Alabama tight end O.J. Howard breaks loose on the game's most crucial play, a 63-yard reception to set up the Tide's final touchdown against Clemson in Monday night's national title game.
Some observations from Monday’s college football title game.
AS GOOD AS IT GETS
It wasn’t just having the chutzpah to call for an onside kick in the fourth quarter and acumen in having his players pull it off successfully, it was … everything. All. Night. Long. If ever anyone doubted Nick Saban’s brilliance, especially after the undressing his Alabama squad had endured twice in the previous 13 months, first by Ohio State in last season’s national semifinal and then by Ole Miss during the 2015 regular season, you can rest easy now. It is there, alive and well, now as much as ever, even as he moves along as a crusty, curmudgeonly 64-year-old in a young man’s game. Frankly, as a Clemson fan, it was embarrassing to witness the Xs and Os dominance Saban and his staff displayed against his more likable counterpart, Dabo Swinney, on the other sideline. The big talk going into the game was how Alabama had superior physical talent and would control the lines of scrimmage. Never happened. Not in that way at least. All the success the Tide enjoyed was due to scheme and “feel,” two things Saban and, in particular, offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, employed throughout the contest, whether ’Bama had the score or momentum in its favor or not. Whatever the situation, the Tide seemed right on point with what it attempted. If stopped, it appeared to be by a superior athletic effort, not coaching. Bear Bryant fans, beware. Your idol’s record six national titles as a head coach is no longer untouchable. This one was Saban’s fifth, and fourth in the last seven years, and he doesn’t seem to be slowing down one bit.
For all the talk about Alabama’s defensive line and Heisman presentation buddies Derrick Henry and Deshaun Watson, it was little utilized Tide tight end O.J. Howard who stole the show in this one, racking up 208 yards and two TDs on five receptions. On the first four of those, Kiffin should stand up and take a bow, as the Tigers’ defense had no idea where the 6-foot-6, 242-pounder was on the field, leaving him wide open. The final one was Howard’s greatest moment, though, as he took a swing pass right around the line of scrimmage, eluded a would-be tackler and raced 63 yards to the Clemson 14 to set up the game-clinching score. Henry tallied that one, along with two others, to cap an impressive, albeit somewhat deceiving, performance statistically (36 carries, 158 yards … but only 30 yards on 16 second-half totes), and Watson was great, although moreso sporadically than consistently, in posting 478 yards of offense and accounting for four TDs, but no one impacted this one as much as Howard. In fact, Tide QB Jake Coker (16-for-25, 335 yards) would be No. 2 in that regard, with Clemson DE Kevin Dodd (seven tackles, five for loss, including three sacks) as No. 2A. Furthermore, the most impactful defender for the Tide was backup LB Rashaan Evans, whose shadowing skills against Watson were clutch in the second half. He also managed to record both of Alabama’s sacks in the game.
TIME TO WAKE UP
Anyone who thought this was a matchup of a superpower program squaring off against some upstart really needs to get a grip on reality. Clemson does not have the history or the rep of Alabama, but it is a major, big-time program in its own right – a top 25 outfit that consistently finds itself among the best 15 in the nation. There was no talent gap in this one at all, which is a testament to Swinney’s recruiting skills AND Clemson’s cachet among blue-chip prospects. If anything, the Tigers appeared to have more top-end talent among the starting units with the Tide possessing a little more depth, and being smart enough to use it. Clemson, in reality, had several opportunities in this one to grab this game by its throat in the second half and run away with it, but for some reason the Tigers always seemed to back off, play conservative and keep Alabama and its hopes alive. Truth be told, Clemson manhandled the Tide’s defense, racking up 550 yards of offense – which topped not only the 433 Ole Miss posted back in September but the 537 Ohio State had in last season’s national semifinal. The Tigers are legit … and have been for a long, long time. You can’t claim a national title in somewhat modern times (1981) and compete for top honors in a power-5 conference year after year and not be.
IT ALL WORKED OUT
Not sure we’ll find too many dissenters out there when it comes to saying, yeah, we got the “true” title game with the best two teams in the country squaring off. Not for nothing, but no team is unbeatable, despite all the hyperbole that follows a program such as the one that resides in Tuscaloosa, Ala. So, the fact the Tide fell earlier in the season to Ole Miss and struggled mightily against Tennessee really has no business taking away from just how good this latest Saban outfit is. Same thing with Clemson, which actually had issues in several matchups this season, most notably against Notre Dame, Louisville, South Carolina and North Carolina, all of which were single-score victories for the Tigers. Thing is, through all the trials and tribulations, mistakes and shaky performances, the two best teams over the entire course of the 2015 season emerged from the tunnels at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., for Monday night’s affair and then played like them, too. Clemson lost the turnover battle in this one, gave up an onside kick AND a kickoff return for a TD … and still had Saban and Co. sweating bullets until the final snap. Yeah, the right teams were there, and they put on a show worthy of capping this season.
