INDIANAPOLIS — Perhaps we’re all numb to the madness by now. Or maybe a college football season fueled by anarchy and unpredictability stayed true to its roots until the very end—this time by coming to a halt on its own terms, unconcerned with our final approval.
For the first time all season, with a College Football Playoff taking shape before our eyes, we followed the script we were handed. The favorites played like favorites. The chalk looked like the chalk.
At first glance, the batch of championship games played to form. But looking exclusively at Saturday’s results and nodding along with acceptance does little to paint an accurate picture of how far we’ve come.
This has been a journey—a wild ride that will linger for some time.
One year ago, sitting in the same seat high atop Lucas Oil Stadium, I wrote about the impending chaos of the College Football Playoff and the decision facing the selection committee. I went as far as to suggest the members of this group should drop everything and run for their lives. There were too many good teams and not enough places—as strange as the declaration might have aged.
This year, after a never-ending strain of thrills, upsets and week-to-week peculiarities, we seemed destined for an even more maddening fate. It felt like 2015 was the kind of year that would put the committee in an impossible corner—the one we’ve talked about since this entire postseason was crafted years ago.
This was the season, with so many imperfect resumes, that the cries for an eight-team playoff would be heard and perhaps even answered. But that was not to be.
One projected playoff squad enjoyed a weekend on the couch. Oklahoma, having locked up the Big 12 Championship, tuned in without having to put on pads. In beating Oklahoma State last week, the Sooners gobbled up a spot without much debate.
The weekend’s most lopsided game on paper played out as planned. Although Florida delivered a good scare in the SEC Championship Game for longer than anticipated, Alabama cruised to a 29-15 victory to secure a playoff spot.
In reality, it really never felt that close. Running back Derrick Henry rumbled for 189 yards, and Nick Saban’s team, for the second year in a row, booked its playoff ticket.
Clemson powered past North Carolina in the ACC Championship Game, crushing the hopes of Stanford, Ohio State and, well, North Carolina. It was by no means a blowout. In fact, the 45-37 score—with a questionable late call from the officials in Clemson’s favor—was much closer than most anticipated.
Still, the No. 1 team held serve.
And the Big Ten Championship Game, the most exciting and engrossing contest of the weekend, was won on a 22-play drive by Michigan State. That’s right, 22 plays. Running back L.J. Scott delivered the death blow—a gorgeous, Hulk-ish one-yard touchdown run.
“Score. Score or go home,” Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook said of the drive following the game. “We couldn’t settle for a field goal, and we knew we were going to get it. It’s the confidence we have as a team.”
The Spartans topped Iowa with a touchdown with less than a minute remaining. The final score, 16-13, didn’t do this game justice; the second half was thrilling. But again, the chalk prevailed.
“Let’s get on with the party,” head coach Mark Dantonio said as the celebration broke out on the field.
He cracked a smile, exited the stage and headed to the locker room. All that was left from the game—and the season, for that matter—was the confetti sitting on the stadium turf at the 25-yard line.
That was symbolic—a fitting image given the past few months. The regular season had ended. At that moment, it set in.
There will be no drama Sunday morning as it pertains to the College Football Playoff. There will be no unexpected turns. Those days, at least in this chapter, are long gone.
The selection committee will announce that Clemson, Alabama, Oklahoma and Michigan State—in some order—will compete for the national championship, starting on New Year’s Eve. It’s as clear and defined as it has ever been.
The only question remaining is seeding. Perhaps there will be a significant change to alter the matchups. Perhaps not. That is the only uncertainty remaining.
The proclamations of bedlam that carried us to this point of clarity drifted away in a matter of eight hours.
On the surface, Saturday might seem like a disappointment. But dig deeper. Don’t stop at the surface. Think about everything that led to this day.
Think about the 4th-and-25 that Arkansas miraculously picked up against Ole Miss back in early November. This play—a lateral that may not have an appropriate parallel—ultimately sunk the Rebels.
Bigger yet, it put Alabama in the SEC Championship Game. Without this, the Tide's berth never comes to fruition. This play changed an entire conference. It still doesn't seem real.
Go back a little further. Go back to Ann Arbor on October 17 and retrace those final unfathomable seconds. Out of hope and time, Michigan State was on the precipice of losing to Michigan with seconds remaining and one final punt standing in the way.
It was an unassuming punt. And then, Jalen Watts-Jackson somehow ended up with the ball, ran it back 38 yards, scored and had his hip destroyed in the process.
At the time, we weren’t quite sure what to make of those developments. Beyond the obvious astonishment and immediate impact, it was hard to process how these plays would age.
With the full picture suddenly in focus, it turns out that these two plays defined the season. Without them, Alabama and Michigan State are not in this position. There were many other plays that helped guide us too.
This was a year that will live on in many ways. It will not be defined by its final Saturday or a predictable Sunday reveal. It will be defined by the moments.
The College Football Playoff will go off as planned, although those who invested in this year from the very start know there’s much more to this finale than meets the eye.
And somehow, in defying our expectations of chaos in the final weekend, college football had one last laugh. It diverted course one last time. It was a brilliant final act, even if many will never appreciate the true beauty of what took place. The only thing left is a bow.
Take it, college football. You deserve it.