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The Ultimate College Football Playoff Semifinal Guide

Prepare for a battle of apex predators and a game to settle the defining trilogy of the sport’s modern era. Who wins?

AP Images/Ringer illustration

The format of the College Football Playoff makes it a vast improvement over any previous championship system that the sport has offered. But in its first three years of existence, the playoff hasn’t had semifinals that have been particularly interesting. The average margin of victory has been 25.3 points, and only one game has been decided by fewer than 17. The two most memorable semifinal moments to date: Ohio State trucking Alabama in the 2015 Sugar Bowl and Jameis Winston forgetting how to play football in the 2015 Rose Bowl.

This season should change that trend. The two semifinal games are fascinating in their own ways: The Rose Bowl between Oklahoma and Georgia (a strange combination of teams in a strange location) should make for a fascinating fight based on the teams’ contrasting styles. Plus it has Baker Mayfield, who even made games at Kansas must-see television this year.

And the Sugar Bowl between Alabama and Clemson features the two best programs in the nation. The winner will have sealed the deciding victory in the trilogy that will define this era of college football.

Let’s break down each matchup and pick who wins.

Rose Bowl: No. 2 Oklahoma vs. No. 3 Georgia

Why It’s Going to Be Great: It’s a Battle of Apex Predators

Have you ever seen the show Animal Face-Off? I imagine it was the product of some Discovery Channel executive screaming, “WHAT IF WE HAD A SHOW WHERE HUGE ANIMALS FOUGHT EACH OTHER TO THE DEATH?” after downing his 47th Red Bull of the day. Obviously, the network could not film this show: not legally, not morally, and not even logistically. The world’s apex predators don’t fight each other to the death. They’ve evolved in their own distinct ecosystems to specialize in one type of survival and would never need to destroy a similarly dominant animal from another part of the world. So the show used awful 2004-era CGI to portray scripted fights between lions and tigers, and alligators and bears, and hippos and sharks. The battles are on Youtube.

This season’s Rose Bowl is Animal Face-Off, football edition. Oklahoma and Georgia have evolved in their own conference ecosystems to defeat the opponents they face on a weekly basis, becoming the perfect examples of what great teams from different parts of the country look like. Now we get to see them go head-to-head for the first time in history.

The Sooners are the perfect distillation of the pass-first, points-heavy Big 12. They have the best passing offense in football history, averaging 12 yards per attempt. The all-time FBS leaderboard for yards per passing attempt in a season now reads Baker Mayfield (2017), Michael Vick (1999), Baker Mayfield (2016). The Sooners scored at least 40 points in nine of 13 games this fall and never scored fewer than 29. The Sooners’ defense? Well, it exists. Oklahoma is tied for 70th out of the 130 teams in college football in yards per play allowed and 95th in Football Outsiders’ defensive S&P+. This is how you win the Big 12: break scoreboards and hope your defense gets a stop somewhere along the way.

D’Andre Swift
Getty Images

The Bulldogs are the perfect distillation of the run-first, shut-opponents-down SEC. It’s hard to decide which of their three running backs—Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, or D’Andre Swift—poses the greatest threat. The Bulldogs are sixth nationally in total rushing yardage and 10th in yards per attempt. The Dawgs’ passing game? Well, it exists, but true freshman quarterback Jake Fromm has thrown for 200 yards in a game only three times. Meanwhile, their defense is impregnable: They’re tied for third in the country in points allowed (13.2 per game), second in opposing yards per passing attempt (5.6), and second in yards allowed per game (158.3). Georgia has only given up more than 20 points in two games in 2017.

Neither team has played anybody remotely like the other. Only two SEC teams, Missouri and Ole Miss, are among the top 50 nationally in passing yardage; among Big 12 teams, only Oklahoma cracks the top 30 for rushing yardage. Is Georgia’s pass defense truly brilliant, or did it thrive by facing off against the BB gun quarterbacks of the SEC? What will Oklahoma look like playing against an offense built around running instead of bombing the ball?

We finally get to find out what a battle between these two highly specialized beasts would look like, and we don’t even need to use CGI.

Storyline to Monitor: Anyone Insulting Baker Mayfield

Statistically speaking, this is the best passing offense in college football facing off against the best passing defense in college football. There’s the question of whether Georgia’s defense can remain firm against an Air Raid–style attack—the only one that the Bulldogs faced this season was Mizzou, and Tigers quarterback Drew Lock threw for 253 yards with four touchdowns in that game.

The most compelling storyline, though, is something for which no analysis of schematics or statistics can account: How good of a job has Oklahoma’s Heisman Trophy winner done of convincing himself Georgia has personally wronged him? Petty, perhaps-invented beefs have fueled Mayfield’s rise from an unheralded walk-on to college football’s most famous player.

