With kickoff approaching later today, we took a quick look at the much-anticipated College Football Playoffs Matchups.
The Orange Bowl: Miami, Florida, New Year’s Eve, 4:00 PM EST
No. 1 Clemson (13-0) vs No. 4 Oklahoma (12-1)
During the spring, I was asked to put together a feature story for Bleacher Report on the Oklahoma Sooners and their response to the Sigma Alpha Epsilon racism incident on the Norman campus that became national news.
Observing practice as they began installing their new Air Raid offense and talking with head coach Bob Stoops in his office, along with being able to spend some time with the team captains – center Ty Darlington, defensive lineman Charles Tapper, linebacker Eric Striker and receiver Sterling Shepard – I walked away with a sense that this team was on a mission to do something special this year.
That sense was further enhanced after the Campus Read Option returned to Norman on the weekend of October 3rd when the Sooners trounced West Virginia, 44-24. We were there filming a segment on OU legend Jamelle Holieway and the program’s 30th anniversary of their 1985 national championship.
The vibe that emanated throughout the weekend, from being around the past greats like coach Barry Switzer, Tony Casillas, Spencer Tillman and Brian Bosworth, to the energy on the sideline and the spirited play between the lines, my sense was that this was a unique team.
The Sooners were coming off of a sub-par 8-5 season a year ago, which culminated in a 40-6 thrashing in the Russell Athletic Bowl at the hands of this very Clemson team that they’ll face in the playoffs. That beating was very much similar to the one that Tommy and Jimmy gave Billy Batts in Goodfellas, and had many questioning if Stoops had lost his magic touch. Some were foolish enough to suggest the program was in need of a coaching change.
But a funny thing happened on the way to his memorial service. It seems, to paraphrase Mark Twain, that the rumors of Stoops’ and the Sooners’ demise were greatly exaggerated.
No. 1 Clemson will take on No. 4 Oklahoma in this afternoon’s Orange Bowl as the Tigers are two wins away from winning the national championship as college football’s lone 15-0 team in history. The winner will take on the victor of the Cotton Bowl, where No. 2 Alabama takes on No. 3 Michigan State.
Clemson has been the No. 1 team in the country from the minute the playoff rankings were released. But no team has been hotter towards the end of the year than Oklahoma.
Tigers coach Dabo Swinney was espousing more than simple coach-speak when he said earlier this week that Oklahoma was playing the best football out of anyone in the country right now. But Clemson’s defense has been remarkable all year. They’ve never trailed in any fourth quarter this year and have outscored their opponents by a margin of 500-263.
Clemson also owns the nation’s longest winning streak at 16 games. After their inexplicable early-season loss to Texas, the Sooners have ripped off seven consecutive victories in dominant fashion. Oklahoma has averaged an insane 46 points per game this year.
Don’t put too much stock in last year’s Russell Athletic Bowl blowout. The dynamic OU quarterback Baker Mayfield, who completed nearly 70 % of his passes en route to 3,389 yards and 35 touchdowns this year, was sitting out as a result of his transfer from Texas Tech.
This game will feature two of the most exceptional signal callers in the college game today in Mayfield and Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, a Heisman Trophy finalist who also did not play in last year’s bowl game due to injury. Watson threw for 3,512 yards and 30 touchdowns this year while also running for 887 yards and 11 more scores.
Both of these explosive offenses will be met by a pair of defenses that both excel in defending the pass. Shaq Lawson, the ACC’s Defensive Player of the Year is a quarterback’s nightmare who has registered 11 sacks on the year.
Clemson has thrived this year despite turning the ball over more than their opponents. If they do that in this game, they’ll be putting their national title hopes in peril.
The Goodyear Cotton Bowl: Dallas, Texas, New Year’s Eve, 8:00 PM EST
No. 2 Alabama (12-1) vs No. 3 Michigan State (12-1)
If you follow college football, you’re already familiar with this narrative of the pupil vs the teacher. Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio was an assistant on Nick Saban’s staff when Saban coached there in the mid to late ‘90s.
Dantonio’s success over the past nine seasons has turned Michigan State into a national powerhouse. The Spartans have won seven of their last eight games against a team ranked in the Top 10.
Alabama’s defense has gotten the majority of the headlines, but Sparty plays a ferocious brand of defense as well. Every inch that an offense gains is this game will be well-earned. Michigan State has not given up more than 16 points in their last four games and the Crimson Tide has only given up 15 or more points in an entire game twice this year. (Please read that last sentence again in the even that you glossed over it and somehow missed its impact)
The defensive key to victory for the Spartans is simple: stop Derrick Henry. But that’s like telling a man who has been stranded alone on a desert island for ten years not to stare at Beyonce.
So far this year, no one has succeeded in corralling Alabama’s record-setting, battering ram Heisman Trophy winner. He’s amassed 1,986 rushing yards and 23 touchdowns while averaging nearly six yards per carry. Henry, by himself, has outrushed Michigan State’s talented backfield corps of L.J. Scott, Gerald Holmes and Madre London. The three Spartans have combined for 1,614 yards and 22 scores.
Offensively, we’ll be treated to some old-fashioned, smash-mouth football featuring huge offensive lines and bruising running backs. While most backs faded toward the end of the year, Henry averaged 189 or more yards in five of the year’s final seven games. But Michigan State’s defense is not intimidated. Just ask Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliot, one of the most gifted running backs in the country, who was held to 33 on 12 carries in the Spartans 17-14win on November 21st.
Alabama’s defense is historically good, and they limit opponents to a miniscule 2.4 yards per rushing attempt. But Michigan State could have an answer to Bama’s defensive riddle in 6-foot-4 senior quarterback Connor Cook.
Cook threw for 2,921 yards and 24 touchdowns this year, against only five interceptions. He performed exceptionally well against Penn State and Michigan, who both had superior pass defenses. Cook was splendid in the crazy 27-23 win over the Wolverines, throwing for 328 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. Against the Nittany Lions, he completed 73% of his passes for three touchdown and 248 yards in the 55-16 blowout victory.
In order to beat Alabama, you have to attack through the air, as Ole Miss did in their 43-37 win in Tuscaloosa in the third week of the season. Rebels QB Chad Kelly sliced the Alabama secondary up like a Thanksgiving turkey when he passed for 341 yards and three touchdowns.
In order for Michigan State to replicate that outcome, Cook and his top playmaker, Aaron Burbidge, who caught 80 passes for 1,219 yards, will have to both be at their best.