We’ve known for awhile that the college football coaching carousel would be wild in the offseason – with multiple top-tier jobs open – but no one ever predicted this. Last Sunday evening, news broke that USC would lure Lincoln Riley away from Oklahoma with a massive contract, and things got even wilder on Monday, when Brian Kelly left Notre Dame for “a new challenge” and a new “fay-um-ly” at LSU – even though his team was still alive for a College Football Playoff spot.
The Fighting Irish hit a home run when they announced that defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman would be elevated to head coach, a hire that the Notre Dame players, recruits, and fan base, and there some are rumblings down in Tiger Country of some surprise and concern about how energized the Notre Dame program seemed to be now that Kelly is gone, coupled with the fact that as of now, not a single assistant coach is going with Kelly to LSU.
With all the news off the gridiron, you can be forgiven for forgetting that this also happened to be a massive weekend on the field, as conferences crowned their champions, and the College Football Playoff field and bowl matchups were finalized.
If that describes you, Irish Breakdown has you covered. Now, onto the action from a giant conference championship weekend.
ALABAMA 41 GEORGIA 24
Georgia raced out to a quick 10-0 lead and appeared ready to blow the Tide out of the building when Stetson Bennett hit Darnell Washington to cap off a 97-yard touchdown drive. With Alabama facing the possibility of a three-and-out on the ensuing drive, Bryce Young hit Jameson Williams over the middle and Williams outran the Georgia secondary for a 67-yard touchdown. That play flipped the entire momentum of the game, and Alabama ended up running away with a 41-24 win. Bryce Young all but locked up the Heisman Trophy by setting SEC Championship records with 421 yards passing and 461 total yards.
In the final CFP rankings, Alabama jumped up to #1 and takes on Cincinnati in the Cotton Bowl, while Georgia fell to #3 and will take on Michigan in the Orange Bowl.
There are two big concerns for the Bulldogs coming out of this game. First, Alabama provided the blueprint for attacking the Georgia defense. Georgia’s massive defensive front – and relatively weak schedule by SEC standards – had masked a secondary that proved to be suspect against Alabama’s athletes. The Tide neutralized Georgia’s pass rush with quick throws, attacked the middle of the field, and used Bryce Young’s athleticism to move the pocket. Second, we’ve known the Georgia offense was not very explosive and relied on a strong rushing attack to open up the play action pass, but on Saturday against Alabama they looked inept and overmatched athletically for much of the last three quarters. It will be interesting to see whether Kirby Smart rides with Stetson Bennett in the CFP or uses the break to reinsert JT Daniels as the starter.
MICHIGAN 42 IOWA 3
Michigan turned what was a 14-3 game at halftime into a laugher with 28 second half points to win 42-3 and secure Jim Harbaugh’s first Big Ten Championship and CFP berth. Harbaugh and the Wolverines had fun at the Hawkeyes’ expense, using multiple trick plays to get their athletes in space against what had been a stingy Iowa defense.
Harbaugh deserves immense credit for turning the Michigan program around after last season’s debacle. He went back to his roots by building his offense around a powerful offensive line, deep stable of running backs, and efficient quarterback play. The way the Wolverines are playing, they absolutely can challenge Georgia, but Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Josh Gattis will need to have a creative game plan, as the Georgia defense – even though it struggled mightily against Alabama – is built to stop an offense like Michigan’s built around the running game. The Orange Bowl should be a fascinating, old-school matchup between the Bulldogs and Wolverines in the trenches.
BAYLOR 21 OKLAHOMA STATE 16
Playing in the 58th game of his Baylor career, safety Jairon McVea refused to let Oklahoma State RB Dezmon Jackson get the edge on 4th and goal, stopping the Cowboy running back just inches short of the goal line to give the Bears their first Big 12 title since 2014 – and saving the CFP committee a very interesting debate between Cincinnati and Oklahoma State for the final playoff spot.
Baylor jumped out to a 21-3 lead in the first half behind freshman QB Blake Shapen, who filled in admirably for the injured Gerry Bohanon. Shapen completed his first seventeen passes but was much less effective after injuring his shoulder in the third quarter. For the second straight week, Oklahoma State’s defense did not surrender a second half point against a top-ten opponent and gave up only 36 yards to Baylor in the final two quarters. However, instead of going up against the Oklahoma defense like last week, the Cowboy offense had a much tougher time against Baylor. QB Spencer Sanders turned in a career-worst performance with four interceptions and the Cowboys averaged only 1.8 yards rushing on 40 carries. Oklahoma State had two drives get to the Baylor one-yard line in the fourth quarter but came away with only a field goal to show for it.
Baylor moves onto the Sugar Bowl to take on Ole Miss while Oklahoma State will meet Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl in the first-ever matchup between the two programs.
