NCAAF Teams
David M. Hale, ESPN Staff Writer 45d

Sorry, Ohio State and Clemson, but LSU is the true No. 1 in a loaded College Football Playoff field

College Football, LSU Tigers, Ohio State Buckeyes, Alabama Crimson Tide, Oklahoma Sooners, Georgia Bulldogs, Clemson Tigers, Utah Utes, Oklahoma State Cowboys, Memphis Tigers, Florida State Seminoles, Ole Miss Rebels, Baylor Bears

There was a time -- a month ago, in fact -- when LSU's defense was bad.

It wasn't a crazy narrative. Ole Miss -- before mimicking dogs or firing coaches or hiring Lane Kiffin -- put up a mind-boggling 614 yards on LSU's defense. Sure, the Tigers won easily, but boy that defense. No way this was the No. 1 team in the country.

And now?

Derek Stingley's second interception of the game in Saturday's SEC championship (a 37-10 LSU win) sealed what was assuredly one of the most impressive defensive performances of the season for a College Football Playoff contender, an utter dismantling of Georgia's entire game plan in which Jake Fromm, the same QB who nearly upended Alabama in each of the past two years, looked overwhelmed.

That bad LSU defense has now given up only 42% completions, 2.6 yards per rush and racked up 12 sacks in the three games since the Ole Miss debacle. Yes, this is probably the country's No. 1 team.

Meanwhile Saturday, Ohio State made the case a bit easier for the committee, too. The Buckeyes had dominated Wisconsin in the teams' previous meeting this season, but they looked lost in a woeful first half that ended with a 21-7 Badgers lead and a flurry of analysts wondering what this all means. But, of course, Ohio State is still Ohio State, and for another year, the committee dodged a bullet. There are no worries about whether Ohio State still deserves its bid or whether Wisconsin might get in with two losses or even whether the Buckeyes should remain atop the poll.

For yet another year, the committee's job is pretty simple.

What awaits in the playoff is a mystery. There are at least three very good teams moving forward, and that makes for an interesting field.

What happened Saturday, however, tied up the regular season quite nicely.

Is Joe Burrow the easy Heisman vote? Answer: Absolutely. Burrow was dominant against a tough UGA defense, and the Heisman trust might as well start polishing his trophy now.

Is LSU's defense good enough to win it all? Answer: For sure. There's an adjustment period for any defense when the offense starts scoring the way LSU has this season. The tempo changes, the approach changes, the foundation of what LSU wanted to do defensively changed. But Stingley is still a superstar, Grant Delpit is still a first-round NFL talent and Dave Aranda still knows how to coach 'em up. The Tigers are hitting their stride at just the right time.

Is Ohio State No. 1? Answer: Nope. That's no knock on the Buckeyes, but their game Saturday showed flaws we hadn't seen before. It showed strengths, too, to come back and erase that Wisconsin lead to pull away with what was ultimately a fairly easy win. Still, this is nitpicking time, and comparing the résumés of Ohio State and LSU requires a magnifying glass to parse. The slow start against Wisconsin is enough to push LSU -- with its wins over Texas, Florida, Auburn, Alabama and Georgia -- into the top spot.

Is Clemson still a real contender? Answer: No doubt about it. The Tigers couldn't have looked much better as Trevor Lawrence and Tee Higgins offered a prime-time reminder that, yes, this is still the team that destroyed Alabama less than a year ago to win a national championship.

Does anyone want the No. 4 spot? Answer: Oklahoma by default. The Sooners' win Saturday wasn't their most dominant, but it was a win -- and that's all that matters thanks to Utah's loss on Friday and Wisconsin's second-half slump Saturday. Oklahoma will not be favored entering the playoff, but Jalen Hurts has been here, the defense has made strides and the No. 4 seed has more titles in the past five years (2) than the No. 1 seeds (0).

Saturday's theatrics mean Sunday will have little drama. The committee has four clear-cut cases. That's a good thing because there's a strong case to be made that this is, in fact, the best four-team playoff field we've had yet.

Who wants Clemson?

There are two facts that have largely dictated the narrative surrounding Clemson all season. The first is simple enough. The Tigers are the defending champs, and it's awfully hard to doubt a team filled with players who just won it all less than a year ago. On the other hand, with the Tigers' 62-17 evisceration of Virginia on Saturday -- and the ensuing likelihood UVa falls from the top 25 as a result -- Clemson will not own a win against a ranked opponent.

Ask Dabo Swinney about those two narratives, however, and he'll argue with both of them. Last year, he has said repeatedly, is over. This is a new team. Clemson isn't defending anything, but rather trying to win a new title. But listen to Swinney complain about the media, the committee and the voters over the past week, and it's pretty clear he's not a fan of anyone doubting Clemson because of that weak schedule, either.

What is perhaps the most relevant talking point on Clemson was the one on display Saturday. Trevor Lawrence, after some early-season hiccups, threw for 302 yards and four TDs and now looks every bit as dominant as he was during last year's playoff run, perhaps even better. Travis Etienne, who ran for 114 yards against Virginia, is still the country's most explosive back. Tee Higgins put on a performance Saturday that rewrote the ACC championship game record book. Xavier Thomas, Justyn Ross, Isaiah Simmons -- they're all still quite good.

So while Clemson's dominance Saturday meant, once again, there was little drama in the ACC championship game, there was assuredly some nail-biting among Ohio State and LSU fans who would much rather not see the Tigers on Dec. 28.

