NCAA FOOTBALL TOP MOMENTS – #3: 2nd & 26, and the 2018 College Football Playoff

The #3 ‘moment’ in our postseason NCAA moment countdown is the 2018 College Football Playoff. When the worst game of the bunch is the Alabama-Clemson game, you know you had a good playoff. The Clemson-Alabama monopoly had made the semifinal games rather boring in the past two years, with the closest semifinal being an Alabama victory over Washington, 24-7. However a regular season loss by the Crimson Tide dropped them into the #4 ranking, setting them up for a semifinal with Clemson in 2018. That allowed for a Georgia-Oklahoma Rose Bowl in the 2 v. 3 game that turned into one of the best games in college football history. That was followed by one of the best national championships in history, making this entire Playoff some must-watch TV.
The 2018 Rose Bowl between 2. Oklahoma and 3. Georgia kicked off at 5pm. Georgia had been an unexpected powerhouse that season, having recovered from a season-ending injury to Jacob Eason by handing the reins to true freshman Jake Fromm. Fromm led the Bulldogs to a ranked, road victor in Week 2 at Notre Dame, and Georgia was off to the races. They climbed to #1 in the rankings before stumbling badly against Auburn. Georgia recovered to crunch Kentucky and Georgia Tech to get back to the SEC Championship. There, Georgia beat Auburn to jump into the College Football Playoff. 

Meanwhile, Oklahoma followed a very Oklahoma-like pattern in their season. They nabbed a signature win at Ohio State (known for the Baker Mayfield flag-plant), and sprinted out to a 4-0 start. However, the Sooners suffered an inexplicable upset loss to Iowa State, and they temporarily fell out of the playoff picture. After eking out a 29-24 win over Texas, the Sooners turned on the gas, and they averaged 48.6 points per game for the rest of the regular season, roaring to an 11-1 season and #2 ranking. They cemented their spot in the Playoff by thumping #10 TCU in the Big 12 championship, 41-17. 

The game between Georgia and Oklahoma was an absolute classic. Oklahoma jumped out to the early lead, with Baker Mayfield and the Sooners’ offense firing on all cylinders. Rodney Anderson ran for two scores, while Mayfield threw for one and caught another as Oklahoma built a 31-14 lead in the first half. They kicked off to Georgia with barely 15 seconds remaining in the half, but the Bulldogs got a huge return out to the Oklahoma 48, allowing for a Rodrigo Blankenship 55-yard field goal before halftime. Nick Chubb and Sony Michel broke out touchdown runs of 50 and 38 yards in the third quarter, and Oklahoma’s once-comfortable advantage was gone. Not only that, but Fromm opened up the fourth quarter with a touchdown pass, and Georgia was on a 24-0 run and led for the first time, 38-31. 

Oklahoma responded with consecutive touchdowns, one on a Mayfield pass, and the other on a 46-yard fumble return by Steven Parker, and the Sooners were back up by seven. However, Georgia did get a final chance at a game-tying drive, receiving the ball with 3:22 left at their 41-yard line. Fromm marched the Bulldogs down the field, and Chubb punched it in from two yards out, sending the game to overtime at 45-45. 

In the first overtime, the two teams traded field goals, Blankenship connecting from 38 yards, and Austin Seibert drilling one from 33. However, Mayfield would get the Sooners to the Georgia 10 in the second overtime, but they couldn’t advance further, and Georgia’s Lorenzo Carter blocked the field goal attempt. On 2nd and 12 on the Bulldogs’ ensuing possession, Michel took a wildcat snap and raced 27 yards for the game-winning touchdown, as Georgia advanced to the championship via a wild 54-48, double overtime contest. 

In the Sugar Bowl, ACC Champions and defending CFP champs Clemson, a year after dethroning the Crimson Tide in a wild 45-41 national championship game, entered as the top seed, but they had to face Alabama in the semifinals, and the Tide were hungry for revenge. Alabama’s inclusion in the Playoff was somewhat controversial, after they lost their undefeated record in the Iron Bowl, losing the SEC West to Auburn. Despite having not played in their conference championship game, the Crimson Tide were deemed the fourth best team in the country, and they were given the fourth slot in the Playoff. 