CINCINNATI 35 HOUSTON 20
If I had told you that Houston would possess the ball for over forty minutes, you probably would have thought that Cincinnati’s dream of becoming the first Group of Five team to make the CFP playoff had ended in the American Championship game. However, the Bearcats used big plays and a bend-but-don’t-break defensive effort to wrap up an undefeated season and secure an Orange Bowl berth against Alabama. Cincinnati opened as a two-touchdown underdog to the Tide, but the past couple years have shown us that we should count out Bearcat coach Luke Fickell and QB Desmond Ridder at our own peril.
Ridder didn’t need to do much on Saturday (though he did have 190 yards and three TDs) as RB Jerome Ford racked up 187 yards rushing and two TDs on just 18 carries. The Bearcats averaged 7.5 YPC against a Houston team that entered the game with the top-ranked defense in the American. The Cincinnati defense also got in on the action, as they pressured Houston QB Clayton Tune all game. The Bearcats finished with eight sacks and twelve TFLs and held Houston to just 86 yards rushing on 47 attempts.
The only concern for Cincinnati coming out of the game is the continued inconsistency at kicker. Christian Lowery, one of three kickers to attempt a field goal this season for Cincinnati, missed his only attempt of the game. Bearcat kickers are just 7-17 on the season, a terrible mark for any team, let alone a playoff participant, and one that would make me nervous if the Bearcats are in a close game against Alabama.
THE BEST OF THE REST
- Utah pounded Oregon for the second time in a month to capture the Pac-12 Championship and secure a Rose Bowl berth with a 38-10 victory. The Utes again exposed the Ducks’ lack of physicality – which is surprising given the fact that Oregon ran for 269 yards against Ohio State in Week 2. Utah outrushed Oregon 191-74 and made the Ducks rely on QB Anthony Brown, who threw two back-breaking interceptions, including a pick-six to LB Devin Lloyd. With the loss, Oregon falls to the Alamo Bowl and there are rumblings on multiple national sites that coach Mario Cristobal could be headed back to his alma mater Miami.
- In the first ACC Championship game since 2014 that did not include Clemson, Pitt held the explosive Wake Forest offense scoreless after the first quarter to pull away for a 45-21 victory and an Orange Bowl berth. QB Kenny Pickett was solid, with 253 yards passing and two touchdowns through the air to go along with a 58-yard TD run, but the story of the game was the Pitt defense. Pitt harassed Wake Forest QB Sam Hartman all game, generating five sacks, nine TFLs, and four interceptions.
- UTSA overcame 577 passing yards from Western Kentucky QB Bailey Zappe to capture the Conference USA championship with a 49-41 victory over the Hilltoppers. Sincere McCormick carried the ball 36 times for 204 yards and three TDs, and QB Frank Harris chipped in with 299 total yards and three TDs of his own. UTSA ended the season with a 12-1 record and will meet San Diego State in the Tropical Smoothie Cafe Frisco Bowl. This was a dream season for the Roadrunners, who have only been an FBS member since 2012. In addition to capturing their first-ever conference title, they signed head coach Jeff Traylor to a ten-year contract extension, achieved their first-ever national ranking, and announced that they would move to the American Athletic Conference in 2023.
- Utah State ran away with the Mountain West title, beating San Diego State 46-13. The Aztecs won the time of possession battle and were only outgained by 68 yards but were penalized nine times for 120 yards and went just 1-14 on third down and 1-4 on fourth down. Utah State will meet Oregon State in the inaugural Jimmy Kimmel LA Bowl (yes, that’s a real thing) in beautiful SoFi Stadium. On a personal note, I’ve now added “have a mid-December bowl game named after me” to my list of life goals.
- The rumors are that Louisiana head coach Billy Napier withdrew his name from consideration for the LSU job because LSU would not let him coach the Sun Belt championship game. Napier, who instead took the Florida job this week, went out with a victory in his last game at Louisiana, as the Ragin’ Cajuns knocked off Appalachian State 24-16. The Louisiana defense sacked Appalachian State QB Chase Brice three times and held him to only 119 yards passing and a 40% completion rate. Louisiana will meet Marshall in the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl.
- One year after a winless season, Northern Illinois captured the MAC championship with a resounding 41-23 victory over Kent State. NIU is coached by Thomas Hammock, who played running back for the Huskies from 1999-2002. Hammock must have been proud Saturday, as the Huskies rushed the ball 61 times for 266 yards and four TDs. NIU will take on Coastal Carolina in something called the Tailgreeter Cure Bowl in Orlando.
- As a Notre Dame alumnus, I’ll admit that it stings to not have a chance to play for the national championship this year. That being said, the College Football Playoff committee got it right again this year. Alabama, Michigan, Georgia, and Cincinnati are the most deserving teams, and I’m looking forward to seeing whether Michigan can challenge the southern dominance in the CFP and if Cincinnati can limit Alabama’s offense. The fact of the matter is Notre Dame had its chance this season. Beat Cincinnati – at home no less – and the Fighting Irish are at worst the #2 seed. In a year where Notre Dame has a talented team and the field is wide open, this season feels like a missed opportunity.
