College Football Playoffs: Who Will Win It All?

Marty Keane gives a run down on how the 2017 College Football Playoffs will play out.

College Football Playoffs: Who Will Win It All?

Sunday afternoon on December 3rd, the College Football Playoff Committee released their top four teams for the 2017 College Football Playoff.

  1. Clemson (12-1)
  2. Oklahoma (12-1)3.
  3. Georgia (12-1)4.
  4. Alabama (11-1)

Unsurprisingly, the Clemson Tigers were the top-ranked team as they came into championship weekend ranked 1, and promptly handled 7. Miami,  38-7. They are followed by the Sooners of Oklahoma, led by Heisman winner Baker Mayfield. Then is the SEC champs Georgia who have surprised many by making it this far and have put together an impressive season, and the Crimson Tide of Alabama snuck in, controversially, to round out the top four.

This group of teams, to me, is the most exciting final fours since the playoff’s conception. Truly, I can see any one of these four teams winning. Both semifinal games opened up as -1 point spreads. It’s difficult to call these games, especially considering I plan on applying to three of threm! But fear not, for as the heralded sports editor of the Herald, I can set aside my biases to give you breakdowns, storylines, and predictions.

4. Alabama

Alabama’s single blemish in the Iron Bowl cost them the one seed, a spot in the SEC championship, and nearly the playoffs altogether. Ohio State, among other fans and followers, believed they deserved the final spot over the Tide as they won their conference while Alabama didn’t. Alabama was deemed “unequivocally” the better team by the committee. That one word alone from the committee is what stirs the pot of controversy, which is a challenge to the Tide’s dominance.

Since Nick Saban took over the program, Alabama has been college football royalty. They are the only team to make the playoffs every year, winning it once. But last year, a touchdown in the final seconds cost them back to back championships. Now, we have ‘Bama vs Clemson part three. The storyline writes itself.

It seemed like for most of the year that Alabama would breeze to the one seed for another year. To start the year, they squared off against then ranked 3. Florida State. It was predicted to be a playoff preview, but the Tide was dominant, winning 24-7 and Florida State’s season quickly fell apart from there.

They went on to win their next ten games by a staggering 32.6 average margin of victory. No one could slow the tide’s roll. Jalen Hurts led the charge at quarterback with all-American Calvin Ridley on the receiving end, while Bo Scarborough and Damien Harris ran the ball with authority, all backed by the nation’s most stifling defense. But their biggest test was waiting in Jordan-Hare Stadium.

There’s an old saying in sports: in rivalry games, you can throw out the record books. In came the Auburn Tigers, a surging team still clinging to playoff aspirations. Alabama fell behind 14-20 in the fourth quarter, and suddenly Jarret Stidham scrambled out and scored for a game-icing touchdown.

The moment rocked Tuscaloosa fans back home. I texted a friend of mine who’s enrolled there precisely as Auburn scored their final touchdown, and her response summed it up perfectly “I’m actually about to cry”. Alabama fans aren’t accustomed to losing, and this loss was not only to their bitter rival but it also cost them the opportunity to compete for the SEC championship which would’ve cemented their playoff resume. Morale was low.

The committee saved Alabama and they have the 4 seed, but this has lit a fire in Nick Saban’s team. It is time for the Tide to rise. There has to be a feeling of disrespect to this program. They’re coming off a loss to their bitter rival and are fighting controversy that they didn’t even deserve to make the playoffs, piled on by choking away last year’s title. You don’t challenge the king.

For years they’ve been the highest echelon of NCAA football, but Clemson is threating that. We all remember Hunter Renfrow catching that touchdown with a single second left to knock off the defending champs, and now Clemson returns as the number one seed. Could this trilogy be the definitive shift in the powers of college football? It is time for the Crimson Tide to reaffirm themselves as the “unequivocally” best team.

3. Georgia

It’s been a long road for Bulldog fans. Not since 1980 have they finished first in the rankings, watching a handful of fellow SEC teams get there in that time. They are a blue chip program in college football but they haven’t produced to that level.

The closest they came to the big game was in 2007, where they fell short to Alabama and Kirby Smart, then defensive coordinator of the Tide, who celebrated across the sidelines. The win would have for sure put them in the national championship.

