This is what Oklahoma faced with 24 seconds left in 2017’s Rose Bowl against Georgia, still the most thrilling Playoff semifinal ever:
Lincoln Riley’s options were:
- Punt into overtime.
- Try to get two yards for a first down and another 20 or so for field goal range.
Between two timeouts and clock stoppages on first downs, Oklahoma had a real chance of a winning kick. Austin Seibert was 16 of 19, four of six from beyond 40 yards, with a long of 51. He’d made his only try that night, from 38.
The odds favored OU getting a first down. Heisman winner Baker Mayfield’s offense was the sixth-best ever at the time, according to SP+. He had elite skill players and a bulldozing line. They had moved the ball all day and were two-for-two on third-and-short.
If OU failed to convert, Georgia would’ve had about 20 seconds to gain about 15 yards for a kick of its own. It’s worth noting the risk-averse Kirby Smart had a true freshman QB in Jake Fromm. Having been Alabama’s defensive coordinator in the Kick Six game, he might have preferred a lower-risk, lower-probability Hail Mary.
After Oklahoma’s punt hopped out at the UGA 25, Georgia kneeled. In overtime, the Sooners let the Dawgs block a 27-yard kick, and Sony Michel scored on the next series to send UGA to the title game.
But what if Oklahoma tried to win in regulation, when it could’ve avoided giving the ball back?
And what if that worked? Here are some possibilities.
Oklahoma might beat Alabama in the National Championship.
Computer systems say Bama was better than OU. We saw the next year that there was a big gap, as Bama beat Oklahoma fairly easily in 2018’s semifinal.
But the 2017 Sooners were 43rd in Defensive SP+, better than the #84 unit Bama faced. They had the #1 offense both years, and in 2017, they almost beat a Georgia that might have been better than Bama. (The Dawgs would be remembered that way if not for one pass in overtime or a weird call or two.)
Basically, a team good enough to have a chance at beating 2017 Georgia is probably also good enough to have a chance at beating 2017 Alabama.
And if Jalen Hurts struggled against Oklahoma like he struggled in other postseason games, maybe Bama could’ve been down 21-14 at halftime (they were down 13-0 to Georgia, after all).
Either way, Hurts likely doesn’t get benched during the title game for Tua Tagovailoa.
In reality, Tagovailoa led a comeback win and never looked back, en route to one of the best multi-year runs a college QB has ever had.
In a universe in which Hurts isn’t facing a great Georgia defense, instead playing Oklahoma’s average D, Hurts likely does fine.
Bama had won almost every game easily, including against the #2, 6, 8, and 18 defenses. Against OU, it’s easy to envision Hurts going 18-of-24 for 200 yards and contributing to 275 Bama rushing yards, whether Bama wins by 14 or loses a 38-35 shootout.
If Hurts doesn’t get benched, Tua probably transfers to USC.
A few months after that title game, Tagovailoa told campers in Hawaii that he’d wanted to leave Bama if he’d remained on the bench:
Throughout my football season, I wasn’t the starter. I wanted to leave the school. So I told myself if I didn’t play in the last game, which was the national championship game, I would transfer out. If I gave in, I don’t think I would have seen the end blessing.
Tagovailoa said he called his dad to ask if an old scholarship offer to USC was still good. USC had once been the heavy favorite to land him as a freshman.
Let’s say Tagovailoa transfers to the Trojans. He could have been eligible right away in 2018, according to the flow chart:
With Tagovailoa playing for USC, maybe Clay Helton doesn’t get fir–
With Tagovailoa, the 2018 Trojans are pretty good instead of bad.
If the NCAA allows him a waiver, instead of going 5-7, maybe they go 8-4? At least swap in a win over UCLA, dropping Chip Kelly to 2-10 in his debut year.
Where this gets most interesting: Could 2018 USC, led by Tagovailoa, have beaten Notre Dame and put Georgia in the Playoff?
As it happened, Notre Dame beat USC 24-17, punching a Playoff ticket. USC’s true freshman QB, JT Daniels, was 37-of-51 for 349 yards and a touchdown.
With a QB doing better than 6.8 yards per throw, could USC have won at home? Tagovailoa was the best QB in the country for most of 2018, narrowly losing the Heisman to Kyler Murray. It’s not a stretch to think the best QB would’ve been worth 10 more points than a true freshman.
The Irish got the #3 seed IRL, but would’ve been out with a loss, bumping up Oklahoma and making room for Georgia (which had its own case), possibly for a rematch against Alabama.
So, in this simulation, Georgia trades a loss in 2017’s title game for an appearance in the next year’s Playoff. That’s not the last full-circle possibility in this post.
But without Tua, does Alabama miss the 2018 Playoff?
