College football’s championship week is here, which means another season is nearly in the books. Entering this year’s final week before the madness of bowl season begins, the College Football Playoff seems to mostly set in stone. Alabama, Clemson and Notre Dame are all almost assuredly in, leaving one spot up for grabs.
Who gets that final spot has been the debate raging this week, with #4 Georgia, #5 Oklahoma and #6 Ohio State all in striking distance. If Georgia wins, we could have two SEC teams in the playoff for the second straight year. If the Bulldogs lose and OU and OSU both win, then the debate continues. Does the Buckeyes’ 62-39 beatdown of rival Michigan mean they deserve the spot? Or does Oklahoma’s more consistent performance against an arguably stronger schedule mean they should be in?
We caught up with CBS Sports Network college football analyst Aaron Taylor to ask that question and others heading into college football’s final week of the season. But we started with maybe the season’s most fascinating story: the UAB Blazers. A program cut in 2014 is now playing for a conference title just four years later. The Blazers face Middle Tennessee State for the Conference USA title this Saturday at 1:30 p.m. Eastern Time on CBS Sports Network.
CBS Local Sports: Aaron, plenty to discuss this week with conference championships on tap. But I wanted to start with the Conference USA title game between UAB and Middle Tennessee State on CBS Sports Network. UAB’s program was cut just a few short years ago. Now they’re in the conference title game. How has Bill Clark’s team arrived here, and what do you think of the job Coach Clark has done?
Aaron Taylor: Bill Clark and his staff have done an incredible job. I really think that UAB is one of the bright spots of the 2018 college football season. To have their program disassembled in 2014 and then have it immediately brought back, with the support that came back while it was sitting on the sidelines for a year and a half, is was great to watch.
Coming back last year to then working their way all the way back this season to win the Conference USA West Division and clinch a spot to have a chance at winning a conference championship is a fitting way for this story to end. The story isn’t over yet, I don’t know how this story is going to end. But this was the very thing that Bill Clark promised not only himself but his staff and the players when he convinced them all to come back. He convinced them that they are a team that can compete for a championship, and as it turns out, here they are with an unbelievable opportunity to create a fairy-tale ending.
CBS Local Sports: On the other side, they face a Middle Tennessee State team that shut them down just a week ago, holding the Blazers to 3 points. Other than the obvious score more points, what adjustments does UAB have to make to take home the win in this title game?
Aaron Taylor: That’s a great question. When I turned on the tape against Middle Tennessee, I couldn’t believe what I saw: 89 yards of offense for a team that had won nine games and had clinched the C-USA West division a couple of weeks prior. It just didn’t add up.
When you dig into it a little bit further, it starts to make sense. There were three new starters on the offensive line. UAB was on their third-team center. Their bell cow running back, Spencer Brown #28, is a physical inside presence, but he had exactly one touch due to injury. A.J. Erdley, their quarterback, who had been there for most of the season, was also battling some injuries.
That said, give a lot of credit to Middle Tennessee State. They had a great blitz package and forced UAB from early in the game to throw to win, and they [UAB] couldn’t do it. The adjustment I expect is to see the Blazers incorporate some things that can exploit the heavy blitz packages that MTSU ran a week ago. But that is going to be the ongoing storyline of this game. The cat-and-mouse game that is normally there between two staffs gets taken to a whole new level, because they just saw each other a week ago.
CBS Local Sports: Of course, over on CBS, we have the rematch of last season’s title game between Georgia and Alabama. The Tide have rolled over every opponent this season. What do you think the game plan is for the Bulldogs to hand ‘Bama their first loss?
Aaron Taylor: Alabama has beaten everybody by 20 or more points, and I think the last time that had been done was the 1880s. (Laughing) It has been historical, the butt-whoopings that they have put on people, including the 53-0 burger they put on LSU and Mississippi State in back-to-back weeks.
The good news for Georgia is they are built to play with Alabama. The key for the Bulldogs is to play keep-away and feature their SEC-best rushing game, with their two-headed monster at the running back position in DeAndre Swift and Elijah Holyfield. Georgia has one of the better offensive-line units in the country. They are extremely well-coached by Sam Pittman. There have been a lot of injuries, yet they have still managed to feature that run game. I think that gives them their best shot, because it keeps the football away from Alabama, which has been so explosive so far this year.