Sure, the prospect of proving the haters wrong by completing his NCAA career with a national championship will likely be enough motivation for Mayfield. But what if a Bulldogs player sarcastically jokes that he didn’t know Mayfield won the Heisman? Or tweets something cryptic like, “Not scared of a QB who spends his offseasons getting arrested for being drunk instead of studying film [eyes emoji] [eyes emoji] [beer emoji] [cop car emoji] [eyes emoji]”? Or looks at Mayfield the wrong way? Or doesn’t look at Mayfield, which probably would also upset Mayfield? Georgia fans have already gotten ahold of Mayfield’s phone number—what can they do to push his Insult-o-Meter into the red?

If the Bulldogs truly cross Mayfield’s threshold for personal grievance, he will grow 30 feet tall, grab his crotch with one hand, and fire football lasers with the other.

Key to the Game: Oklahoma’s Mediocre Rushing Defense

While Oklahoma’s biggest offensive strength matches up with a Georgia defensive strength, Georgia’s biggest offensive strength matches up with an Oklahoma defensive weakness. The Sooners’ rushing defense is one of the only units in the playoff field that qualifies as legitimately mediocre: Three of the four teams in the playoff rank in the top 10 in defensive rushing S&P+; Oklahoma ranks 62nd.

Over the course of Oklahoma’s 13-game season, the Sooners haven’t played three total running backs as good as the three they’ll play in the Rose Bowl. And yet they often struggled to stop not-so-great runners. They gave up 237 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns to Tulane in Week 3, and 251 yards and four scores to West Virginia in Week 13. Oklahoma State’s Justice Hill, perhaps the only Big 12 back who’d merit playing time for the Bulldogs, gashed Oklahoma for 228 yards with two touchdowns in Week 10.

I can picture Georgia running the ball on first, second, and third down in the Rose Bowl and picking up the yardage necessary to move the chains. I can see the Bulldogs doing this for the length of the field and the duration of the game. All year long, the Sooners’ problematic defense has managed to make enough stops to win. Can it do the same against a Georgia attack unlike any it’s ever faced?

The Pick

Baker’s gonna Bake, but I’m less confident in the Sooners’ ability to get stops than in Georgia’s.

Georgia, 38, Oklahoma 31

Sugar Bowl: No. 1 Clemson vs. No. 4 Alabama

Why It’s Going to Be Great: This Is for Control of the Sport

Great games demand rematches. Great rematches demand … threematches? So when wide receiver Hunter Renfrow caught a 2-yard touchdown pass with a second left in the fourth quarter of last season’s national championship game to give Clemson a 35-31 win over Alabama, I presumed the only satisfying ending to the 2017 campaign would be a third consecutive title matchup between the Tigers and Crimson Tide.

But then college football happened. I began rooting for Mayfield to plant his flag at midfield of every opposing stadium, for Miami to steal turnovers and every ounce of its opponents’ swag, and for UCF to flip the established power structure of the sport on its head. I enjoyed Syracuse turning the weird basketball balloon where it plays football into an imposing home environment as it knocked off Clemson on one Friday night in October, and I marveled at Auburn destroying the season’s remaining shreds of normalcy by toppling previously unbeaten Alabama in November. College football happening prevented Bama and Clemson from meeting in the national championship again, but destiny couldn’t keep them apart. After all, supremacy in the sport is at stake.

The Crimson Tide have lost only 12 times in the past eight seasons, and it’d be hard to say that any of the first 11 losses came against a program that was genuinely Alabama’s equal. Auburn’s Iron Bowl wins in 2010 and 2013 were fueled by arguably the most dominant player and most astonishing play in college football history—they represent unrepeatable, spectacular peaks. The last team to beat Bama in back-to-back contests was Ole Miss in 2014 and 2015, and the Rebels lost at least three games in each of those seasons, while Alabama made the playoff in both years. The last program to really seem like it was on Alabama’s level was LSU at the beginning of this decade, having won the 2007 national championship and beaten Bama in the 2010 and 2011 seasons. But the Tide won the 2011 title-game rematch, and the programs have gone in different directions since. Bama has won the last seven matchups by a combined margin of 91 points.

But Clemson jumped into the fray and has proved itself to be on Alabama’s level with a pair of delightful title games and domination everywhere else. The Tigers lost the 2015 national championship game 45-40, but led in the fourth quarter and forced Alabama to bust out a surprise onside kick. They were the first team to push Bama in a national title game under Nick Saban, and last year they won the damn thing, with quarterback Deshaun Watson ascending to college football heaven immediately after throwing the game-winning touchdown pass.

This year’s early signing period revealed a crack in Alabama’s hegemony. After earning the top spot in 247Sports’ composite recruiting rankings in 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017, Bama is a stunning fifth this year. Alabama has landed one of the 28 players considered a composite five-star recruit; Clemson has signed four of the top 10. Bama’s on-field dominance was bolstered by its complete and utter obliteration of the competition on the recruiting trail, and Clemson is one of the teams turning, well, the Tide.