Possibly, though Hurts had led Bama to a title game as a freshman in 2016. With Tua at USC, you could talk me into a 2018 field of Ohio State, Oklahoma, Clemson, and Georgia.
Perhaps LSU could’ve beaten a Tua-less Bama. Or maybe not. Bama had beaten up LSU with worse QBs than Hurts.
Ironically, the team they probably lose to is Georgia, the only team they wouldn’t have beaten without Hurts in 2018.
2019 USC is probably a contender, to some extent.
One more conference win would’ve stolen the Pac-12 South for Tagovailoa’s Trojans from Utah, whom they beat IRL. I don’t think the Trojans would’ve beaten Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship, but it’s a possibility.
Suddenly, USC’s Helton looks like a decent hire, not a lame duck.
Helton won the Rose Bowl in 2016 and made a Cotton Bowl in 2017.
With Tagovailoa, he never craters in 2018, and he might have a 10-win team in 2019. USC still isn’t where it could be, but he isn’t on the hot seat. Bryce Young, the 2020 five-star QB from Southern Cali, probably still chooses to become Tua’s successor — except at USC, instead of at Alabama. Maybe USC also has Tua’s former four-star brother, Taulia.
These post-Tua Trojans could enter 2020 as the Pac-12 favorite.
In this world, the Trojans don’t feel as bad about dismissing interim coach Ed Orgeron at the end of 2013. Adding a successful Helton to other former interims like Orgeron, Dabo Swinney, and Mario Cristobal might launch a national trend of promoting interim coaches.
Meanwhile, if Tua isn’t at Bama, Hurts never transfers to Oklahoma.
“Ah!” you’re thinking. “So that Rose Bowl fourth-down conversion would’ve come back to bite the Sooners!”
Perhaps. Hurts became a Heisman finalist at OU.
But perhaps not. In 2019, Hurts did not look as good as his stats. He had uncharacteristic turnover problems.
Hurts not going to Oklahoma presents two options for the Sooners.
Maybe 2019 Oklahoma rolls with the QBs it already had.
Five-star freshman Spencer Rattler and four-star vet Austin Kendall would’ve been the frontrunners. Rattler redshirted, while Kendall transferred to West Virginia. The Sooners had another buzzy four-star, Tanner Mordecai.
Maybe the Sooners are still the best team in the Big 12. Maybe Baylor beats them once or twice, keeping OU out of the Playoff and maybe putting the Bears in themselves.
Or maybe Oklahoma gets a different transfer QB. Maybe Justin Fields?
Here’s another full circle.
I have to note Fields committed to Ohio State before Hurts committed to Oklahoma. How aware was Fields of Hurts’ transfer plans, given Hurts had announced he’d leave Alabama? If Oklahoma had a recent national title — to go along with OU transfers winning the preceding two Heismans — would Fields have wanted to play in Norman instead of Columbus?
A bonus: Fields was leaving Georgia, where he rode pine in 2018. If I were Fields, I’d want to stick it to my old school, and I’d see going to a team that had beaten my old school in a Playoff Rose Bowl as a bonus.
If Fields goes to Oklahoma instead of Hurts, OU might have a significantly better experience in the 2019 Playoff.
There are two ways Oklahoma could move up from its IRL #4 seed, which would mean avoiding LSU’s juggernaut in the Peach Bowl:
- If three other teams (LSU, Ohio State, and Clemson) still go undefeated, then OU needs to do the same to leapfrog Clemson, which had a weak schedule. Would the Sooners have gone 13-0 with Fields instead of Hurts? Probably not, because Hurts was great in OU’s lone loss of the regular season, to Kansas State. But it’s possible.
- A Fields-less Ohio State loses a game, moving the Buckeyes (or maybe Penn State, as a one-loss Big Ten champ) to #4 and bumping OU to #3.
By not punting in a semifinal in 2017, the Sooners could have possibly won a national title.
But they also could’ve prevented this from happening all night in 2019’s semifinal:
This could’ve been not you, Sooners. (And if you were still the #4 seed but had Fields, maybe you’d have lost by 28 instead of 35. Even that would’ve been better!)
But let’s not hang our hats on Oklahoma getting Fields. What if they don’t, and they roll with one of their homegrown QBs?
Given how close the Sooners came to losing several games with a star transfer QB, it’s a good bet they’d have lost another game without one. The Sooners barely beat Iowa State, Baylor (twice), and TCU, and had a fairly close call against Texas. It’s easy to project OU as a 10-2 team at best with Rattler, Kendall, or Mordecai.
If OU loses the Big 12 Championship to Baylor, there’s a real chance the Bears are in the Playoff.
And here’s our final full circle.
If the 2019 Playoff is LSU, Clemson, Ohio State/Penn State, and Baylor, then Oklahoma’s in the Sugar Bowl.
The Sooners’ opponent there: the same Georgia Bulldogs.