(1) Clemson v. (4) Oklahoma
4:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Clemson -4.5, Over/Under: 63
After much deliberation, the second annual College Football Playoff is finally among us, with the first of the pair of semifinals taking place at the Orange Bowl as the top-ranked Clemson Tigers battle the fourth-ranked Oklahoma Sooners for the right to play the National Championship Game on January 10th. It’s been a rather disappointing week for Clemson (13-0, 9-0 in ACC), who so close to today’s contest had the misfortune of sending a trio of players home due to suspension. Tight End Jay Jay McCullough, Kicker Ammon Lakip, and Receiver Deon Caine were all suspended after each reportedly failed respective drug tests. Ah, to be young and dumb again! Anyways, of the three mentioned, only the loss of Caine appears to be of any consequence; the 6-2, 190 lbs Freshman led all Tigers’ Receivers in yards per catch (17.1), while amassing 582 yards and five touchdowns on thirty-four receptions. While much has been of this in the media this week (and again, why wouldn’t it?), it’s hardly a blow to Head Coach Dabo Swinney’s prolific offense, which is among the most explosive in the country. Heisman Finalist Deshaun Watson is an emerging talent at Quarterback, completing 69.5% of his passes for 3,517 yards (8.5 y/a), thirty touchdowns to eleven interceptions, while racking up another 887 and eleven touchdowns on the ground via his legs, a year after missing half the campaign with a knee injury. However, perhaps his biggest strength is his willingness to spread the ball around the field; the Sophomore has distributed the ball evenly to a bevy of talented players, with seven different Tigers reeling in at least twenty catches, while just as many registered a minimum of 200 receiving yards. Keep in mind that last year’s leading Wideout, Mike Williams (1,030 yards, 6 TDs in 2014) missed all but one game this term after suffering a fractured neck in the Season Opener, easily ending his campaign. Look for Artavis Scott (805 yards, 5 TDs), Charone Peake (563 yards, 5 TDs), and Jordan Leggett (442 yards, 7 TDs) to pick up the slack for the void left by their teammates, for after all, they’ve been doing so all year long. With that said, as explosive as Clemson has proven to be offensively in 2015, they’ve made quite an impression on the defensive side of the ball, which is all the more surprising given how many talented players left in the offseason. The reigning ACC Champions have allowed just 18.8 points (15th Nationally) on a solid 296.2 total yards per game. They’ve particularly staunch against the pass, yielding a mere 166.9 yards through the air on a scant 46.1% passing. Defensive Coordinator Brent Venables has done a tremendous job with this unit, which looks primed to send another cop of talented defenders to the NFL once more in the Spring. Linemen Shaq Lawson (9.5 Sacks) and Kevin Dodd (8.5 Sacks) have been a nightmare in the trenches, with the former leading the country with a staggering 21.5 tackles for loss, while B.J. Goodson (91 Tackles, 5.5 Sacks , 1 INT) has been a star at Linebacker in his Senior season. Not to mention, Jayron Kearse (52 Tackles, 1 INT, 6 PDs) and Mackensie Alexander (21 Tackles, 4 PDs) highlight a talent-laden Secondary. Hopefully, this unit has used the extended break wisely, for there are still some minor things they must correct that became very apparent the end of the season; Clemson allowed a total of sixty-nine points between their Regular Season Finale against South Carolina (37-32) and the Conference Championship tilt with North Carolina (45-37), yielding 784 yards of total offense in that span. They’d be smart to tighten things up against Oklahoma’s prolific offensive attack.
