Turning points, season-saving plays define playoff teams
Michigan State needed a miracle. Hail hog helped Alabama get here. A swat saved Oklahoma's season. Clemson turned away a late 2-point conversion that could have cost the Tigers their perfect record.
A season filled with fantastic finishes helped shape the College Football Playoff, even if it led to a sleepy selection Sunday.
Top-seeded Clemson will play No. 4 Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl in the first College Football Playoff semifinal on New Year's Eve. No. 2 Alabama will play No. 3 Michigan State at the Cotton Bowl in the nightcap of the Dec. 31 doubleheader.
No drama. No complaints. Nothing at all like the week-to-week mayhem - with one once-in-a-lifetime-play after another - that made the season memorable.
In the end, the only real debate was how to rank the top four teams.
Committee chairman Jeff Long said that the Tigers were the clear-cut top team in the final rankings.
Long said bumping Michigan State past Oklahoma had nothing to do with avoiding the possibility of having the Sooners play close to home in the Dallas area.
''We first get those top four teams, one, two, three and four, finished before we do anything else,'' Long said.
And that was it for drama. A big difference from last season, when the committee had to choose from Ohio State, Baylor and TCU, and ticked off the Big 12 by jumping the Buckeyes past the Bears and Frogs in the final rankings.
For the playoff teams, a series of season-saving moments and turning points have brought them two wins away from a national championship.
The Crimson Tide lost to Ole Miss at home in late September, a game that left Alabama uneasy about its passing game and in need of help just to win the SEC West.
To fix the offense, the Tide turned to Derrick Henry and let the 240-pound tailback shoulder the load. The junior had at least 22 carries against each of Alabama's remaining SEC opponents, including a whopping 90 in the last two games.
Against Michigan State, it will be strength against strength. The Spartans rugged defensive line with Shilique Calhoun and Malik McDowell stuffed Ohio State and Iowa's running game.
''They're going to give him the ball plenty of times,'' Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. ''We're going to have to handle that.''
To fix its Ole Miss problem, Alabama got some help from Arkansas, which need a stunning bounce-pass lateral play to beat the Rebels in overtime and clear a path for the Tide to win the SEC.
The Tigers tried to ease star quarterback Deshaun Watson into the 2015 season. The gifted dual-threat quarterback was coming off a major knee injury. Clemson coaches knew Watson's wheels would be a weapon, but it was one they didn't want to use until it was needed most - like in the rain against Notre Dame.
Watson ran for 16 times for 103 yards and a score in that 24-22 victory against the Irish in October, a win sealed when the Tigers defensive line stopped the Irish's tying 2-point attempt with 7 seconds left.
Down the stretch Watson's running became an even bigger part of Clemson's offense. He surpassed 100 yards on the ground in four of the last five games.
Making plays on the move will be critical for Watson against Eric Striker, Charles Tapper and an Oklahoma pass rush that produced 3.08 sacks per game (fifth-best in the nation).
No team in the playoff stared down defeat as frequently as the Spartans, and no situation was as dire as the one Michigan faced at the Big House in mid-October.
The Spartans turned a botched punt into a last-play, game-winning touchdown at Michigan. The play was dubbed Michigan State's Miracle, but in some ways it symbolized the Spartans' greatest traits. They seem to embrace adversity and delight in being the underdog.
Those qualities should serve them well against an Alabama team that is favored by nine points, but has rarely been challenged deep into the fourth quarter.
The result is even more puzzling now than it was back in October: Texas 24, Oklahoma 17.
There was nothing complicated about what went wrong in Dallas. The Sooners did not play tough. They missed tackles and blocks.
Instead of allowing that dud to define their season, quarterback Baker Mayfield and the Sooners went on a seven-game winning streak, outscoring opponents 364-136.
Still, if not for Steven Parker slapping down TCU's 2-point conversion pass in the final seconds to preserve a 30-29 win in late November, the Sooners would not be here.
Clemson's talented defensive line and improving offensive line will test the Sooners' toughness the way Texas did.
Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP