for much of the game — it’s almost irresponsible to ever stop running. As little resistance as it offered the Bulldogs’ top backs, it’s not clear that OU could have contained them regardless of the distribution, or at least not without selling out so completely that they left themselves vulnerable downfield vs. UGA’s formidable play-action game.
Instead, Oklahoma was content to play soft in the secondary, force Fromm to dink and dunk in the passing game (his longest completion covered 21 yards), and pray Georgia let him keep throwing instead of simply lining up and continuing to run at will until OU did something to stop it. Why Georgia obliged them so willingly is a mystery.
4. The Crimson Tide are who we thought they were …:
The arguments against Bama’s presence in the final four had more to do with its résumé than its potential on the field, but the fact remained coming into Monday night that the Tide had played exactly one game against Playoff-caliber opponent this season — Auburn — and lost it decisively.
Prior to the Iron Bowl, the familiar feeling of invincibility that had settled in over the first two months of the season had already been diminished by a pair of underwhelming November wins over the only other ranked teams on the schedule, LSU and Mississippi State. The limits of Jalen Hurts’ arm were becoming even more clear as a sophomore than they’d been as a freshman; the offense as a whole seemed in danger of drifting from its core identity between the tackles. The defense was beginning to look relatively mortal against the run in the absence of senior linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton. Frankly a little skepticism was in order.
The response was vintage Bama: A physical, start-to-finish defensive romp that recalled some of the most unwatchable slugfests of the Nick Saban era, one in which the defense sacked Kelly Bryant five times, picked him twice, and didn’t allow a play longer than 20 yards. Clemson finished with Dabo-era lows for total yards (188) and yards per play (2.7) and failed to reach the end zone for just the second time in Swinney’s decade-long tenure.
Hunter Renfrow, the walk-on nemesis who hauled in four touchdown receptions in the first two championship meetings, didn’t have a catch for a first down until the Tigers’ final, meaningless drive in garbage time.
When the Tigers threatened, briefly, to erase a 10-6 deficit in the third quarter, the D delivered with an interception that set up a short-field touchdown for the offense, then immediately delivered again with a pick-six that slammed the door shut on any hope of a comeback. The fourth quarter was an utterly superfluous slog as the Crimson Tide have always aspired for it to be.
In other words, it was the closest this particular Alabama team has looked against a quality opponent to the suffocating, pre-Kiffin Bama outfits that won three titles in four years from 2009-12, squads that earned the program its reputation as an unsmiling, machine-like monolith that methodically extracted opponents’ souls from their bodies while offering as little entertainment value as possible.
After the relative fireworks of the past few years, maybe it’s no surprise that the Tide responded to doubts about their identity — possibly even doubts of their own — by reverting to the signature Saban gestalt against an opponent that pushed the defense to the brink each of the previous two years. Obviously, this Clemson team was a very different, much slower-moving animal without Deshaun Watson, but for his part it’s hard to remember the last time Nick Saban has looked this happy.
5. … offensive limitations included.
The all-too-familiar defensive dominance obscured a thoroughly pedestrian offensive effort by the Tide, which was a much less encouraging brand of throwback: Alabama itself finished with fewer total yards (261) and yards per play (4.0) than in any game since the 2013 opener against Virginia Tech. Both of Bama’s touchdown drives began in Clemson territory, covering 46 and 27 yards, respectively; the only other scoring drive (for a field goal) also began near midfield, at the Alabama 47. Otherwise the offense was dormant.
Clemson’s top-shelf defense deserves credit for that, and again, this game generally had the feel of one that the Tide had under control early enough to feel comfortable swallowing the ball for virtually the entire second half.
Still, there was nothing in the way of explosiveness — the longest play for either team covered just 22 yards, on a short flare pass to Najee Harris — and the increased workload for Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough that fans had been clamoring for yielded just 101 yards on 31 carries. Hurts’ arm presented no downfield threat to the Tigers’ secondary whatsoever. But as far as the championship game is concerned, it’s hard to say whether any of that means more or less than the fact that, in this game, it was more than enough.
6. Two SEC teams in the championship game says nothing at all about the conference as a whole.
Alabama vs. Georgia is a dream matchup on multiple levels, one we’ve been looking forward to in one iteration or another since it became clear early on this season just how closely Kirby Smart’s new program in Athens was built to resemble his old one in Tuscaloosa.
The two sides are mirror images of one another in almost every way, in terms of both underlying philosophy and blue-chip personnel, and both are poised to reign over the rest of the conference for the foreseeable future.
Frame the narrative however you like: Mentor vs. protégé, empire vs. upstart, long-suffering fan base on the cusp, etc. The bottom line is the championship game is a meeting of two supremely talented teams that remained at the pack throughout the regular season and fully deserve to be in the position they’re in. Atlanta’s going to be rocking. If you can’t find anything compelling in this matchup, I don’t know what to tell you.
But it should be obvious enough after watching the rest of the conference turn in a collective 2-5 record in its other bowl games that the excellence at the top of the conference isn’t necessarily a reflection of the SEC at large. That’s always been the case, but this year especially: Aside from Auburn, the only SEC outfit that gave Alabama or Georgia a legitimate scare is Mississippi State in its near-upset over the Crimson Tide in Starkville, and it’s worth nothing that those same Bulldogs were blown off the field in their Sept. 23 trip to Athens.
Behind Bama and UGA at the top, no other SEC team finished with fewer than four losses, and depending on how far Auburn (currently No. 7) drops after its Peach Bowl loss to Central Florida, it’s possible no others will finish in the top 15 in the final AP poll. Across the conference this has been just another relatively down year in a string of relatively down years, as evidenced by the fact that nearly half the league will be starting over in 2018 under a new head coach.
You know, Tennessee and Vanderbilt are not basking in the glow of a championship collision between teams that outscored them by a combined 79 and 80 points, respectively.
There’s reason for optimism in the future, considering most of the new hires (especially at Texas A&M, Tennessee and Florida) look like significant upgrades over the guys they’re replacing. For now, though, to suggest that the fact the last two teams standing nationally both happen to reside under the same banner is evidence that SEC is some kind of crucible in which champions are forged is laughable. Maybe it was six or eight years ago, and maybe soon it will be again.
For now, it’s Nick Saban, the guy who most closely resembles Nick Saban, and everybody else gasping to keep pace.