College Football Wrap-Up

After the insane regular season we just had, and with the playoff picture thoroughly unknown until the final week of the season, was there any other way for this to end?

Or was it only fitting that a season of back-and-forths, ups and downs, and highs and lows would end with a walk-on transfer quarterback from a community college riding off the field on the shoulders of his teammates, having delivered Georgia its first national championship since 1980?

In the final week of the regular season, all the pieces began to fall into place to give us a glimpse at the possible playoff picture. Georgia finished out their perfect regular season and qualified for the SEC Championship by thrashing Georgia Tech, 45-0, in a once-storied rivalry that’s become lopsided in recent years. Similarly, Alabama finished the job against Auburn, edging their Iron Bowl rivals 24-22 in four overtimes, setting the stage for the SEC Championship between the Bulldogs and the Crimson Tide. In a thriller that turned into a blowout late, Alabama beat Georgia 41-24, claiming the top seed, punching a playoff slot, and throwing Georgia’s season into disarray.

Over in the Big Ten, nobody had punched their ticket to the championship game until the final week of the regular season. In one of college football’s most anticipated rivalry games, Michigan invited Ohio State to Ann Arbor and beat them for the first time in ten years, knocking the Buckeyes out of the playoff chase. The same week, Iowa beat Nebraska 28-21, ending the Cornhuskers’ season of hope with their back-breaking ninth loss and putting the Hawkeyes in the Big Ten Championship. Predictably, Michigan thrashed Iowa, all but guaranteeing their playoff slot with a 12-1 record and a conference championship.

Quietly, Cincinnati ended their season with a 35-13 win over East Carolina, and moved into the AAC Championship Game, where they handled Houston nicely in a 35-20 victory. With a 13-0 record, the committee had little choice but to award the Bearcats the third playoff berth.

This left one spot left for many deserving teams. Georgia, perfect until the SEC Championship, had the most convincing case. Oklahoma State had a great case, with an 11-1 record, until their loss in the Big 12 championship to two-loss Baylor. Oregon, too, had a chance at the last spot, with a 10-2 record, but those hopes were dashed when they were thrashed by Utah in the conference championship, 38-10. In the Big Ten, Ohio State could have been in, but the loss to Michigan, their second on the season, was too much to overlook. In the end, Georgia qualified for the playoff less because of any last-minute heroics, but by process of elimination.

The first round of the playoffs on New Year’s Eve put #1 Alabama against #4 Cincinnati and #2 Michigan against #3 Georgia. In a convincing victory in the Cotton Bowl, Alabama put Cincinnati on the ropes early and never really let up, putting them away by a score of 27-6. Over in the Sugar Bowl, Georgia delivered a similar beatdown to Michigan, only allowing them into the end zone once in a 34-11 thumping. The stage was set for a rematch between the Bulldogs and the Crimson Tide. Both teams had lost only once all season, and now the two were playing for all the marbles.

The national championship game was a big one, for all parties involved. For Alabama coach Nick Saban, this game was his shot to add his seventh national title as Alabama’s head coach, further cementing his legacy as one of the greatest ever to coach college football. For Georgia’s Kirby Smart, it was a chance to not only win the Bulldogs’ first national championship in 41 years, but also to beat his former boss (before being hired by Georgia, Smart was an assistant of Saban’s for several years at Alabama and worked with him during his brief time coaching in the NFL).

The game itself did not disappoint. A defensive battle turned into back-and-forth field goals, and Alabama went into the half with a 9-6 lead. After a sluggish start to the third quarter, Georgia finally found the end zone and, after Alabama’s fourth field goal, the game was nearly level, with Georgia holding a narrow 13-12 advantage. After a play that was initially ruled an incomplete pass but determined to be a fumble on review, Alabama took just four plays to find the end zone, taking the lead, 18-13. But from there, it was all Georgia. Bennett hit Adonai Mitchell from the 40 to take back the lead, Alabama punted from 4th and 12, Bennett found Brock Bowers to make it 26-18, and on the last drive of the game, Alabama quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young threw a pick-six, sealing the game for the Bulldogs and giving them the 33-18 win.

Victory was sweet for Georgia, a school that hasn’t won the national championship in years. And in all likelihood, nobody reveled in the victory more than Smart, who’d finally downed his mentor, and Bennett, who went from a walk-on playing football at a county community college in Mississippi to hoisting his sport’s prettiest trophy on the country’s biggest stage.