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
Ohio State- 3rd
Ohio State- 2nd
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