Previewing This Weekend’s Bowl Games and the 2019 Playoff

There have been two good College Football Playoff Semi-final games in the tournament’s five year history.

First was the improbable Ohio State win over Alabama in the inaugural season, where Cardale Jones rallied back from a 21-6 first half deficit to later take a 42-28 lead over the Crimson Tide.  Jones and the Buckeyes later won the whole freaking thing.

Second was the Rose Bowl shootout during the 2017-18 season between Georgia and Oklahoma, a game that, despite different players being involved for the Sooners, looms large heading into Saturday’s first semi-final.  It taught us that 1) The semis can actually be good football games and 2) Lincoln Riley’s offense may not be successful only against Big 12 schools.  The Sooners need No. 2 to be the case  tomorrow afternoon.

College Football Playoff #1: No. 4 Oklahoma vs. No. 1 LSU

If there is any case against the job that Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley has done at the school since taking over for Bob Stoops, it’s that his offense  – no matter which Heisman winner of finalist is at the helm – has performed poorly against good defenses.

Before getting drubbed by Clemson, the Alabama defense stopped Kyler Murray in his tracks last year.  It was only an 11 point final, but the Crimson Tide went up 28-0 before a late Sooner rally.  The game wasn’t nearly as close as the game indicated.

And in Oklahoma’s College Football Playoff debut in 2015-16, they put up just 17 against Clemson.  Bob Stoops was in charge, but Riley was the offensive coordinator.

There is one outlier here, however.  Oklahoma put up 48 on Georgia in that classic double OT Rose Bowl two years ago, but gave up 54 points in the process.  The Sooners had leads of 21-7 and 31-14 in that game, and Georgia got stops at key times.  When Oklahoma’s offense had to deliver and was faced with some adversity, it failed to do so.

Georgia’s defense that season was great, ranking fourth in the country according to Football Outsiders’ defensive FEI metric.  Alabama’s group last year placed exactly the same.

LSU’s defense isn’t that good compared to Oklahoma’s previous opponents.  They rank 15th according to FEI and have a knack for missing tackles.  They also gave up 37 points to Ole Miss and let DeVonta Smith – Bama’s third best receiver – torch them in that November showdown between the two teams.

Oklahoma could attempt to follow that Bama blueprint.  They have an electric receiver in CeeDee Lamb – who’s likely a top 20 pick in the 2020 NFL draft and has insane after-the-catch skills – and a quarterback who has runaway legs as well.  For a defense, specifically a secondary that has trouble squaring up and executing, Jalen Hurts and Lamb are a troublesome duo.  Hurts has no problem getting into the second and third levels of a defense with his legs, and Lamb taking the top off the defense is a problem within itself that comes before worrying about tackling him.

While not very likely, it’s possible that Oklahoma doesn’t have to rely solely on its offense this time around, as for years that has been the case.  Oklahoma is 63rd in defensive FEI this season, a massive upgrade from last year where they ranked 104th.  That’s still not great, especially for a top four team in the country (In fact, it’s quite embarrassing), but junior linebacker Kenneth Murray – the star of this group and at worst a second round pick – can’t do it all.

(Murray is incredible. He’s a bit like former Kentucky linebacker Josh Allen because of the insane versatility. Obviously Allen is more of a pass rusher, but Murray has that do-it-all skill set.)

Bottom line is: If Oklahoma needs just one stop, they should be able to get it this time around.  The Sooners are 23rd in Football Outsiders’ busted drive rate. In the past, they’ve had no luck getting their defense to come up big.

If Oklahoma’s monumental change has been their defense not being a complete liability, LSU’s change has been their explosive offense and ability to throw the football.  For the first time all decade, the Tigers have a legit passing game thanks to  Joe Burrow’s Heisman season.  The eventual No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft is the second best quarterback the SEC has seen this decade and makes LSU not just your classic defensive-heavy, power running team.

