Winners and Losers of the College Football Playoff Semifinals

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistDecember 29, 2019

Winners and Losers of the College Football Playoff Semifinals

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    The top-ranked LSU Tigers and No. 3 Clemson Tigers earned victories in the College Football Playoff semifinals Saturday to finalize the 2019 season's national championship matchup.

    In the Peach Bowl, Joe Burrow accounted for a mind-numbing eight touchdowns during LSU's 63-28 win over Oklahoma. The senior set numerous CFP records along the way, helping LSU improve to 14-0.

    Clemson needed a 16-point comeback to overthrow Ohio State, but Trevor Lawrence carried the Tigers to a 29-23 victory. Nolan Turner sealed the exciting Fiesta Bowl, intercepting a Justin Fields pass in the end zone during the final minute.

    Burrow and Lawrence highlighted the group of winners from the semifinals, but the Oklahoma defense and Ohio State coach Ryan Day were among the disappointments.

Winner: Joe Burrow and His Offensive Onslaught

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    In the first quarter alone, Joe Burrow completed 11 of his 14 throws for 166 yards and three touchdowns. By halftime, the Heisman Trophy winner had 403 yards and seven scores on a 21-of-27 clip.

    LSU held a 49-14 lead at the break, which is simply ridiculous.

    After adding a three-yard rushing touchdown on the opening drive of the second half, Burrow led one more drive. He completed 29 of 39 passes for CFP records of 493 yards and seven scores. He also broke a CFP mark by accounting for 515 yards.

    "It doesn't surprise me they did the things they did," LSU coach Ed Orgeron said of his offense. "But it does surprise me they did it with the ease that they did."

    Burrow should be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 NFL draft, but he has the national championship game to prepare for first.

Loser: Oklahoma Offense

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    Twenty-one minutes into the Peach Bowl, Oklahoma had 81 yards on six possessions with a trio of three-and-outs and one interception. And the Sooners were behind 35-7.

    In a word: nightmare.

    Jalen Hurts endured a miserable 2-of-11 start behind an offensive line that allowed too much pressure early. The only player with a reception through 21 minutes beyond CeeDee Lamb was Brayden Willis, who managed a three-yard catch. Kennedy Brooks ran for a touchdown but toiled to 35 yards on 10 first-half carries.

    Jadon Haselwood seemed to draw a pass interference penalty on 3rd-and-10 on the Sooners' fourth drive, when they trailed 14-7, but a flag wasn't thrown. Though the missed call ended the drive, Oklahoma showed little evidence that it would've mattered.

    The Sooners didn't even crack 300 yards of offense until early in the fourth quarter and tallied a season-worst 322 yards.

Winner: Clyde Edwards-Helaire

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    Leading up to the Peach Bowl, LSU's major concern involved the health of starting running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire. A hamstring injury sidelined him during bowl preparation.

    The junior scored an SEC-high 16 rushing touchdowns through 13 games, ranking second in the conference with 1,290 rushing yards. He also caught 50 passes for 399 yards and a score. Edwards-Helaire's versatility is a valuable piece of the LSU offense.

    However, the Tigers barely even needed him.

    Edwards-Helaire played a few snaps and logged two carries for 14 yards, but the blowout allowed LSU to keep him on the sideline in Atlanta. The team instead leaned on redshirt freshman Chris Curry, who gathered 98 yards on 17 touches.

    Now, the Tigers have two weeks for Edwards-Helaire to rest, recover and get ready to play in the national championship Jan. 13.

Loser: Sooners Trying to Defend Justin Jefferson

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    Heading into the College Football Playoff, four receiversincluding LSU's Ja'Marr Chasehad collected at least nine catches for 186 yards and four touchdowns in a game this season.

    Saturday, Justin Jefferson accomplished that in the opening half.

    Oklahoma knew it would be without safety Delarrin Turner-Yell because of a broken collarbone, and a targeting penalty removed Brendan Radley-Hiles early. Stopping this LSU offense is hard enough, but a short-handed unit simply had no chance to contain Jefferson and the Tigers.

    Jefferson finished the contest with CFP records of 227 yards and four scores, and his 14 receptions set a Peach Bowl record.

Winner: Trevor Lawrence and His Huge Night

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    Trevor Lawrence sure earned this recognition.

    After the Tigers fell behind 16-0 and he absorbed a massive hit, Lawrence took control of the contest. Against a physical Ohio State defense, the sophomore shouldered an enormous load as a runnerfar beyond anything he'd done in college.

    Nevertheless, the superstar quarterback rushed for a career-high 107 yards on 16 carries. Lawrence also hit on 18 of 33 passes for 259 yards with zero interceptions and accounted for three touchdowns.

