ATLANTA (AP) — With apologies to senior stars like Alabama's Jonathan Allen and Clemson's Deshaun Watson, none of college football's four remaining contenders for the national title made it this far without some help from the youngsters.
From Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts to Clemson defensive lineman Dexter Lawrence, they've all gotten help from freshmen who were barely old enough to vote in the latest elections. Those freshmen have played no small part in helping Ohio State, Clemson, Alabama and Washington make the College Football Playoffs.
And it goes beyond guys just having too much talent to keep them off the field. They've got to have what Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban refers to as competitive maturity.
Saban says the incoming recruits who are focused on developing and learning "are the guys that come in with the right mindset so that they can transition into being a college football player."
"I think the guys that think they're going to come in and because they're good, have success, that that's just naturally going to happen for them — I think those guys struggle a little bit because they're not focused on what they need to do to be a complete player at their position," he said. "I think that's really the key for a guy being able to play early as a college player."
Ohio State guard Michael Jordan could end up blocking Lawrence. If both teams advance, Alabama right tackle Jonah Williams could have to deal with Buckeyes defensive end Nick Bosa. Maybe Washington safety Taylor Rapp will meet up with Crimson Tide receiver/defensive back/return man Trevon Diggs — or backup tailback Josh Jacobs.
None of the other three playoff contenders — Ohio State, Clemson and Washington — have relied more heavily on freshmen than Alabama. Hurts is only the most visible example.
Williams has started every game at right tackle, Diggs has replaced an injured Eddie Jackson returning punts and Jacobs has run for 551 yards and four touchdowns.
But the other freshmen in the semifinals are no slouches either. Diggs isn't even the only one to see action on both sides of the ball.
A 6-foot-5, 340-pound defensive tackle, Lawrence leads the Tigers with 20 quarterback pressures. The ACC defensive freshman of the year also has been part of Clemson's offensive jumbo package in short-yardage situations. He's merely living up to his billing, since some recruiting sites rated him as the nation's second-best recruit last season behind Michigan defensive tackle Rashan Gary.
"He's a freak of nature," Clemson center Jay Guillermo said. "You don't see a guy come in at 18 years old, weighing 345 pounds and be 20 percent body fat. It's insane. You don't see guys like that very often. He came in early and he really picked up college football fast. Not only from a physical standpoint but from a mental standpoint. You really don't see that very often."
Enrolling in mid-year helped give Lawrence, Williams, Hurts and Jordan a head start.
At Ohio State, Jordan is only the third freshman to start on Ohio State's offensive line and the first since Orlando Pace in 1994. Bosa, meanwhile, has five sacks and seven tackles for loss.
Washington's Rapp leads the team with four interceptions and has 46 tackles.
So much for the theory that it's hardest to crack the starting lineup at the top programs. Alabama's Williams clearly wasn't swayed by any talk from opposing coaches that he would have to wait his turn on the Tide's loaded roster.
"That's the idea that they bring in so much talent that you're probably not going to start," he said. "I don't want to waltz into a job, I want a challenge. If I can't earn the job, I don't deserve the job. So if they just have an opening or they don't have a lot of talented guys, I wouldn't feel satisfied that I walked in and was given the job.
"It's a lot more satisfying to come in and earn something."
AP Sports Writers Ralph Russo, Pete Iacobelli and Mitch Stacy contributed to this report.
More AP college football: www.collegefootball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25