THROUGH ALL THE HAVOC, JUST KNOW THIS: NO ONE IS BEATING GEORGIA
A volatile college football season has battered Caleb Williams and reduced Nick Saban to a hapless huckster, but the Dawgs will summarily dismiss Ohio State and Michigan and repeat as national champs
No matter what else happens in a Dramamine-required season — a crash-dummy exercise seemingly contrived by a crazed collective of Kanye West, Hunter Biden, Sam Bankman-Fried, Elon Musk and a former Heisman Trophy winner, Herschel Walker — please don’t forget a simple, overwhelming truth.
Georgia will win another national championship.
Let USC fall from the four-team bracket, the latest victim of conferences that insist on title games for money when they only spite themselves in the end. Let Nick Saban embarrass himself with a playoff lobbying tour that got him nowhere. Leave us with Michigan, TCU and Ohio State — the way the College Football Playoff should be — to join the Dawgs as background noise.
“The national championship is huge and a big deal — that’s our next goal,” said Stetson Bennett IV, my pick in a jumbled Heisman race, poised to reach elite company among college quarterbacks to navigate a repeat title.
The only hitch is that the CFP selection committee went boring on us. Laying around in their boxer shorts and ordering out pizza — no, not really — in a luxury hotel near the Dallas-Fort Worth airport, the members could have elevated Ohio State to the No. 3 slot after TCU’s overtime loss in the Big 12 title game. That way, we’d have been treated to one delicious rematch on New Year’s Eve: Michigan vs. Ohio State. Instead, Michigan goes to Arizona to play TCU and Ohio State goes to slaughter against Georgia in Atlanta, a home game for the Bulldogs.
But we do thank them for ignoring Saban’s pleas and eliminating Alabama. When weekend debates raged in the ballroom about the respective credibility of the one-loss Buckeyes (blown out by Michigan, no division title in the Big Ten); one-loss TCU (a heartbreaking jolt from Kansas State); and two-loss Alabama (both defeats on the final play against ranked Tennessee and LSU) — you wondered if the more telegenic name might get the call. Saban did too, making his overt case though his flawed team had beaten no better opponent than No. 20 Texas. “If we played any of those teams that are on the edge of getting in, would we be the underdogs or the favorite?” Saban asked on Fox. “You show vulnerability when you get beat badly at the end of the season. We played better at the end of the season.”
TCU has a better resume. So does Ohio State. Oh, two rematches would have been classic fun — Georgia-Alabama, Michigan-Ohio State — based on the tried-and-true sports formula: Big names sell. But TCU and magical QB Max Duggan are worthy. Stand down, Nick. The Sugar Bowl awaits. Wear some beads in New Orleans.
Also say goodbye to USC, which wasn’t as ready to shake the earth as a lot of us thought in Los Angeles. The first lesson: He who strikes a premature stiff-arm pose ends up a stiff. Caleb Williams tempted fate by claiming the Heisman a week early, only to spend a night limping around Las Vegas like a drunk blackjack loser. He’ll eventually have a stellar NFL career with a line that protects him and a defense that doesn’t tackle like human pylons, but for now, he’s covering his head with a towel while the jury debates whether he’s worthy of college football’s top individual prize.
Don’t mess with the gods, brother. They will rise up and punish you even with a 17-3 lead in the Pac-12 championship game, when you’ve thrown for two scores, when you’ve accounted for 46 touchdowns in a mad season of Hollywood dreams, when you’re looking for all the world like Football’s Next Great Quarterback as you pull off a mesmerizing 59-yard run and … POP A HAMSTRING, before losing 47-24 to a roughhouse mob of Utah interlopers who disrupted the presumed playoff paradigm.
“Felt like an old rubber band,” Williams said of his wounded hammy, only part of the damage on a night when he was battered and bloodied.
So much for his father’s long-term plan, which has involved special diets for Caleb, along with hot yoga, a sports psychologist, a marketing firm and tears at age 10 after he lost a game. And, of course, the benefits of names, images and likenesses. Last week, in hopes of a Heisman and a national title down the freeway at SoFi Stadium, a cheesy TV commercial starring Williams — for an alkaline water company — was spun into heavier rotation. Now, suddenly, he was being manhandled and humbled by the Utes. He stayed in the game, barely able to walk as a relentless pass rush harassed him into seven sacks. Why persist? His idol is Kobe Bryant, which might play well in L.A. but not in NFL circles where owners and personnel executives don’t want to throw mega-millions at damaged goods.
“The rest of the game, I felt it,” he said of his injury, “but a person that I admire is Kobe, and he always said the game is bigger than what you’re feeling.”
Not when you’re being tossed around like a suitcase on a baggage claim carousel. “I asked him at one point, I was like, are you 50 percent?" said coach Lincoln Riley, equally dazed. “And I mean, he wasn’t even close to 50 percent. I definitely thought about taking him out ... he wouldn't have let me. He wouldn't even let me take him out at the end. In terms of guys I’ve coached at that position, it may be the gutsiest performance I’ve ever seen. Most guys wouldn’t even have played, and he still gave us a chance.”
