Alabama effectively locked in its position at the head of the playoff field when the Crimson Tide won their 11th game — and the Southeastern Conference title — by outlasting Florida on Saturday. And although Coach Nick Saban, who is pursuing the sixth national championship of his Alabama tenure, is renowned for his defenses, this iteration of Alabama is much more of an offensive wonder.
DeVonta Smith had 15 catches on Saturday night, a career high and a record for the SEC title game. He ended with 184 receiving yards. Najee Harris, a senior tailback, rushed for 178 yards and two touchdowns. Mac Jones, Alabama’s quarterback, has thrown 32 touchdowns this season and is averaging about 340 passing yards a game. All three are candidates for the Heisman Trophy, college football’s most prized individual honor, which will be awarded next month.
Clemson, which won the national championship to cap its 2016 and 2018 campaigns, will appear in the playoff for the sixth consecutive season. Many of the players who navigated the Tigers to last season’s national title game remain on the roster, including quarterback Trevor Lawrence and running back Travis Etienne, the A.C.C.’s career rushing leader. Clemson (10-1) logged 541 yards on Saturday in Charlotte, N.C., but its defense also showed its strengths, sacking Ian Book, Notre Dame’s quarterback, six times.
“We’re trending in the right direction, we’re playing our best football, and our best football is ahead still,” Lawrence said over the weekend.
“Every game for us is a statement because it’s another chance for people to see us play, and we are what we play like,” he added. “What we put on tape is who we are.”
Ohio State (6-0) wheezed to a 22-10 victory over Northwestern in Saturday’s Big Ten championship game — a contest it reached only because the conference changed its threshold of games played to qualify for the game in Indianapolis — and will appear in a semifinal as the most untested team of this playoff field, or any other. (When the Buckeyes met Clemson in a semifinal last season, both teams had won 13 games.)
Ohio State had three regular-season games canceled this year because of virus issues in the Big Ten, including a matchup at Illinois because of positive tests within Ohio State’s football program. It faced skepticism across college football that it had proved itself worthy of a playoff spot. But the committee showed sustained interest in Ohio State anyway.