We are now four years into the College Football Playoff Era, and I think it's safe to say that the new postseason format has met or exceeded expectations. To me, it's provided the perfect balance of justifiable reward and controversial debate.
This season's fourth spot, which ultimately went to 11-1 Alabama over 11-2 Big Ten champ Ohio State, generated the most debate of any one playoff spot in the four seasons, and even then, do we really feel like Ohio State got "jobbed"? I mean.... don't lose to Iowa by 30 points, then there IS no debate.
Of all the four playoff postseasons we've had so far, this is the bluest collection of blue bloods that we've seen assembled by the playoff committee. In each of the first three seasons, there was one party crasher that was a really good program, but not in the conversation of the all-time greats — Oregon in 2014, Michigan State in 2015, and Washington last season.
This year we have 5th, 7th, and 11th winningest programs in the sport's history (Alabama, Oklahoma, and Georgia, respectively) to go with the defending national champion (Clemson, 16th winningest program of all time). That's pretty damn good, and enough to cure any New Year's Eve hangover you might have.
So let's get on the record here with what we think happens in the two semifinals with four things to watch for in these two games....
4. Baker Mayfield's health
So just how sick is Baker Mayfield? Is it a legit flu-like illness? Is it more of a Manziel-type "illness" (quotes intentional), like a party flu? By the way, this is what happens when (a) your game is Manziel-like in nature and (b) you've been disciplined for grabbing your crotch at the opposing sideline — people assume that there's like a 40 percent chance that you're just hungover all week, not actually medically sick. Whatever the case, Mayfield's health has been the biggest topic leading into this game, so much so that the line moved a full point on Saturday from Georgia -1.5 to Georgia -2.5. Let's assume that Mayfield is healthy enough to be BAKER F'N MAYFIELD. I know this is a really good Georgia defense, but they did give up 40 points to Auburn fairly late in the season, and if you're asking me which side of the football I'd bet my life on, Oklahoma's offense or Georgia's defense, well, give me the offense that's breaking all of college football's records for yards per play, records they themselves set back in 2016. In short, Mayfield has been so good that at this point he is breaking all of Baker Mayfield 2016's records.
3. Georgia trench gumption
So with that, we go to the other side of the ball — Georgia's offense versus Oklahoma's defense. The Bulldogs running game might be the best defense against Baker Mayfield, meaning if Sony Michel and Nick Chubb can possess the football, run some clock, and keep it away from Mayfield, that's the best formula for the Bulldogs. That also takes the pressure off true freshman quarterback Jake Fromm to win the game, although he's been solid in big spots this season, on the road at Notre Dame and in the SEC Title Game against Auburn, in particular. Since giving up 52 points against Oklahoma State at Bedlam, the Sooner defense has been just fine, thank you — allowing just 18 points per game, a stretch that includes two games against TCU and a game versus West Virginia.
So, all of that said, I feel like the wrong team is favored here....
ROSE BOWL Spread: Georgia -2.5
ROSE BOWL Prediction: Oklahoma 33, Georgia 31
2. Deshaun Lite
In the last two College Football Playoff title games, it's been the playmaking ability and clutch gene in Deshaun Watson that's been the lead story, even in defeat two postseasons ago when he was the best player on the field, and most certainly in winning the title last season with a last minute drive to bring the crown back to Clemson. Now, with Watson in the NFL
waiting to see who his head coach might be next season, Clemson junior Kelly Bryant has the honor of upholding the crown. The 6-4, 220 pound junior bears an uncanny resemblance to Watson when he's making plays with his legs, but isn't quite the polished thrower of the football that Watson is, although he looked pretty sporty his last time out, going 23-29 for 252 yards against Miami's defense in the ACC title game. With Alabama's defense a little banged up, especially its linebacking corps, there's at least a decent chance that Bryant will be able to put up an appetizer-sized portion of what Watson served up the last couple postseasons, and with this Clemson front seven on defense, that might be enough. Speaking of which.....
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1. Tide running game versus Clemson's wall of doom
The best position group in this game belongs to the Clemson Tigers and it's that stout defensive line (that coincidentally has turned into a mini feeder system for the Houston Texans — what up, D.J. Reader and Carlos Watkins?) that has three first team all-ACC performers in defensive end Clelin Ferrell and defensive tackles Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence. This is a defense that held two other New Year's Six bowl teams, Auburn and Miami, to six and three points, respectively. Tide running backs Damien Harris, Bo Scarborough, Najee Harris, and Josh Jacobs are going to need to put Jalen Hurts in down and distance situations that are not obvious passing downs. The threat of Hurts' legs is minimized with each additional yard needed for a first down.
Like our other semifinal, I feel like the wrong team is favored here, as well.....
SUGAR BOWL Spread: Alabama -3
SUGAR BOWL Prediction: Clemson 27, Alabama 23
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.