Flawed but resilient, No. 1 Alabama peaking at right time

Gary Cosby Jr. / USA TODAY NETWORK
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Down to the last play of the regular season, this Alabama team managed to bounce off the ropes when it seemed most vulnerable.

It is unlike some previous Nick Saban powerhouses that have been seemingly destined for the national title game – barring a shocker along the way – from start to finish.

The 2020 team batted aside every opponent during the regular season with a seemingly unstoppable offense.

The 2011 defense was equally formidable, even in a regular season slipup against LSU ( losing 9-6 in overtim e). The 2009 team, like last season’s, was unbeaten.

It wasn’t always clear how good the 2021 version would end up becoming.

This team was flawed and seemingly vulnerable – at least until the Southeastern Conference championship game against No. 1 Georgia. But Bulldogs seemed to have claimed the juggernaut mantle but Alabama walked away with a comfortable 41-24 win.

It was an impressive win for those underdogs at ‘Bama.

Not that there wasn’t reason to doubt the Crimson Tide.

The offensive line appeared suspect even before some injury issues. The defense lost linebacker Christopher Allen to a fractured foot in the opener against Miami. And the offensive backfield has been down to two healthy scholarship tailbacks through the last four games.

Saban seemed to adopt a gentler touch for this group, publicly at least. Praising more than criticizing not-so-dominant efforts after games, letting a younger group grow and evolve. Like a parent not treating all his kids just the same.

“We’ve got a lot of young players that are out there playing,” Saban said. “I think when you have success the previous season, which the guys that did come back were very successful, it really took a long time for us to sort of develop the chemistry on this team from a leadership standpoint.”

The results were survival games against Florida, LSU and Auburn – all of whom wound up 6-7. Not to mention a 41-38 loss to then-unranked Texas A&M before going on an eight-game win streak.

“It’s been a special journey, especially knowing that a lot of people doubted us throughout the season,” tight end Cameron Latu said. “And we had to just find our identity as a whole.”

Four of Alabama’s wins have come by seven points or less.

Only one was that close last season: a 52-46 win over Florida in the SEC championship game.

So if this doesn’t go down with a real case as one of Saban’s best Alabama teams, it’s certainly among the most tested and one that has been peaking at just the right time.

Alabama did have to replace six first-round NFL draft picks – five from the offensive side – and three Heisman Trophy finalists, including winner DeVonta Smith.

The best offensive playmakers were gone. So growing pains weren’t unexpected.

“I feel like adversity has been a big theme for us this whole season,” said quarterback Bryce Young, who brought a second straight Heisman to Tuscaloosa.

This team was built around the best offensive player in the country – Young – and arguably the best defensive player – linebacker Will Anderson Jr.

But it still needed a last-gasp 97-yard drive and four overtimes to beat Auburn and keep those playoff hopes alive.

Only the ending – happy or otherwise – will determine this team’s final legacy. But others in the Saban era are awfully hard to measure up to, including six national championship teams.

Last season’s team romped through a 10-game, league-only season thanks largely to an offense led by Smith and fellow Heisman Trophy finalists Mac Jones and Najee Harris. The Tide had one of the nation’s best offenses, averaging 48.5 points and 541.6 yards per game.

So that group would need all of nine quarters to match the total of 106 points allowed by Alabama in 2011, one of four Saban teams to lead the nation in scoring defense.

The 2009 team featured Heisman Trophy tailback Mark Ingram and a defense led by massive lineman Terrence Cody and Butkus Award-winning linebacker Rolando McClain.

This one has plenty of star power. And the battle scars from a season that could have gone the other way after the Texas A&M loss.

“We all came together at this point, and we’re locking in to get ready to finish this off for the season,” linebacker Christian Harris said. “So if we had a rough time in the season, we definitely are making it up.”

Finn, Stuart lead Toledo to first MAC title since 2017

Lon Horwedel-USA TODAY Sports
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DETROIT – Dequan Finn passed for a touchdown and rushed for 86 yards on 18 carries as Toledo captured its first Mid-American Conference championship since 2017 by defeating Ohio 17-7 on Saturday afternoon.

