First & 20: College Football Playoff teams ready to go

Anthony Gimino

December 06, 2015 at 1:42 pm.

Dec 5, 2015; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Michigan State players celebrate after defeating the Iowa Hawkeyes during in the Big Ten Conference football championship game at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Dec 5, 2015; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Michigan State players celebrate after defeating the Iowa Hawkeyes during in the Big Ten Conference football championship game at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

It was 3.7 yards and a cloud of dust.

Michigan State, slathering itself in Big Ten glory, pulled off the most traditional drive of the college football season Saturday night with a slobber-knocker of a possession to beat Iowa 16-13, win the Big Ten Championship Game and advance to the College Football Playoff.

Twenty-two plays. Eighty-two yards. Nine minutes and nine seconds.

Amen, brother.

The Spartans fulfilled coach Mark Dantonio’s “one step further” mantra, landing at No. 3 in the College Football Playoff rankings. The Spartans will play No. 2 Alabama in the Cotton Bowl, while No. 1 Clemson faces No. 4 Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl.

The all-chalk results on Championship Saturday created a chaos-free announcement Sunday, with very little wiggle room for debate. Four worthy conference champs. The only real playoff argument was the order of Michigan State and Oklahoma.

“That’s probably where we spent most of the time,” said CFP selection committee chairman Jeff Long.

“Great discussion, great debate. Both conference champions. Both four wins over Top 25 teams. But what it came down to really is Michigan State with two top 10 wins (Ohio State, Iowa).

“I think if you look at the body of work, the complete resume, that’s what pushed Michigan State just slightly ahead of Oklahoma.”

As for the Spartans, back-to-back national top-5 finishes in the AP poll weren’t enough. Escaping to any warm-weather bowl game doesn’t cut it any longer.

To reach its playoff goal, Michigan State stole 2015 headlines from “big brother” Michigan and Jim Harbaugh, pulled the rug out from defending national champ Ohio State and crushed Iowa’s scrappy underdog story.

But just barely.

Michigan State ran 17 times on its playoff-clinching possession. The final 12 plays were all rushes — 10 by freshman LJ Scott — covering 34 yards. For Iowa, it was death by inches.

On third-and-goal from the 1, Scott twisted, turned, powered, pushed and reached the ball into the end zone with 27 seconds left.

“I just think we have resilience,” Dantonio said. “I said all along, this football team, we know how to win.”

Hard to argue.

Resilience is one thing, though. Toughness is another.

And the Spartans will need all of it on Dec. 31.

Stylistically, playing against Alabama and running Derrick Henry is like playing Iowa — except with five-talent. Oddsmakers immediately began to doubt Michigan State, installing the Tide as a nine-point favorite.

Which is fine for Sparty. Being overlooked, underappreciated, that’s just fuel for the beast.

And keep this in mind as you make your playoff predictions: Michigan State is 6-1 in its past seven games against Top 5 opponents.

10 things we think we learned in Week 14

1. Alabama got what it wanted. The Tide’s fantastic defense is at its worst when facing a mobile quarterback, which does not describe Michigan State’s Connor Cook. Clemson’s Deshaun Watson could be waiting in the title game, but that’s a discussion for another time.

2. The ACC just got a lot better. The league wins the coaching carousel by adding Mark Richt (Miami), Dino Babers (Syracuse), Bronco Mendenhall (Virginia) and Justin Fuente (Virginia Tech). Those are four established head coaches who have won elsewhere.

3. South Carolina aimed poorly. The Gamecocks, with nearly eight weeks to work after Steve Spurrier stepped down, publicly whiffed on their top targets, including Kirby Smart and Tom Herman, and then were dealt another rebuff Saturday night when Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne posted on Twitter that Rich Rodriguez had rejected a South Carolina offer. Maybe hiring Will Muschamp will work out. But try stealth next time, South Carolina.

4. Baylor is not plug-and-play. Art Briles’ offense only seems that way, but when injuries force you to use a wide receiver at quarterback, all bets are off. The Bears lost three of their final four games, failing to grab a Sugar Bowl berth when it was upset by Texas on Saturday.

5. ACC refs have more explaining to do — again. After admitting multiple errors in Miami’s eight-lateral kick return to beat Duke, the ACC messed up another late-game special teams play. Needing a touchdown and two-point conversion, North Carolina never got the chance to tie Clemson after it recovered an onside kick because of an official’s flag for offsides, despite replay showing that no Tiger was within a yard of the line of scrimmage when the ball was kicked.

6. Georgia has strange timing. It officially announced the hiring of Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart about two minutes before the College Football Playoff Selection show. It’s a nice hire. Let it breathe.

7. Texas has hope. The Longhorns knocked off Oklahoma and Baylor, which means coach Charlie Strong’s second season must have been a rousing success, right? Not exactly. Texas’ season is over, but it ended on a high note against the Bears. Strong needs to take that momentum into Signing Day because patience will completely wear out in his third year.