Oklahoma’s surprisingly competent defense is really good at two things: getting stops and not allowing big plays.  For a Big 12 team, ranking 39th in FO’s Explosive Drive rate is impressive given that conference’s knack for offense.  It’s an indicator that Oklahoma’s D might be even better than some stats show.

Oklahoma limiting LSU’s passing game and explosiveness allows the Sooners to have a fallback in case the faultiness of Riley’s offense against good defenses manifests again.  If they can force LSU into more of an old school, ground-and-pound attack, it makes the Sooners offense much more lethal, and makes LSU have to play from behind.

But an Oklahoma defense giving Burrow trouble is really hard to picture.  Burrow hasn’t let any SEC defense give him trouble.  Why would Oklahoma’s?

LSU is too good.  They’re the best team in the country for a reason.  Burrow’s the Heisman winner for a reason.  This isn’t the blowout some think it could be, but until Riley can prove that his offense is unstoppable against anyone, this is LSU’s game, and possibly their season.

Prediction: LSU-35 Oklahoma-28

College Football Playoff #2: No. 3 Clemson vs. No. 2 Ohio State

Here are the FEI rankings of these two teams…


Ohio State- 1st

Clemson- 2nd


Ohio State- 3rd

Clemson- 5th


Ohio State- 2nd

Clemson- 1st

This game could not fit the definition of a grudgematch more.  You truly have the second and third-best teams in the country.  You have two top five offenses and defenses pitted against each other.  You have not only the two best quarterbacks in the state of Georgia’s 2018 high school class, but the country’s 2018 class – both of whom were considered and still are generational quarterbacks (Trevor Lawrence more so than Justin Fields, obviously).  This game could serve as a National Championship in most years.

Clemson received some criticism this season, and at times deservedly so.  They didn’t always pass the eye test – Lawrence threw some really bad interceptions at times (though he only had eight on the year) and the Tigers barley survived against North Carolina, which should have been a piece of cake like the rest of its schedule was.  They really haven’t been tested, which makes an opponent like Ohio State even scarier.

But as we learned last year, Clemson shows up when you least expect them.  We went into that national championship game expecting Alabama to be the team to execute better and not choke.  Dabo Swinney’s squad went in and shredded the Tide  on both ends.  It was stunning.

Clemson is simply another tough game for the Buckeyes though.  Ohio State and LSU are the top two teams in the country not just because of their talent or record but because they’ve proven they can do it against good teams as well.  Justin Fields and that ridiculously talented offense have beaten Indiana (Underrated!), Michigan (Yes, they’re not good.  Also yes: They’d be the second best team Clemson played), Penn State and Wisconsin (Twice!  Neither were close!).  It’s a staggering resume.

Fields has made every defense look like cheese.  The fewest points the Buckeyes scored in a game this was against Penn State. where they put up a not necessarily bad number in 28.  The Nittany Lions were 10th in defensive FEI, by the way.

It’s the levels Ohio State has offensively.  Fields doesn’t get enough credit for his arm – the legs are what he’s mostly praised for.  Receivers like Chris Olave and KJ Hill are stars.  J.K. Dobbins had a Heisman case and will be a workhorse running back in the NFL.  They’re an absolute force and showed it all year.

If the best defense in the country has one weakness, it’s their ability to prevent the big play.  The only FO metric that Clemson finished the regular season ranked outside the top three in was Explosive Drive Rate (DED)  They were still excellent – 15th in the country.  But it’s a massive hole considering how good every other aspect of their defense is, and considering that this isn’t just the best offense they’ve faced, but perhaps the best in the country.

The Buckeyes finished seventh in DED, almost half as better as Clemson.  Like the Tigers though, that rank is an outlier compared to their other metrics, except turnover rate, where Ohio State is 23rd in the country.  Clemson finished first.

Despite Lawrence’s clumsiness and Clemson’s fearsome defense, turnovers feel unlikely.  These offenses and quarterbacks are too good and too smart to let a mistake like that happen, especially on this stage.  Ohio State’s low(er) rate shouldn’t matter.