Following the 2015 season, they parted ways with longtime head coach Mark Richt and brought in the mind of the feared Tide defense who had stifled them in 2007, Kirby Smart.

His first year was promising as the Bulldogs went 8-5, but Smart’s team took a huge leap this year and now are again one win away from playing for a national title.

But outside of the people in this program, no one picked them to get this far, especially after watching their starting quarterback go down for the year in their season opener. This thrusted an untested, true freshman into the spotlight, and Jake Fromm hasn’t looked back.

Georgia first started to turn heads after a scrappy win over Notre Dame, who was ranked as high number 3 this year. The 20-19 win in South Bend was just the beginning.

Georgia proved worthy of the top 10 after dominating 17. Mississippi State 31-3. They won their next four games by an average of 33, and were then ranked number one in the first college football playoff rankings, their first time being the top-ranked team in the nation since 2008.

The Auburn Tigers, however, once again played spoiler as they whooped Georgia 40-17. They fell behind early then collapsed. But the ‘Dawgs did not falter and came prepared for their rematch in the SEC championship.

The game was a complete flip from the previous matchup, as Georgia went up early and now watched the Tigers fall apart this time. They enjoyed an impressive 28-7 thrashing in their final game to prove to everyone that Georgia football is back, and
they are not done.

2. Oklahoma

The Columbus Dispatch
Oklahoma Sooners quarterback Baker Mayfield (6) plants the Sooner flag in the Ohio State logo at midfield after beating Ohio State Buckeyes 31-16 at Ohio Stadium in Columbus, Ohio on September 9, 2017. [Kyle Robertson/Dispatch]
I remember that week 2 out of conference match up of Oklahoma at Ohio State. It was two powerhouse programs eager to pick up a quality win, the kind that is the highlight of your playoff resume. If Ohio State won this game then they are the two seed and the Sooners would be watching from home.

But I remember Oklahoma pulling away and getting the win. The moment was significant, but when Baker Mayfield planted that Oklahoma flag at center field, my immediate, undoubtable thought was: this is a Heisman moment.

To me, the Heisman trophy is not defined by stats, wins, or success, but it’s defined by memorable moments. Charles Woodson had his pick-six against Ohio State, Johnny Manziel made his circus touchdown against Alabama, among countless others. When Baker Mayfield waved that flag following the upset win, there was no question to me that he would go on to win the Heisman and we will look back on that as his “Heisman Moment”.

Baker Mayfield is the vintage college football player, and we should appreciate that. He’s undersized, a walk-on, not a conventional “pro-style” quarterback, and won the Heisman. He’s controversial and cocky, yet lovable. He’s had his off the field troubles but his sheer emotion and competitiveness make you can’t help but love him. He’s just a young kid on top of the world.

There is no question, Baker Mayfield is the backbone of this Oklahoma team, hailing from the Big 12. The Big 12 conference, along with Mayfield, faces their own controversy. Everyone acknowledges the SEC as the best conference, the Big 10 gets their due as a tougher conference, and the ACC has been represented in each playoff.

In the inaugural college football playoffs, the Big 12 was left out after declaring Baylor and TCU co-champions. They did not have a conference championship to dictate a single champion and it cost them. But they implemented a championship that debuted this year, but people still laughed. As Oklahoma prepared to face off against 11. TCU it seemed it could only backfire on their goal of producing a playoff team as if TCU won, the Big 12 would miss the final four once again.

Oklahoma remained resilient, winning impressively 41-17, but they still face doubts. Big 12 teams are often labeled as “pass-heavy” and “offensively orientated”; people see all their games as shootouts with weak defense. Critics will point to the SEC and Big 10 as “true” football, with stingy defense and smashmouth style.

This critique manifested itself in what was the Big 12’s biggest game of the year, the chronicled rivalry of Oklahoma vs Oklahoma State. It was the kind of game where you knew no over-under would suffice. The game was a shootout, with the Sooners prevailing 62-52, having both teams combining to tally over 1,400 yards. Though the game was of the most exciting college football games all year simultaneously putting Oklahoma in the driver’s seat for the Big 12 championship, fans still scoffed as that kind of defense would never hold up in the playoffs.

