The College Football Playoff selection committee got it right, the value of their decisions reaffirmed by two semifinal matchups that went down to the final play of the game.
Michigan 27, Alabama 20 in overtime. The Wolverines ended it by putting up a blue and maize rampart and to swarm Crimson Tide quarterback Jalen Milroe on a fourth-down run. Ballgame. Onward, Michigan. “Glorious,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said, minutes after bummed-out Alabama coach Nick Saban received a hug from his wife, Miss Terri, as he left the interview room.
Washington 37, Texas 31. With the Longhorns closing in and set up at Washington’s 13-yard line in their frantic late-game rally, the Huskies successfully defended three passes to scotch the comeback. March on, Washington.
The best teams had to really earn it, but both advanced. Monday’s national championship showdown in Houston will put two 14-0 teams at the center of the college-football cosmos. It’s the Big Ten vs. the Pac 12. One more game to go before Washington moves to the Big Ten and the Pac 12 sadly fades into history. (Death by greed.) Perhaps Michigan and Washington should play this one at the Rose Bowl for old times sake.
In the first eight seasons of the four-team playoff format, the semifinals were determined by an average margin of victory of 21 points. And 12 of the 18 games were double-digit beatdowns. But the trend changed last season, when TCU upset Michigan by six points (51-45) and Georgia overcame a threat by Ohio State to prevail 42-41. And on the first day of 2024, the New Year’s doubleheader gave us two more close-call thrillers that could have gone the other way.
Instead of having an Alabama vs. Texas rematch before the Longhorns relocate to the SEC, we’ll be treated to a future All Big Ten card pitting Michigan and Washington.
FIVE REASONS WHY MICHIGAN OUSTED ALABAMA
1. Jim Harbaugh and the Michigan staff out-coached Nick Saban and the Alabama staff. SEC Network analyst Tim Tebow said this at halftime: “It’s hard for me to go back and remember a time when I felt like the Alabama coaching staff didn’t have at least an equal game plan. I think that was pretty clear in the first half. Michigan had a better game plan.”
Alabama adjusted and played better in the second half but offensive coordinator Tommy Rees wouldn’t stay with an effective running game. Alabama running backs averaged 6.4 yards per carry Monday, and Milroe got free for 64 yards rushing. But the Crimson Tide got away from its strength. Leading by four and using a series of strong runs to reach the Michigan 30-yard line with 7 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Alabama seemed poised to put the Wolverines away. A touchdown would have made it a two-score game with time running down. But from the 30, Alabama lost five yards on an illegal substitution penalty, threw two dinky passes that produced six total yards, and set Milroe up for his sixth sack of the game. Alabama was able to salvage the wrong turn with a field goal to open a 20-13 lead, but the chance for a 24-13 lead was gone.
2. Havoc! The Wolverines sacked Milroe six times, stormed into his space with blitzes, and eliminated Bama’s deep passing game. Milroe managed only 116 passing yards and his average yards per attempt (5.0) was his lowest in a game this season. Executing a smart game plan implemented by defensive coordinator Jesse Minter, the Wolverines overwhelmed the hulking Alabama offensive line, invaded up the middle to block a flustered Milroe’s vision, and gave him few chances to escape on his devastating scrambles.
Alabama couldn’t deliver a knockout punch. And in the final minutes, Michigan quarterback JJ McCarthy came up with his peak performance and made big plays, winning the quarterback duel against a confused and hesitant Milroe.
Minter’s defense created havoc on 24.6 percent of Alabama’s offensive snaps. By contract, Alabama’s defense created havoc on only 13.6% of Michigan’s snaps. To put a fine point on this: Michigan’s front seven had a havoc rate of 23.1 percent compared to the 6.8 havoc rate by Alabama’s front seven. Huge difference.
3. With the game on the line, Alabama’s defense made it too easy for McCarthy’s offense. Ridiculously easy. The Crimson Tide needed to make one stop – on 4th and 2 – to seal the victory. But a blown assignment left running back Blake Corum unguarded on a pass to the right side, and Michigan exploited the gaffe for a 27-yard gain. The momentum – clearly reversed – gave Michigan a look of inevitability. The Alabama defense was slowing down, and frustrated, and losing focus.