The game was a slog, as neither offense could get going. The defenses dominated, but Alabama was the first to experience a little success. After a field goal, the Crimson Tide breached the end zone for the first time on a touchdown pass by Jalen Hurts. Hurts connected with Calvin Ridley for twelve yards and a score, opening up a 10-0 Alabama lead. Clemson’s Alex Spence knocked a field goal through from 44 yards out, making their halftime deficit just seven points. Clemson cut it to 10-6, but Alabama would put the game away late in the third quarter.

Hurts flipped a 1-yard touchdown pass to bring the lead to eleven points, and on the ensuing Clemson possession, Mack Wilson intercepted Kelly Bryant and brought it to the house for a 24-6 lead. From there, Alabama’s defense absolutely suffocated Clemson, who couldn’t make any kind of comeback attempt. It was a memorable defensive effort by Alabama, who shut down an offense that had only been held under 24 points once all year, and under 30 just three times. Clemson’s leading rusher had just 22 yards, and the Tigers managed just 124 yards through the air. Alabama only had 120 passing yards, but Hurts was efficient with two touchdowns, and he also contributed to a running game that had 177 yards and grinded out lengthy possessions, sending Alabama to the title game. 

The two exciting semifinals set up a national title game for the ages between #3 Georgia and #4 Alabama. It was the second All-SEC championship game in history, with ‘Bama also winning the prior one, a 2011 contest against LSU. Between the two teams, there were 23 players that would be drafted to the NFL, including 6 first-rounders. That number is still growing. The first quarter had no scoring, as Georgia had drives ending in an interception and a punt, while Alabama punted once and missed a 40-yard field goal. Blankenship hit two field goals in the second quarter to open up a 6-0 lead, and Georgia kept forcing punts. Alabama punted four times in the first half, and the Bulldogs finally capitalized late, with Mecole Hardman plunging in from one yard out, gifting Georgia a 13-0 halftime lead. 

When the teams came out for the second half, Nick Saban made one of the most stunning coaching decisions of all time, taking out starter Jalen Hurts, who was 26-2 as a starter, and putting in freshman Tua Tagovailoa. The freshman was much-hyped but completely unproven. He didn’t have much success early, as Georgia forced a 3-and-out, but the Bulldogs also had to punt, and Alabama got the ball on their own 44-yard line. Tagovailoa engineered a touchdown drive, firing a 6-yard pass to Henry Ruggs to put Alabama on the board. Georgia responded with an 80-yard Fromm-to-Hardman pass for a 20-7 lead. The freshman quarterbacks traded bad interceptions, and Alabama took advantage of Fromm’s miscue, driving for a 43-yard field goal, making it a ten-point deficit heading into the fourth quarter. The Tide dominated the fourth quarter, as after a field goal brought them within seven, Tagovailoa led a game-tying drive to tie the game at 20 points apiece with 3:49 remaining. Georgia punted, and Tua brought the Tide all the way back into the red zone, but they missed a 36-yarder as time expired, and the game went to overtime. 

Georgia got the ball to start overtime and struggled greatly, taking a 13-yard sack and losing nine yards on the drive. However, Blankenship came up clutch with a 51-yard field goal, giving the Bulldogs a 23-20. Tagovailoa showed some inexperience on the first play of Alabama’s drive, taking a horrible 16-yard sack that put Alabama back at their 41-yard-line. Given Alabama’s kicking woes, it looked to almost be a game-sealing error. However, on the very next play, the infamous ‘2nd and 26’ play, Tua flashed the arm that made Saban recruit him, and gave him the confidence to play him in the national championship. Tua dropped back in the pocket and unleashed a bomb down the left sideline. He hit DeVonta Smith in stride for a 41-yard touchdown pass, winning the national championship for the Crimson Tide, and putting a stunning stamp on what went down as the best College Football Playoff in history. 