This game could go so many directions.  With this much talent on both offenses, defense could go completely out the window and we get a shootout.  At the same time, these are the two best defensive teams in the country.  Ohio State has faced good units, but nothing like this.  Clemson hasn’t faced anything even remotely close.

That’s the cloud hanging over this game, and ultimately Clemson.  Yes they have Lawrence, who’s a generational talent surrounded with a similar weapons core that Ohio State has.  Yes, their defense is ridiculously talented and performed at a ridiculously level.  But this year, there’s almost a UCF type of vibe to the Tigers.  The schedule has been one that rivals those two years where UCF was in the Playoff conversation.  But unlike the Scarlett Knights, Clemson is actually getting a chance to prove they belong.  A win this weekend would be as shocking if not more than last year’s over Alabama.

Prediction: Ohio State-45  Clemson-24 

Quick hits on this weekend’s other big bowl games…

Holiday Bowl: No. 22 USC vs. No. 16 Iowa

Normally Iowa’s defense would be able to win them a game like this, but USC showed in their upset win against Utah  – FEI’s seventh ranked defense – that they won’t be shut down completely by a dominant group.  Iowa’s offense is going to have to score enough to keep them in this.  That shouldn’t be hard against a porous USC group, but never underestimate a Big Ten offense’s ability to not produce.

Prediction: USC-28 Iowa-13

Cotton Bowl: No. 17 Memphis vs. No. 10 Penn State

Cincinnati was the best defense Memphis faced this season, and they took care of them in back-to-back weeks, scoring 34 and 29 points respectively in each contest.  Penn State not only is a top ten group on that end, but has faced significantly better competition thanks to its Power Five status.  We could see some points in this game if Memphis’ seventh-ranked offense shows up, but this game is likely a wake up call for the Tigers.

Prediction: Penn State- 34 Memphis-26

Orange Bowl: No. 9 Florida vs. No. 24 Virginia 

Felipe Franks’ injury was horrific, but since Kyle Trask took over, the Gators have been a different team offensively.  Trask has given Florida’s defense a massive break since it doesn’t have to bail the offense out of any game.  Virginia is pretty average on both sides of the ball, so this should be an easy win for the Gators.

Prediction: Florida-31 Virginia-13

The Preview of the Championship Games That Matter

This weekend is not exactly primed for chaos.

Despite three top ten matchups within the conference championships, the Playoff picture is basically set.  If everything goes right, an Ohio State-Utah and LSU-Clemson Semi-final looks like what we’re going to get.

But there are reasons that may not happen.  Utah, with their nice cushion at No. 5 over Oklahoma, still plays in the Pac-12, a land of complete uncertainty.  Georgia may test LSU more than we think with its suffocating defense, and Wisconsin, fresh off a huge win at Minnesota, could keep things tight with the Buckeyes thanks to their revolutionary (At least, for them) offense.

It’s certainly fitting that the biggest domino that needs to fall comes first in the weekend’s slate.

Pac-12 Championship Game: No. 13 Oregon vs. No. 5 Utah

The most likely scenario gets the Utes in.  They beat an Oregon team that’s had a rough few weeks – losing at Arizona State and struggling early against Oregon State before winning by just 14 in a dreadful 24-10 game – and likely face Ohio State in the Playoff.

But there’s one outcome where the Utes take care of business in San Francisco and don’t get in: a Georgia win.

LSU losing, theoretically, doesn’t drop them from the rankings.  They’d have one loss and be just too good to leave out – they’ve been the No. 1 team in the country for most of the season.

A Georgia win obviously punches them in, and barring anything else, keeps the top four exactly the same for the Playoff.

Utah just has to focus on themselves and get the job done.  They don’t control their own destiny, so there’s no reason to worry about it or overthink it.

It should be an easy task just to take of business.  Oregon has zero momentum coming into the biggest game of their season, and has zero track record showing up for these type of games in the post Marcus Mariota era.

