Winners and Losers of the College Football Playoff Semifinals

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistJanuary 2, 2021

Winners and Losers of the College Football Playoff Semifinals

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    Roger Steinman/Associated Press

    Both the Alabama Crimson Tide and Ohio State Buckeyes put together blowout wins to seal a place in the 2021 College Football Playoff National Championship Game.

    No. 1 Alabama cruised past the No. 4 Notre Dame Fighting Irish 31-14 in the Rose Bowl. The Tide leaned on Heisman Trophy front-runners Mac Jones and DeVonta Smithwho connected for three touchdownsand star running back Najee Harris.

    Though the No. 2 Clemson Tigers scored first in the Sugar Bowl, Justin Fields and the No. 3 Ohio State Buckeyes responded with a clinical showing on offense. Fields threw six touchdowns in the 49-28 rout in New Orleans on Friday.      

    We've highlighted some of the key takeaways and best individual performances from the national semifinals.

Winner: DeVonta Smith, As Usual

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    The potential Heisman Trophy winner put on a show.

    DeVonta Smith opened the scoring with a 26-yard touchdown on a screen. During the second quarter, he turned a crossing route into a 34-yard score. In the third quarter, Smith tiptoed in the front corner of the end zone for a seven-yard touchdown.

    Notre Dame knew it absolutely, unequivocally needed to contain Smith, but he produced anyway. Along with his three scores, the likely NFL first-round selection had seven catches for 130 yards.

    Smith earned game MVP honors for his efforts.

    Heading into the national championship Jan. 11, he leads the FBS in receptions (105), yards (1,641) and touchdowns (20). And on Tuesday night, he might lift the Heisman.    

Loser: Notre Dame's Passing Game

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    Roger Steinman/Associated Press

    In Alabama's two competitive games, Mississippi and Florida combined for 787 yards through the air. For the Irish to have a legitimate chance at an upset, they needed the passing game to have a strong performance with several explosive gains.

    Notre Dame, quite simply, never came close.

    Ian Book hit 27 of his 39 passes, but his longest completion covered 27 yards. The absence of a downfield threat required the Irish to sustain drives, which they only managed once before garbage time. Book finished with a meager 5.9 yards per attempt.

    We're not suggesting that an efficient passing attack should've been easy for Notre Dame to accomplish. Without it, though, the Irish had minimal hopes of a victory.     

Winner: Najee Harris' Hurdle and Big Day

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    Early in his Alabama career, Najee Harris had a propensity for attempting to hurdle players. Looked cool, didn't really work. So, he's steadily trimmed that portion of his game.

    But he brought it back Friday at the perfect moment.

    If you haven't already seen the video, it's available above. If you watched live, we humbly suggest you take in a replay. Harris leaping over Nick McCloud—who's a shade taller than 6'0"—is likely far more impressive than anything else you've seen today.

    What an absurd play.

    Once gravity returned him to the turf, Harris sprinted to a career-long 53-yard run. It highlighted another strong day for the senior, who rushed for 125 yards and caught four passes for 30 yards.

    His development into a two-way threat has bolstered Alabama's offense and become increasingly valuable since Jaylen Waddle's ankle injury in late October. Ohio State will focus on Smith, but Harris is capable of stealing the spotlight.      

Loser: Bettors Who Laid the Points

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    Given that Alabama seemingly had control of the entire game, the only intrigue left by the fourth quarter was the betting line. According to DraftKings, the Tide closed as 19.5-point favorites.

    So when the scoreboard read 31-7 in favor of Alabamaa 24-point differencebettors were understandably on edge.

    As the clock ticked below one minute to play, Notre Dame pulled out a backdoor cover. Alabama stopped a quarterback sneak on 1st-and-goal, but Book scored on the following snap. Alabama's lead dropped from 24 and below the spread to 17.

    Good teams win, but great teams cover.

                                    

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Winner: Trey Sermon's Powerful Performance

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Even before Justin Fields took a vicious hit, Trey Sermon was on his way to an excellent game. Following a school-record 331 rushing yards in the Big Ten Championship Game, the Oklahoma transfer picked up where he left off.

    Sermon notched head-turning numbers once again, running for 193 yards and a touchdown with four catches for 61 yards.

    But the details were just as important. He consistently gained a few extra yards after contact, converted a couple of long third downs and bulldozed Clemson defenders all game.

    Sermon's ascent from complementary piece to featured back has changed Ohio State's offense.

    And if Sermon can run effectively against Alabamaa defense that has allowed four-plus yards per carry only twice this seasonthe Buckeyes could be the national champions.       

Loser: Clemson's Defensive Collapse

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    The absence of Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott (COVID-19 protocol) had a considerable impact. But his absence does not excuse a miserable day from the opposite unit.

    Let's be serious: Clemson's defense stunk.

    Entering the night, the Tigers ranked fifth nationally with 4.63 yards allowed per snap. Ohio State amassed 8.9 per play, including 13.8 through the air and 5.8 on the ground. The Buckeyes converted six of their first nine third-down attempts.

    Clemson surrendered five straight touchdowns drives of 75-plus yards in the first half and a 91-yarder in the third quarter. Those struggles left a razor-thin margin for error to an offense without its play-caller, and Ohio State took full advantage.

    The biggest problem was Clemson faltered in the red zone.

    In last season's semifinal matchup, holding the Buckeyes to a touchdown and three field goals bought time for the offense. But this time around, Ohio State scored touchdowns on all five red-zone trips.    

Winner: Justin Fields' Incredible Game

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    We can debate whether James Skalski's hit on Fields deserved an ejection, but there's no arguing it was a massive collision that left Ohio State's quarterback in pain.

    Fields showed his toughness and played through that massive hit. Toughness, though, is sometimes only a nice story. Players still need to produce, and Fields did exactly that.

    Before halftime, he whipped a couple of fastballs for touchdowns and then jogged to the sideline in clear discomfort.

    In the second half, Fields heaved a perfectly placed 56-yard score to wide receiver Chris Olave. It's understandable if Clemson didn't believe Fields, given his physical state, could actually throw it that far. But that touchdown effectively sealed the result.

    Fields finished 22-of-28 for 385 yards and six touchdowns (most passing scores in Sugar Bowl and Ohio State bowl history), adding 42 rushing yards in his brilliant game.   

Loser: Dabo Swinney Forgot His Guts

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    During the last half-decade, "Bring Your Own Guts" has become a mantra for the Clemson program. Head coach Dabo Swinney didn't bring his aggressiveness to New Orleans, though.

    On four possessions, Clemson punted on 4th-and-6 or less. The first two decisions are at least debatable, given the score. However, Swinney stuck to a conservative mentality even as the defense showed it could not stop the Buckeyes. Clemson punted on 4th-and-3 while trailing by 14 and on 4th-and-6 while down 21.

    After all four punts, Ohio State scored a touchdown.

    Swinney tried to win in a conventional manner to the bitter end, and it only limited Clemson's opportunities to close the gap.

    Sure, a comeback was unlikely. But punting doesn't get a team any closer to winning a game it cannot afford to lose.