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How The SEC Won Another National Championship

The College Football Playoff’s two New Year’s Day semifinal games were a study in unexpected contrasts: a mostly dull blowout in the Sugar Bowl rubber match between Alabama and Clemson after the two teams had been so even in their previous playoff meetings, which followed an all-time double-overtime Rose Bowl classic between Georgia and Oklahoma that threatened to blow up the scoreboard with its big plays. The net result, however, was a pair of SEC teams in next Monday’s championship final, even if they got there in very different ways.

For Georgia, Monday’s victory over Oklahoma was all about absorbing the toughest blows the fearsome Sooner offense could dish out — then fighting back in the second half and finally outlasting Baker Mayfield and company in double overtime.

We knew going into the Rose Bowl that the Sooners would probably find themselves in a shootout. In fact, on paper this was exactly the kind of game you could picture Oklahoma thriving in, with 1,058 combined yards and 102 total points by both teams. (In that sense, it was reminiscent of the Sooners’ November win over Oklahoma State, which saw the teams put up 1,446 total yards and 114 points.) Thanks to a world-beating offense and a leaky D, Oklahoma specializes in winning when neither side bothers to play much defense.

But that game plan only works when you can either pull away with your firepower late or gut out stops when you need to. And the Bulldogs had an answer for all of Oklahoma’s explosions.

In the first half, Georgia hung around just enough to stay within striking distance, especially after picking up three quick points before halftime. (A clumsy Sooners squib-kick left Georgia within a completion of field-goal range to end the half, which ended up proving quite important.) In the third quarter, the same defense that had been shredded for 360 first-half yards held the Sooners to 29 yards and zero points. Even when the Sooners roared back to life with a pair of touchdowns in the fourth, the Bulldogs summoned a crucial sequence: With five minutes remaining, they forced Oklahoma into a 3-and-out; strung together a seven-play, 59-yard TD drive to tie the game; then stopped OU’s offense again with under a minute left to force overtime.

It was a setting where Oklahoma is used to getting the last word — and Georgia just wouldn’t let the Sooners have it. That carried over into OT, when a big third-down stop stalled Oklahoma’s bid for the winning touchdown, and again when Lorenzo Carter tipped Austin Seibert’s go-ahead field goal short of the uprights. After Sony Michel sprinted 27 yards for the walk-off score, the balanced Bulldogs, not the Sooner scoring machine, had closed the game on a 16-3 run. In the end, Georgia essentially managed to match the mighty Oklahoma offense yard for yard. And in a game absolutely loaded with big plays, the ledger improbably favored the Bulldogs (who had 321 total yards on their nine plays of 20 or more) rather than the Sooners, who’d led the nation in the category during the season.

Alabama’s road to victory was smoother than Georgia’s, to put it mildly. Although Clemson’s defense had posted superior regular-season numbers, the Crimson Tide D set the tone early by holding the Tigers’ offense to zero points, zero first downs and 3 total yards in the first quarter, opening up a quick lead that Alabama would never surrender. The Tide ended up dominating the Tigers in terms of yardage (261-188), with the outcome practically sealed by the middle of the third quarter.

Maybe the biggest surprise was simply in how the Crimson Tide cruised to their win. Although nobody expected the third installment in this rivalry to match the pyrotechnics of Georgia and Oklahoma, Clemson and Alabama had combined for 75.5 total points per game in their last two championship showdowns, and Bama had become a better offensive team (and a shakier defensive one) since last season. It seemed possible that fans in New Orleans could at least be in store for some version of the shootout in Pasadena.

Instead, defense carried the day: Neither team gained 300 yards or averaged more than 3.5 yards per carry or 5 yards per pass. Following in the footsteps of Deshaun Watson, who’d generated 463 yards of total offense on 77 touches against Alabama a year ago, Clemson QB Kelly Bryant mustered merely 143 on 55 touches — and was picked off twice for good measure. The Tigers’ offense, which relied on an improved running game this season, was never able to gather much momentum on the ground or in the air until it was too late. This Tide defense seemed to channel Nick Saban’s teams of old, rather than the unit that looked uncharacteristically mortal against Auburn when it last played.

And so, it’s an all-SEC championship for the first time since 2012’s Alabama-LSU rematch. That game ended up being a snoozer, and if the Tide have their way defensively again, history could repeat. But after Georgia’s thrilling semifinal victory, laden as it was with huge plays, and an Alabama win that saw the Tide answer every potential comeback by forcing a backbreaking turnover, this title game might overcome its regional matchup and send off the 2017 season in style.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.