Meanwhile, it’s funny how the universe works, for the Oklahoma (11-1, 8-1 in Big Twelve) not only gets an opportunity to advance to the National Title Game, but has been afforded the possibility of righting a wrong as they look to gain a measure of vengeance on Clemson, who trounced them in last year’s Russell Athletic Bowl in a 40-6 debacle. There is no doubt that the defeat left an awful taste in the mouths of Sooners’ players, along with Head Coach Bob Stoops, who watched as his offense turned in a terribly sloppy performance with five turnovers. Evidently, the Football Gods are keen on second chances, as these sides meet once again approximately a year later with much higher stakes on the line. So what’s the big difference between this year’s Sooners and the last, you ask? Two words: Baker Mayfield. As Stoops and his staff struggled to find a reliable signal-caller in 2014, 2015 has been a complete about-face, as Mayfield arrived on Campus to little fanfare, expected to be incumbent Quarterback Trevor Knight’s backup. However, the Texas Tech transfer quickly ascended to the starting position where he deftly piloted the fifth-highest scoring offense in the country (42.2) to a staggering 542.9 total yards per game. After sitting out all of 2014 due to Transfer Regulations, Mayfield wowed the faithful in Norman, completing 68.6% of his passes for 3,389 yards (9.6 y/a), thirty-five touchdowns and just five interceptions. And while he’s not immediately thought of a threat with his legs, the crafty transfer amassed another 420 yards and seven scores on the ground. Receiver Sterling Shepard has been his primary beneficiary in the passing game, hauling in seventy-nine passes for 1,201 receiving yards (15.2 y/r) and eleven touchdowns, followed by the tandem of Dede Westbrook (674 yards, 4 TDs) and Durron Neal (527 yards, 3 TDs). On the ground, Tailback Samaje Perine has once more anchored the rushing attack, racking up 1,291 yards and fifteen touchdowns on a very healthy 6.1 yards per carry. The explosive Sophomore may not have reached the ridiculous heights of his Freshman campaign (1,713 yards, 21 TDs), but that has been more a function of the offense being much more balanced, with plenty of talent surrounding him. Aiding him in the Backfield has been Joe Mixon, the big Frosh who has not only made the most of his touches in the running game (749 yards, 7 TDs), but in the passing game as well (345 yards, 4 TDs). However, with their perennial high-powered offensive attack looking for retribution today, their compatriots on the defensive side of the ball will need to find a way NOT to repeat last year’s embarrassing performance. Defensively, the Sooners have been solid for the better part of the season, allowing 19.2 points (19th Nationally) on 350.7 total yards per game. While the yardage allowed isn’t the most reassuring figure, this one is; Oklahoma has enjoyed a plus-10 differential in turnovers thus far, thanks to the twenty-six they’ve managed to force. In fact, despite relinquishing an average of 409.3 total yards over the last four outings, Stoops’ charges managed to prove victorious in each by logging ten turnovers while committing just three themselves. Nothing decides the outcome of a football game than turnovers, which has been the driving force for this defense all year long. And you can expect it to be the ultimate factor in today’s game as well; while the Sooners have enjoyed such a positive disparity in that category, the Tigers have been just the opposite, committing two more turnovers than they have forced. If Watson and Co. can’t take care of the football today, then they run the risk of Oklahoma making them pay for it, for unlike last year, they certainly have the firepower to take advantage of such mistakes this time around.
(2) Alabama v. (3) Michigan State
8:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Alabama -10, Over/Under: 44.5
While the earlier game has the makings of offensive shootout, the latter half of today’s National Semifinals has all the appearances of an old-fashioned defensive struggle, as the second-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide battle the Michigan State Spartans at the Cotton Bowl. The only returning participant from last year’s inaugural College Football Playoff, Alabama (12-1, 8-1 in SEC) would just as soon prefer to forget about 2014’s disappointment as they were upset by fourth-ranked Ohio State, who ultimately went on to hoist a National Championship Trophy. Not much has changed for the two-time reigning SEC Champions, who spent the majority of the season on the fringe of the top-ranking in the country. Despite their lone loss, there are many around the country that would argue that Nick Saban’s charges are indeed the finest of this final four, though they certainly possess the requisite experience needed to get the job done on such a big stage. Defensively, though it’s said seemingly almost every year, this may be the best group that Saban has put together since arriving in Tuscaloosa back in 2007. Thus far, the Crimson Tide have relegated the opposition to a mere 13.4 points per game, lowest in the country, on just 258.1 total yards of offense. Running the ball against them has proven to be a fruitless task, as they have stifled the Line of Scrimmage so that opponents have only averaged a meager 74.0 yards on a scant 2.4 yards per carry. Quarterbacks haven’t had much luck either against these guys, completing a poor 49.1% of their attempts for 184.1 yards through the air. It all starts up front for Alabama, where they’re Defensive Line is hands down the most talented position group in the country. Come May, you’ll be sure to hear many of the following names announced as First Round Selection’s in the NFL Draft; A’Shawn Robinson (3.5 Sacks, 7.5 TFL), Jarran Reed (1.0 Sack, 4.5 TFL), and Jonathan Allen (10.0 Sacks, 12.5 TFL) are studs on the Defensive Front, while Linebacker Reggie Ragland (2.5 Sacks, 6.5 TFL, 2 FF) took home SEC Defensive Player of the Year honors. Some opponents such as Mississippi (341 yards), Texas A&M (284 yards), and Mississippi State (301 yards) have found success throwing the ball downfield against this unit, but that’s been a increasingly hard to do so consistently against these guys up front, who have generated an NCAA-best forty-four sacks to this point. Some would argue that the Tide’s Defensive Backs just aren’t tested enough on a regular basis, but when team’s don’t have the opportunity to take a ton of shots down field in fear of subjecting their Quarterback to harm, they’re going to give up a play or two from time to time. And despite, giving up so many passing yards to the Aggies and Bulldogs, ‘Bama did just fine, winning the pair of games by a combined 72-29. However, if there is a legitimate question to be raised about this team, it will be found on offense, where in many ways they’ve reverted back to Three Yards and a Cloud of Dust motif that has oftentimes characterized them in the past. Indeed, this team has grown into the Derrick Henry Show on this side of the ball; the Heisman-winning Tailback set an SEC Single Season Record with 1,986 rushing yards and twenty-three touchdowns on 339 carries (5.9 y/c), amassing nine 100-yard performances, including a quartet of 200-yard outbursts. As decorated as any rusher to come out of Tuscaloosa, Henry gashed Florida’s solid defense for 189 yards and a score in the SEC Championship Game. And let us not forget that he is afforded quite the luxury of running behind one of the most effective Offensive Lines in the country, which should see many of their number make the transition to the professional level as well. Quarterback, though, is a different proposition altogether, as nobody really knows what to expect out of Jacob Coker, whom finally earned the starting gig after coming up short in the battle with Blake Sims in 2014. Offensive Coordinator Lane Kiffin has dialed down the creativity from last year’s passing game, utilizing Coker in a far more conservative sense; the Senior has completed 65.7% of his passes for 2,489 yards (7.4 y/a) seventeen touchdowns and eight interceptions, effectively managing the game. Since nobody’s been able to stop Henry, it’s been a rare occasion that we’ve really gotten the chance to see what this kid can do, for he’s only attempted thirty or more passes three times; in Alabama’s lone loss to Mississippi, Coker was forced to throw to get back into the game, connecting on 21-of-45 attempts (46.7%) for 201 yards three touchdowns and a pair of interceptions. On that day, he looked visibly out of his comfort zone caretaking the offense, which is precisely what Michigan State would like to do to him tonight.
