Alabama tries to buck history in CFP title game vs. Georgia

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports
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A mere 37 days after they last played, Alabama faces Georgia again with a national championship on the line.

History shows how tough it is to win again in the rematch.

Nick Saban knows that first-hand – from the losing side.

During the 2011 season, Saban’s Crimson Tide were edged by LSU 9-6 in overtime during the regular season.

When the powerhouses met about two months later in the BCS championship game at New Orleans, Alabama smothered the unbeaten Tigers 21-0.

Now, it’s the Tide (13-1) on the other side, looking to beat Georgia (13-1) for the second time in a little over a month after a 41-24 cakewalk in the Southeastern Conference championship game on Dec. 4.

They meet again Monday night at Indianapolis in the College Football Playoff title game, their last meeting separated only by a pair of easy victories in the semifinal bowl games.

Saban tried to shrug off any comparisons to 2011, for obvious reasons. This time, he’s the one who’ll have to beat an SEC rival for the second time to finish No. 1.

“Those two games were extremely hard-fought, close games in both circumstances, and I would expect the same in this game,” Saban said. “I don’t know that there’s anything that I can really take from that (2011) experience that’s going to have any effect or impact on this one.”

Georgia is hoping to replicate a similar scenario from the 2017 season.

The Bulldogs were blown out by Auburn 40-17 during the regular season, but got another crack at the Tigers three weeks later in the SEC championship game.

Again, it was no contest, only the rematch had Georgia romping to a 28-7 victory that sent the Bulldogs to the College Football Playoff.

Georgia coach Kirby Smart conceded that some key things have changed compared to what was on film leading up to this season’s SEC championship game.

The Bulldogs can now study what they did wrong in their only loss of the season, as well as an impressive bounce-back victory over Michigan in the Orange Bowl semifinal on New Year’s Eve.

“You’ve got to be careful,” Smart said. “What tendencies changed, what matchups we’re looking for, who is in, who is out. There’s a lot of things that go into it.”

There are a couple of reasons why a second meeting during the same season can be so much different than the first.

For one, the team that lost usually has plenty of obvious things it can work on in practice to try to reverse the outcome. Not so for the winning team, which has a natural tendency to stick with what worked so well.

More important, perhaps, is the mental side.

A team that lost usually finds it a lot easier to get motivated heading into the rematch.

Rest assured, the Bulldogs – a unanimous No. 1 much of the season – have a huge chip on their shoulders after the way they were manhandled by the Crimson Tide last month.

“You can only judge a man by what he does next and how hard he gets hit and gets back up,” Georgia linebacker Nolan Smith said. “We got hit pretty hard.”

Rematches are rare in college football, but it’s common in the NFL where division foes meet twice a year.

Georgia offensive coordinator Todd Monken has plenty of experience at that from his time in the pros.

He doesn’t expect major chances from either team, but knows there will be some opportunities to break out a new wrinkle here, a tweak there.

“If you’re constantly changing what you do and your identity, I don’t think you’re going to be very good at anything,” Monken said. “Obviously there’s calls that we had … or other opportunities that we didn’t get called. So we’re looking forward to the opportunity and the shot at it. And they’re going to get our best, I can promise you that.”

This will be the first rematch in the CFP’s eight-year history, but pre-playoff matchups provide some hopeful signs for the Bulldogs.

During the 1996 season, for instance, Florida lost its regular-season finale to Florida State 24-21 – a game that left Gators coach Steve Spurrier seething over what he perceived as cheap shots by the Seminoles that went unpenalized.

Florida earned another crack at its Sunshine State rival by beating Alabama in the SEC championship game.

In the Sugar Bowl, the fired-up Gators blew out Florida State 52-20 to claim what would be Spurrier’s only national championship.

“You see why I didn’t want to play them again, don’t you?” Florida State coach Bobby Bowden said afterward. “Too good.”

Saban hopes he’s not saying the same thing about Georgia late Monday night.

Klubnik, No. 10 Clemson rout No. 24 UNC 39-10 for ACC title

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Backup quarterback Cade Klubnik completed 20 of 24 passes for 279 yards and a touchdown and ran for another score and No. 10 Clemson reclaimed the Atlantic Coast Conference championship with a 39-10 victory over No. 24 North Carolina on Saturday night.

