If Kirby Smart hadn’t taken Georgia’s first timeout in the second half at 8:58 in Saturday’s Peach Bowl, the Bulldogs would likely have lost and Ohio State would be playing TCU in Los Angeles for the national title.
The time-out sank a fake punt on quarter-and-inch that absolutely would have worked*. Georgia wasn’t in a line to stop the forgery. The switch would have allowed Ohio State — which was leading by 11 at the time — to bleed more clock and potentially extend the lead. Georgia probably would have run out of time instead of Stetson Bennett hitting AD Mitchell and Jack Podlesny who added the point afterwards for the go-ahead score with 54 seconds remaining.
*Unless officials noticed Ohio State had 12 players on the field. But they didn’t seem to notice that in real-time, so Smart’s timeout was probably still pretty critical.
Smart’s timeout was one of the most important decisions in college football playoff history, but it wasn’t the most important. Today we’re going to rank the top 10 calls – fully aware that Smart or TCU’s Sonny Dykes may have to make an even heavier one a week from now as their teams battle for the national title.
#10: Targeting the tight ends — Ohio State head coach Ryan Day and offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson
In an abbreviated 2020 regular season in the Ohio State Big Ten, Jeremy Ruckert and Luke Farrell shared three touchdown catches. Against Clemson in a Sugar Bowl semifinal, Ruckert and Farrell had three touchdown catches in the first half.
Clemson led 14-7 when Farrell put that grown man in third place and scored on a pass from Justin Fields.
Day and Wilson continued to play against the bias in the second quarter as Clemson expended resources to cover the Buckeyes’ elite receivers. Fields hit twice with Ruckert for touchdowns in the quarter, and Ohio State went 35-14 in the break before driving to its first CFP win since the post-season national title game in 2014.
#9: Having crossers as hot targets in the pressure case – TCU offense coordinator Garrett Riley
Sometimes a quarterback’s options are wiped out by a free rusher. That’s what happened on two occasions at the Fiesta Bowl on Saturday when pressure from Michigan Horned Frogs forced QB Max Duggan to back down and get rid of his hot receiver.
In a second-quarter second-and-goal play, two Wolverines broke loose and chased Duggan backwards. Duggan calmly turned the ball to Taye Barber, who swept left to right behind the area the rushers cleared.
Max Duggan to Taye Barber on a flat screen for a touchdown. pic.twitter.com/NHa1oyiIb0
— Parker, unconfirmed (@statsowar) January 1, 2023
The more important version of that came in the fourth quarter, when TCU finished third and seventh and held on to a three-point lead after Michigan conceded a touchdown after a Horned Frogs fumble. Michigan safetyman Rod Moore forced Duggan to back down to avoid a sack. Duggan’s only option was a throw at Quentin Johnston, who wasn’t behind the line to win but who – like Barber before him – had room because Moore cleared the area to blitz. The end result was a 76-yard touchdown that put TCU back in control.
Max Duggan versus Quentin Johnston on a flat screen for a touchdown. pic.twitter.com/DEQVnP56tQ
— Parker, unconfirmed (@statsowar) January 1, 2023
#8: A pop pass to last – Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott
Clemson was two points down against the Buckeyes in the 2019 Fiesta Bowl, but play-caller Elliott — now Virginia’s head coach — knew Travis Etienne could smash his way through Ohio State’s talented defense if he got the ball around with some space would get. Etienne had done just that earlier in the second half, taking a dump off from Trevor Lawrence for a 53-yard touchdown that gave Clemson a brief lead.
Earlier still, Lawrence had meandered through the Ohio State defense for a 67-yard touchdown rush. Elliott played on the Buckeyes’ fear of Lawrence’s legs by sending him to the line of scrimmage as if he was about to run. This pulled the Ohio State linebackers toward the line of scrimmage, allowing Etienne to sneak past. Lawrence threw the ball to Etienne, and Etienne turned on the jets for the go-ahead. Clemson would win 29-23.
A la research d’un bouc émissaire à cette défaite de Ohio State ?
Cherchez plutôt du côté de la defense des Buckeyes.
Jeffrey Okudah has a plaquage sur l’action précédente… and Travis Etienne has sorted a TD of 34 yards a 1 MINUTE 50 (!) De la Fin. pic.twitter.com/0cNn7dLfVq
— #MidMajors (@MidnightCampus) December 29, 2019
#7: The Joey Bosa/Darron Lee twist – Ohio State co-defensive coordinators Luke Fickell and Chris Ash
Seeing future first-rounder Joey Bosa stand slightly off the line of scrimmage in a two-point stance was likely for Alabama’s offensive line in those third and sixth games from the Ohio State 40 in the first CFP after 2014 worrying season. The Buckeyes desperately needed a stop at the Sugar Bowl. They led by six, but Alabama was able to gain momentum with a result.
