Staples: Where does Kirby Smart’s timeout rank among the CFP’s top 10 calls?

If Kirby Smart hadn’t called Georgia’s first timeout of the second half with 8:58 remaining in Saturday’s Peach Bowl, the Bulldogs probably would have lost and Ohio State would be headed to play TCU for the national title in Los Angeles.

The timeout scuttled a fake punt on fourth-and-inches that absolutely would have worked*. Georgia wasn’t lined up in any way that could have stopped the fake. The conversion would have allowed Ohio State — which led by 11 at the time — to bleed more clock and potentially add to the lead. Georgia probably would have run out of time instead of Stetson Bennett hitting AD Mitchell and Jack Podlesny adding the point after for the go-ahead score with 54 seconds remaining.

*Unless officials noticed Ohio State had 12 players on the field. But that’s not something they seemed to be noticing in real time, so Smart’s timeout was probably still quite critical.

Smart’s timeout was one of the most important calls in College Football Playoff history, but it wasn’t the most important. Today, we’ll rank the top 10 calls — fully aware that Smart or TCU’s Sonny Dykes might have to make an even weightier one in a week when their teams meet for the national title.

No. 10: Targeting the tight ends — Ohio State head coach Ryan Day and offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson

In a shortened 2020 regular season in the Big Ten, Ohio State tight ends Jeremy Ruckert and Luke Farrell combined for three touchdown catches. Against Clemson in a semifinal in the Sugar Bowl, Ruckert and Farrell combined for three touchdown catches in the first half.

Clemson led 14-7 when Farrell made this big-man catch of a Justin Fields pass on third-and-goal.

Day and Wilson continued to play against the trend in the second quarter as Clemson spent resources trying to cover the Buckeyes’ elite receivers. Fields connected twice with Ruckert for touchdowns in the quarter, and Ohio State went into the break up 35-14 before cruising to its first CFP win since the national title game following the 2014 season.

No. 9: Having crossers as hot targets in case of pressure — TCU offensive coordinator Garrett Riley

Sometimes, a quarterback’s options get obliterated by a free rusher. That’s what happened in Saturday’s Fiesta Bowl on two occasions when Michigan pressure forced Horned Frogs QB Max Duggan to backpedal and dump off to his hot receiver.

On a second-and-goal play in the second quarter, two Wolverines got loose and chased Duggan backward. Duggan calmly flipped the ball to Taye Barber, who was streaking from left to right behind the area the rushers had vacated.

The most important version of this came in the fourth quarter with TCU facing third-and-7 and clinging to a three-point lead after Michigan cashed in a touchdown following a Horned Frogs fumble. Michigan safety Rod Moore forced Duggan to backpedal to avoid a sack. Duggan’s only option was a throw to Quentin Johnston, who was not past the line to gain but who — like Barber earlier — had room because Moore had vacated the area to blitz. The end result was a 76-yard touchdown that put TCU back in control.

No. 8: A pop pass for the ages — Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott

Clemson trailed by two in the 2019 Fiesta Bowl against the Buckeyes, but play-caller Elliott — now Virginia’s head coach — knew tailback Travis Etienne could pick his way through Ohio State’s talent-laden defense if he got the ball with some space around him. Etienne had done just that earlier in the second half when he took a dump-off from Trevor Lawrence for a 53-yard touchdown that had given Clemson a brief lead.

Even earlier, Lawrence had snaked through Ohio State’s defense for a 67-yard touchdown run. Elliott played on the Buckeyes’ fear of Lawrence’s legs by sending him towards the line of scrimmage as if he planned to run. This drew Ohio State’s linebackers toward the line of scrimmage and allowed Etienne to sneak past. Lawrence tossed Etienne the ball, and Etienne turned on the jets for the go-ahead score. Clemson would win 29-23.

No. 7: The Joey Bosa/Darron Lee twist — Ohio State co-defensive coordinators Luke Fickell and Chris Ash

Seeing future first-rounder Joey Bosa standing in a two-point stance slightly off the line of scrimmage probably was disconcerting for Alabama’s offensive line on this third-and-6 play from the Ohio State 40-yard line in the inaugural CFP after the 2014 season. The Buckeyes needed a stop badly in the Sugar Bowl. They led by six, but Alabama could seize momentum with a score.

