SPORTS DIGEST: College Football Playoff gets it right after 10 years

By Don Wanlass

Contributing Writer

It only took 10 years for the College Football Playoff system to get it right.

Both semifinal games went down to the wire Jan. 1 with Michigan defeating Alabama 27-20 in overtime to win the Rose Bowl and Washington following that game with a 37-31 win over Texas in the Sugar Bowl that also went down to the final minute.

That leaves us with a Washington-Michigan matchup Jan. 8 in Dallas for the college football championship. It’s an old-fashioned Pac 12-Big 10 game featuring two undefeated teams, the perfect way to end the four-team playoff system leading into next year’s 12-team tournament. 

It hasn’t always been that way in the 10 years of the playoffs. Most years featured at least one blowout. Last year, both semifinal games were close, but TCU got slaughtered by Georgia, 65-7 in the finals.

The two previous years, both semifinal games were won by at least 21 points.

This year, Florida State’s complaints not withstanding, the playoff committee got things right. Michigan, Washington, Texas and Alabama were the four best teams in the country at the end of the season and they gave us two great New Year’s games to watch.

Florida State, which felt slighted after going 13-0 and getting left out of the party, got annihilated by Georgia, 63-3 in the Orange Bowl Dec. 30. To be fair to Florida State, the Seminoles were down to their third-string quarterback and more than 20 players either opted out of the bowl game to prepare for the NFL Draft or entered the transfer portal before the game with Georgia.

Georgia, which felt left out even after losing to Alabama in the SEC Championship Game, sent its own message to Florida State and the rest of the country. 

The Michigan-Washington matchup in the championship game is intriguing. Can Washington win a title in the last Pac 12 football game ever? Should Michael Penix Jr. have won the Heisman Trophy instead of Jayden Daniels? Can Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh win two big ones in a row? 

Michigan is an early 4.5-point favorite, but Penix and his three outstanding receivers — Rome Odunze, Jalen McMillan and Ja’Lynn Polk — are going to be hard to slow down.

Michigan is led by quarterback J.J. McCarthy, running back Blake Corum and a stout defense that sacked Alabama quarterback Jalen Milroe seven times in the Rose Bowl. It should be a great game to end the 10-year, four-team tournament experiment.

With 12 teams going to the tournament next season, there will be less controversy (probably), but you can expect the 13th and 14th best teams in the final rankings will have something to complain about. 

NEW TROJAN HERO: While on the subject of bowl games, USC backup quarterback Miller Moss made quite a first impression in the Holiday Bowl Dec. 27 in San Diego.

Given a chance to start after Caleb Williams decided to sit the game out in preparation for the NFL Draft in April, Moss lit up the Louisville secondary for 372 yards and six touchdown as the Trojans defeated the Cardinals 42-28.

Rumor has it that Kansas State quarterback Will Howard is reconsidering his plans to transfer to USC after seeing Moss perform in the Holiday Bowl. Moss completed 23 of 33 passes to nine different receivers.

Tahj Washington, who had announced his intention to enter the draft but played anyway, caught seven passes for 99 yards and two touchdowns. Freshman Ja’Kobi Lane, who had caught four passes all season, caught three more for 60 yards and two touchdowns.

The maligned Trojans defense played hard all night and stiffened when they had to as the Trojans finished a disappointing 8-5. 

Head coach Lincoln Riley may have several holes to fill in the offseason, but he has a quarterback for next season already on campus.

PLAYOFF BOUND: Eight weeks ago, when the Rams were stuck in a three-game losing streak with a 3-6 record overall, I wrote that a 6-2 finish could still put the Rams in the playoffs.

Since then, the Rams have gone 6-1 and, low and behold, they are in the NFC playoffs after a 26-25 win over the New York Giants Dec. 31 and Seattle’s loss to Pittsburgh.

The Rams will be in the playoffs no matter what happens Jan. 7 against the San Francisco 49ers and head coach Sean McVay announced Jan. 3 that quarterback Matt Stafford would sit out the 49ers game and Carson Wentz would get his first start as a Ram in the season finale.

