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Why a Clemson-Alabama Title Game Is Probably Inevitable

When the ball was snapped late Saturday night in Honolulu to Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate from the Hawaii 31-yard line, there were 10 seconds left and the visitors trailed by a touchdown. Hawaii’s Manly Williams focused on his assignment. He lined up over the center, looped around to his left and did his best to keep the dynamic Tate in the pocket.

But Tate escaped up the middle and took off, breaking outside before cutting back to the middle to avoid a tackle. At the 10, he eyed a path to the goal line.

As Tate charged ahead, preparing to take on one last defender, Williams — a 6-foot-2, 245-pound senior who answers to Pumbaa (his older sister nicknamed him after “The Lion King” warthog when he was born) — plowed into Tate at the same time as safety Kalen Hicks, bringing Tate down at the 1 to end the game.

It was an unlikely reward for Williams, who reached Tate at the end of a 40-yard, straight-line sprint.

“I just thought to myself it’s the last play of the game — I’ve got to sell out,” Williams said in a phone interview. “I was lucky and blessed. It was a good thing I ran.”

The play sealed Hawaii’s 45-38 upset, one of two nationally televised games that kicked off the college football season, which will begin in full force over a long Labor Day weekend. Williams’s effort play created a ripple on social media, though he learned this secondhand — he does not have a Twitter account. It also resonated with coaches around the country — including Louisville’s Scott Satterfield and Clemson’s Dabo Sweeney — who showed the play to their teams to reinforce a football coach’s most trusted bromide: play ’til the whistle blows.

Such hope-against-hope persistence might also be required for anyone venturing to follow college football this season, which seems destined to end in five months in a predictable place — with Alabama playing Clemson for the national championship.

If the N.C.A.A. men’s basketball tournament culminates often enough with Kentucky, Duke or North Carolina winning, there is also an air of expected volatility to it. Last season, Texas Tech and Auburn reached the Final Four for the first time, and it is not unheard of for schools like Butler or Loyola-Chicago to appear there.

Good luck waiting for disruption to happen in football.

ImageCreditDavid J. Phillip/Associated Press

In the last four years, the only time Clemson and Alabama have not met for the title was after the 2017 season — when they played in the semifinals. They are ranked No. 1 and 2 to begin this season, and Clemson opened its season Thursday night with a 52-14 rout of Georgia Tech, as Travis Etienne rushed for a career high 205 yards and three touchdowns.

The list of possible foils for the remainder of the four-team College Football Playoff is as familiar as it is brief:

Oklahoma, which has been there three of the last four seasons.

Georgia, or whoever is the second-best team in the SEC.

A Big Ten champion, perhaps (the conference hasn’t been in the playoff in two years and hasn’t scored there in four years).

In the meantime, remaining engaged might require looking elsewhere.

Two coaches who have won national championships are returning to jobs with more modest ambitions: Mack Brown at North Carolina and Les Miles at Kansas. Miles, the serial turf nibbler, will see if the grass tastes greener on the other side, but so too will a long list of quarterback transfers, including two who lost out to Jake Fromm at Georgia: Jacob Eason at Washington and Justin Fields at Ohio State.

If there is a school that has refined the art of the quarterback transfer, it is Oklahoma, where Jalen Hurts — who started for two seasons at Alabama — will follow Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray, who each won the Heisman Trophy after moving to Norman.

The quarterback most watched by N.F.L. scouts will be Oregon’s Justin Herbert, who will be quickly afforded center stage on Saturday night when the Ducks play Auburn. Herbert can dissect more than defenses: he raised hermit crabs, frogs and butterflies growing up in Eugene, and also carries a 4.0 grade-point average in biology.

Urban Meyer also figures to have plenty of options in the near future. Meyer quit as coach at Ohio State after last season, which began with his three-game suspension and ended with a Rose Bowl victory. He’s now one step removed as an administrator in Columbus, but will join Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart on Fox’s college football set this fall. They can tell him all about one possible job opening — at U.S.C.

The courting of Meyer in December may make him feel as lavished upon as Louisiana State football players, who alight each day to a locker room that underwent a $28 million renovation so that it now resembles, as the school put it, a purple-and-gold mash-up of a first-class airplane cabin and a sci-fi space station.

If all that loot has to be spent somewhere (except on players), Penn State is spending some of its cash defending a lawsuit by its former team doctor, who accused Coach James Franklin of interfering with his decisions on when players could return from injuries. Another coach accused of overstepping his bounds is the University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s Billy Napier, who believes charity starts at home: He required his players to spend $50 apiece to join the school’s athletic foundation, a rule the school quickly softened after it was announced.

More clever (and liberating) ideas keep coming from the University of Miami, whose football players gave us the turnover chain two years ago and last weekend updated it and also unveiled the touchdown rings — a pair of orange-and-sapphire speckled, four-finger rings that are flashed by a player who scores a touchdown.

Alas, the Hurricanes scored only two of them and lost to Florida, 24-20.

But verve, and an underdog, did have its day later when Williams began his pursuit. Williams, who graduated last semester with a business management degree and is working on a bachelor’s in kinesiology, nearly quit the team two years ago because football had become drudgery. But a new position coach, Ricky Logo, rekindled his joy in it.

ImageCreditMarco Garcia/Associated Press

Williams pointed out all the other players who helped on the final play and explained how necessary it was for a team like Hawaii to win.

“First of all, we’re not blessed like other programs,” he said. “We don’t have the facilities to show off, but we build relationships, that trust, that bond and give everything for the man next door. We want to show that just because we don’t have the national recognition and the fancy reputation, we can ball with these big conferences.”

On occasion, well, yes.

But that chase — a fruitless one until it wasn’t — was not a bad reminder, too, at the start of the season for others in college football with outsized ambitions. Play to the whistle — or until Alabama and Clemson arrive in New Orleans.

More College Football CoverageA Twist for the SEC as College Football Begins: No New Head CoachesAug. 29, 2019Rules Changes in College Football: Targeting, Overtime and Blindside BlocksAug. 29, 2019The Big Ten Missed the Playoff Twice. Is Winning the Conference Enough to Contend?July 26, 2019


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