When Utah is healthy, they’re dominant.  The offense is completely different with Zack Moss on the field and in full health.  The senior has ran for 1,246 yards on 200 carries (!!!) with 15 touchdowns this season, and is high on running back boards for the upcoming NFL Draft.  Combine his presence with the rejuvenated Tyler Huntley – who’s actually throwing the ball downfield – and Utah’s offense is a complete reverse of what it was last season.  Huntley is averaging 11.1 yards per attempt and is completing 75.5 percent (!!!) of his passes this season, which has added a totally new dimension to an offense that was predicated on Moss and dink and dunk passing last season.

Arizona State got the best of Oregon by attacking the Ducks secondary deep.  Brandon Aiyuk and Frank Darby ran straight down the field and torched them.  Jayden Daniels made the throws.  Utah has a quarterback now that can now make them too.

Oregon should have that QB talent as well.  But it’s been a rough stretch for Justin Herbert.  His two interceptions at ASU were game-changers, and the underwhelming Oregon State win didn’t make up for the week before with a stat line of 18/30 for 174 yards and a touchdown.

Oregon’s speed is their biggest advantage.  Against ASU, Oregon used a ton of screen passing concepts to unlock their skill position guys.  The Sun Devils have not been a great tackling team this season, so forcing them to execute against speedy guys was a good strategy.

Utah’s defense isn’t ASU’s, obviously.  It’s much better, ranking fifth in Football Outsiders’ defensive FEI.  That might be bad news for the Ducks, especially if Herbert is going to continue playing like he has.

A Utah win kicks a very deserving Oklahoma out of the picture, and that’s assuming the Sooners win.  But Utah’s loss, which is in ways worse than the Sooners’, can be understandable.  Moss got six carries in that late September loss to USC’s third-string quarterback.  Not much else can prove his worth when he’s running hard.  If he does that Friday, Utah should be fine.

Prediction: Utah-31 Oregon-20

Big 12 Championship Game: No. 7 Baylor vs. No. 6 Oklahoma

Oklahoma is getting screwed by the College Football Playoff committee.  The Sooners rank 19th in strength of schedule, which is not remarkable, but is considering higher than Utah, who checks in 10 spots lower at 29.  Throw in the third-best offense in the country by offensive FEI (A group that was No. 1 for quite a bit) and the Big 12 not being an overall embarrassment like that other conference and the Sooners should be ranked fifth.  It’s clear we’re at the point with the Pac-12 that the committee is starting to feel bad for them.

Oklahoma doesn’t have zero chance, but it’s slim.  They first, obviously, need Utah to lose.  If that can happen, and LSU takes care of Georgia, the Sooners are in.  Not impossible, but also not likely.

An Oklahoma win and a stunning Ohio State or Clemson loss could generate a chance; Virginia would have to come up extremely clutch as a Buckeye loss may not drop them from the Playoff.  If anything, a Buckeye loss just puts Wisconsin into the playoff, given the recency bias and the fact that a Big Ten title is just more meaningful than a Big 12 one.

Clemson might get the boot with a loss even though it’d be their only one of the season.  The committee ranked them outside the top four in the first installment for a reason.  They’ve been shaky at times this year.

Oklahoma, like Utah, needs some help.  Also like the Utes, they have to worry about themselves first.  That’s the first step to this.

It’s likely beneficial for both that these two teams saw each other just three weeks ago in a WILD game in Waco.  Baylor dominated Oklahoma in the first half, leading 28-3 before halftime.

But the script flipped in the third quarter, just as everyone’s TVs flicked off.  Oklahoma found that deadly offense again and rallied to win 34-31.

Baylor has to do a couple things in this game.  Obviously, not completely choking in the second half would be one of them if not the most important.

Otherwise, the Bears should know that they have an advantage in this game.  Their offense was completely unstoppable early in that Week 10 game.  Oklahoma’s 70th ranked defense by FEI was torched by Charlie Brewer and company, giving them literally zero chance early.  It was 21-3 at the end of the first quarter.