The Aftermath

Alabama’s national championship victory kickstarted the successful collegiate career of Tua Tagovailoa. He was named Offensive MVP for the title game, and in the 2018-2019 season, the Tide roared to a 14-0 start the following season before losing in the national championship. Tua finished second in the Heisman voting to Kyler Murray, and he entered his junior year as the Heisman favorite. He started off strong but dealt with some injuries that kept him off the field, before his season abruptly ended on a painful sack that saw him dislocate his hip, fracture the posterior wall, break his nose, and suffer a concussion. He started 9 games on the year, and for his career, he compiled a 22-2 record. He’s expected to be a Top-5 pick in the upcoming NFL Draft. Alabama did not make the College Football Playoff this season, making this championship their latest one. Georgia has not made the College Football Playoff, coming up just short in each of the past two seasons. Jake Fromm declared for the 2020 draft, while Nick Chubb, Mecole Hardman, and Sony Michel have all gone on to strong NFL careers.
Oklahoma has made four playoffs, but they are yet to play in a title game, as Lincoln Riley’s squad has gone 0-4 on the big stage.
Clemson returned with a vengeance, as Trevor Lawrence led one of the most lethal offenses in history, and the Tigers, also backed by an extraordinary defense, pummeled nearly every opponent en route to a 15-0 season and national championship. In the Playoff, they beat Notre Dame by 27 and Alabama by 28 to claim the title. The Tigers returned to the championship game this year, but their chances at a repeat were dashed by Joe Burrow and LSU.

This Day in March Madness History: Magic Johnson and Larry Bird’s first encounter

This Day in March Madness History

March 26, 1979
Michigan State vs. Indiana State

  • The Setup
    If someone had suggested this national championship match-up even two years prior, they would have been laughed at. Indiana State was hardly removed from their DII days, making their first ever NCAA Tournament appearance in 1979. Meanwhile, Michigan State had only returned to relevance a year prior, when the Spartans made it to the Elite Eight. Before that run, Michigan State hadn’t made the tournament since 1959. However, in 1979, both teams were powerhouses, each led by a star that would become an NBA legend. Indiana State got a one-seed in the tournament, led by the exploits of Larry Bird, who averaged 28.6 points per game that season. Heading into the title game, the Sycamores had a 33-0 record, having survived consecutive two-point games to squeak into the final round.
    Meanwhile, Michigan State had been a little less dominant at 25-6, but they had their own stud at the helm in Magic Johnson, averaging 17.1 points per game. He actually was only second on the team in scoring to Greg Kelser. The Spartans had actually had it far easier than the Sycamores, not winning a single game by less than twelve points. That game was an upset of #1 Notre Dame, 80-68. In the Final Four, they faced a huge underdog in Penn, a nine-seed, and dismantled them by 34 points. 
  • How it went down
    Michigan State knew the game would come down to whether they could stop Larry Bird, especially in the paint. The Spartans flocked to Bird when he got the ball, and they crowded his passing lanes, limiting him to just 7 of 21 shooting, and only two assists. The Spartans went up 37-28 at the half. Johnson made one exceptional play late in the half, driving to the baseline, faking out Bird with a pump-fake pass, and laying the ball in for two points. The Sycamores had rallied several times throughout the year, and they had recent experience in close games, but they started off the second half slow. Michigan State rattled off seven straight points and led 44-28 just minutes into the second half.
    Out of all their comebacks, Bird’s squad had never trailed by more than eleven points, and the 16-point deficit proved too much a struggle to overcome. Michigan State continued to fluster the mid-major star with a spectacular zone defense that minimized his efficiency and playmaking ability. Bird scratched out 19 points, and Carl Nicks chipped away for 17, but that was as good as it got for Indiana State, which was doomed by poor free throw shooting. The Sycamores were 10-22 from the charity stripe, including 5-17 from players not named Larry Bird. Michigan State battled through their own foul trouble and avoided any ejections, closing out the Sycamores, 75-64. 
  • The Aftermath
    The season was done after that, but the future of these programs went in very different directions. Having won the title in just their fourth NCAA Tournament appearance, the Spartans eventually became a March regular, although it took a while. They missed the next five tournaments, and they struggled to establish a pedigree, but in 1995, Michigan State hired Tom Izzo as head coach. The Spartans won a title in 2000, and they’ve qualified for 23 straight NCAA Tournaments.
    Meanwhile, Indiana State has made just three tournament appearances since Larry Bird left the team, and they’ve won just one contest in that time. Ironically, the next tournament they qualified for, it was in 2000, when the Spartans won their next championship. They last played in the NCAA Tournament in 2011. 
  • NBA Notables (Teams they played 100+ games for)
    Michigan State – Magic Johnson (Lakers), Greg Kelser (SuperSonics), Jay Vincent (Mavericks)
    Indiana State – Larry Bird (Celtics), Carl Nicks (Jazz)