So Fickell and Ash started Bosa in an unusual spot. Then Bosa twisted left. Alabama center Ryan Kelly passed Bosa back to fullback Jalston Fowler, but Kelly lost his footing in the process. That allowed linebacker Darron Lee, who was twisting behind Bosa and heading straight up the middle of Alabama’s offense, to stone a run by quarterback Blake Sims and force a punt.

Four plays later, this happened for the eventual national champion Buckeyes.

No. 6: Going for the field goal instead of taking a knee — Georgia head coach Kirby Smart

If we were making a list of most criticized calls in CFP history, it would include then-Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley’s choice of a squib kick following a touchdown* that stretched the Sooners’ lead to 31-14 with six seconds remaining in the first half of the Rose Bowl against Georgia after the 2017 season.

*On a play that later would be run by the Eagles in the Super Bowl and forever be known as the Philly Special.

The kick never got off the ground and Georgia recovered on the Oklahoma 47-yard line with three seconds remaining. That still probably was only time for a heave into the end zone. Or, if Smart had just wanted the Bulldogs to lick their wounds, he could have had his team take a knee.

Instead, Georgia ran a play. QB Jake Fromm hit Terry Godwin for a 9-yard gain. Georgia called timeout with one second remaining and sent out Rodrigo Blankenship for this 55-yard field goal.

So much still had to happen for Georgia to win this game in two overtimes. But it doesn’t happen if the Bulldogs decide to head into the locker room instead of trying to use those last three seconds.

No. 5: Calling timeout before a fake punt that definitely would have worked — Kirby Smart

Teams have multiple headset channels including one for offense, one for defense and one for special teams. As Ohio State lined up for that fake punt, Georgia assistants were talking on the special teams channel about a potential fake. Smart didn’t hear that, though. “I was on the defensive line because we had just come off a defensive stop,” Smart said. But Smart recognized Ohio State’s formation as tighter than usual. Something felt wrong.

“They just weren’t in their traditional formation,” Smart said. “A lot of teams carry that speed break. They come up the line quickly. Everybody’s lined up tight. And we’ve seen it in the SEC. A lot of teams carry it, and you try to practice it, but it’s another thing when they actually do it and execute it. So it was one of those gut reactions that I didn’t think that we had it lined up properly to stop it.”

So before Ohio State could snap the ball — and possibly get away with a 12-man fake punt — Smart sprinted to head linesman Darryl Johnson and requested a timeout.

No. 4: A Sky Kick to steal a possession in the national title game — Alabama head coach Nick Saban

No one had done to Alabama’s defense in 2015 what Clemson and quarterback Deshaun Watson were doing to the Crimson Tide when the teams faced off in the first of three national title matchups in four seasons.

So after Alabama kicker Adam Griffith forged a 24-24 tie with a 33-yard field goal with 10:34 remaining, Saban decided he had to try to give his defense a break. Saban had noticed on film before the game that Clemson bunched its blockers on kickoff returns toward one side of the field. When Clemson did the same thing on early kickoffs during the game, Saban knew he had a weapon in his back pocket.

Alabama had practiced a Sky Kick — a high onside kick meant to be caught by an Alabama player — during the week. The only problem was cornerback Marlon Humphrey rarely caught it in practice.

But Humphrey caught it in the game. Saban’s smile after the game said it all.

Two plays later, Alabama QB Jake Coker hit tight end OJ Howard for a 51-yard touchdown. The Tide could finally breathe, and they went on to a 45-40 win.

No. 3: Orange Crush — Clemson co-offensive coordinators Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott

Elliott was the primary play caller in 2016, but it was Scott who suggested this particular rub play near the goal line with the national title hanging in the balance. Call it offensive pass interference if you like, but the officials didn’t.

Artavis Scott cleared the space against Alabama. Hunter Renfrow got open. Watson delivered the ball.

No. 2: Going deep on second-and-26 — Alabama offensive coordinator Brian Daboll

What do you do after your opponent has hit a bomb of an overtime field goal and your true freshman quarterback has taken one of the most hideous sacks in the history of sacks? You tell that true freshman to forget what just happened, line up and chuck it deep to another freshman.

That’s exactly what Daboll — now the New York Giants head coach — did, and Tua Tagovailoa found future Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith to beat Georgia and win the 2017 national title.

No. 1: Putting in the kid – Saban

Because that pass doesn’t get thrown if Saban doesn’t blow everyone’s mind by lifting Jalen Hurts and inserting Tagovailoa to start the third quarter.

All of these calls took guts, but that one took the most.

(Photo of Kirby Smart: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

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