No college football season is without up and downs. There are losses or close calls along the way that test teams and shape their future successes or failures.
This is true even the best teams that are able to reach the College Football Playoff. At one point in time, Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Notre Dame all faced adversity and had to respond. Their seasons would have turned out differently without meeting the challenge and moving forward on the path toward their ultimate goal.
A look at the one pivotal moment for each of their seasons that helped get them into the semifinals.
On Oct. 17, just a week after surviving a 63-48 track meet against Ole Miss, Alabama went into halftime against Georgia trailing 24-20. That seems to have been the moment the light went on for the defense. The Tide pitched a shutout the rest of the way en route to the 41-24 victory. They then held every remaining regular-season opponent to 17 points or fewer while continuing to pile up big scores. They encountered another special offense in the SEC championship game against Florida but got enough stops early in that one to have it in hand despite the Gators’ fire power.
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Much of the attention paid to the Tigers revolves around their two matchups against Notre Dame. While winning the rematch in the ACC title game ultimately sent Clemson to the playoff for the sixth consecutive season, it was a game before the first showdown against the Irish that proved pivotal to its season. Starting quarterback Trevor Lawrence tested positive for COVID-19 and would miss two games. The first came against Boston College, and the Eagles jumped out to a 28-10 lead in the second quarter. Lawrence's backup, freshman D.J. Uiagalelei, played an outstanding second half and rallied the Tigers to a 34-28 win. How would the Tigers have responded the following week at Notre Dame without that win? A second loss, especially by a large margin, could have sent them out of the playoff for good at that point.
Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei (5) celebrates with teammates after a touchdown run against Boston College at Memorial Stadium. (Photo: Josh Morgan, USA TODAY Sports)
The Fighting Irish held the No. 4 ranking heading into its game against Louisville on Oct. 17, but a sluggish 12-7 win had many observers questioning if they were truly a playoff-caliber team. A week later, they hit the road to Pittsburgh and put on the kind of dominant performance in a 45-3 rout one would expect from a top-five squad. The confidence from that outing arguably set the stage for the signature win against Clemson on Nov. 7.
The Buckeyes survived a scare from Indiana, but had their status for the College Football Playoff put in danger by the cancellation of three games. Then the Big Ten stepped in with a waiver to allow Ohio State to play Northwestern in the conference championship and everything seemed to fall into place. That was until the Wildcats led late in the third quarter and quarterback Justin Fields was struggling with a thumb injury. Enter Trey Sermon. The senior running back ignited a comeback with a school-record 331 rushing yards and carried the Buckeyes to a narrow win and ensured its season would end in the playoff instead of another bowl
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