But Oklahoma is prepared to bring their Big 12 brand of play to college football’s biggest stage. The conference has never won a playoff game while every other power 5 conference has. Every school of this Midwest conference’s hopes ride on one team, led by one kid. It started in Columbus, Ohio when they knocked off the eventual Big 10 champions, and Baker Mayfield is ready to plant one more flag with the Big 12 logo right next to the Dr. Pepper College Football Playoff Trophy.

1. Clemson

It is amazing to revel in what Dabo Swinney and the Clemson football program are on the cusp of accomplishing: unseating Alabama as the unquestionable new standard to which every other team is compared. It’s at every Saturday morning College Gameday special, the signs reading “We Want Bama!”. A win in the third chapter of this newfound rivalry would force fans to reconsider what they write on their picket signs before they attend their team’s tailgates.

And there is no doubt that this is a rivalry, even though they’ve only played each other twice since 2008. When I toured the University of Clemson in September (it was lovely), my Tiger tour guide concluded by saying “Honestly, go wherever is the right fit for you. We hope it’s here at Clemson, but go wherever your heart desires” to which the other tour guide chimed in “As long as it’s not Alabama!”

Alabama, as previously stated, has been the best of college football for quite some time now. Its been an amazing tenure of endurance, something rarely seen in sports but rightfully commended. They are what the Patriots have been to the NFL or the Celtics in the 60s. Essentially, it is very hard to do what Alabama has done for as long as they’ve done it.

But Clemson is a threat to that. It started in 2015 when they gave the Tide the biggest championship scare of their 10 titles since Paul “Bear” Bryant coached them to a 14-7 victory over Penn State in 1979. Clemson followed up by winning last year in what was one of the wildest and entertaining football championships, college or pro. Now, Clemson is unquestioned as the highest ranked team while Alabama fell to the final playoff spot at 4. Make no mistake, Clemson football is ready to make their mark in the history of college football.

Not to be overlooked is the fact that Clemson is doing what is so difficult for dynasties, and that’s staying at the top. After celebrating their first national title since 1985, Clemson bid farewell to a special class of players either graduating or turning pro. They didn’t dwell on their success, and the team found new stars to keep producing wins. That’s what separates the good from the great: the ability to maintain a high level of competitiveness.

In their second game of the season, the Tigers won a battle over Auburn 14-6. This win looked good at the time and only looked better as Auburn went on to beat two other playoff teams.  Then in the very next week, they blew out the defending Heisman-winner Lamar Jackson and 14. Louisville, winning 47-21. It looked like Clemson was unstoppable as they raced to a 6-0 record.

Every week of this college football season my friend and former coworker, “Sully”, would text me the score of two teams: Clemson because he knew I wanted to go there, and Syracuse because he wanted me to go there. Though Syracuse struggled, Sully was always sure to remind me that the Orange were tough to beat at home. This belief held true when Syracuse stunned Clemson 27-24 in the Carrier Dome.

Clemson, as a top-tier program does, did not stutter. They rallied and won their final six games, half of which were against ranked opponents. The Tigers capped off their season by blowing out 7. Miami 38-3. After hoisting the ACC championship trophy, they took to the locker room and symbolically cut Miami’s internet-viral “turnover chain”.

Clemson has proven they are among college football’s elite. They’ve proved they can reload and restock a championship roster. They’ve proven they are the best in the ACC. They’ve proven worthy of the highest ranking for the playoffs. Last year they proved they were the best, and if they prove that again this year there will be no argument that they have toppled Goliath, and taken his spot.

The Rose Bowl: 2. Oklahoma vs 3. Georgia (-1.5), Rose Bowl Stadium, January 1st 5:00 p.m. EST

The Rose Bowl game, the Granddaddy of them of all. It is the most historic bowl game in college football and considered by many to be the purest, most iconic annual contest. The stadium is of the most recognizable in the world, set in beautiful Pasadena, California. It is rich with tradition, always taking place on New Years Day. The game is preceded by the Rose Parade and concluded with the winning team celebrating on a rose-covered stage as the players famously pick a flower and proudly hold it in their teeth. When the sun sets on scenic southern California right as the game enters the final quarter of play, the sky is bleached with a remarkable pink color. To me, there is no better spectacle in sports.