SEC STILL BEST
Yeah, when the final AP poll came out Tuesday morning, the Big Ten still had the most ranked teams for the 2015 season with a total of six, topping the SEC’s five, but let’s keep it real here, a conference has a member school win it all for the eighth time in the last 10 years … well, that conference remains the best out there. It was a nice harkening back to past glory days by the Big Ten as a whole, with Iowa, Northwestern and Michigan reemerging on the national scene. The Tide’s title trumps all, though, and SEC rival Tennessee’s rising to the cusp of greatness under Butch Jones is something to keep an eye on. Florida recovering from the dumpster fire left behind by Will Muschamp was big time as well, and Ole Miss proved it can still look Alabama in the eye and not even blink.
It was good to see voters recognize a “little guy” worthy of such acclaim, as Houston finished No. 8 in the final poll. A member of the American Athletic Conference, it was in danger of being disrespected for not being part of a power-5 circuit. However, going 13-1 with the solid win against Florida State in the Peach Bowl proved too much to ignore. The AAC, in general, had a banner regular season, with Memphis, Temple and Navy also finding themselves in the top 25 at one point or another … and the Middies check in at No. 18 to boot with all said and done. That’s a solid measure of respect for a conference that had no teams ranked entering the season, and it showed that bowls do matter as Houston and Navy were the only two AAC teams to win in the postseason despite the conference receiving eight bids.
WHITE KID COMMETH
Keeping it real, running back is hardly the bastion of light-skinned talent at the college level and above, yet Stanford sophomore Christian McCaffrey was a revelation for anyone with the capacity to grasp that, yes, athletic prowess is an individual treasure bestowed upon fortunate individuals regardless of what level sunscreen they need or SAT score they’ve posted. The most electric performer in the sport, he ran for 2,019 yards this season, had 45 catches for another 645 yards and tallied 1,200 yards in kick returns to set a new standard in total yardage for an individual in a single season. In the first half of the Rose Bowl alone, the sophomore, elegantly quick and surprisingly strong, racked up 350 yards in sparking the Cardinal to an easy win against Iowa, not to mention their No. 3 final ranking.
With all the bouncing around, by choice or not, that seems to permeate the college game and its annual coaching carousel, it is nice when change that doesn’t seem needed isn’t forced down our collective throats. Seriously, like aside from Nick Saban being secure at Alabama, what other coach out there gives off a sense of permanency? That being said, kudos to LSU administrators for backing off from the original intent to fire Les Miles. The “Mad Hatter” may be a bit behind others at the top of the field when it comes to Xs and Os, but he brings a measure of excitement and enthusiasm that is unmatched. He is LSU. Period. Even more so than Saban ever was while winning a national title there and then setting the stage for Miles to do the same as his replacement. The guy is personality plus, passionate, tough, physical and his teams reflect that. The guy is a winner, too, having gone 112-32 in 11 seasons along the Bayou, and, in case we forget, the Tigers did get as high as No. 2 in the national polls in 2015 before ultimately checking in at No. 16. That ain’t bad, and it certainly didn’t merit change.
MIXING IT UP
Granted, everything shook out with a pretty standard ending: Alabama winning it all. But one of the real joys of the 2015 season was witnessing the different stuff going on out there across the country. Any time you can have a Navy player (four-year starting QB Keenan Reynolds) set the NCAA touchdowns from scrimmage record with 88, a former walk-on lead the nation in sacks (Penn State DE Carl Nassib with 15.5), a long-dormant program such as Pittsburgh experience a rebirth and a previously forever dormant one such as Temple put the nation on edge with a prime-time performance against Notre Dame in prime time while earning several weeks of “ranked” respect, it’s a good thing. Frankly, even the change of scenery for longtime Georgia coach Mark Richt may help both the Bulldogs and Miami, where he resurfaced to direct his alma mater after being fired after posting a 146-51 record in 15 seasons in Athens. Best of all, Oregon and its retina-burning uniforms were far less visible all season long. Can’t beat that.