- Associated Press - Sunday, December 6, 2015

Michigan State needed a miracle. “Hail Hog” helped Alabama. A swat saved Oklahoma’s season. Clemson turned away a two-point conversion that could have cost it a perfect record.

A season filled with fantastic finishes helped shape the College Football Playoff, even if it led to a sleepy Selection Sunday.

Top-seeded Clemson will play No. 4 Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl in the first College Football Playoff semifinal on New Year’s Eve. No. 2 Alabama will play No. 3 Michigan State at the Cotton Bowl in the nightcap of the doubleheader.

No drama. No complaints. Nothing at all like the week-to-week mayhem — with one once-in-a-lifetime-play after another — that made the season memorable.
In the end, the only real debate was how to rank the top four teams.

Committee chairman Jeff Long, the athletic director at Arkansas, said that the Tigers were the clear-cut top team in the final rankings.

Long said bumping Michigan State past Oklahoma had nothing to do with avoiding the possibility of having the Sooners play close to home.

“We first get those top four teams, one, two, three and four, finished before we do anything else,” Long said.

That was it for drama. It was a big difference from last season, when the committee had to choose from Ohio State, Baylor and TCU, and ticked off the Big 12 by jumping the Buckeyes past the Bears and Horned Frogs in the final rankings.

For the playoff teams, a series of season-saving moments and turning points have brought them two wins away from a national championship.

Alabama lost to Ole Miss at home in late September in a game that left Alabama uneasy about its passing game and in need of help just to win the SEC West.

To fix the offense, the Crimson Tide turned to Derrick Henry and let the 240-pound running shoulder the load. The junior had at least 22 carries against each of Alabama’s remaining SEC opponents, including a whopping 90 carries in the last two games.

Against Michigan State, it will be strength against strength. The Spartans’ rugged defensive line, with Shilique Calhoun and Malik McDowell, stuffed Ohio State’s and Iowa’s running games.

“They’re going to give him the ball plenty of times,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “We’re going to have to handle that.”

To fix its Ole Miss problem, Alabama got some help from Arkansas, which need a stunning lateral play to beat the Rebels in overtime and clear a path for the Crimson Tide to win the SEC.

Clemson tried to ease gifted dual-threat quarterback Deshaun Watson into the season. Coaches knew Watson’s wheels would be a weapon, but it was one they didn’t want to use until it was needed most — like in the rain against Notre Dame.

Watson ran for 16 times for 103 yards and a touchdown in that 24-22 victory against the Fighting Irish in October, a win sealed when the Tigers’ defensive line stopped the Irish’s tying two-point attempt with seven seconds left.

Down the stretch, Watson’s running became an even bigger part of Clemson’s offense. He surpassed 100 yards on the ground in four of the last five games.
Making plays on the move will be critical for Watson against Eric Striker, Charles Tapper and an Oklahoma pass rush that produced 3.08 sacks per game, the fifth-best mark in the nation.

As for Michigan State, no team in the playoff stared down defeat as frequently as the Spartans, and no situation was as dire as the one Michigan faced at “The Big House” in mid-October.

The Spartans turned a botched punt into a winning touchdown at Michigan. The play was dubbed “Michigan State’s Miracle,” but in some ways, it symbolized the Spartans’ greatest traits. They seem to delight in being the underdog.

Those qualities should serve them well against Alabama, which is opening as a nine-point favorite but has rarely been challenged deep into the fourth quarter.

Of course, few are even talking about Oklahoma, and for much of the season it’s because of the result that’s even more puzzling now than it was back in October: Texas 24, Oklahoma 17.

There was nothing complicated about what went wrong in Dallas. The Sooners did not play tough. They missed tackles and blocks.

Instead of allowing that dud to define their season, quarterback Baker Mayfield and the Sooners went on a seven-game winning streak, outscoring opponents, 364-136.

Still, if not for Steven Parker slapping down TCU’s two-point conversion pass in the final seconds to preserve a 30-29 win in late November, the Sooners would not be here.

Clemson’s talented defensive line and improving offensive line will test the Sooners’ toughness the way Texas did.

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