Cornerback Nate Wiggins broke up two passes in the end zone, blocked a field goal and returned an interception 98 yards for a touchdown to help the Tigers win their seventh ACC title in eight seasons.

Clemson (11-2, No. 9 CFP) won six straight ACC championships from 2015 to 2020 before failing to reach the title game last season. But coach Dabo Swinney‘s Tigers rebounded in a big way, going 9-0 against ACC foes this season to reach the Orange Bowl.

They have Klubnik to thank for that.

With Clemson down 7-0, Swinney benched two-year starter D.J. Uiagalelei after the Tigers failed to pick up a first down on their first two possessions, Swinney turned to Klubnik, a 5-star recruit from Austin, Texas. He responded by leading the Tigers to four straight scores and a 24-10 lead at halftime.

Clemson stretched it to 39-10 heading into the fourth quarter.

It wasn’t the first time Swinney has turned to Klubnik.

He benched Uiagalelei in the second half against Syracuse and Klubnik responded by leading the Tigers to a come-from-behind 27-21 victory. Swinney also turned to Klubnik against Notre Dame, although the results were the opposite with the freshman throwing a Pick 6 in a 35-14 loss.

Swinney has never been shy about replacing veteran QBs with less experienced players. He did it in 2014, sitting Cole Stoudt for Deshaun Watson, and again in 2018 replacing Kelly Bryant with Trevor Lawrence.

ACC player of the year Drake Maye was limited to 268 yards passing and turned the ball over three times for North Carolina (9-4, No. 23 CFP), which was seeking its first ACC championship since 1980 when Lawrence Taylor was wreaking havoc on quarterbacks.

Maye got things started on the right foot for the Tar Heels, capping an 11-play, 78-yard drive with a 3-yard touchdown run for a 7-0 lead on UNC’s first possession.

But the Tar Heels repeatedly sputtered on offense inside the red zone after that, the biggest blow coming when Maye misfired near the goal line and Wiggins – who had struggled in Clemson’s 51-45 win over Wake Forest – returned his pass for a touchdown to give Clemson a 32-10 lead with 5:05 left in the third quarter.

Klubnik provided an immediate spark for Clemson.

He led the Tigers on a nine-play, 71-yard drive, culminating in a 1-yard TD pass to Davis Allen. After Maye’s fumble, Klubnik caught a 19-yard pass from Phil Mafah to set up Mafah’s 4-yard touchdown run – Clemson’s second TD in a span of 40 seconds.

Klubnik then showed off his arm strength with a 68-yard pass to fellow freshman Cole Turner to set up his own 1-yard TD run for a 21-7 lead.

END OF AN ERA

This is the final year the ACC will feature its two division winners playing for a championship. In future years, all ACC teams will be lumped together and the two teams with the best records will advance to the title game.

THE TAKEAWAY

North Carolina: Maye garnered plenty of Heisman Trophy talk during the season, but the Tar Heels offense has stalled resulting in a three-game losing streak. But as long as Maye doesn’t transfer – and there are no indications he will given his family history at North Carolina – the Tar Heels have a good chance to get back to the ACC title game next season.

Clemson: The Tigers have set a high bar by winning national championships, so as much as they will enjoy getting back atop the ACC mountain there will be plenty of talk over whether Swinney cost his team a chance at a spot in the College Football Playoff by not turning to Klubnik at quarterback earlier in the season. It seems Uiagalelei might be a logical transfer portal candidate.

UP NEXT

Clemson will play in the Orange Bowl, while North Carolina awaits a bowl bid.

Pratt accounts for 5 TDs, Tulane tops UCF 45-28 to win AAC

Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports
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NEW ORLEANS – As Tulane receiver Shae Wyatt watched jubilant fans streaming onto the field, he couldn’t help but reflect upon how far his team had come since finishing last season 2-10.

“It’s definitely surreal,” said Wyatt, whose two touchdown catches were no small part of why a celebratory scene so hard to conceive of a year ago was unfolding around him. “Seeing all the other schools with their success, and having their fans storm the field – eventually, everybody wants that.”