If that’s the case, we should get a shootout, just not as lopsided a one.  Oklahoma, as demonstrated in that game and all season, has terrifying explosiveness.  Jalen Hurts has been ripping balls that we’ve never seen him throw before.  CeeDee Lamb is one of the most electric players in the country. The Sooners will be able to keep up.

Baylor should be able to answer.  Lack of execution as stark as what we saw from the Bears three weeks ago won’t happen again; or at least, it shouldn’t.

Regardless, it likely won’t be enough.  Oklahoma’s firepower is just too scary, and their confidence after the first matchup will be sky high.  What a shame it likely won’t be enough for another Playoff appearance.

Prediction: Oklahoma-48 Baylor-35

SEC Championship Game: No.4 Georgia vs. No. 2 LSU

As covered above, a Georgia upset eliminates any chance for Utah or Oklahoma to squeak in.

Can the Bulldogs do it?

They have to make this a defensive game.  Georgia’s offense ranked 28th in FEI this season, thanks to the second-coming of Dolphins-era Ryan Tannehill at quarterback.  DeAndre Swift has been excellent, but Jake Fromm has accelerated concerns about his ceiling with extremely lackluster offensive outputs this season.  It’s the reason for Georgia’s offensive slide.

Despite the Bulldogs’ third-ranked defense by FEI, LSU feels a bit invincible on the offensive end.  Joe Burrow is likely going to win the Heisman, and betting against him to score points is a death trap. The Tigers’ offense ranked second in FEI this year – a stunning turnaround from where they’ve been the past half decade.

Time after time again, when we’ve thought LSU could face some struggles, they’ve laid waste to good defenses.  They put up 42 points on Florida and 46 on Alabama.  Auburn’s group made them work the hardest they have all year.

That game was tight and low-scoring.  LSU pulled away 23-20 thanks to Burrow sticking it out and Bo Nix looking like a freshman.  Georgia’s a similar team to Auburn.  The defense is going to be there; Fromm may or may not play at a high level.  While it may not have came through in that game, Nix flashed higher ceilings. this season  In a way, he’s much scarier than someone like Fromm because of that potential.  He just didn’t show it against LSU.  With Fromm, you know what you’re getting. There’s much more predictability.  This defense will be ready for that.

Prediction: LSU-30 Georgia-24

Big Ten Championship Game: No. 8 Wisconsin vs. No. 1 Ohio State

Ohio State might be the only team more dominate than LSU this season.  Every game has been or felt like no contest.  They destroyed Michigan at the Big House.  They went up 21-0 on Penn State before letting them back in the game.  And oh, they completely annihilated this Wisconsin team 38-7 in late October.

The Buckeyes made that “revolutionary” Wisconsin offense mentioned above a non-factor in that game.  Wisconsin looked like a classic Big Ten who ran up the middle three straight times with no luck.  Jack Coan was brutal, going 10-17 with a 108 yards.  Jonathan Taylor only mustered 52 yards on 20 carries.  The Buckeyes completely shut them down, casting doubts as to how legit the offense actually was.

Wisconsin has proved that their passing attack isn’t a fluke though.  They used it extremely effectively against Minnesota to get into this title game – Coan was phenomenal in the horrible Minneapolis weather last weekend.

Him doing that again isn’t only unlikely but is only one piece to a near impossible puzzle for the Badgers.  The ninth-ranked Badger defense by FEI was torched by Justin Fields and company in Week 8.  JK Dobbins had 163 yards and two touchdowns.  Justin Fields threw for two and rushed for one more.

Fields, like Burrow, has an inevitability to him.  No matter what a defense tries to do, it feels as if he’ll figure it out and still dominate.  It’s what makes a potential matchup between the two so intriguing.

Coan and the Wisconsin offense, despite a season full of promise and newfound success, just don’t have that level to them.  That was clear in October.  It’ll be so again Saturday.

Prediction: Ohio State-38  Wisconsin-14