Clemson vs. Alabama certainly isn’t a preordained matchup. Lots of things had to happen in this 2015 college football season to get us to Monday night’s College Football Playoff national championship game.
Truthfully, the Tigers-Crimson Tide showdown is predicted by nearly nobody. Sure, plenty of people picked ‘Bama for the title game, but few saw Clemson as a legitimate championship contender before the season or even deep into the final weeks.
So how did we get here? We took a look back at the 2015 season and found the 10 events most responsible for getting us to this point. Here they are in descending order of importance:
10. (Dec. 5) North Carolina’s legal onside kick ruled illegal:
North Carolina had just scored a touchdown with 1:13 left in the ACC championship game to trim Clemson’s lead to 45-37 and then immediately recovered the onside kick with a chance to send the game into overtime.
There’s just one problem: The ACC refs somehow flagged the Tar Heels for offside, except they weren’t.
9. (Dec. 5) 1-yard run caps epic game-winning drive:
Trailing Iowa 13-9 with 9:31 to go in the Big Ten championship game, Michigan State embarked on a 22-play, 82-yard drive that chewed up 8 minutes and 4 seconds.
But the game wasn’t decided until running back L.J. Scott, on his 14th carry of the drive, bulldozed his way into the end zone from a yard out on third-and-goal, overpowering a couple of Iowa defenders who initially had stopped him short of the goal line.
8. (Nov. 28) 45-yard field goal completes 30-second comeback:
Notre Dame had scored a touchdown with 30 seconds remaining, seemingly planting one foot in the four-team playoff. But that left just enough time for Stanford to drive 45 yards on 5 plays after the ensuing kickoff.
Conrad Ukropina’s 45-yard kick split the uprights as time expired, giving the Cardinal a 38-36 victory and knocking the Irish out of the playoff.
7. (Nov. 21) TCU’s failed two-point conversion:
The Horned Frogs had rallied from a 17-point deficit to pull within 30-29 with 51 seconds to play at Oklahoma. Playing without star QB Trevone Boykin, TCU gambled on a two-point play instead of sending the game to OT.
Backup QB Bram Kohlhausen tried to loft a pass to the back of the end zone, but it was slammed to the turf by a leaping Steven Parker, preserving the Sooners’ victory and their place in the four-team playoff.
6. (Oct. 12) Will Grier’s failed drug test:
Behind first-year coach Jim McElwain and the play of redshirt freshman quarterback Will Grier, Florida had been the surprise story in the first half of the season, rolling to a 6-0 start.
But then Grier failed a drug test, was suspended for one year and Florida’s season unraveled. The Gators still managed to win the SEC East, but their offense went into a tailspin, scoring just two touchdowns in the season’s final three games (all losses).
5. (Oct. 24) Down goes Seth Russell:
With five minutes left in the game against Iowa State, Baylor QB Seth Russell took a hit. The play didn’t look like much at the time, but a day later it turned out he had fractured a bone in his neck.
The Bears were 7-0 after beating Iowa State and were the favorite to win the Big 12 and claim a playoff spot. But after Russell went down, Baylor lost three of its last four regular-season games.
4. (Nov. 14) Timely blitz foils Stanford:
Trailing Oregon 35-23 entering the fourth quarter, Stanford mounted a late comeback and pulled to within 38-36 with 10 seconds to go with a two-point conversion pending.
The Ducks decided to blitz, forcing a hurried Kevin Hogan throw that fell incomplete. The loss denied the Cardinal an unbeaten conference season and effectively knocked the Pac-12 out of the playoff race.
3. (Nov. 21) Defending champ loses at the gun:
Ohio State had played mostly uninspired all season, but was still 10-0 entering a home game against Michigan State, which was playing without starting QB Connor Cook.
But the defending champs again floundered as Michael Geiger’s 41-yard field goal on the game’s last play stunned the crowd at the Horseshoe and denied the Buckeyes the Big Ten East title and a return trip to the playoff.
2. (Nov. 7) Arkansas converts fourth-and-forever:
The one play that didn’t involve any of the championship contenders might’ve held the most sway. Trailing Ole Miss 52-45 in overtime, Arkansas faced a fourth-and-25, with defeat imminent.
Yet the Hogs somehow converted after a wild lateral sequence and went on to beat the Rebels, 53-52. The loss denied Ole Miss the SEC West crown, handing it back to Alabama, and relieved the selection committee the decision to leave the Tide out of the playoff since they would’ve failed to win their own division.
1. (Oct. 17) Miracle at the Big House:
With Michigan leading 23-21 with just 10 seconds left, Wolverines punter Blake O’Neill panicked in the face of a full-house rush, first bobbling the snap and then fumbling the ball away.
Jalen Watts-Jackson scooped up the loose ball and dashed 40 yards for the score to cap Michigan State’s improbable 27-23 win at the Big House. The miraculous finish allowed the Spartans to trump both Michigan and Ohio State to win the Big Ten East and a place in the four-team playoff.