Winners and Losers of the College Football Playoff Semifinals

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistDecember 30, 2018

Winners and Losers of the College Football Playoff Semifinals

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    This was what we all waited for, even if the results were anticlimactic.

    After a season full of twists, turns, surprises and new superstars, four familiar teams emerged as College Football Playoff participants.

    Saturday showed us Clemson vs. Notre Dame and Alabama against Oklahoma—four elite programs that are used to playing major games on massive stages.

    The Cotton Bowl Classic between the Fighting Irish and Tigers featured two excellent defenses, but Clemson was far too strong on both sides of the ball in an easy 30-3 win. Quarterback Trevor Lawrence played musical receivers with all the targets he found in the lopsided victory.

    Alabama and Oklahoma, on the other hand, lit up the Orange Bowl with a barrage of big offensive plays. But after the Crimson Tide seized a 28-0 lead, OU made things interesting before the Tide pulled away for a 45-34 win.

    That sets up 'Bama-Clemson IV in Santa Clara, California, on January 7.

    As always, there were plenty of winners and losers beyond the final scores. Let's take a look at the superlatives (and their less impressive counterparts) in Saturday's semifinal action.

Winner: Dabo Swinney

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    You know Clemson coach Dabo Swinney was thinking about it.

    When he made the difficult decision in late September to name talented true freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence the starter over incumbent Kelly Bryant, it was with the College Football Playoff in mind.

    After all, when you've been to the final four in four consecutive years, bigger things have to be on your mind at all times. If the Tigers were to have the best chance to beat the best teams, they had to play the most talented quarterback.

    Lawrence was that guy.

    While splitting action with Bryant, he was brilliant, throwing nine touchdowns for 600 yards and two picks. After Lawrence's big-time relief performance against Georgia Tech, Swinney made the move, and Bryant transferred.

    The decision nearly backfired immediately as Lawrence was hit and hurt in an eventual 27-23 comeback win over Syracuse. But as the season progressed and the supporting cast around Lawrence helped him along, the freshman became a star.

    Swinney told ESPN's Holly Rowe after the victory over Notre Dame:

    "Well, it was a hard decision because I love my guys, and it's hard when you know it's the right thing and it's going to be some disappointment. But, you know, that's my job to give the team the best chance to win. 

    "We're going back to the national championship. We're 14-0, and we wouldn't be where we are without No. 16. He's had an amazing year, but he's got an unbelievable supporting cast around him, starting with that offensive line."

    Lawrence threw for 2,606 yards, 24 touchdowns and just four interceptions before the playoff, showing moxie beyond his years. His unflappable demeanor looked like there was no game too big. On Saturday, he proved it once again.

    He completed 27 of 39 passes for 327 yards and three touchdowns.

    It was just another bit of proof to show that few coaches know how to press the right buttons like Swinney, who has grown from simply a dynamic recruiter into the leader of one of the two most dominant programs in college football.

Losers: The 'Notre Dame Belongs' Playoff Defenders

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    Despite Notre Dame's undefeated record, there were warning signs throughout the season that the Fighting Irish may not be one of college football's Top Four teams—leading some to ask if Ohio State, Georgia or even Central Florida belonged instead.

    Against Clemson's dominant defense, quarterback Ian Book and running back Dexter Williams had big opportunities to help their team prove it belonged despite an unimpressive schedule.

    Neither rose to the occasion—mostly because they had little room to maneuver against an outmanned offensive front.

    The defense had opportunities to prove it was the leader of a playoff-worthy team but couldn't.

    Despite some glimmers of solid play, the Irish didn't muster any consistency in stopping Clemson's passing attack. Even though running back Travis Etienne plodded for much of the game, he broke free for a big scoring run to help make it 30-3.

    It's easy to criticize in hindsight, and many will call the outrage over Notre Dame's lack of competitiveness Saturday just that. But we knew the Irish's schedule was weak, and when they had the opportunity for style points later in the year, they didn't grab them.

    In defense of the College Football Playoff committee, it would have been skewered had it kept an undefeated Irish out, but the grumbles will continue. The committee was supposed to get it right, and there will be questions about whether it did following the lopsided result.

