The College Football Playoff semifinals are on New Year’s Eve, starting at 4 PM ET with Oklahoma-Clemson in the Orange Bowl and the prime-time show with Michigan State-Alabama in the Cotton Bowl. Here’s some thoughts on both games…
I like Clemson. Dabo Swinney seems like a pretty good guy and I’ve liked seeing him get Clemson over the proverbial hump and into this game. I have no problem with Clemson as the #1 team in the country—in a year where no one has really stood out, there’s nothing wrong with defaulting to the only unbeaten team.
But…you knew there was a “but” coming after all that opening didn’t you? I just can’t quite get sold on this team as a national champion. The Clemson offense bogged down against Florida State and had Everett Golson been available in that game, the Seminoles might have had enough firepower to win it. Clemson bogged down in the second half against Notre Dame.
There’s reasonable excuses both times—Florida State has one of the best defenses in the country and the Notre Dame game was played in a monsoon (although the Irish were able to move it in the second half and nearly pulled the game out). Because of the reasonable excuses, I’m open to having my mind changed on Thursday, but Clemson strikes me as more a good major bowl team—like Notre Dame, whom the Tigers played essentially even—rather than national championship-ready.
Oklahoma is the hot team right now and Baker Mayfield is the hot quarterback. The Sooners have a true Big Three offensively with Mayfield, running back Samaje Perine and wide receiver Sterling Shepard. They’re the most prolific offense in the country and have hit on all cylinders in November.
But…there’s a but here too. The Big 12 has become notorious for games that are glorified flag football. How seriously can we take the offensive numbers that OU has to step outside the league? Clemson might not be a perfect team, but they hit and they play real football.
And while the Oklahoma defense played well enough to win down the stretch, they faced backup quarterbacks in their games against TCU, Baylor and Oklahoma State. Now they face DeShaun Watson, the chief rival to Mayfield for the honor of best quarterback in the nation.
I think the ultimate key to this game lies with Clemson’s edge pass rushers. Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd have been terrific all year and it’s imperative that the Tigers be able to pressure Mayfield and do it by rushing no more than four and limiting Mayfield’s options. Lawson and Dodd are capable and whether they get the job done likely decides the winner of this game.
The Alabama defense ranks third in the nation, the best defense in the Playoff. Whether you use statistics or rely on what you see, the Tide’s front seven can stop anyone. They teed off on LSU’s Leonard Fournette and shut him down. If you want to establish the run against Alabama, you’re out of luck.
That doesn’t have to bother Michigan State though, because the Spartans don’t rely on the run. They rely on Conner Cook throwing the football. While the Orange Bowl might have the two best college quarterbacks over the past year, Cook is the best NFL prospect at the quarterback position and if not for a shoulder injury down the stretch, might have the numbers to match. He’s also got a solid receiver in Aaron Burbridge who can stretch defenses and is a tough enough to go over the middle and get hit.
Cook struggled against Iowa in the Big Ten Championship Game, but he was also clearly limited by his shoulder. I’m going to assume that the time off has allowed him to get fully healthy. If Cook can’t make all the throws, then there’s no point in discussing anything else—this game is over.
It’s not that Michigan State is an offensive team that needs to blow the scoreboard lights out. This is still a program built on defense and that went to Ohio State and shut down the Buckeyes. But that game was played in the rain and Sparty didn’t need to score a lot of points. They’ll need to at least find a way to score 24 or so against Alabama and that’s only going to happen with Cook.
Alabama relies on Heisman Trophy-winning running back Derrick Henry, who rushed for nearly 2,000 yards. Michigan State’s defense can get after it up front. We saw them shut down the Buckeye running game with Ezekiel Elliot. It’s easy to dismiss that as the result of bad playcalling by Ohio State and bad weather, but if you watched that game you saw Sparty’s defensive lineman consistently getting into the gaps and plugging holes. They can do the same to Alabama.
That will put a burden on ‘Bama’s Jake Coker. He’s the most inconsistent of the four quarterbacks in the Playoff and by a lot. That’s why I don’t understand why Alabama is such a prohibitive favorite—they’re an 8 ½ point fave in this game and an even money pick to win the national championship. To my eyes, this game looks pretty well even and Alabama looks on a par with everyone else—but not superior.
Moreover, if the game is close, Michigan State is easily the team you can have more confidence in. As great as Nick Saban is, it’s reasonable to wonder about his game management skills. In his national championship runs at ‘Bama, he won decisively over Texas (2009), LSU (2011) and Notre Dame (2012). He’s lost high-profile close games to Auburn (2013) and Ohio State (2014). The only significant win that was really close that I can recall is the 2012 SEC Championship Game against Georgia—whose now-deposed head coach Mark Richt had his own issues with game management.
I don’t want to make too much of it, because if the “worst” thing you can say about a coach is that he wins his biggest games in blowouts, that doesn’t exactly qualify as virulent criticism. But the lack of close wins—and Saban’s spotty record in the NFL where most games are close—stand in sharp contrast to Michigan State. The Spartans have gone to the wire in their wins over Oregon, Michigan, Ohio State and Iowa this season. They did the same last year in the Cotton Bowl against Baylor. The coaches and players know how to compete with a chill down their spine.
Las Vegas says Oklahoma and Alabama will win. I’m predicting Oklahoma and Michigan State. And my heart is with Clemson & Michigan State.