Let’s start by defining each team’s mantra. You have Georgia, a ground-and-pound running offense with a fast and physical defense. They’ve got three very effective running backs who all have a unique style, which really diversifies their rushing attack. Running the ball is their strength, and in an ideal game their freshman quarterback Jake Fromm won’t have to throw many passes, use lots of play-action, and stick to safe, short throws. On the other side, the defense has been among the nation’s best ranking 3rd overall in yards per game. Their gameplan is slow, methodical, and physical.

Then there’s Oklahoma who’s pretty much on the other end of the spectrum. They want to speed the game up, throw the ball around, and maximize possessions. Baker Mayfield leads the charge, and he’s so good at working progressions, moving around in the pocket, running play-action, and completing accurate passes down the field.  His command and execution are killer. What Mayfield does makes stopping this unit so incredibly difficult, as they lead the nation in total offense. But the defense has struggled, ranking 53rd overall.

When you look at it from these angles, a general assumption is made: Oklahoma may be better on offense, but their disparity in defense will be the difference maker. But when you look closer at it, these stats are misleading.

Georgia’s statistical rankings have benefited from their schedule. The best pass offense they’ve faced was Missouri’s, which ranks 14th, but they played them before Mizzou started playing their best football. After that only two of their opponents pass offense’s ranked in the top 100, the highest being Vanderbilt at just 53. Now, they face the best passing attack in the country.

Oklahoma’s defense has been a victim of misleading stats as well. I acknowledge they’re still flawed, but there are some factors to consider. First, they play in the Big 12, arguably the best conference offensively. Oklahoma State, West Virginia, Texas,  TCU, and Baylor all rank in the top half of offenses in the nation. Also with their offense scoring at the pace they did, the defense is going to face more possessions than your average team. This unit may not be better than Georgia’s, but they are certainly more battle tested.

Georgia’s defense has been tough all year and will be a much different challenge than anything in the Big 12, but again there are favorable traits for the Sooners. They faced Ohio State of the Big 10 earlier this year, scoring 31 points while staying nearly on pace with season average yards-per-play. Also, the Sooners put up 35 points in last year’s Sugar Bowl against a similar SEC defense in Auburn in what was an easy victory.

Georgia has a clear path to victory though: control the clock with the run game to limit the opposing offense, a football strategy as old as pigskin leather footballs. It is their only viable option, but I don’t see it working. With a month of preparation, it will be much easier for Oklahoma to stop a simple head-on rushing attack. Having three unique running backs is effective when you only have a week to prepare, but the Sooners defense will surely benefit from the extra time.

Next issue facing Georgia is stopping Baker Mayfield, which will be nearly impossible. To beat Oklahoma you need to keep up, not slow things down. If Oklahoma gets an early double-digit lead, it could doom the Bulldogs. When you fall behind the only way to get back is by throwing the ball, and that’s exactly what Georgia doesn’t want to do. Ideally, Jake Fromm won’t have to throw more than 20 passes. This has been their strategy all year but there is no way this will work against Oklahoma, their offense is just too good.

Oklahoma will play at a pace Georgia isn’t accustomed to. They can keep it close, but there is no way they won’t face a deficit sooner or later. We saw it when they fell behind against Auburn. They were forced to throw and then quickly watch things spiral out of control. Jake Fromm is a limited quarterback, and his receiving core isn’t anything game breaking.

As you may have conjured by now, I like Oklahoma in this one. Their offense is too good, they’re more experienced, and Georgia may have overachieved a bit this year. It’ll be close, but Boomer Sooner will see their first National Championship game since 2008.

Oklahoma 34, Georgia 26

The AT&T Sugar Bowl: 1. Clemson vs 4. Alabama (-2.5), Mercedes-Benz Superdome, January 1st 8:45 p.m. EST

It’s almost here, the third installment of Alabama and Clemson. The first game, Clemson earned their respect, the second game they knocked them off, and now the Tigers are looking to put Alabama away.

On the flip side, Alabama is determined to end this entire program. They want to demolish any notion that they can be stopped. The Tide is ready to squash Clemson.

By no means, though, will that be easy. I’ve been looking into to this game extensively, and these teams are scarily even matched. Nothing jumps out as a deciding factor.