So Fickell and Ash Bosa started in an unusual place. Then Bosa turned left. Alabama center Ryan Kelly handed Bosa back to fullback Jalston Fowler, but Kelly lost his footing in the process. This allowed linebacker Darron Lee, spinning behind Bosa and going straight down the center of Alabama’s offense, to stone a run from quarterback Blake Sims and force a punt.
Four games later, this happened for eventual national champions Buckeyes.
#6: Betting on the field goal instead of the knee – Georgia head coach Kirby Smart
If we were to make a list of the most criticized calls in CFP history, it would include Lincoln Riley’s choice of a then-Oklahoma coach’s squib kick after a touchdown* that extended the Sooners’ lead to 31-14, six seconds before the end of the first half of the Rose Bowl against Georgia after the 2017 season.
*At a game later refereed by the Eagles in the Super Bowl and forever known as the Philly Special.
The kick never came off the ground and Georgia recovered with three seconds to go at the Oklahoma 47 yard line. That was probably only time for a throw into the end zone. Or if Smart just wanted the Bulldogs to lick their wounds, he could have brought his team to their knees.
Instead, Georgia put on a play. QB Jake Fromm hit Terry Godwin for a 9-yard gain. Georgia timed out with a second to go and sent Rodrigo Blankenship out for that 55-yard field goal.
So much had to happen for Georgia to win this game in two overtimes. But it doesn’t happen when the Bulldogs decide to head to the locker room instead of trying to capitalize on those last three seconds.
#5: Calling timeout in front of a fake punt that would definitely have worked – Kirby Smart
Teams have multiple headset channels, including one for offense, one for defense, and one for special teams. When Ohio State was lining up for this fake punt, Georgia assistants spoke on the Special Teams channel about a possible fake. But Smart didn’t hear that. “I was on the defensive line because we had just come off a defensive stop,” Smart said. But Smart realized that the Ohio State formation was tighter than usual. Something felt wrong.
“They just weren’t in their traditional formation,” Smart said. “A lot of teams carry this speed break. Your turn will come quickly. Everyone is close together. And we saw it in the SEC. A lot of teams wear it and you try to practice it, but it’s another matter when they actually do it and execute it. So it was one of those gut reactions that I didn’t think we had properly set up to stop it.”
Before Ohio State could snag the ball — and potentially get away with a 12-man fake punt — Smart sprinted to head linesman Darryl Johnson and called for a timeout.
#4: A sky kick to steal a possession in national title game – Alabama head coach Nick Saban
No one had done to Alabama’s defense in 2015 what Clemson and quarterback Deshaun Watson did to the Crimson Tide as the teams went head-to-head in the first of three national title fights in four seasons.
After Alabama kicker Adam Griffith scored a 24-24 tie with a 33-yard field goal at 10:34, Saban decided he needed to try and give his defense a break. Saban had noticed before the game in the movie that Clemson had his blockers bunched to one side of the field on kickoff returns. When Clemson did the same thing on early kickoffs during the game, Saban knew he had a gun in his back pocket.
Alabama had been practicing a sky kick during the week – a high onside kick intended to be caught by an Alabama player. The only problem was that cornerback Marlon Humphrey rarely caught it in practice.
But Humphrey caught it in the game. Saban’s smile after the play said it all.
Two games later, Alabama QB Jake Coker hit tight end OJ Howard for a 51-yard touchdown. The Tide could finally breathe and they won 45-40.
#3: Orange Crush – Clemson Co-Offensive Coordinators Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott
Elliott was the main game caller in 2016, but it was Scott who suggested this particular scratch game near the goal line with the national title at stake. Call it offensive pass interference if you like, but the officials didn’t.
Artavis Scott cleared the space against Alabama. Hunter Renfrow got frank. Watson delivered the ball.
No. 2: Going deep on the second and 26 — Alabama offensive coordinator Brian Daboll
What do you do after your opponent bombs an overtime field goal and your real life freshman quarterback takes one of the most heinous sacks in sack history? They tell that true newbie to forget what just happened, get in line, and throw it deep in the face of another newbie.
That’s exactly what Daboll — now the head coach for the New York Giants — did, and Tua Tagovailoa found future Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith to beat Georgia and win the 2017 national title.
#1: Stick the kid in – Saban
Because that pass won’t be thrown unless Saban knocks everyone out by lifting Jalen Hurts and inserting Tagovailoa to start the third quarter.
All of those calls took courage, but this one took the most.
(Photo by Kirby Smart: Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images)