    Full disclosure: I put the Irish in the Top Four too.

    Nobody should take anything away from Notre Dame's excellent season, but the Irish were overmatched against a Clemson team making its fourth consecutive playoff appearance. Were the Irish one of college football's best?

    They didn't play like it Saturday.

Winner: A Brilliant Heisman Trophy Duel

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    Though the Heisman Trophy was expected to be Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa's for much of the year, Oklahoma's Kyler Murray put up stunning statistics, and a late-season surge gave him the award.

    After getting a few weeks to rest his bum ankle, the sophomore Crimson Tide signal-caller gave the nation a firm argument that college football's top individual honor should be his despite still not being 100 percent.

    In a direct duel between the top two players in the voting, Tagovailoa was immaculate, making few mistakes as Alabama built a 28-0 advantage on its way to a 45-34 win. He continued the onslaught throughout as the porous Sooners defense had no answers for him or his stable of receivers.

    He proved he can make every type of throw on his way to completing 24 of 27 passes for 318 yards and four touchdowns. Tagovailoa was in complete control, threw the deep ball, stretched the field vertically and horizontally, and threw receivers open.

    After a sluggish start, Murray lived up to the Heisman billing, too. That's potentially great news as he tested his game against a big, fast, aggressive defense, and it held up with flying colors.

    He was a handful for Alabama, leading his team from a four-touchdown gulf to close the gap to 31-20, and he became the first quarterback ever to rush for more than 100 yards against a Nick Saban-coached Alabama team. Oh, he threw for 308 yards, too.

    Hopefully, that's enough to convince Murray he needs to stick with football rather than give it up altogether for a baseball career with the Oakland A's.

    His effort wasn't enough, though. Tagovailoa plays for a better team in a conference with better defenses, and he torched Murray's squad with a national championship game appearance on the line, stifling the comeback with a precision drive to open the fourth quarter on which he went 5-of-5 for 60 yards.

    Tagovailoa was sharper than Murray and won the battle of college football's two best players. More importantly to him, Alabama won the game and will play Clemson yet again for the title.

Loser: Oklahoma's 'Sooner'-or-Later-Somebody's-Gonna-Score Defense

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    Nobody had any questions throughout the season about Oklahoma's high-octane offense with head coach Lincoln Riley calling plays and Murray executing them.

    But the defense is far from championship-caliber.

    Though OU settled down on that side of the ball after an atrocious start, the 28-0 hole crushed any chance the Sooners had of winning.

    Against Alabama's elite offense, the Sooners looked worse than they have in a while in the first quarter. Yes, the unit showed glimmers of improvement after the school fired coordinator Mike Stoops early in the year and letting Ruffin McNeill call plays, but the same problems reared their heads.

    In a Big 12 Conference known for awful defenses, only Texas Tech's was worse. Nationally, the Sooners entered the game ranked 107th, allowing 448.1 yards per contest. Tagovailoa, Alabama's stable of running backs and elite, playmaking receivers exposed them on a national stage.

    "I think our offense really controlled the tempo of the game," Saban told ESPN in the postgame interview. "The only time we really got stopped in the game is we stopped ourselves."

    If Oklahoma was going to hang with Alabama and beat the Crimson Tide, they were going to have to do so by outscoring them in a shootout. You'd be in the minority if you expected the Sooners to win with a point total under 40.

    That tells you that few had confidence in Oklahoma's ability to stop or even slow the Tide.

    Alabama did what it wanted from the first play, which was a 50-yard completion to DeVonta Smith that got it to the Oklahoma 25-yard line. The Tide capped that seven-play, 75-yard drive with a touchdown, and it was a sign of things to come throughout the first half.

    The Sooners got their sea legs after they got punched in the mouth with a four-touchdown deficit and stormed back, but it was too deep of a hole. Alabama made sure to remind everyone late in the game that it can score at will when it puts the pedal down.

Winner: Justyn Ross

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    If somebody would have told you an athletically gifted wide receiver who used to be a dynamic high school basketball player was going to be the star of the Cotton Bowl Classic's College Football Playoff game between Clemson and Notre Dame, you would have guessed Tigers sophomore Tee Higgins.