4. McCarthy outplayed Milroe when it was time to win – or time to lose. After the big play on fourth down, McCarthy sprinted for a 16-yard designed run and completed two passes for 33 yards (including the tying TD.) Alabama was flattened. And in the overtime, Michigan gave the rock to Corum and he needed only two runs to roll into the end zone for the go-ahead (and winning) touchdown.
After Alabama scored a third-quarter touchdown to take a 17-13 lead, Milroe made a negligible impact the rest of the way. He lost a fumble to kill one scoring chance. He completed five of seven passes, but all were harmless in scope and distance and resulted in only 18 total yards. He had two solid runs – but nothing dangerous to Michigan. With the score tied 20-20, and ‘Bama having a shot to move in for the potential winning field goal, Milroe threw back-to-back incompletions, scrounged for a six-yard completion, and the Tide had to punt.
The passing-game metrics confirmed all we needed to know: McCarthy had a total of plus 15.5 predicted points added, and Milroe had a minus 8.7 PPA.
With the twilight settling over the Rose Bowl, Alabama had two clear opportunities to win this game: one on offense, the second on defense. And the Crimson Tide failed – miserably – both times.
“If you really analyze the game,” Saban said, “one of the biggest things is we didn’t play well enough on defense when we needed to, and the second thing is we had too many drive-stopping plays on offense. I mean, we shot ourselves in the foot. A sack is a drive-stopping play. Getting a penalty usually is a drive-stopping play.
“Some of those things we self-inflicted … when you look back at it, it’s kind of about what we did and what we didn’t do. Not taking anything away from Michigan. They played a great game. They’ve got a good team. They’re really well-coached and wish them the best of luck in the future, but we could have done things a little better, as well. That’s on me, on the coaches. It’s not anybody else.”
5. Michigan was physically and mentally stronger than Alabama. Saban’s team reverted back to its form during the early weeks of the season. Careless mistakes. Penalties on offense. Shaky play-calling by Rees. A flimsy offensive line that was vulnerable in pass protection. A quarterback who lost confidence. A center who was stunningly unreliable in snapping the ball to the quarterback – and another poor snap was a big factor in Milroe’s failed run on the final play.
This looked more like the Alabama team that lost to Texas by 10 points and played poorly in an unimpressive win at South Florida.
Alabama was much better than Michigan on special teams, but that was it.
MICHIGAN NEEDED THIS
Harbaugh was 0-2 in the college football playoff and had lost his last six postseason games as Michigan’s coach. The pressure was on. Harbaugh had to prove that he could get the best of Saban, who has sculpted an impeccable record in big games. Harbaugh wasn’t a liability. He was an asset. His Wolverines were fresher and faster — the direct result of Harbaugh easing up in practices to avoid tiring out his players. Alabama’s athleticism wasn’t what everyone expected it to be. Then again, that can happen when a fast team gets repeatedly punched in the mouth.
“Finally doing this, especially against Alabama, especially against a great coach like Alabama’s, it’s definitely a turning point for the program,” Michigan linebacker Michael Barrett told CBS Sports after the win.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR THE SEC?
In the big picture, not much. Alabama’s elimination broke a streak of four consecutive championships won by an SEC team. SEC haters are crowing, and the predictable trolls (Danny Kannel) are extremely aroused by Bama’s demise. That in itself tells us everything about the SEC’s dominance. When Michigan toppled Alabama, more people seemed to be happier over Alabama’s loss than Michigan’s win. It’s strange. But what do we expect when an SEC team has won five of the previous six championships? And going back to the BCS days, the SEC has captured 13 of the last 17 national titles.
It won’t happen this season, but that does nothing to damage the SEC’s prestige and clear superiority over other conferences. Through 2022, an SEC team had made it to the CFP championship game in eight straight seasons. And if we add in the BCS, an SEC squad competed in the national championship game in 15 of the previous 16 seasons. Until now, the only miss was the end of the 2014 season when Urban Meyer and Ohio State defeated Oregon.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR ALABAMA?
