A lot more will be written about the first College Football Playoff’s two spectacular semifinals in the coming weeks. Here’s an initial assessment of these two games:
Semifinal No. 1
2015 Rose Bowl: (3) Florida State vs. (2) Oregon
The seemingly bulletproof team of destiny meets the most electric team in the country. The first semifinal in this initial NCAA College Football Playoff could easily be a national championship game in any previous season. In no way would it lack the storylines and drama worthy of such an event.
The game will feature the past two Heisman Trophy winners after Marcus Mariota claims what is his on Saturday in New York. Oregon is 1-2 against Arizona over the past two seasons and 23-1 against everyone else. Since Florida State does not have Rich Rodriguez on the sidelines, the Ducks have a strong fighting chance.
Florida State has been the prototypical cardiac kids this season. The ‘Noles trailed five times at halftime and seemed to get stronger each game in the fourth quarter. The same is true about Jameis Winston, who was an interception machine in several first halves. However, in fourth quarters, he pumped only ice water through his veins.
In the next three weeks, there are several issues both squads will attempt to address. The main storyline features each of the signal callers. While Mariota will claim the first ever Heisman Trophy at Oregon, Winston is at the other end of the PR spectrum. Winston already participated in a recent hearing on sexual assault charges. Now, the rest is out of his hands. After the hearing last week, a decision is expected in the next two to three weeks.
While the waiting game before a bowl is easier on some athletes compared to others, when the game actually starts, it will come down to the sheer talents of the two squads, and the experience needed to manage their emotions under such immense pressure. Prior to last season, Oregon had gone to a BCS bowl four times in a row, including the Rose Bowl twice and the BCS National Championship Game once. Florida State played in the BCS National Championship Game last season and played in eight BCS Bowls since the BCS’s inception. The lights will certainly not be too bright for these squads.
This will be only the third time that two players with a Heisman in their possession — quarterbacks in each instance — will go head to head in a bowl game. There are examples from college football history in which one Heisman winner played a soon-to-be Heisman winner: In 1949, for example, Notre Dame and Leon Hart — who was about to win the Heisman that year — beat SMU’s Doak Walker, the 1948 winner of the award, to win the national championship. The game wasn’t a bowl, though, so Hart had not yet claimed his piece of hardware.
The other two Heisman-versus-Heisman battles between lauded quarterbacks in bowl games are as follows: In the 2005 Orange Bowl, then-2004 winner Matt Leinart and USC took home the BCS title over 2003 winner Jason White and Oklahoma. In the 2009 BCS National Championship Game, 2007 winner Tim Tebow topped 2008 winner Sam Bradford to win a national title, as Florida bested Oklahoma.
While Winston and Mariota will get the hype, they do not truly match up with each other. The main matchup in the game is how the Florida State linebacking crew is able to contain Mariota outside of the pocket. The dual-threat Mariota is stronger when he is able to get scramble and break big runs. The ‘Noles rank 60th in the country against the run, and the duties of containing Mariota come down to the trio of Reggie Northup, Jalen Ramsey and Terrence Smith.
In order for Florida State to win this game, the Seminoles will need to do something they have struggled to do against some of the better teams they played this season: play a complete four-quarter game. It is not possible to score and play at the level of the Ducks with a slow start. The ‘Noles need the Jameis Winston who showed up in the ACC Championship Game, not the Winston who played just the second half in many games this season.
For the Ducks to win, they will need to play a strong game defensively. We all know that Oregon can score, but the Ducks’ key to victory lies in keeping Florida State off the scoreboard. Oregon ranks 100th in passing yards allowed, leaving them vulnerable against the strength of the ‘Noles offense. In order to keep Florida State at bay, the Ducks have to lower that 259.5 passing-yards-per-game average.
Semifinal No. 2
2015 Sugar Bowl: (4) Ohio State vs. (1) Alabama
The second semifinal sees two of the most successful coaches of the last decade on opposite sidelines. This will be the fourth matchup between Nick Saban and Urban Meyer. It will also be the fourth time that one of the participants is ranked No. 1 in the country.
Even beyond the coaches, a matchup of Ohio State and Alabama matches recent college football royalty. In the BCS era, the two teams claimed four national championships and were runners up twice.
The road to the playoff was similar for the two squads on many levels, while so different in other ways. Both teams worked in a new quarterback to start the season, but for different reasons. Blake Sims beat out Jake Coker at Alabama and has not looked back. Just a week before the season, Ohio State lost Braxton Miller for the entire season and turned to J.T. Barrett. While each had their share of struggles at times, both showed they know how to win when it matters.
The next three weeks will be a different animal for each team. After Barrett was also lost for the season, the Buckeyes are quickly preparing third-string quarterback Cardale Jones for one of the better defenses in the country. The Tide are preparing for Jones and his skill set — they’re intent on shoring up a pass defense that has been suspect (and that’s being charitable) for the better part of the season.
However, once the game starts, there are not many better in game adjustment coaches than Saban and Meyer. Working with an inexperienced quarterback against a traditionally strong defense will be the main adjustment for Meyer and his trusted assistant, Tom Herman, who might soon become a head coach at another school.
For Saban, limiting the Ohio State air attack will be priority number one. While defending the pass has been a struggle for Alabama the past few weeks, having three weeks to prepare gives Saban plenty of time to get things… no, maybe not right, but at least going in the right direction — right enough to win and advance to the championship game on Jan. 12.
The key matchup is Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott against the front seven of the Alabama defense. While the Tide have been susceptible to the pass, they have been just as stout against the run. Alabama is second in the country, allowing just 88.7 rushing yards per game. The immergence of Elliott has been huge for the Buckeyes. Since the loss to Virginia Tech, Elliott has been held under 90 yards just three times this season and has three games in a row of at least 100 yards.
In order for Ohio State to win this game, Jones will need to have a big day. While he will get some help from Elliot, who will be a valuable X-factor, victory will come down to the same key which has existed for Alabama opponents all season: attack through the air to get home-run plays.
In order for Alabama to win the game, it has to establish the run. Each game the Tide has won in decisive fashion has been marked by this common thread: Alabama has gotten T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry going early. The tricky part of having both studs in the same backfield is figuring out which is a better fit against the opposing defense. The key to victory for Lane Kiffin and the Alabama offense is exploiting the 33rd-ranked Ohio State rushing defense.