I typically loathe comparisons between the college football and college basketball postseasons, probably because for years the lords of the BCS used the NCAA tournament’s effect on the regular season as a (flawed) argument against a football playoff. But just this once, it feels appropriate.
Sunday felt like one of those days in late March when the Elite Eight produces the Final Four everyone wanted when the tournament began. Sure, there may have been some crazy upsets early, but the chalk won out as the tournament went on and the most deserving teams made the final weekend. If you love college football, you can’t look at the semifinal matchups and not get excited about New Year’s Eve. (Though the chance to watch football instead of Ryan Seacrest should have made you excited, anyway.)
Clemson and Oklahoma will return to Florida to play in a rematch of last year’s Russell Athletic Bowl. That may sound funny, but that game played in Orlando last December helped set both teams on the path to the Orange Bowl. Clemson showed in that contest it was more than just Deshaun Watson, as backup Cole Stoudt quarterbacked the Tigers to a 40–6 win while Watson recuperated from knee surgery. With Stoudt graduated and Watson healed, Clemson went 13–0 this season.
A big reason for that record was the reloading job done by defensive coordinator Brent Venables, who worked under Bob Stoops for three seasons at Kansas State and for 13 seasons at Oklahoma. Venables coached one of the nation’s best defenses in 2014, but with players like Vic Beasley, Grady Jarrett and Stephone Anthony headed to the NFL, it seemed the defense would take a huge step back. Thanks to Venables, defensive end Shaq Lawson, safety Jayron Kearse and a host of others, it did not.