If the Rams win, it would likely set up a battle with the Detroit Lions in the first round of the playoffs. Imagine Stafford against the player he was traded for, Jared Goff. That would be something to watch.

The Rams had their issues against the Giants, mostly on special teams. Place kicker Lucas Havrisik missed a field goal and two extra points and found himself on waivers Jan. 1. 

Brent Maher, who started the season as the Rams place kicker and was let go after he missed six field goals in seven games, is back. 

Maher has been in the playoffs before, but was let go by Dallas last year after missing four extra points in a playoff game with Tampa Bay last season.

The Rams’ punt team also has issues, giving up its second punt return for a touchdown this season against the Giants. Breakdowns like that in a playoff game can be deadly.

Still, the Rams should be happy to make the playoffs this season. Most experts predicted the Rams would be closer to the No. 1 draft pick than the playoffs this year.

Two additions to the offense — running back Kyren Williams and wide receiver Puka Nacua — have made all the difference in the world. 

Williams, in his second year from Notre Dame, has become a 1,000-yard rusher with 1,144 yards and 15 overall touchdowns on the season.

Nacua could break the NFL records for catches and yards receiving by a rookie with against the 49ers. 

He needs 29 yards to set the record for receiving yardage and three catches for the reception record. It will be interesting to see whether McVay gives him a chance at those milestones.

The defense has stepped up recently with young lineman Kobie Turner and Byron Young lending Aaron Donald a hand up front.

ROLLING ALONG: Don’t look now, but the Clippers are on a roll. Since Dec. 1, they are 12-2 and are now in fourth place in the NBA Western Conference.

It took the Clippers awhile to adjust to having James Harden in the lineup, but now that they have, they are sailing along with a match against the Lakers coming up Jan. 7.

The Clippers were 3-2 when they acquired Harden from the Philadelphia 76ers. They promptly lost their first five games with Harden and Russell Westbrook sharing the ball.

But since Westbrook started coming off the bench, the Clippers are 17-5 and playing like a team to be reckoned with come playoff time.

Westbrook has been the ultimate team player, scoring 11 points a game in almost 24 minutes a night off the bench and adding 6.5 rebounds and 4.7 assists.

Harden is averaging 17.6 points and 8 assists a game and distributing the ball well. 

Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are doing what they do, which is a little bit of everything.

Leonard is averaging 24.4 points a game, George is at 22.9.

Norman Powell, who is always one of the best scorers off the bench in the league, is averaging 13.3 points a game and Ivica Zubac may be having his finest overall season in the league with 12.2 points and 9.7 rebounds a game while also protecting the rim defensively.

There’s still a long way to go in the season, but the Clippers have to be satisfied with their season so far.

The Lakers, not so much. They currently sit at .500 with a 17-17 record, in 10th place in the NBA West. That means they would have to win both games in the play-in tournament to make the NBA Playoffs if the season ended today.

Head coach Darvin Ham has apparently decided that D’Angelo Russell isn’t his starting point guard. LeBron James has been starting at that position, but that makes the Lakers slower defensively.

James, Anthony Davis and Austin Reaves are supplying 65 points a night between them, but no one else is consistently helping them.

Rui Hachimura and Jarred Vanderbilt have been battling injuries and Taurean Prince can score 17 points one night against the Celtics like he did Christmas night and come back three nights later and score three points against the Charlotte Hornets. 

Gabe Vincent, who averaged more than 8 points a game last year with the Miami Heat, has averaged only 5 points in 5 games with the Lakers so far and is out until at least February after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery recently.

The Lakers turned their season around last year at the trade deadline when they acquired Russell, Hachimura and Vanderbilt, qualified for the play-in tournament and then advanced clear to the conference finals before getting swept by Denver.

They need to settle down, get everybody healthy and then see if they can mount another stretch drive again. 

With James and Davis, anything is possible, but so far this doesn’t seem to be the Lakers’ year.