Heisman Five

1. Joe Burrow, LSU

How do you put an exclamation point on your Heisman résumé? How's four TDs and 390 yards versus one of the best defenses in the country in a dominant win in the SEC championship game? Yes, that'll do nicely. It might not have been the guy everyone was talking about preseason, but for the third straight year, the Heisman will go to a transfer QB.

2. Justin Fields, Ohio State

He looked shaky in the first half, but whatever Ryan Day told the team at halftime certainly worked for Fields, who finished Saturday's come-from-behind win with 299 passing yards and three touchdowns. It's not enough to overtake Burrow, but Fields is more than deserving of runner-up status.

3. Trevor Lawrence, Clemson

It was Deshaun Watson's unfortunate fate, too, that his Heisman campaigns in 2015 and 2016 only heated up late, and so it is for Lawrence, who might have a real shot to win if the voting were done after the postseason. As it is, his past six games: 76% completions, 11.14 yards/attempt, 22 total touchdowns and no turnovers.

4. Jalen Hurts, Oklahoma

Seven turnovers in his final five games probably ended Hurts' Heisman campaign, and only one TD in a too-close-for-comfort Big 12 title game wasn't a great final note to voters, but Hurts will probably be plenty happy with a conference championship and possible playoff bid now.

5. Chuba Hubbard, Oklahoma State

The QBs were at the top of the Heisman talk all season, but it's worth noting that this has been one heck of a year for tailbacks, too. In any other year, Hubbard is a clear-cut Heisman finalist. Heck, in any other year, Jonathan Taylor would be, too. Or maybe J.K. Dobbins. Or Travis Etienne. Or AJ Dillon. It's been a heck of a year for the runners, but there's just too much QB talent ahead of them.

A game of "what if"

Nick Saban went ballistic when officials put one second back on the clock at the end of the first half against Auburn last week, and that second translated into a field goal for the Tigers, and that field goal was the difference in the game.

But the impact of that one second is still being felt now.

With Utah's loss in the Pac-12 title game and Georgia's loss to LSU in the SEC title game, it's entirely possible -- heck, likely -- that one second cost Alabama a playoff bid. It'd be down to Oklahoma or Alabama, with the Tide's lone loss coming in a relatively close game to an elite LSU, as opposed to the Sooners falling to Kansas State. Given the history at Alabama, it might not have been a long conversation in the committee room about putting the Tide in and leaving the Sooners out.

Instead, Auburn won the Iron Bowl thanks to a minor tweak of the clock, and the reverberations echoed all the way to Norman, Oklahoma.

So long, farewell

Memphis head coach Mike Norvell has landed at Florida State, while the Lane Train is pulling out of the station at Florida Atlantic to take the head coaching job at Ole Miss.

And both guys went out on a high note.

Norvell and Memphis erased a slim Cincinnati lead in the fourth quarter to upend the Bearcats for the second time in the past two weeks to win the American Athletic Conference title.

Meanwhile, Lane Kiffin's offense exploded for 585 yards, 29 first downs and the defense held UAB to only 84 passing yards in a 49-6 win.

For Kiffin, it was his second Conference USA title in his three years at FAU.

Classy move by Matt Rhule

For the second time in a month, Baylor lost a heartbreaker to Oklahoma. This one also ended the Bears' hopes for the playoff, as they fell 30-23 in overtime. But Matt Rhule wasn't going to play the role of sore loser, instead offering a gracious message to Lincoln Riley and the Sooners.

Big bets and bad beats

  • The Sun Belt wrapped its season with a bang -- for bettors of the over, at least. The total for the game closed at 58, which seemed reasonable considering only 24 points were scored when Appalachian State and Louisiana met in the regular season in a 17-7 Mountaineers win. Saturday was a different story, with 28 points on the board before the first quarter ended, a 35-17 App State lead at the half and the total going over midway through the third quarter.

  • Cincinnati had a strong drive going in the final minute against Memphis in the AAC championship game, setting up with a first down at the Memphis 21 with 43 seconds to play. A touchdown would have been a win for Cincinnati -- and it would have pushed the game over the total of 58.5. Instead, the drive stalled, and the Bearcats turned it over on downs, with the under covering by 5.5 points.

  • Ohio State was a cover machine in first halves this year, which made Saturday's slow start (OSU trailed 21-7 at halftime) vs. Wisconsin even more shocking. Through the first 12 weeks of the season, the Buckeyes had covered their first-half spread 11 times -- the lone exception being the Rutgers game, when Ohio State led 35-7 at the half. In fact, entering Saturday, no team in the country averaged more in the first half than Ohio State's 30 points per game before the break, nor had anyone led by a wider average margin than the Buckeyes (25.5 points per game).

Under-the-radar play of the day

Baylor was down to its third string QB, but Jacob Zeno announced his arrival with his first pass of the game, a laser to Trestan Ebner that turned into an 81-yard TD. Zeno's next throw was nearly as impressive -- another laser, this time to Chris Platt for 78 yards that set up a tying field goal. The only problem? He didn't complete another pass the rest of the way.

Under-the-radar game of the day

Didn't get enough FBS drama Saturday? Northern Iowa and South Dakota State offered plenty more at the FCS level, with UNI booting an 18-yard field goal with 2:10 to play to win 13-10 in what was either a terrific defensive battle or, perhaps, a showcase of offensive ineptitude. Neither team cracked 240 yards of offense, and South Dakota State blew a 10-0 lead thanks to three turnovers. UNI now moves on to face 12-1 James Madison in the FCS quarterfinals.

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