    That would have been a quality pick, but his teammate—6'4" true freshman pass-catcher Justyn Ross—stole the show.

    Higgins did have an unbelievable juggling touchdown grab and made his share of big plays. But Ross was ridiculous.

    The Phenix City, Alabama, native chose the Tigers over offers from pretty much everybody, including instate powers Alabama and Auburn. But he committed to Dabo Swinney's Tigers, and he enjoyed his breakout game on the biggest of stages. Swinney told ESPN after the game Ross was "the spark" that got his team going.

    Though he'd been steady and even spectacular at times this year, entering Saturday with 34 catches for 699 yards and six touchdowns, he was a matchup nightmare for the Irish, racking up more yardage by halftime than he'd totaled in any other game this year.

    First, he torched Notre Dame backup cornerback Donte Vaughn in man coverage on a 52-yard jump-ball scoring strike where he grown-manned his way over the defender before racing into the end zone for the first touchdown of the game.

    Then late in the first half, the Tigers lined Ross up in the slot, where nobody can guard him. Quarterback Trevor Lawrence delivered a beautiful ball, and Ross hauled it in for a 42-yard scoring strike that gave him five grabs for 137 yards and a pair of scores before the break.

    He finished with six catches for 148 as Clemson cruised and stood on the sideline much of the second half nursing an injury. On a night when the Tigers' athleticism advantage was obvious, Ross shone as the brightest of future (and present) stars and the biggest target for Lawrence, who continues to prove he's the real deal.

Loser: Donte Vaughn

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    When Notre Dame first-team All-American cornerback Julian Love left the game in the first half with what coach Brian Kelly said was a "head injury," backup Donte Vaughn was thrust onto the biggest stage of his life.

    The lights were a little too bright.

    Vaughn is a quality second-teamer, but he struggled against the elite pass-catchers from Clemson. The junior from Memphis, Tennessee, was on the defending end of two of the Tigers' first-half touchdowns as they built a 23-3 lead at the break.

    First, he was on a man-coverage island against receiver Justyn Ross, and he couldn't come away with a 50-50 ball. Then, on a 46-second scoring drive, Vaughn again was forced to lead the difficult life of a college cornerback.

    Though he played good defense face-guarding Tee Higgins, the Tigers receiver made a sweet off-balance, one-handed grab while falling out of the end zone; it was ruled a touchdown and upheld after a review. Sometimes at the cornerback position, you can do everything right and still be the goat.

    Kelly lamented Love's injury in a halftime interview with ESPN sideline reporter Tom Rinaldi and referenced three of the big plays, two of which were, for better or worse, Vaughn's responsibility.

    "He was taken out of the game with a head injury. That's all I was told. So he was not back in the game," Kelly said of Love. "You know, we've got to step up. They made three big plays in the passing game, and that's really the difference. We've got to coach better and play better in the second half."

    Love returned in the second half, which was big for the Irish.

    But they couldn't play well enough to overcome the 20-point halftime deficit, and Vaughn will need the short-term memory every defensive back must have to get over the frustration of guarding the elite receivers in Swinney's stable of playmakers.

Winner: Josh Jacobs on the National Stage

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    By now, many of you know the story

    Josh Jacobs spent part of his childhood homeless, was a 3-star player who was lightly recruited for a while before Alabama and others came late to the runner from a small high school in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

    According to the Tulsa World's Eric Bailey, Jacobs said former OU coach Bob Stoops came after him just a couple of weeks before national signing day, despite the close proximity to Norman. By then, Jacobs was well on his way to Alabama.

    "I just want to prove to Oklahoma when I leave there, when the game is over, that they missed out on me," Jacobs told Bailey.

    Mission accomplished.

    Jacobs patiently waited his turn behind some stellar Alabama running backs over his career, and this year, he wound up as big of a part of the offense of any of them, despite Damien Harris and Najee Harris being in the same backfield.