Defensively, they have their hands full. Mississippi State did the best job of getting after the quarterback, with four sacks and three additional hurries on top of that. That was the most pressure, by far, that anybody has put on the Crimson Tide all season long. It affected them, and it slowed them down a bit.
The problem for Georgia is they are among the worst in the SEC at getting after the quarterback, with only 20 sacks this year. They simply don’t have the personnel up front that Mississippi State does. But, if they can somehow generate some defense and get some takeaways, the strength of their defense is their pass defense. They are one of the best in the country in not allowing big plays. If they can kind of put that perfect storm together, I think their explosiveness on offense gives them a chance to win that game.
CBS Local Sports: If this weekend plays out as expected and Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma and Ohio State all win, which team, Oklahoma or Ohio State, do you think has the better case for the final playoff spot?
Aaron Taylor: I think chalk would say that Oklahoma is more deserving, and I would agree, because they have had the more difficult slate. What makes that difficult to compare is the recency bias. We all saw the 62 points that Ohio State put up on a very good Michigan football team that was ranked fourth in the country. It’s hard to overlook that.
The irony here is everybody gave Oklahoma problems for their defense, rightfully so, because their defense is ranked 110th, which would be the worst ranked defense allowed into the Playoff by the Committee at this point. The game against Army was a big part of what people were discrediting Oklahoma for as well, but it turns out Army is a pretty darn good football team.
I think, at the end of the day, the strength of schedule that Oklahoma has played, with their games against West Virginia, Texas, a very good and well respected Army team, is going to be the difference. Should Oklahoma beat Texas this weekend, the College Football Playoff would be Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame and Oklahoma, with the Sooners going back to try and do what they couldn’t a year ago.
CBS Local Sports: Your Notre Dame Fighting Irish seem to be safely into the Playoff after finishing 12-0. How do you think they match up against the other presumed playoff teams in Clemson and Alabama?
Aaron Taylor: It’s interesting. I like our matchup against Oklahoma the most, because of where they stand with their defense. When you look at Alabama and Clemson, the defensive lines that they bring to the table would be a terrific matchup for Notre Dame. To Notre Dame’s credit, by the time Week 12 rolled around, the offensive line was much better than Week 1.
Oklahoma, you have to outscore them, and Notre Dame’s passing attack with Ian Book and running game with Dexter Williams would give them the best matchup in that game. Clearly Alabama, Clemson and even Ohio State, to a certain extent, what makes them so great is they perennially put a fence around five-star defensive linemen. That is why those teams are so good every year, and I think that would give Notre Dame its toughest matchup.
But, Notre Dame was here in 2012, and they couldn’t match up on the lines of scrimmage. I would really like to see them get another chance, so we can see how far we have come in the last four years.
CBS Local Sports: Finally, you’re the chairman for the Joe Moore Award, given to the best offensive line unit in football. There are several high-profile programs in there, of course, but also a couple of teams that may surprise some folks, in Arizona State and Memphis. What is it about those units that has made them worthy of consideration for the award?
Aaron Taylor: When I started the award four years ago, I reached out to [coaches with] 800+ years of offensive line coaching and playing experience. I asked for the top-three criteria for the best offensive lines that they had either played on or coached, and the responses were innumerable. But, when we boiled them down, six criteria emerged: toughness, effort, teamwork, consistency, technique and finishing.
What Arizona State and Memphis bring to the table is that they are tough, scrappy units. Particularly Memphis. When you look at those guys, there are a lot of converted defensive linemen, a lot of guys that are new to football. But you put the tape on and start counting the knockdowns, finishes and pushing guys over the pile, and it is impressive to see. They are not as consistent or as technically sound a unit as you would expect, but the toughness factor, they check those boxes all day long, maybe more so than anybody in the country.
Arizona State’s offensive line is really interesting to watch. They are a scrappy unit, they like to pull in space a lot, and they play to finish. They play the position with the right mindset, and that running game with Eno Benjamin really started to come on late in the year. They were a huge factor in their come-from-behind win against Arizona, and that really impressed the committee.
We look at a lot of things when we are evaluating. We don’t necessarily look at stats and those kinds of things. We look at what happens before the play starts and what happens up to the whistle. Both Arizona State and Memphis play to the whistle, and that is what set them apart, along with the eight other teams that separated themselves from the rest of the country.