Finn completed 16 of 25 passes for 154 yards. Jacquez Stuart rushed for 93 yards on nine carries, including a 29-yard touchdown. Micah Kelly added 53 rushing yards for the Rockets (8-5), who lost their last two conference games.

“We’ve been through a lot the whole year,” Finn said. “It’s been a rollercoaster for us. Up and down, fought through adversity and had some rough patches. But ultimately, we stayed together as one.”

Toledo is headed to a bowl game but since the MAC doesn’t have a postseason pecking order, its destination is unknown. The Arizona, Idaho Potato and Quick Lane bowls — the latter also at Detroit’s Ford Field — are the most likely possibilities.

“This is everybody’s goal,” Toledo coach Jason Candle said of the conference championship. “This is what everybody wants to do. This is where everybody says they’re going to be. It’s one thing to get there. It’s another to win it.”

Sieh Bangura rushed for 56 yards on 20 carries and the lone touchdown for the Bobcats (9-4), whose seven-game winning streak was snapped. CJ Harris completed 17 of 31 passes for 163 yards and was intercepted once.

Harris was making his second start since MAC Player of the Year Kurtis Rourke suffered a season-ending knee injury.

Ohio is 0-5 in the MAC title game.

“My heart hurts for our football team,” coach Tim Albin said. “This has been about our journey, not a destination. I boldly said on MAC (preseason) media day I thought we could make a championship run. That’s what we did and we came up short.”

The Rockets led 10-7 at halftime.

They drove 75 yards after the opening kickoff with Stuart scoring on his 29-yard run up the middle.

“Very efficient,” Candle said of first possession. “That kind of built some confidence to play efficient offense the rest of the way.”

Ohio tied it on Bangura’s 2-yard run midway through the second quarter, finishing off an 84-yard drive.

Toledo’s Thomas Cluckey kicked a 44-yard field goal with 16 seconds left in the half.

The Rockets drove to the Bobcats’ 10 midway through the third quarter but passed up a field goal attempt and turned the ball over on downs.

Finn’s 16-yard scoring pass to DeMeer Blankumsee completed a methodical 16-play, 90-yard drive that gave Toledo a 17-7 lead with 10:36 remaining.

Ohio was limited to 262 yards of total offense.

“Their front seven controlled it, particularly in the second half,” Albin said. “We had trouble running the ball in between the tackles and it made us one-dimensional.”

THE TAKEAWAY

Toledo is now 4-3 in the MAC title game, with its previous championships coming in 2001, ’04 and ’17. Ohio’s long drought without a conference championship continued. The Bobcats haven’t won a MAC championship since 1968.

UP NEXT

Both teams are headed to bowl games TBD on Sunday. Toledo is bowl eligible for the 13th straight season.

No. 3 TCU loses 31-28 in OT to K-State in Big 12 title game

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
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ARLINGTON, Texas — Ty Zentner kicked a 31-yard field goal in overtime as 13th-ranked Kansas State beat No. 3 TCU 31-28 in the Big 12 championship game Saturday, leaving the Horned Frogs to wait another day to find out if they had already done enough to get into the four-team College Football Playoff.

The Wildcats set up the winning field goal after TCU (12-1) had the opening possession of overtime and Kendre Miller was stopped short on consecutive plays from inside the 1.

Deuce Vaughn ran for 130 yards and a touchdown and Will Howard threw two TDs for the Wildcats (10-3, No. 10 CFP), who six weeks earlier had jumped out to a 28-10 lead early in the second quarter before TCU scored the game’s last 28 points.

That was one of five games the Horned Frogs (12-1, No. 3 CFP) won when trailing after halftime. But they couldn’t do it again with the chance to guarantee being the first Big 12 team other than Oklahoma to make the playoff.

TCU, the first Big 12 team to complete a regular season undefeated since Texas in 2009, could still get into the playoff. While their case was helped when fourth-ranked Southern California (11-2) lost 47-24 to Utah in the Pac-12 championship game Friday night, the Frogs now have to wait until the final CFP rankings come out Sunday.

Big 12 Commissioner Brett Yormark said before the game that TCU, with first-year coach Sonny Dykes, already deserved to be in the playoff.

“You look at their strength of schedule. You think about how they’ve performed all year long,” Yormark said. “I think regardless, they should be in, for sure.”