What are the various things to look out for during Saturday’s College Football Playoff games?
After four months of preseason excitement, conference clashes and rivalry games, the 2016 season essentially comes down to the College Football Playoff. The Washington Huskies will square off against the Alabama Crimson Tide in the first semifinal at 3 p.m. ET Saturday, while the Ohio State Buckeyes face the Clemson Tigers in the other at 7 p.m.
Other than some really great football, what should we expect from Saturday’s contests? Here is a list of things to pay attention to during the two College Football Playoff semifinals.
** Keep an eye on the battle between the Washington offense and the Alabama defense. The Huskies offense is one of the most explosive units in the country, averaging 7.13 yards per play, which ranks seventh nationally. Similarly, the Crimson Tide D is the best defense in the land, leading the nation in total defense (247.8 ypg) and yards per play (3.94).
** Which unit will prevail? That’s tough to say. On one hand, the Washington offense has played better away from home this year, averaging 529.3 yards and 48 points per game in six road/neutral contests. The Huskies offense also averaged over 6.8 yards per play against Stanford and Utah, which play the same type of physical defense that the Crimson Tide does.
** On the other hand, Alabama’s defense has been absolutely awesome this year. The Tide D held USC – which handed Washington its only loss of the season – to six points, 194 total yards, and a paltry 2.9 yards per play. The following week, it limited Western Kentucky – the nation’s leader in yards per play – to a season-low 239 yards and a pedestrian 3.98 yards per play.
** Alabama’s defense also raised its level of play against ranked opponents, allowing just 190.5 yards per game in those contests.
** Of course, the Tide D faces its toughest test of the season against Washington. The Huskies offense is not only one of the most explosive attacks in the nation; it’s also one of the toughest to stop when it enters the red zone. Washington has scored points on 54 of its 57 red zone opportunities this season, with 75.44 percent of those trips resulting in touchdowns.
** Yet, getting into the red zone will be a tall order. The Alabama D only allowed opponents to enter the red zone 20 times this season — nearly five better than second-place Michigan. More impressively, it only allowed four red zone trips in its final five games. Only one of those drives resulted in a touchdown.
** Although Washington is best known for its explosive offense, the Husky defense is also one of the better units in the nation, ranking fourth in yards per play, sixth in interceptions, and ninth in third down conversion percentage. In addition, it led the nation in turnover margin (+1.62) and turnovers gained (33). This could be a huge factor against Alabama, which has turned the ball over 29 times in its 12 losses since 2008.
** But winning the turnover battle doesn’t guarantee success. The Crimson Tide are 5-0 this year when finishing with more giveaways than takeaways.
** It’ll be interesting to see how the Alabama ground game fares against the Washington front seven. The Huskies defense only allowed 43 runs of 10 yards or longer this year, which was the fifth-best total in the country. However, the Tide running game is also one of the best in the nation, ranking 14th in rushing offense (245 yards per game), ninth in runs of 10 yards or longer (99), and eighth in yards per carry (5.74).
** With that said, Alabama’s passing attack is just as dangerous. Sure, Jalen Hurts has only cracked the 300-yard barrier one time this season, but he’s also one of the most accurate passers in college football, completing 65.3 percent of his throws with a respectable 22/9 TD-to-INT ratio. He’ll face a Washington secondary that picked off nine passes in its final four contests, including three in the Pac-12 championship game.
** In the other semifinal, pay close attention to the battle between the Ohio State defense and the Clemson offense. The Buckeyes D is one of the best in the land, ranking third in total defense, third in yards per play, sixth in interceptions, and fifth in passing yards per game. Likewise, the Tiger offense is one of the top units in the country, averaging 505.2 yards per game and 40.2 yards per game.
** It’s difficult to say which unit will prevail in this matchup. Ohio State played extremely well against the high-octane passing attacks of Tulsa and Oklahoma earlier in the year, recording six picks in those two contests. In addition, the Buckeye defense ranked third in the nation in completion percentage, allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete only 47.3 percent of their throws. That number includes an 8-for-23 performance against Penn State in Ohio State’s only loss this season.
** Conversely, Clemson’s Deshaun Watson has been one of the best passers in the country against ranked opponents this season. In five games against top 25 foes, Watson is completing 66.5% of his passes, averaging 8.5 yards per attempt, and throwing for an average of 360 yards per game. He played well against top defenses last year as well, torching Alabama for 405 yards and four touchdowns in the national championship game.
** In addition, Watson is the only quarterback who’s played in the College Football Playoff before, giving Clemson an edge at the most important position on the field.
** I’m curious to see which unit will win on third down. Ohio State’s defense is one of the better units in the land on this all-important down, allowing opponents to convert on just 30.77% of its chances. This number improves to 25 percent in road/neutral games.
** However, Clemson’s offense does a great job of keeping the chains moving, converting on 51.52 percent of its third down opportunities. That stat is even more impressive when you consider that it includes strong showings against Louisville (4-for-9), Virginia Tech (6-for-11), and Boston College (6-for-12), which all rank in the top 11 nationally in third down conversion percentage.
** Another intriguing matchup to watch is the Ohio State running game against the Clemson front seven. The Buckeyes ground attack is one of the best in the country, averaging 258.33 yards per game and 5.54 yards per carry. The Tigers run defense has been just as good, ranking 20th in rushing yards per game, 20th in yards per carry, and third in tackles for a loss.
** The Clemson run defense is especially tough early in the game, as its limited its opponents to a paltry 2.61 yards per carry in the first half.
** Even if — and it’s a big if — Ohio State can’t establish the run, don’t think that J.T. Barrett isn’t good enough to lead the team to victory. Whether you agree with Jadar Johnson that Clemson has faced better QBs this season or not, the fact remains that Barrett is one of the better signal callers in college football. With very little fanfare, Barrett had another fine season, completing 61.8% of his passes with an excellent 24/5 TD-to-INT ratio. He’s also a threat as a runner, racking up three 100-yard games this season, including hard-fought victories over both Michigan and Michigan State.
** Of course, Ohio State will have to protect Barrett in order for him to throw the ball effectively. That could be a problem against a Clemson defense that ranks third nationally in sacks. As a result of this pressure, the Tiger D ranks sixth nationally in third down conversion percentage, allowing opponents to move the sticks just 29.53% of the time.
** In contests where the two teams appear to be dead even on paper (like this one), the one that makes the fewest mistakes usually wins. This would favor Ohio State since the Buckeyes have a much better turnover margin (+1.33 to Clemson’s 0.00).