    The junior can do it all, and he'll be a major asset and perhaps even a star in the NFL, perhaps as early as next season. He's 5'10", 216 pounds, so he can bruise between the tackles, and he is fast once he gets to the second level. All that, and he's a force in the passing game, too.

    More than anything, Jacobs runs with a chip on his shoulder, and he is at his best after initial contact.

    All that was on display for the Tide on Saturday in a game full of offensive stars. Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and the exceptional receivers deserve all the headlines they get, but Jacobs is a gem that should have pro teams salivating.

    Jacobs had 15 carries for 98 yards and was a big part of the offense when Alabama needed to slow down the game. He added four catches for 60 yards and a touchdown, and he drove over and through Sooners defenders as the Tide salted away the game.

Loser: College Football Parity

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    Blame Alabama. Blame Clemson. Blame every other team for not being up to the level of those two.

    It's Ali-Frazier. It's Yankees-Red Sox. It's Celtics-Lakers.

    As college football gears up for Bama-Clemson IV in Santa Clara, California, on January 7, it's fair to wonder if the lack of parity in college football is going to hurt the sport. 

    How much more of this can the fans take before they stop caring? 

    Back in 2008, the Crimson Tide beat Clemson 34-10 in the season opener to really start the Nick Saban era of dominance, announcing their arrival onto the scene, and they've never left. Once Dabo Swinney got entrenched with the Tigers and got his team rolling downhill, they've been right there, too.

    In 2016, Alabama beat the Tigers 45-40 to win the national championship. Clemson returned the favor in 2017 with a 35-31 win to get its own title. Then last year, the two teams met in the semifinals, and Bama dominated in a 24-6 win.

    They'll meet again this year. Ho-hum.

    Will the game get high ratings, or are fans becoming numb?

    You've heard the buzz about "Alabama is killing college football," and a familiar refrain surrounds Clemson, too. But while other programs such as Georgia, Ohio State and Oklahoma can throw the occasional punch, the finalists own college football right now.

    They're recruiting at a high level, many of their stars are underclassmen, and they have two magnificent coaches who are at the top of their game. So, it's not changing any time soon.

    Is it good for college football to have two megapowers? Will other teams rise to the occasion, or is this a monopoly that will damage the game?

    Say what you want, but what are they supposed to do? Just quit? It's remarkable to see what Alabama and Clemson are accomplishing right now. But everybody else needs to step up their games. Right now, everybody seems to be playing for third.

Winners: The Lawrence-Less Clemson Front 7

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    No Dexter Lawrence. No problem.

    How many other teams could remove a 6'4", 350-pound All-American-caliber defender from the starting lineup and not feel it—not only on the scoreboard, but also within the framework of a game? Clemson wasn't fazed by the suspension of Lawrence, who tested positive for a banned substance last week.

    The Tigers kept throwing waves of stars at Notre Dame, and the Irish had no answers, even with a massive, talented offensive line that has been sturdy all year. Notre Dame finished with just 248 total yards and 88 rushing yards on a 2.5 average and converted on five of 17 third downs.

    Book had little time to throw throughout the game and was under near-constant duress. 

    Clelin Ferrell took what should have been advantageous field position for Notre Dame after a bad Clemson punt early in the game and turned it around after he forced and recovered a Book fumble. Ferrell and others constantly swarmed Book, and Austin Bryant was a force throughout the contest.

    There were large swaths of time when Swinney and defensive coordinator Brent Venables played backups, who also dominated. One time, they forced another fumble that should have gone to the Tigers, but officials (incorrectly) determined forward progress.

    When Ferrell and Bryant relaxed on the sideline, backups such as Xavier Thomas and Justin Foster proved they'll be stars when the other guys head to the NFL. Lawrence's backup, Albert Huggins, more than held his own, too.

    The bottom line is Swinney has done an exceptional job of stockpiling talent all over the field, and the Tigers front seven is as good as anybody's. The Irish had no answers for the size and athleticism Clemson rotated in and out of the game—even without Lawrence.


    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of Sports Reference and All recruiting information is from 247Sports, and rankings are 247Sports composite.

    Brad Shepard covers college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @Brad_Shepard.