- I’ve had a few people tell me this week – in addition to the ESPN talking heads – that missing the playoff this season is proof that Notre Dame should not be independent and needs to join a conference. I could not disagree with this argument more. The CFP committee has always been fair to Notre Dame, even when Notre Dame has had a loss, like in 2015, 2017, and 2020. This year, the committee again included a team that is not a conference champion in the top-four (Georgia). As stated above, if Notre Dame takes care of its business on the field against Cincinnati, they are preparing for a playoff game. Also, if you’re interested in why Notre Dame is not in the Big Ten, check out Irish Breakdown’s series from this summer which explored the early relationship of Notre Dame and the Big Ten, Notre Dame’s rejection of the Big Ten in the 1990s, and why independence is essential to Notre Dame football.
- Marcus Freeman understands the uniqueness of Notre Dame, and the reason that I am most energized by his hire is that he views Notre Dame’s uniqueness as a strength and a differentiator – not an obstacle that needs to be overcome. This stands in stark contrast to Brian Kelly, who despite the past twelve years of lip service to Notre Dame’s tradition and all the success he had on the field, bolted for a football factory. In a podcast with Irish legend Chris Zorich this summer, Freeman stated that taking the Notre Dame defensive coordinator job over an offer from LSU last offseason was the right choice because of how special Notre Dame was. He said, “what makes Notre Dame special, yes it's the people but it's also the facts. It's the 4-for-40. It's the football excellence. That's not make believe. We're not selling a product that isn't real. The 11 National Championships that Notre Dame has won, that's real. That's facts. The NFL success, the number of players drafted into the NFL, being No. 1, that's facts. That's not make believe. The 4-for-40, the network, the people that separate Notre Dame from everywhere else in the country, that's real.” I’m so excited for the #FreemanEra to begin.
- Check out Irish Breakdown’s article on why Notre Dame’s matchup with Oklahoma State is a massive opportunity for Marcus Freeman and the Irish program. In one game, Freeman can end the 26-year major bowl drought and reverse the trend of poor Notre Dame performances against top-ten opponents.
- One of the frustrations that Notre Dame fans had with Brian Kelly during his tenure was the fact that Kelly would never defer after winning the coin toss, electing instead to take the ball first. For this strategy to work, your team needs to score on that opening drive and seize the momentum, something Notre Dame failed to do in eight straight games this year. On Saturday, Nick Saban and Alabama showed the benefit of deferring. With the game tied 17-17, Alabama scored a go-ahead touchdown with 26 seconds left in the first half and then got the ball to start the second half. The Tide drove down the field and scored again, and thus in two possessions had turned what was a tie game into a 31-17 margin. Georgia was forced to play catch up – which their offense is not equipped to do – and on their next three drives threw an interception, turned the ball over on downs, and threw another interception (which was returned for a touchdown).
- Common knowledge was that this was finally the year that Georgia would end Alabama’s dominance in the SEC. The Tide entered the matchup with Georgia as an underdog and had looked very shaky in November games against LSU, Arkansas, and Auburn. However, as they always seem to do, Nick Saban’s team came out and played their best in a big game. The powerful Georgia defense looked slow against the Alabama skill players, and the Crimson Tide coaching staff devised a masterful game plan focused on quick passes and attacking a Georgia secondary that Tennessee had shown was vulnerable. In the future, we should know not to bet against the Tide. In the past thirteen seasons, Alabama has been an underdog three times – and has won every game by at least seventeen points.
- Here are a few of the most intriguing matchups from the non-New Years Six bowls:
- Tropical Smoothie Cafe Frisco Bowl – UTSA vs. San Diego State
- Union Home Mortgage Gasparilla Bowl – UCF vs. Florida
- Cheez-It Bowl - #19 Clemson vs. Iowa State
- Valero Alamo Bowl - #14 Oregon vs. #16 Oklahoma
- TaxSlayer Gator Bowl - #17 Wake Forest vs. #25 Texas A&M
- Outback Bowl – Penn State vs. #21 Arkansas
- Vrbo Citrus Bowl - #15 Iowa vs. #22 Kentucky
- There is one remaining regular season game in the 2021 college football season, as Army takes on Navy next weekend at MetLife Stadium. The Black Knights enter the game as the heavy favorite and with a win over Navy would capture the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy, since they defeated Air Force 21-14 on November 6th. However, it always seems to come down to the final possession between these two rivals, and even though neither Army nor Navy is the football powerhouse they were in the early 20th century, this game is still a tradition-rich spectacle and must-see TV.
NEW YEARS SIX AND PLAYOFF BOWL SCHEDULE
- Peach Bowl - #12 Pittsburgh vs. #10 Michigan State
- Cotton Bowl - #4 Cincinnati vs. #1 Alabama (Semifinal)
- Orange Bowl - #3 Georgia vs. #2 Michigan (Semifinal)
- Fiesta Bowl - #9 Oklahoma State vs. #5 Notre Dame
- Rose Bowl - #11 Utah vs. #6 Ohio State
- Sugar Bowl - #7 Baylor vs. #8 Ole Miss
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