Michael Pratt accounted for 442 total yards and five touchdowns, Tyjae Spears highlighted his 199 yards rushing with a 60-yard score and No. 18 Tulane beat No. 22 UCF 45-28 on Saturday night in the American Athletic Conference championship game.

The victory virtually assured Tulane (11-2) would play in the Cotton Bowl – its first major New Year’s Day bowl since the 1939 season.

A full hour after the game, Tulane players were still in uniform, walking back to the field from the locker room to pose for photos with teammates, some with cigars in hand. Spears joked that his elbow was sore from fans pulling on him for a congratulatory embrace.

“It was an amazing feeling, man,” Spears said. “That’s something that will stick with us for the rest of our life.”

And Wyatt suggested that Tulane’s remarkable turnaround should serve as a lesson.

“They were just throwing dirt over us and for a while it was hard to bounce back,” Wyatt said of last season, during which Tulane was displaced by Hurricane Ida to a Birmingham hotel for a month, and plagued with injuries to prominent players.

“If you keep your faith and you believe in your brothers that are next to you, flowers will grow. I promise you,” Wyatt said. “I hope this is a testament to anybody out there.”

Pratt passed for a career-high 394 yards, including touchdowns of 73 yards to Duece Watts, 60 and 10 yards to Wyatt and 43 yards to Lawrence Keys. Pratt also ran for a pivotal 18-yard touchdown with 4:04 left.

“It was awesome to close out that game and have those fans so fired up,” said Pratt, named the game’s most outstanding player.

Spears electrified the record crowd of 30,118 at Tulane’s cozy, on-campus Yulman Stadium with his long scoring run, on which he broke two tackles near the line of scrimmage, made two other defenders miss and hurndled his own fallen teammate after cutting back inside.

The Green Wave, which earned the right to host the title game by ending Cincinnati’s 32-game home winning streak last weekend, avenged a 38-31 regular-season loss to UCF (9-4) on the same field on Nov. 12.

But UCF was not quite the same team because of QB John Rhys Plumlee‘s nagging hamstring injury, which appeared to rob him of the explosiveness he displayed by running for 176 yards in the previous meeting.

Plumlee struggled enough early on that coach Gus Malzahn pulled him in the second quarter in favor of Thomas Castellanos. But with Tulane up 24-7 in the middle of the third quarter, Malzahn put Plumlee back in as primarily a passer – and he nearly led the Kights all the way back.

“He’s one of the toughest players I think I’ve ever coached,” Malzahn said. “John Rhys just kept telling me, `Coach, give me another chance.’ … He really gave us a spark.”

Plumlee led UCF quickly for a touchdown to make it 24-14, converting a fourth-and-10 pass along the way and capping the drive with a 17-yarder to Kobe Hudson.

“You work all year to play in a game like this,” said Plumlee, who completed 29 of 39 for 209 yards and one TD, but finished with minus-7 yards rushing as Tulane had six sacks. “I didn’t want to sell myself short or sell this team short.”

Tulane responded when both UCF safeties froze on a play-fake to Spears and Pratt found Watts running free behind the defense.

UCF cut it to 31-21 when former Virginia QB RJ Harvey took a backward pass from Plumlee and launched a 49-yard TD pass to Hudson.

And the Knights got the ball right back when Spears fumbled after a catch on the Green Wave 30. Isaiah Bowser‘s 10-yard run shortly after got UCF as close as 31-28 with 9:48 still left.

But Pratt again found a way to lead the Wave down the field, connecting with Wyatt for the longer of the receiver’s two TDs, and UCF didn’t threaten again.

THE TAKEAWAY

UCF: Knights sophomore backup QB Mikey Keene, who had come in after Plumlee injuries for comeback victories over Cincinnati and South Florida, did not dress for the game. That allowed him to retain a year of eligibility, but also raised questions over whether he might test the transfer portal.

Tulane: It was a dream end to week that got off to a less-than-ideal start with reports out of Atlaata that head coach Willie Fritz being pursued by Georgia Tech.

“Well, I sure am glad I stayed,” Fritz said. “I made a commitment to these kids and the last thing I ever wanted to be was a distraction. So, I’m just proud to be here.”

UP NEXT

UCF: Awaits a bowl bid on Sunday.

Tulane: Heads to its most significant bowl appearance since losing 14-13 to Texas A&M in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, 1940.