8. Let’s go to eight. Stanford, with two losses, was the major-conference champ left out of the four-team playoff. This isn’t rocket science. Make it eight. “If you win one of the big five conferences, should you be in the playoffs? Absolutely,” Stanford coach David Shaw said. “Eventually, I think we’re going to get there. It’s the only thing that makes sense. We’ve made all these strides to become Power 5 conferences but score four spots for a playoff. It doesn’t make any sense.”

9. Houston will remain prominent. The Cougars went 12-1, won the American Athletic Conference and grabbed the big-bowl spot reserved for the top-rated team from the Group of 5 conferences. And in-demand coach Tom Herman isn’t bailing after one year, as the school more than doubled his salary to $2.8 million and extended his contract through 2020.

10. Ohio State would win any playoff you put together. Just sayin’.

5 top Heisman candidates

1. Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama. He looked like a lock after rushing 44 times for 189 tough yards against Florida, but then other Heisman candidates had even more whoppers of a topper to their seasons Saturday night. Henry’s case: 1,986 rushing yards, including an average of 208.9 in his final six games against FBS opponents. He carried 90 times in the past two weeks.

2. Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford. The slippery sophomore ran for a touchdown, caught a touchdown, threw a touchdown and piled up a stunning 461 all-purpose yards in a win over USC in the Pac-12 title game. Said Cardinal coach David Shaw: “Best player in the nation. Nobody’s doing what he’s doing. It’s not even a debate.”

3 . Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson. He did all he could — 420 total yards and five total touchdowns — as Clemson beat North Carolina 45-37 to win the ACC title game, move to 13-0 and wrap up the No. 1 seed in the playoff.

4. Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma. He’ll enter the bowl season second nationally in passing efficiency with a rating of 178.9. The Sooners’ pass-run balance right now is a thing of beauty.

5. Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State. He has a case as the nation’s best back, but he doesn’t have the right Heisman profile. His average of 7.86 yards per carry is more than a yard better than any other Power 5 running back on the NCAA rushing chart.

5 top transfer quarterbacks

If you don’t like your team’s quarterback, just wait. Someone will be available on the transfer market. More than 100 scholarship quarterbacks have transferred in the past two years. Here are five who helped define 2015.

1. Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma. A two-time walk-on (at Texas Tech and OU), he’s been the perfect fit for first-year offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley and his Air Raid background.

2. Jake Coker, Alabama. The senior didn’t wow, didn’t throw for more than 262 yards in any game, and is just 45th nationally in passing efficiency (139.4 rating). But he’s clever with his feet under pressure, and he can go over the top when teams stack to stop Derrick Henry.

3. Vernon Adams Jr., Oregon. If the Eastern Washington grad transfer had been healthy all year, the Ducks could very well have made a repeat appearance in the college football playoff.

4. Jake Rudock, Michigan. The Iowa bounce-back was a nice one-year fix for coach Jim Harbaugh, who could deploy another transfer next season — possibly John O’Korn from Houston (who is the scout team QB this season) or, according to reports, oft-injured Taysom Hill, who could leave BYU for his final season.

5. Jeff Driskel, Louisiana Tech. It didn’t work out for him at Florida, but he helped La. Tech to an 8-4 record while earning an invite to the Senior Bowl. Film Room Review

Analyst Rob Rang’s five prospect takeaways for this week. Players listed including position, school, year (Height, weight and current overall rating and by position).

5. WR Calvin Ridley, Alabama, 6-0, 188, Fr. (#1 WR in Class of 2018): If he were eligible in the 2016 draft, the 21-year-old might be in the mix with Mississippi’s Laquon Treadwell and Baylor’s Corey Coleman to be the first receiver selected. He is a reliable route-runner who fluidly changes directions. Further, while Ridley does not have Julio Jones’ imposing size or straight-line speed, he shows terrific body control, timing and hand-eye coordination to win contested passes.

4. CB Desmond King, Iowa, 5-11, 200, Jr. (#9 CB in Class of 2017): Shadowing Michigan State’s Aaron Burbridge — the Big Ten’s Wide Receiver of the Year — for much of the game, King did not add to his NCAA-leading eight interceptions, but did fare well when targeted, including a breakup in the end zone.

3. RB James Conner, Pittsburgh, 6-2, 240, Jr. (NR): Conner has been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, the same form of cancer that plagued and was ultimately beaten by Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry, among others. Already recovering from a season-ending torn MCL suffered in the opener, Conner vowed to regain his health and return to the Panthers’ program: “I will play football again,” he insisted.

2. DE Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State, 6-5, 252, Sr. (#42/#7): Calhoun showed impressive strength, length and even agility when run defending. His dominating performance included a pair of sacks, and Calhoun projects as a potential first-round pick.

1. WR Corey Coleman, Baylor, 5-10, 190, Jr. (#25/#3): Coleman confirmed he will enter the 2016 NFL Draft. He is an exciting playmaker with his ability as a vertical threat and catch-and-go receiver, although he will need to answer questions about his transition to the NFL from Baylor’s offense during the pre-draft process.