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Scully’s NCAAF takeaways: Alabama and Clemson on a collision course

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December 22nd, 2020

With the conference championships behind us and the bowls ahead — although Appalachian State officially kicked off the bowl season with a rout of North Texas in the Myrtle Beach Bowl on Monday — here are three college football takeaways from the 2020 season.

Alabama and Clemson are the class of college football

Alabama and Clemson are the two best teams in college football this season, and it’s not close.

They’ve split four meetings in the last five years, and the powerhouse programs appear destined to meet again in the Jan. 11 College Football Playoff National Championship.

A sense of inevitability surrounds the first round of the CFP. Alabama is an early 17.5-point favorite over Notre Dame and Clemson is laying 7.5 points to Ohio State.

Once Alabama and Clemson take care of business, hype for the big game will kick into overdrive.

Clemson has won two of their three matchups for the national title (2015 and 2018). Alabama defeated the Tigers in the 2016 championship, and the Tide knocked off the Tigers in a 2017 semifinal.

Notre Dame is awful in important, late-season games under head coach Brian Kelly. The Irish were whipped, 42-14, by Alabama in the 2013 BCS National Championship Game. In a the 2018 CFP semifinal, they were humiliated, 30-3, by Clemson. Both times, Notre Dame deployed a conservative game plan.

In Saturday’s ACC Championship Game, Notre Dame made no attempt to keep Clemson off balance. Clemson lost a double-overtime thriller to Notre Dame in Week 10, its first regular-season loss in more than three years, and the Tigers were prepared for a run-heavy approach in the rematch. Notre Dame ran the ball 30 times Saturday, gained only 44 yards on the ground, and got waxed, 34-10.

Ohio State is not at full strength defensively, and quarterback Justin Fields has been hampered by a hand injury issue. He completed just 12 of his 27 passes for 114 yards against Northwestern in the Big Ten Championship Game. This isn’t a vintage Buckeyes squad.

This has been a troubled season for college football, but it can still end on a good note.

Barring a major surprise in the semifinals, the title game between Alabama and Clemson promises to be a doozy.

Bowl season is quieter this year, but still intriguing

Sixteen bowls were canceled this year. That leaves 28 bowls, including the CFP National Championship.

Pac-12 champion Oregon, which will face Iowa State in the Jan. 2 Fiesta Bowl, is the only team from the conference to accept a bowl berth.

The Peach Bowl, which will be contested Jan. 1, will pit Cincinnati against Georgia, and the Bearcats enter off a lackluster, 27-24 win over Tulsa as a 14-point favorite.

Defense has been the unbeaten Bearcats' calling card, and Georgia offers an opportunity to prove their legitimacy.

The Cure Bowl on Dec. 26 will feature an interesting matchup, between Coastal Carolina and Liberty. The teams are a combined 20-1.

Coastal Carolina enters with an 11-0 record, and the Chanticleers defeated an undefeated BYU in early December as a 10-point underdog. Liberty was nearly unblemished in the regular season, but sustained its lone setback, by a 15-14 margin, against North Carolina State, which is currently ranked No. 24.

Indiana surprisingly proved to be the second-best team in the Big Ten, and the Hoosiers must avoid a letdown when they face 4-5 Mississippi in the Jan. 2 Outback Bowl. It’s not the high-profile matchup Indiana fans were expecting.

Arizona State will be a Pac-12 contender in 2021

Arizona State blew fourth-quarter leads in its first two games — including a bitter, 28-27 setback to USC, when the Sun Devils allowed a pair of touchdowns in the final two minutes — but blew out its last two opponents to finish with a 2-2 record.

The season did not go smoothly. Arizona State had to cancel three consecutive games because of COVID-19 issues, but I was impressed by how they finished. The Sun Devils scored 116 points, including 17 touchdowns, over the final two weeks of the regular season.

After it hired offensive (Zack Hill) and defensive (Tony White) coordinators during the offseason, Arizona State was implementing new schemes when Pac-12 play began in early November, and the Sun Devils will have most of their players back in 2021.

I was disappointed they elected not to play in a bowl game. Arizona State would have been dangerous.

Dual-threat sophomore quarterback Jayden Daniels took a big step forward in 2020. Running back Rachaad White, who rushed for 158 yards on 13 carries in a season-finale blowout over rival Arizona, has the coaching staff excited. The offensive and defensive lines look like a strength for 2021, as well.  

Third-year coach Herm Edwards signed his first top 25 recruiting class in the spring, and Arizona State appears poised to compete for the top honors in the Pac-12 South next season.

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