Both teams operate a run-spread offense led by run-first quarterbacks. This kind of offense was popularized in college football by Chip Kelly in Oregon as it thins the defense to create open lanes for explosive plays. But historically, this style does not hold up against great defenses, and Clemson and Alabama have that.

I see this game being a slugfest. Both times these teams have faced off, the games ended in shootouts, but not this time. It could turn out like the 2011 Alabama-LSU game that ended with a score of 6-9 in overtime. It will be a game with struggling offense and dictated by field position.

Alabama has been hit hard by injuries this year, especially at linebacker. Every starting linebacker and their backups have missed at least one game. A month of rest may help heal up this unit, but it remains unclear to what extent.

Close football games always come down to one player, the quarterback. It would seem Alabama would have the advantage here, being that Jalen Hurts was the SEC freshman of the year last year and returned this year with a marvelous core of receivers. But Jalen Hurts may have a fatal flaw.

In big games, Hurts has not produced to his level. If you look at his two playoff games last year and his performances against big defenses this year like LSU and Auburn, he has shied away from the spotlight. He gets too conservative, holding onto the ball instead of taking necessary risky throws. His long release makes him hesitant and he opts to run instead.

If this trait carries on against Clemson, it could doom this offense.  In close games there is nothing more important than avoiding turnovers, and if Hurts overvalues this he won’t play aggressive enough to score points. Even the slightest hesitation will be too much against Clemson.

The Tigers have three players on their defensive line that could be the first-round draft picks in April. With the pressure they bring, it allows Clemson to drop extra defenders into coverage, creating tight windows that Hurts likes to avoid.

Another scary stat for Alabama fans is the 3rd down conversion rate of Clemson. Their 47% success rate ranks 10th nationally. The more bad news is that this has been a problem for the Alabama defense as of late, in connection with their rash of injuries.

Just a few timely conversions can be enough to secure enough points in a low scoring game, as this is predicted to be.

But Alabama is so good and deep that they can mask those flaws. Behind every starter is 5-star recruit eager to prove themselves, there is even talk that we could see ‘Bama’s backup quarterback in some series.

With some many uncertainties in such a close matchup, it’s nearly impossible to call. Football games are so fickle that metrics are usually not reliable in predicting them. This game could come down to one blown assignment, one missed kick, or even the unpredictable bounce of a loose football.

But when picking a winner, you can’t overlook the issues regarding Jalen Hurts. For Alabama fans, this game can’t come down to him. They would need to build a safe lead late in the game then bleed out the clock, but that won’t happen because of this Clemson defense.

Led by Springfield native Christian Wilkins, the Clemson Tigers are ready to march to another College Football Playoff Championship game.

Clemson 16, Alabama 13

National Championship: 1. Clemson vs 2. Oklahoma, Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta, Georgia; January 8th

This game would actually be the third matchup of these two teams in the last four years. Each of the last two have gone in Clemson’s favor decisively, but Baker Mayfield and the Sooners won’t go down easily.

As previously stated, Clemson runs the run-spread offense and I like how that matches up with Oklahoma’s defense. The size and physicality of the Tiger’s offensive line should control the line of scrimmage enough to spring open rushing lanes. Once those get going, Kelly Bryant would be able to comfortably exploit the Sooners with zone reads and play action.

The Tigers front seven will look to get after Baker Mayfield on defense as well. Oklahoma’s o-line is good, but they’ve never seen the monsters in the trenches that Clemson has. Anyone will tell you the best way to stop a quarterback is pressure, and Clemson is capable of bringing that in bunches.

So that’s it, right? On paper, it seems that Clemson is built to bully this Oklahoma team.

Except there’s one problem with that, and he stands six feet tall and carries a Heisman Trophy.

This game will quickly turn into the Baker Mayfield Show. There is no way I can prove it, but some players are just too special to go down easy. His whole team could go down with injuries and Mayfield would still find a way to keep it close.

I think though, ultimately, that is all he’ll be able to do: keep it close. We’ve seen out of this world performances in the big game before. Reggie Bush put up an incredible fight in the memorable 2005 loss to Texas, and Deshaun Watson was unbelievable in his first bout with ‘Bama two years ago.

Baker Mayfield will cement his legacy as one of college football’s greatest sons, but Clemson is the new greatest program of the land.

Clemson 38, Oklahoma 34