Get ready for another huge wave of “Nick Saban’s Dynasty Is Dead” stories written or spoken by the same knuckleheads that proclaim this every time Saban comes up short. Saban hasn’t won a national championship since the 2020 season, but that isn’t enough of a failure to take a dive into insane narratives. That’s more of a reflection on the impossibly high standards that exist because he’s created such a dominant program in Tuscaloosa. Saban has taken Alabama to eight of the 10 CFP tournaments including three of the last four. He’s won five of his last six games against Georgia’s Kirby Smart. He’s averaged 12.4 wins per season since 2008. His recruiting classes have been rated in the top three nationally on an annual basis. Harbaugh won this round, and Michigan should be proud of that. It isn’t easy to do what Harbaugh just accomplished. If anything, it’s surprising that Alabama even got this game to overtime considering all of the mistakes and miscalculations. The 2023 season was one of Saban’s best coaching jobs pf his career — well, at least until the Rose Bowl.
ONE REASON WHY WASHINGTON DEFEATED TEXAS
Michael Penix Jr.
OK, pardon me for keeping this “analysis” oh so simple. But Washington had Penix at quarterback for the Sugar Bowl, and he’s the predominant reason why the Huskies are going to Houston to compete for the natty.
Penix displayed his greatness immediately, going over the top for a 77-yard completion to wide receiver Ja’Lynn Polk on his second throw of the game.
The lefthander spun 430 yards worth of passes by completing 29 of 38 passes (76.3%). Two went for touchdowns. Penix adroitly ducked and danced away from the Texas pass rush to frustrate the Longhorns. He was not sacked. He did not turn the ball over. He ran three times for 31 yards on designed plays in a new twist to the UW playbook. Pennix’s total yards passing were 52 more than Texas had yielded to an opposing quarterback all season.
And when Texas traded scores with Washington for a 21-21 tie at the half, Penix came out and connected on his first 11 passes of the third quarter to cushion a 31-21 lead for the Huskies.
Penix averaged a preposterous 11.1 yards per pass attempt Monday. The haul by Washington receivers included lacerating receptions of 77, 52, 29 and 24 yards. The Longhorns did little to disrupt the quarterback’s accuracy; through the first three quarters, Washington had a remarkable 67 percent success rate on passing plays. But Texas quarterback Quinn Ewers had an impressive response, leading his team’s charge from 13 points down to put a scare into the Huskies during the final minute of the game.
Ewers was really good, generating a predicted points added rating of plus 8.7 in the Sugar Bowl. But Penix was great, and his 22.0 PPA represented the immense impact he had on this game. Pro Football Focus listed Penix as the highest-graded player – by far – in the two national semifinal games played Monday. PFF credited him with six “big time” throws, the most by a quarterback during this bowl season.
THE HUSKIES ARE UNDERDOGS … AGAIN
And that’s appropriate, because Penix has made an underdog-style rally in his collegiate career. Late last summer, the Huskies were a 40 to 1 shot to win the national championship. According to the odds, 13 teams had a better shot than the Huskies to win it all. But none of those teams had Penix. His success is extra special. His road has been hard. Injuries shortened his first four seasons. He tore his ACL as a freshman in 2018. He ripped the ACL again in 2020 after lifting Indiana into the national Top 10. And Penix had two separate shoulder injuries.
The battered Penix was demoralized. He thought about moving on from football. But his offensive coordinator at Indiana – Kalen DeBoer – cured the quarterback’s blues. And Penix eventually followed DeBoer to Washington to extend his collegiate career. Great decision.
Penix finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting this season. He is the north star presence and inspiration for a 14-0 team that will clash with Michigan for the title. The coach and the quarterback have teamed for a 25-2 record at Washington over the last two seasons.
“Going to Indiana helped me meet coach DeBoer, and our relationship that we built throughout the years has been amazing,” Penix told reporters late Monday night. “And I wouldn’t want to play for anybody else.”
Tuesday morning Michigan opened as a 4.5-point favorite over Washington in the title bout. One early projection model has Michigan winning 34-25. That’s OK. Washington is used to this role, having gone 5-0 as the betting-line underdog in DeBoer’s two seasons as coach. Hard to believe now, but DeBoer was the offensive coordinator at Southern Illinois from 2010 through 2013. He’s an excellent coach.
Thanks for reading …
A 2023 inductee into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, Bernie hosts an opinionated and analytical sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS. It airs 3-6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. on Friday. Stream it live or grab the show podcast on 590thefan.com or through the 590 The Fan St. Louis app.
Please follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz and on Threads @miklaszb
All stats used in this column were sourced from College Football Data and College Football Reference.
For the last 36 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. A 2023 inductee into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.