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CFB Wrap-Up: Takeaways from the playoff semifinals

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The final edition of the four-team College Football Playoff arguably doubles as its most anticipated ever, with a blockbuster matchup between Michigan and Alabama in the Rose Bowl, and Washington facing Texas in an explosive Sugar Bowl. College Football Wrap-Up recaps the most important developments from the semifinal action and examines their significance moving forward.

Blake Corum is Mr. Clutch

Blake Corum carried the ball 484 times for Michigan in the past two seasons, finding the end zone an absurd 8% of the time. The Wolverines running back entered Monday's game as arguably the most clutch player in the nation and effectively ended any debate with an incredible performance in the overtime win over Alabama. The game-winning 17-yard run was a perfect example of Corum's vision and athleticism with a filthy jump-cut in the hole to break the play outside and find pay dirt.

However, it wasn't just the touchdown that showed Corum's value in key situations; the standout senior was Michigan's go-to player all night. After falling behind 7-0 in the first, Corum converted a key fourth-and-1 on the ensuing drive to help put Michigan inside the Alabama 10-yard line. He completed the series with a game-tying 8-yard touchdown grab.

It was more of the same in the second half with the gutsiest call of the game by Jim Harbaugh. Trailing 20-13 with 3:19 to play in the game, the Wolverines faced a fourth-and-2 on their own 33-yard line. With all three timeouts, most predicted Harbaugh would punt and lean on his defense to get the ball back. However, the embattled coach called Corum's number once again, and he delivered with a huge 27-yard catch-and-run conversion.

That set up the game-tying score to force overtime before Corum helped end it in the extra frame. He finished with over 120 yards of total offense and two scores. That puts him at 27 on the season to set the Michigan record.

Special teams nightmare nearly cost Michigan

After the opening half in California, Michigan held a 197-96 advantage in total yardage, a 9-5 edge in first downs, and sacked Jalen Milroe five times. Despite dominating almost every facet of the game, the Wolverines held just a three-point lead heading to the locker room. Turnovers, football's ultimate equalizer, reared its ugly head yet again for Michigan in the CFP - this time in the form of a muffed punt catch in the opening quarter. That error gave Alabama the ball across the 50-yard line and set up a 34-yard scamper for the game's opening touchdown by Jase McClellan.

It was the first of several special teams miscues for Michigan, which was vastly outplayed in that aspect of the game. The Wolverines also almost lost the game on a second botched fair catch inside the final minute at their own 1-yard line.

The kicking game was no better, with a bounced snap ruining an extra-point attempt and a 49-yard field goal sailing well wide in the second half. Add in a very poor punting performance in which Alabama averaged 11 more yards per kick, and there's a clear area of focus the Wolverines must clean up before the title game next Monday.

Protection issues doomed Alabama early

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Milroe is perhaps the most athletic quarterback in the country but often struggles to navigate pressure in the pocket. Combine that with a very young offensive line, and the Alabama offense is susceptible to a strong pass rush.

The SEC champs entered the contest having allowed 43 sacks on the season, ranking 123rd out of 131 FBS programs. That helps explain the bloodbath we saw in the opening half with Michigan living in the Crimson Tide backfield. The Wolverines pressured Milroe on 8-of-15 dropbacks and sacked him a whopping five times, including two in the opening three plays for the Crimson Tide offense.

The Crimson Tide flipped the script in the second half and leaned heavily on the rushing attack and Milroe's legs. Taking out lost yardage for sacks, Alabama rushed for 221 yards in the contest on a 6-yard-per-carry average. However, the limited play-calling potential finally bit them in overtime when offensive coordinator Tommy Rees opted to try a quarterback draw on fourth-and-goal from the 3. The play failed immediately and ended up being the deciding moment.

Milroe flashed great potential at times this season as a passer, but the poor protection around him and questionable pocket presence were glaringly obvious Monday. It's what kept Alabama out of the title game for a third straight season.

Penix joins elite company with epic showing

He's been in college since 2018, so it's only right that Michael Penix Jr. has a master's degree to his name - in the field of college football. The Washington quarterback's outrageous performance in the Sugar Bowl win over Texas on Monday not only helped the Huskies get to the national title game but also cemented his place among elite company in college football history.

Penix fired early and often on a besieged Longhorns secondary, piling up 430 passing yards on a sparkling 29 of 38 attempts in the victory.

The Huskies entered knowing they likely wouldn't have success running the ball against the nation's third-ranked rushing defense. Texas has top-level talent all over the field, but the secondary is the area to attack - a perfect matchup for the best passing offense in the country. Penix spread the ball around to a plethora of receivers, with Rome Odunze, Ja'Lynn Polk, Jack Westover, and Jalen McMillan combining for 22 catches and 354 receiving yards.

The only chance the Longhorns' 93rd-ranked pass defense had to slow Penix was to get pressure from the front seven. That didn't happen, with Washington's outstanding offensive line keeping Penix clean the entire game.

Expect Michigan's defensive coaches to spend plenty of long nights scheming up a plan to contain Penix in next week's title game. Monday proved once again that failing to get to him means curtains for whoever the Huskies face.

Turnovers too much for Texas

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The first half of the Sugar Bowl featured three Washington touchdowns with a trio of instant responses by Texas. That sent the contest to the break tied at 21 with over 500 yards of total offense on the board. It became clear very early that neither defense was going to have sustained success and that the team with more possessions would likely win.

The Longhorns helped the Huskies along that path in the second half with two fumbles and a three-and-out on their opening three drives of the third quarter. Washington's results to open the second half saw a touchdown and two field goals hit the board, pushing a 21-21 tie to a 13-point lead.

Texas' other three drives in the second half resulted in a touchdown, a field goal, and a 4th-down stop at the end of the game on the Washington 12-yard line. The turnovers ended up being the difference in the closing half of the Huskies' narrow victory.

4-team CFP goes out with a bang

You can form your own opinion on whether Florida State deserved a spot in the College Football Playoff over Alabama or Texas, but there's no denying that Monday's doubleheader was the most thrilling pair of CFP semis in the format's existence. For the first time ever, both of the semis were decided on the final play of the game, with defenses standing tall on both occasions.

The 2024 title game will also represent a changing of the guard of sorts, with both Michigan and Washington participating in their first national championship since the CFP was created. Both had made the semis previously, but this year marked the first victory for either. In a unique twist, the finalists will actually be conference foes beginning next year with the Huskies heading to the Big Ten. There also will not be an SEC champion this year for the first time since Clemson claimed the trophy in 2019.

Next year's playoff will be a wholesale change with the debut of the 12-team format that will create a new legacy and story in the sport. The four-team format may be gone, but Monday's results ensured it won't be forgotten anytime soon.

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