Thoughts, Observations, and Things to Watch for in the College Football Playoff

Today is the day we’ve been waiting for: the College Football Playoff. Here’s a list of thoughts, observations, and things to watch out for in the semifinals:

  • While it’s being used to motivate Oklahoma, pay no attention to last year’s 40-6 Clemson victory. Both teams are much different this year than they were a year ago.
  • That’s especially true of the Sooners. With Baker Mayfield at quarterback, OU’s offense finished sixth in the nation in total offense. The Sooner O was especially impressive in big games, averaging 500.3 yards against FBS teams with a winning record, and 523.7 yards per game against ranked opponents — including an amazing 306 yards on the ground in those contests. This offensive firepower propelled Oklahoma to a 4-0 record against opponents ranked in the final CFP standings.
  • Of course, Clemson’s defense is just as good as last season’s unit was. Yes, the Tigers dropped from first to seventh nationally in total defense this season, but they still ranked second in the country in third down conversion defense (24.87%), second in tackles for a loss (108), and sixth in sacks (38).
  • It’s also worth noting that Dabo Swinney’s squad finished the season undefeated even though it finished with a negative turnover ratio (-2). That total includes a 6-0 mark when the team finished -2 in the net turnover department. There’s no way to overcome those type of miscues without playing great defense.
  • However, the offense deserves a lot of credit for the Tigers’ unblemished record as well. Clemson ‘s O ranks 11th in yards per game and 16th in scoring. The ground game has been especially effective against ranked opponents, averaging 248.67 yards per game and 5.29 yards per carry.
  • Likewise, Oklahoma’s defense was instrumental to the team’s success this season. Sure, the Sooners give up their share of yardage, but they routinely come up with big plays, as the team ranks eighth nationally in sacks, eighth in interceptions, and tenth in yards per play.
  • The key matchup to keep an eye on is the Clemson front seven against the Oklahoma offensive line. Whoever wins the battle between the Tiger pass rush (38 sacks) and the Sooner protection (36 sacks allowed, 108th nationally) will likely win the game.
  • Then again, as noted above, OU averages 306 rushing yards per game against ranked opponents. Don’t be surprised if the Sooners choose to attack the Clemson run defense, which gave up at least 140 yards in four of the final five games, including 197 yards against Florida State and 242 against Syracuse.
  • Much like the first semifinal, ignore what happened in the first round of the College Football Playoff between the Big Ten champion and Alabama. These two squads are completely different than the two that squared off in New Orleans last year.
  • The Crimson Tide are certainly a different team. Alabama’s defense is a lot better than it was last year, allowing just 258.2 yards per contest and an amazing 2.38 yards per carry. The Tide D has also excelled against ranked opponents, giving up an average of only 265.8 yards per game in those contests.
  • And let’s not forget that Alabama held Leonard Fournette — the nation’s leading rusher with 162.75 yards per game — to a pedestrian 31 yards on 19 carries. 18 of those came on one carry in the fourth quarter.
  • On the other side of the ball, Michigan State is a dangerous offensive team to play. Sure, the Spartans only rank 68th nationally in total offense (396.8) and 47th in scoring (32.1), but they’re also fourth in third down conversion percentage (50.53%) and have scored TDs on 70% of their red zone trips this season (15th in the country). The final drive in the Big Ten Championship Game — a 22-play, 82-yard effort, in which MSU converted four of five on third down and one for one on fourth down — tells you all that you need to know about how well the offense plays with a title hanging the balance.
  • With that said, it’s the Spartan defense that’s been the key to success this season. Yes, Michigan State finished outside the top 10 in total defense (24th) for the first time since the 2010 campaign, but this year’s squad has been every bit as effective, ranking ninth in the nationally against the run (113.08 ypg), ninth in turnovers gained (28), and eighth in third down conversion percentage (25%).
  • In addition, Sparty is allowing just 265.5 yards per game in four contests against ranked opponents this season — the second best total in the nation.
  • Of course, the MSU defense isn’t the only unit on the field that’s excelled against ranked opponents this year. Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry has been at his best versus Top 25 foes this year running for an average of 168.25 yards per game. That total includes matchups against Wisconsin (3rd) and Florida (6th), which are ranked in the top 10 in run defense.
  • The key to victory for the Crimson Tide is to establish the run early to set up the pass. Aside from Nebraska — which handed Sparty its only loss of the season — no one has been able to do both against the Michigan State defense this fall. If Alabama is able to get the running game going — something it had no trouble doing over the final five games of the season — it will win this game convincingly.
  • Since no one other than Georgia was able to run the ball for more than 3.5 yards per carry against the Tide defense, Michigan State will probably need to go to the air to pull out a “W.” That means the Spartans will need to lean on senior Connor Cook — who has a career mark of 33-4 as the starter — in this contest. Given his successful track record, Michigan State has to like its chances.

About Terry P. Johnson

Terry Johnson is the Associate Editor for The Student Section. He is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and the National Football Foundation.