    Lawrence found running back Travis Etienne for the winning 34-yard touchdown on a clever play. For a moment, it seemed like yet another designed run for Lawrence. Instead, he popped up and connected with a wide-open Etienne, who handled the rest.

    Over the next two weeks, Lawrence may need a few more ice bags and the extra recovery time. But his mobility and toughness carried Clemson to the national championship game.

Loser: The Targeting Penalty That Changed the Game

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    Shaun Wade had a free blitz and went cruising through a hole. Trevor Lawrence saw him late, braced for impact and ducked in self-preservation. Wade dipped his head—though not far enough to suggest malicious intent—to make a crushing tackle and popped Lawrence's helmet.

    For a moment, it was a critical third-down sack that prevented Clemson from cutting into a 16-0 lead.

    But then replay jumped in. The officials called a personal foul for targeting, ejected Wade and handed the Tigers a first down. Clemson soon scored a touchdown and began its tremendous comeback.

    So. About that targeting penalty.

    Was it correct? By rule, yes. Wade clearly made helmet-to-helmet contact; that cannot be disputed. However, is the rule fair? Wade did everything correct and only hit a helmet because Lawrence changed his pad level at the last second to protect himself.

    Helmet-to-helmet hits must be eliminated from football as much as possible. Defenders also shouldn't be penalized for doing everything right. The speed of the game simply did not allow Wade, in this instance, to adjust where he contacted Lawrence.

    Whether it was right is one question, and whether it's fair is another. We're not picking a side. But the callor, perhaps better said, the rulechanged the game.

Winner: J.K. Dobbins in His Likely Final Game

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    Though the result wasn't what J.K. Dobbins wanted, the junior running back assembled a magnificent performance.

    Dobbins scampered for 174 yards and a touchdown, lifting his season total to 2,003 yards and 21 scores. He also caught six passes for 47 yards, including a few important receptions to give Ohio State a chance on its final possession.

    He'll likely declare for the 2020 NFL draft. Dobbins has little else to prove at the collegiate level, and his injury scare Saturday was another reminder of why a paycheck is important.

    However, setting the single-season rushing record at a prestigious program was a solid way to finish his careereven in a loss.

Loser: Injuries. Stupid Injuries.

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    Tee Higgins missed a majority of the first half with an apparent head injury. Lawrence stayed down and looked in anguish after absorbing the massive hit from Wade.

    Dobbins limped off the field and headed to the locker room before returning. Justyn Ross clutched his right arm in visible pain as he reached the Clemson sideline and had another uncomfortable moment that demanded attention from athletic trainers. Jeff Okudah caused a stoppage in play because of an unspecified issue.

    All these injuries to potential and likely first-round NFL draft picks, all on college football's biggest stage. Fortunately, they didn't have an unfair impact on the Fiesta Bowl.

    But it's no wonder so many players are leaving early for the pros.

Winner: Clemson's Red-Zone Defense

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    Lawrence will receive the headlines, but red-zone defense undoubtedly bailed out Clemson.

    Ohio State cruised down the field on its opening possession before stalling inside the 5-yard line and kicking a field goal.

    Three drives later, the Buckeyes held a 10-0 lead and went inside the 10 on Dobbins' 64-yard run. The Tigers, however, held them to another field goal. They did the same on Ohio State's next possession, which reached the 11-yard line.

    If any of those drives had ended in a touchdown, the Fiesta Bowl could've had a much different feel. Lawrence's comeback effort might've been ill-fated.

    Throw in Turner's interception on a snap from the 23-yard line, and timely defense saved Clemson all night.

Loser: Ryan Day's Conservative 4th Quarter

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    Early in the fourth quarter, Ohio State scored a touchdown to take a 22-21 lead. Every piece of wisdomconventional, analytical, even gut feelings—said a two-point conversion was the right call.

    The Buckeyes kicked an extra point.

    With about three minutes left in the fourth quarter, Ohio State faced a 4th-and-4 at Clemson's 39-yard line. Rather than keep the offense on the field, Day instead tried to have his punter draw Clemson offside before kicking the ball away.

    On the ensuing drive, Clemson gained 11 yards on its first play, 11 on its second and 38 on the third snap. Suddenly, the Tigers were on the cusp of field-goal range and trailed by only two points. Lawrence then connected with Etienne for the go-ahead touchdown.

    Day failed the math test and then botched an opportunity to be aggressive, win the contest and reach the national title game. While it wasn't the only reason for the loss, Day's conservative end was a glaring negative.