Meanwhile, if there is indeed a team that will slow down the unstoppable Derrick Henry, then it’s a safe bet that it will be Michigan State (12-1,8-1 in Big Ten), for there is a proverbial Team of Destiny to be found in this final foursome, it’s definitely these guys. Simply put, the Spartans aren’t supposed to be here; after a disappointing late season loss at a very poor Nebraska side, the prospects of getting this point seemed almost laughable. However, as they’ve done all season long, Mark D’Antonio’s charges grinded away; whether it was a shocking 17-14 upset of undefeated reigning National Champion Ohio State in Columbus with Star Quarterback Connor Cook sidelined with a shoulder injury, or coming back to defeat another undefeated club, Iowa, in the Big Ten Championship Game via a marathon-esque, 22-play drive to seal their second Conference Championship in three years, the Spartans have done the requisite dirty work to get to AT&T Field tonight. Oh, and who could forget they’re miraculous blocked punt return that saved their season against bitter rival Michigan back on October 17th? Seven of their outings this season were decided by seven points or less, with all but one of that number being separated by four points or fewer. Hell, even look at the disparity in yards between this team and their opponents; the Spartans have only outgained the opposition by 53.9 yards this season. So yeah, these kids have made quite a living on living dangerously. However, by far and away the best thing that could have happened to this team was the luxury of rest, as Cook received nearly a month to rest his ailing shoulder, which reportedly has the school’s all-time leader in victories (35) in top condition for what is sure to be a physical encounter with Alabama. Though he would have been a high pick had he declared for last year’s NFL Draft, Cook returned to East Lansing with unfinished business on his mind, which he and his teammates are on the verge of rectifying. Despite the shoulder injury, the Senior has completed 56.8% of his passes for 2,911 yards (7.9 y/a), twenty-four touchdowns and just five interceptions, leading an offense that has averaged 29.8 points (60th Nationally) on 396.8 total yards per game. His gritty performance against Iowa in the Big ten Championship Game was indeed something to behold, as he fought through the pain in his shoulder to help engineer the aforementioned lengthy drive, which believe it or not, consisted of only ONE passing play. During the drive, Cook converted on a crucial Fourth Down via a heroic dive, and laid a crucial block during teammate L.J. Scott’s game-winning touchdown run. And speaking of Scott (691 yards, 11 TDs), the Freshman is emerging at the right time, giving D’Antonio a solid three-headed monster in the Backfield with Madre London (489 yards, 3 TDs) and Gerald Holmes (534 yards, 8 TDs) that has compiled an average of 161.5 yards per game on the ground. With that said, Michigan State must not be content charging headfirst at Alabama’s vaunted defensive front, for doing so would likely be a recipe for disaster. If Cook is truly healthy, then look for the Spartans to incorporate some trickery in an attempt to keep the Tide off balance. Look for Aaron Burbridge, the Big Ten’s leader in both receptions (79) and receiving yards (1,209) to play a pretty sizable role here. But with that said, stonewalling Henry will likely be the most important part of the gameplan. Sustaining drives is a great way to limit the effect the Heisman will have, and D’Antonio must do everything within his power to make the aforementioned Coker throw the ball; opposing Quarterbacks have found more success throwing downfield against these guys in year’s past, but with the game on the line, they’ve proven more than proficient enough to clamp down, just look at their performances against Ohio State and Iowa for proof. The Spartans have amassed thirty-five sacks along with twenty-eight turnovers, fifteen of which were interceptions. Defensive End Shilique Calhoun has been a nightmare for opposing signal-callers, racking up 10.5 sacks to go with 14.5 tackles for loss, and three defended passes.