Driven by Cobb Countians, Ohio State shakes up the playoff

The first night of the College Football Playoff – Jan. 1, 2015 – yielded one of the sport’s greatest games. Behind third-string quarterback Cardale Jones, Ohio State upset top-seeded and unbeaten Alabama in the Sugar Bowl semifinal. The Buckeyes fell behind 21-6. They went ahead 42-28 on Ezekiel Elliott’s 85-yard run with 3:24 left. They won 42-35 after intercepting Blake Sims’ Hail Mary as time expired.

The game delivered everything the CFP could have hoped – big names, big plays, famous coaches and a TV audience that outdid ESPN’s expectations, which are never meager. Besides Elliott, these still-big names scored touchdowns: Derrick Henry, Amari Cooper and Michael Thomas. The matchups between offensive and defensive coordinators were delicious: Lane Kiffin and Kirby Smart for Bama, Tom Herman and Luke Fickell for Ohio State. All would soon become head coaches. (Breaking news: Herman was fired by Texas on Saturday.)

The head coaches were the most eminent of this century: Urban Meyer would claim his third national title by routing Oregon in the inaugural CFP final; Nick Saban was denied his fifth, though not for long. Given Alabama’s annual recruiting windfalls and the tonnage of talent Ohio State would return – besides Elliott, Thomas, Jones and Joey Bosa, the 2015 Buckeyes would welcome back Nos. 1 and 2 quarterbacks Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett from injury – this figured to be the beginning of a beautiful enmity.

In August 2015, Ohio State became the first unanimous preseason No. 1 in the annals of the Associated Press poll. No. 2 was, believe it or not, TCU. Alabama was No. 3, which marked the only time from 2009 through this year that the Crimson Tide wouldn’t crack the initial top two. But Bama would win it all that season, and it wouldn’t see Ohio State en route. Indeed, it hasn’t faced the Buckeyes since.

That will change Jan. 11. Alabama is where it almost always is. It took Ohio State six years and a coaching change and much frustration to get there, but the Buckeyes will again play for the championship. They routed Clemson in Friday’s Rose Bowl semi as staged in Arlington, Texas, which wasn’t a total shock but wasn’t expected, either.

When this tournament commenced, everybody figured it would go the way of three recent editions: Alabama would win unless Clemson intervened. The FBS division of college football had broken in two: There were the 128 other teams, and then there were the Tide and the Tigers. The last final not to include either was the first; the only title taken by neither since Year 1 of the CFP – this is Year 7 – came when LSU beat Clemson last year.

Clemson became what, back on New Year’s Day 2015, Ohio State seemed most likely to become – the only realistic challenger to King Crimson. The Tigers went from the greatest player in school history (Deshaun Watson of Gainesville) to the second-greatest player (Trevor Lawrence of Cartersville). Each beat Alabama for a national title. Each beat Ohio State in a semifinal.

That changed Friday night. Ohio State, which not so long ago had canceled its football season, beat Clemson 49-28. Dabo Swinney had ranked the Buckeyes No. 11 in his ballot in the USA Today coaches’ poll, claiming that six games – that’s how many Ohio State had worked – wasn’t an accurate measure. To be fair to Dabo, he probably was right. At no point over those six games had the Buckeyes played as well as they did against his Tigers.

It was Ohio State who led the effort to convince the Big Ten to change its mind about football during a pandemic, but the conference’s dallying left no room for makeup games. The Big Ten didn’t start until Oct. 23, by which time Clemson played five games. Owing to three cancellations, the Buckeyes fell short of the six-game minimum its conference set for inclusion in its championship game. Desperate to get a member team in the playoff field, the Big Ten amended its just-written rule and let Ohio State face Northwestern.

Ohio State won that game 22-10. Justin Fields of Kennesaw’s Harrison High had his worst game since transferring from Georgia – to be fair, he hurt his right thumb – but Trey Sermon of Marietta’s Sprayberry rushed for an astonishing 331 yards. The Buckeyes made the playoff, but they weren’t expected to stay long. The path was again clear for a fourth Bama-Clemson final, but two young men from Cobb County undid Dabo and Co. Sermon ran for 193 yards. Fields threw as many touchdown passes (six) as incompletions, and he did much of this with tender ribs.

The Tigers led 14-7 after 10 minutes; they trailed 35-14 at the half. Just like that, the prospect of the same old same old – yeah, Alabama and Clemson are great, but do they have to play every year? – was replaced by something different. This final might turn out to be a dud, but certainly there’s enough star power to fill a red carpet. Alabama has two of the four Heisman Trophy finalists (DeVonta Smith, Mac Jones), plus Najee Harris, who finished fifth in the voting. Fields was a finalist last year and finished seventh this time; Sermon, a transfer from Oklahoma who played against Georgia in the Rose Bowl three years ago, has turned into Zeke Elliott before our eyes.

There will be, however, no Saban vs. Meyer. The latter was nudged into retirement after the 2018 season, which began with him being suspended for having shielded Zach Smith, a longtime assistant facing charges of domestic abuse. His replacement was Ryan Day, then a 39-year-old offensive coordinator. Day is 23-1 as a head coach, the loss coming by six points against Clemson in last year’s semifinal. Like Saban, Day tested positive for COVID-19. Unlike Saban, he has no national championships.

Saban’s seventh national title has seemed a fait accompli since Halloween. Have there ever been three skill players on one team to match Smith, Jones and Harris? (Maybe Nebraska’s Mike Rozier, Turner Gill and Irving Fryar, also known as “Earth, Wind & Fryar.”) Still, the triumvirate of Fields, Sermon and wideout Chris Olave is majorly talented, too, and we recall what happened when last these schools met. Bama was favored by seven points. Bama is favored by eight today.

Can a season that has known many starts, stops and diversions end without a twist in its tail? Because of COVID, Ohio State thought it wouldn’t play football until spring, if then. Here it is January and the Buckeyes are one of two teams standing. There’s also this, which may matter only to yours truly: This correspondent once averred that Justin Fields would win a national championship before he left Georgia; if he wins one after leaving Georgia, I’m claiming half-credit.

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