Year number two of the College Football Playoff process was much less chaotic and controversial than last season was.
The four teams who will be playing in the semi-final games all clearly deserve to be playing today for a chance to earn the National Championship. Three of the teams, Clemson, Alabama and Michigan State, all won their respective conferences championship game nearly four weeks ago, while Oklahoma won the Big-12 conference outright by playing very impressively down the back stretch of the season.
The games feature two of the Heisman award finalists, the Heisman Trophy winner, and the recipient of the Burlsworth Trophy, which is handed out to the best walk-on player in the country.
Alabama is the only team playing in this year’s College Football Playoff that also played in the playoffs last year.
What a better way to ring in the new year than with two marquee games with four marquee programs from all over the College Football landscape?
Capital One Orange Bowl No. 4 Oklahoma (11-1) vs. No. 1 Clemson (13-0)
A matchup of two dynamic quarterbacks who can both pass and run with the best of ‘em.
Heisman finalist DeShaun Watson leads the Clemson offense after an impressive sophomore season. Watson threw for just over 3,500 yards and 30 touchdowns, while he ran for just under 900 yards and 11 more scores.
On the other side of the field, walk-on player of the year Baker Mayfield threw for nearly 3,400 yards and 35 touchdowns and scrambled for 420 yards and 7 TDs during the regular season.
Both teams also have powerful running backs who both eclipsed 1,200 yards.
After rushing for over 1,700 yards a season ago, sophomore back Samaje Perine carried less of the load this year for the Sooners with Mayfield and fellow running back Joe Mixon each taking over 100 carries.
When Mayfield isn’t handing the ball off, or tucking it in and running it himself, he will be looking for his All-Big 12 First Team wide receiver Sterling Shepherd, one of nine Oklahoma players to receive All-Big 12 First Team recognition. Shepherd hauled in 79 catches for 1201 yards, and caught at least one touchdown pass in each of the five games the Sooners played against ranked opponents.
Watson is the more gifted runner between the two QBs, and he also spreads the ball around a little better than Mayfield, however, there’s no question that Artavis Scott is the number one target among the Clemson wide outs.
Wayne Gallman leads the Tigers rushing attack having rushed for 1,332 yards and 10 scores.
Both teams have potent offenses that average over 500 yards per game, but also have above-average defenses in terms of number of points allowed. Oklahoma gives up 60 more total yards than Clemson does, on average, however, the Sooners defense allows an average of less than one point more per game than the Tigers.
Bob Stoops and Oklahoma will have a little extra motivation going into this game, given the blowout loss to Clemson in the Russell Athletic Bowl last year.
The difference in this game will be if can Oklahoma make enough big plays against a Tiger defense whose weakness is the ability to give up big plays. Shepherd could have his biggest performance yet.
Prediction: Oklahoma wins 37-33
Goodyear Cotton Bowl No. 3 Michigan St. (12-1) vs. No. 2 Alabama (12-1)
Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio will try to become the first head coach under the Nick Saban “tree of coaches” to beat his predecessor. As always, though, when facing Alabama, it’s going to be an uphill battle for the Spartans.
However, Alabama does just about everything else better than Michigan State.
Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry leads a balanced Crimson Tide offense after having arguably the best season ever for an SEC running back. Henry carried the ball 339 times, going for 1,986 yards and 23 touchdowns.
Henry averaged over 150 yards on the ground per game by himself, and as a team Alabama gained an average of 208.2 yards per game running the football.
Michigan State does have the seventh-best defense against the rush in the country, but the Crimson Tide defense is the best in the nation at defending the run. Alabama’s defense is also nationally ranked defending against the pass.
It will be a challenge for Michigan State to win this game, but Sparty certainly has the ability to take down the Tide.
Maybe the biggest stat in MSU’s favor is turnover margin.
In Alabama’s loss to Ole Miss, the Tide turned the ball over five times. Michigan State has a +16 turnover margin, good enough for fourth-best in the nation.
Also in Bama’s lone loss of the season, Saban’s defense could not contain Chad Kelly, who threw for over 300 yards and extended plays with his feet.
Cook is one of the best passers in the nation, but also knows how to extend plays long enough for his receivers to get open.
If Michigan State can force the Tide to turn the ball over, and if Cook can dice a stout Alabama defense, the Spartans should be in a position to win late in the game.
Henry, though, will be the difference. If the Spartans can slow him down enough they will have a chance to win this game.
But I don’t think that will be the case.
Prediction: Alabama wins 27-17
If today’s games play out this way, it will set up a matchup in the National Championship game between two of the most storied programs in College Football history in Alabama and Oklahoma.