Alabama rolled into another College Football Playoff championship game.
DeVonta Smith caught three of fellow Heisman Trophy finalist Mac Jones’ four touchdown passes, Najee Harris ran for 125 yards with a high-hurdling highlight and top-ranked Alabama beat No 4 Notre Dame 31-14 in the relocated Rose Bowl on Friday to reach its fifth CFP title game.
While the location for this Rose Bowl was truly untraditional, the Crimson Tide (12-0, No 1 CFP) playing for the national title is a common occurrence in seven seasons of the CFP.
“I don’t think there’s anything quite like the Rose Bowl, the tradition, the setting, the mountains. It’s just a phenomenal experience … wish our players had gotten that opportunity,” coach Nick Saban said.
But Saban and the Tide will take yet another win in the home of the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys, which the coach called one of college football’s finest venues, and moving on in the playoff.
Notre Dame (10-2, No 4 CFP), in football’s final four for only the second time, has lost seven consecutive New Year’s Six games since 2000.
Alabama led 14-0 after scoring the first two times it had the ball, including an 97-yard drive on which Harris leaped over 6ft cornerback Nick McCloud just after crossing the line of scrimmage, landed on both feet and then sprinted for a 53-yard gain before getting run out of bounds.
“I actually try to teach him not to do it, and it didn’t work,” Saban said, laughing. “Anyway, for a big guy, it’s pretty amazing that he can do that.”
Jones, who completed 25 of 30 passes for 297 yards, threw a 12-yard TD pass to tight end Jahleel Billingsley on the next play.
That touchdown came between drives when Smith, who has 16 touchdown catches in his last seven games, turned short passes into scores of 26 and 34 yards. Smith finished with seven catches for 130 yards, added a nifty toe-tapping 7-yarder in the front corner of the end zone right on the pylon in the middle of the third quarter.
The Crimson Tide earned a spot in the 11 January championship game in Miami, against No 2 Clemson again or No 3 Ohio State – the Tigers and Buckeyes played in the other CFP semifinal at the Sugar Bowl on Friday night. Alabama missed the CFP last year for the only time since the four-time playoff debuted at the end of the 2014 season.
CFP officials moved the Rose Bowl about 1,400 miles because of Covid-19 restrictions in California that would have kept family – or any fans – from attending the game at its normal home in Pasadena. There was a limited capacity crowd of 18,373 at AT&T Stadium, the home of the Dallas Cowboys, just a bit higher than attendance for the Cotton Bowl game played there two days earlier when Oklahoma beat Florida 55-20.
It was another thud of a finish for the Fighting Irish winning all 10 regular-season games, including a home victory over Clemson. But Notre Dame then lost 34-10 in the ACC title game to the Tigers.
“Today was about making the plays. They made them on the perimeter. Their skill players showed up today as they have all year,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “We battled. I thought we did some of the things that we wanted to today but we simply didn’t make enough plays.”
Notre Dame lost 30-3 to Clemson in the CFP semifinal Cotton Bowl two years ago, that was also played at the home of the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys. It was the first time the Irish had played Alabama since the Tide beat them 42-14 in the BCS national championship game eight seasons ago.
While the Alabama defense kept quarterback Ian Book scrambling, the Tide offense was rolling from the outset. Book, the winningest starting QB ever for the Irish at 30-5, completed 27 of 39 passes for 229 yards and only his third interception this season.
Alabama’s opening seven-play, 79-yard drive ended with Smith making his first catch in the left flat, then sprinting past and through defenders along the sideline for a 26-yard score. After the second-longest scoring drive in Rose Bowl history when Billingsley scored, Alabama drove 84 yards with Smith making a catch on a crossing route for the 34-yard score.
The closest Notre Dame got was 14-7 when Kyren Williams plunged in from a yard out on a fourth-down play early in the second quarter to cap a 15-play, 75-yard drive that took just over eight minutes.