If Clemson wins the Sugar Bowl, it’ll have back-to-back wins over Bama, a more recent championship, a more recent championship game appearance, and better recruits. The Tigers will have lost three games in the past three seasons. Alabama will have lost four.

This is a chance for Dabo Swinney to prove that he’s built a football machine on par with Saban’s Process. The title might not be on the line when Bama and Clemson meet this time around, but the crown is.

Story Line to Monitor: How Much Deshaun Watson Can Kelly Bryant Bring?

We can summarize how Clemson came close to beating Alabama two seasons ago and won the national title last January in two words: Deshaun Watson. He threw for 405 yards with four touchdowns while running for 73 more yards in the Tide and Tigers’ first matchup, and he threw for 420 yards with three touchdowns while running for a fourth score in their second showdown. Then he became the best quarterback in the NFL for a few weeks. The only evidence we have that Watson is human is his torn right ACL.

Clemson’s game plan against Bama in both championship clashes was Deshaun-heavy. He had 47 passes and 20 carries in 2016, with the rest of the roster combining for 18 rushing attempts. He racked up 56 passes and 21 carries in 2017, with the rest of the team combining for 20 runs. Watson did something I’d never seen anybody do—he outlasted the Tide, taking hit after hit after hit and remaining fresh while Alabama’s defense wore down. Watson’s game-winning touchdown pass to Renfrow came on Clemson’s 99th offensive play; no team had ever run more than 90 against the Tide under Saban’s watch.

Kelly Bryant
Getty Images

Kelly Bryant is not Deshaun Watson. Watson averaged 306.2 passing yards per game in 2016. Bryant has thrown for 306 yards in a game only once in his college career. Bryant has never attempted 40 passes in a game, and has carried the ball 20 times twice.

Still, Bryant has gotten the job done. The Tigers are 12-1 with him under center, and we can put an asterisk next to the loss, because Bryant left the game at Syracuse before halftime with an injury. To beat Alabama last season, the Tigers needed an all-time-great player to play the best he’s ever played for 59 minutes and 59 seconds. To beat Bama this time, they’ll need Bryant’s best, too, even if his best isn’t Deshaun-caliber good.

Key to the Game: Jalen Hurts Facing Clemson’s Dominant Defense

The true star of the Sugar Bowl is Clemson’s defensive line. It’s full of wrecking balls: Defensive tackle Christian Wilkins and defensive end Clelin Ferrell are potential first-round picks in the 2018 NFL draft; defensive end Austin Bryant could be a high-round pick as well; and defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence is the early favorite to be the top overall selection in 2019. The Tigers led the nation in sacks (44) and adjusted sack rate. Passing against them is inadvisable.

As much as Watson’s brilliance tells the success of Clemson’s national title triumph, so does Alabama’s puzzling insistence on having true freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts throw the ball over and over again. He went 13-for-31 through the air for 131 yards, easily the worst passing game of his career. (How did Clemson have 99 offensive plays? Alabama stopped the clock with lots of incompletions and scored on big plays.) He went three-and-out three separate times in the fourth quarter.

Hurts is a real talent. As a sophomore, he averaged nearly 9 yards per attempt, threw 15 touchdown passes and just one interception, and ran for 768 yards. But he’s never had a truly impressive game against a strong defense. Here’s a quick rundown of his passing performances against the best defenses he’s played:

  • Alabama’s 10-0 win at LSU (November, 5 2016): 10-of-19 for 107 yards (5.6 per attempt), no touchdowns, one interception
  • Alabama’s 54-16 win over Florida (December 3, 2016): 11-of-20 for 138 yards (6.9 per attempt), one touchdown, no interceptions
  • Alabama’s 24-7 win over Washington (December 31, 2016): 7-of-14 for 57 yards (4.1 per attempt), no touchdowns, no interceptions
  • Alabama’s 35-31 loss to Clemson (January 9, 2017): 13-of-31 for 131 yards (4.2 per attempt), one touchdown, no interceptions
  • Alabama’s 24-7 win over Florida State (September 2, 2017): 10-of-18 for 96 yards (5.3 yards per attempt), one touchdown, no interceptions
  • Alabama’s 24-10 win over LSU (November 4, 2017): 11-of-24 for 183 yards (7.6 yards per attempt), one touchdown, no interceptions
  • Alabama’s 26-14 loss to Auburn (November 25, 2017): 13-of-23 for 177 yards (7.7 yards per attempt), one touchdown, no interceptions

He completed less than 50 percent of his passes in the best game of the bunch.

Every dropback against Clemson brings the potential for disaster. How Hurts will handle the Tigers’ swarming rush will dictate whether Bama is in position to pull off the win. If former offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin or Steve Sarkisian sneaks up into the coaching box and starts calling dozens of Hurts passes, the Tide are in trouble.

The Pick

Two mean defenses, two shaky quarterbacks. I think 2017 Alabama looks more like 2016 Alabama than Bryant looks like Watson.

Alabama 17, Clemson 13