Alabama has navigated the oddest season in college football history with an 11-0 record, a Southeastern Conference championship and as the top seed in the upcoming College Football Playoff, but the weirdness is far from over.
Nick Saban's Crimson Tide were selected Sunday afternoon to play fourth-seeded Notre Dame in the Rose Bowl national semifinal, which has been uprooted from California and will be held on New Year's Day at AT&T Stadium in the Dallas suburb of Arlington. The No. 1 seed typically plays in the semifinal closest to its campus, which under normal circumstances this year for Alabama would have been the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, but the playoff committee sent the Tide to a venue that will house 16,000 fans.
The Sugar Bowl, which will pit second-seeded Clemson (10-1) and third-seeded Ohio State (6-0), will allow only 3,000 on New Year's night.
"We had no preference. We're just happy to be in the game, and we knew that we would be playing against a very good team wherever," Saban said. "I don't think there is any question about the fact it's an advantage for our fans and the families of our team that they have the opportunity to go see the game. It's a great venue we're playing in, and we're certainly pleased and happy to be involved."
Alabama has been allotted 3,380 tickets for the Rose Bowl, which is being held outside the Golden State for the first time since Duke University hosted the contest after the 1941 season due to World War II.
The Tide captured their 28th SEC title Saturday night with a 52-46 outlasting of Florida, and they opened Sunday as 20-point favorites against Brian Kelly's Fighting Irish. Notre Dame took a 10-0 record into Saturday afternoon's Atlantic Coast Conference title game, but Clemson was overpowering in a 34-10 cruising.
Saban said this week will be treated like an open date with limited practices before players go home for Christmas, something Notre Dame players won't do.
"We have as many players from California as we do from any other state," Kelly said, "so the logistics would be virtually impossible for us because of our roster and where everybody is from. If they were within a few hours where they could drive, we certainly could make this work, but a great percentage would have to get on planes."
The Rose Bowl is a rematch of the BCS title game for the 2012 season, when Alabama routed Notre Dame 42-14, while the Sugar Bowl is a rematch of last season's Fiesta Bowl national semifinal in which Clemson topped Ohio State 29-23.
Four SEC teams qualified for New Year's Six bowl games, with the Tide joined by Florida (8-3), Georgia (7-2) and Texas A&M (8-1). The Gators will meet Oklahoma (8-2) in the Cotton Bowl, while the Bulldogs will face Cincinnati in the Peach Bowl and the Aggies will challenge North Carolina (8-3) in the Orange Bowl.
Cincinnati improved to 9-0 by topping Tulsa 27-24 in the American Athletic Conference title game Saturday night and will look to stay undefeated against Kirby Smart's Bulldogs, who didn't get to stage senior festivities in Sanford Stadium this season as a result of Vanderbilt having to cancel this past weekend's game for reasons related to COVID-19.
"We ended up with only three home games throughout the year and didn't have that final wave or sendoff," Smart said. "They will get an opportunity to play in front of a lot of their parents and families and fans."
Smart added that he will spend upcoming days figuring out which Bulldogs will be competing in the game at Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium, where 18,000 fans will be permitted.
The Citrus Bowl has the first pick of SEC teams after New Year's Six bowls make their selections and tabbed Auburn (6-4) to play Big Ten runner-up Northwestern (6-2). The Tigers will be coached by defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, who is replacing the ousted Gus Malzahn on an interim basis.
Alabama's win Saturday night marked the first one-possession finish the Tide have encountered this season, and the biggest play may have occurred midway through the first quarter. A Mac Jones pass to tight end Miller Forristall was stripped by Florida safety Trey Dean at the Gators' 12-yard line, and Dean began running up the field before getting leveled by John Metchie, which caused a fumble that was recovered quickly by fellow Tide receiver DeVonta Smith.
Jones and Smith connected for a 31-yard touchdown on the ensuing snap.
"That was a great play, no doubt," Saban said. "Every day for the first five minutes of practice, we do about eight or nine different take-care-of-the-ball drills, and he's always on the other end of that. We do circle chase, midline, stiff arm, so he knows exactly what the defensive players are trying to do to get the ball out. We do it every day.
"He had the chance to strip it out in this game, and I'm sure those experiences of working every day against the defensive players trying to get it out on him was where he got the idea of how to get it out."
Metchie's hit was certainly appreciated by his teammates, with Tide safety Jordan Battle saying, "He might have to convert to the defensive side of the ball after that."
Alabama will compete in the playoff without center Landon Dickerson due to the knee injury the graduate transfer sustained Saturday night. Fellow fifth-year senior Chris Owens is expected to start in his absence.
"Chris Owens has played a lot of football for us and is an experienced player," Saban said. "We have a lot of confidence in him. He's played multiple positions and has always been the backup center."
Alabama senior running back Najee Harris earned MVP at the SEC championship game after rushing for 178 yards and totaling five touchdowns - two rushing and three receiving.
Harris also became the school's all-time leading rusher, having compiled 3,639 yards on 601 carries (6.1 yards per rush) with 44 touchdowns. Current Tennessee Titans standout and 2015 Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry held the previous mark at 3,591.
"It's an honor to be in that position, but I can't thank the line enough for making this happen for me," Harris said early Sunday morning. "I know it's my name up there, but it's the O-line making those holes, and I feel like they should be up there, too."
Gators bid farewell
Florida junior tight end Kyle Pitts and senior receiver Trevon Grimes announced Sunday they were opting out of their bowl trip to start preparing for the 2021 NFL draft.