Which brings us to the second lesson: Just because USC whipped open the transfer portal and lured 26 new players this year, including Williams, doesn’t mean other programs can’t compete in the new arms race. Who needs Hollywood, sunshine, song girls, NIL discussions during CAA power lunches and Riley’s $110 million contract when Utah — friggin’ Utah, in keeping with the Mormon creed that “profanity is filthiness” — pays players an average of $30,000 per NIL deal? That ranks in the national top 10.
“Our players never stopped believing. We had a chip on our shoulder,” said Kyle Whittingham, no longer the nation’s most underrated coach. “We got the message loud and clear that people were underestimating us.”
And the third lesson: Arrogance will get you bit on the ass. When a program decides it’s too good for the Pac-12 and flees for the Big Ten, well, that might explain a lopsided final score and why the Utes looked positively cannibalistic. They were the ones clutching rose stems, off to Pasadena while the Trojans await the Cotton Bowl, a far cry from their national title chatter of recent days. The schadenfreude is thick months after Riley fled Oklahoma, brought Williams with him, then flashed a big smile the day USC swapped leagues. What exactly was he thinking during a series of oddball decisions with a two-touchdown lead? Why go for it on fourth-and-8 near midfield when a Williams pooch kick could have pinned Utah deep in its end? Instead, after a completion, the game turned radically — USC was outscored 44-7 and outgained 444-191 from that point — and the Life Of Riley now is subjected to scrutiny in southern California.
“You come as far as this team has come and this program has come in the last 12 months, and obviously to not get it done, it's a tough pill to swallow,” Riley said. “They were definitely the better team tonight. They deserved it.”
All of which underlines the obvious, as flawed teams exit the big picture and other flawed teams remain. No one is beating Georgia, which spanked LSU in the SEC championship game in a 50-30 swirl. In a particularly volatile season that has saddled Alabama with two losses and tripped up several others soaring toward the postseason, the one certainty is the nation’s most complete team, the one that has won 31 of its last 32 games, the one that looks primed to become the sport’s second repeat champion this century.
“I don’t want one kid to walk out of our program without an SEC championship for their career,” said program czar Kirby Smart, who pivoted to a rant about missed tackles. “That’s not the culture here, and it won’t be accepted or tolerated,” he said. “So we’ve got to fix it.”
Brilliant again was Bennett, who can join two other unsung sorts, Alabama’s A.J. McCarron and Nebraska’s Tommie Frazier, as QBs who’ve won back-to-back nattys. Why isn’t Bennett mentioned for the Heisman? Williams lost. Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud lost. Duggan was wonderful but lost. Bennett just keeps winning, throwing four TD passes in his latest victory.
“A thrill-a-minute, man,” Smart said of the former walk-on. “The guy is really good, he’s really athletic, he plays within our system and he makes everybody better around him. Nobody watches more tape and prepares more than he does.”
Said Bennett, typically self-deprecating: “I’ve got good players around me, and I’m not that bad at football either.”
You ask, what about Michigan? Since the stomping of Ohio State last weekend, Jim Harbaugh has lost his most explosive weapon, running back Blake Corum, to knee surgery, and looked suspicious while explaining why starting defensive tackle Mazi Smith wasn’t arraigned on a felony charge — for carrying a concealed handgun — until 54 days after his arrest in Ann Arbor. Never mind that state law requires an arraignment within 48 hours of an arrest. Never mind that Smith is banned from traveling out of state. That rule is waived when he’s with the team — including Saturday in Indianapolis, where the Wolverines dispatched Purdue for the Big Ten title — the sort of perk that happens in a college town when a team is 13-0 and heading to a national semifinal.
“I have respect for our judicial process,” Harbaugh said, “and with that respect brings confidence that a fair and just resolution is forthcoming.”
The Friday night eye test suggested Utah was a better playoff idea than Ohio State or Alabama. Saban begged to differ, pleading his case on ESPN: “We lost two games on the road to one top-five team, one top-10 team on the last play of the game," he said. “But now that (quarterback Bryce Young is) healthier and he's able to practice, I think we're a different team, and I think you should look at the circumstances around a two-loss team versus a one-loss team and how are they playing at the end of the season? How are they playing at the present?” Of course, he didn’t mention how Alabama (and Ohio State) benefit from the bogus nature of conference title games, sitting at home without a division title while USC was penalized for playing for a league title. Utah can’t qualify with three losses, but we’d love to give Whittingham three weeks to prepare for Georgia.
It’s time to acknowledge his place among the nation’s elite coaches — and his culture as a working model in a conference undergoing seismic change. No coach has a longer tenure in the Pac-12, where he has played for four league titles over the last five years. Amid radical national realignment and an athlete entitlement revolution — USC and (presumably UCLA) pack for the Big Ten move, David Shaw resigns at Stanford, Deion Sanders arrives at Colorado (really?) — Utah is the Pac-12 gold standard.
Williams has one more season at USC before he becomes the likely top pick in the 2024 NFL draft, but he might want to reconsider certain decisions before then. Was it really a good idea to paint his fingernails with a message — “F— Utah” — when the Utes hardly needed more motivation?
“You can put whatever you want on your nails,” Ja’Quinden Jackson said after the rout. “But I hope he liked it.”
He did not. Look at it this way: If he lost to Utah twice, Williams wasn’t going to beat Georgia. No one else will, either.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.