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The College Football Playoff Is Full of New Challengers in Old Uniforms

Clemson is bringing back basically the same team that won last season’s national title, but LSU, Ohio State, and Oklahoma are counting on new quarterbacks and offensive styles to win them a championship

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Perhaps no sport changes less from year to year than college football. Programs are filled with new players every few seasons, but in a competition involving 130 teams, the same few powerhouses win the championship nearly every year. The juxtaposition of the sport’s turnover and stagnancy is laid bare by the 2019 College Football Playoff field.

All four of the teams in this field have been perennial contenders in the 21st century, with Clemson and Ohio State winning championships in the first five years of the playoff era, LSU winning a pair of titles in the 2000s, and Oklahoma winning a title in 1999 and making three straight playoff runs from 2018 to present. But all four programs have different stories this year than in the past. LSU, OSU, and Oklahoma look different from their past versions, and while Clemson hasn’t changed much since last year’s title win, the feeling surrounding the team is different.

Here’s a look at the four teams in this year’s field, and the stories of their teams on the verge of a championship.

The Rebirth

There’s a great story about how when Ed Orgeron hosted Joe Burrow for his official visit to LSU, the restaurant that they went to didn’t have crawfish on the menu, so Coach O demanded an employee leave, purchase 15 pounds of crawfish, and cook it.

Needless to say, I think about this a lot. Assuming Coach O picked the place, since he knew Baton Rouge and Joe didn’t, why did he pick a place without crawfish? Had the restaurant previously served crawfish but changed its menu? Did Coach O actually set up the whole crawfish incident to make himself look passionate and powerful to Joe? Am I correct in assuming that the crawfish prepared by an establishment without crawfish on the menu were probably bad?

When Joe and O ate their emergency crawfish, they weren’t superheroes yet. Orgeron was widely questioned as the right coach for LSU for most of his early tenure with the Tigers, as he was a failed head coach with a famously volatile personality taking over at a school whose last two coaches had won national championships. And Burrow was a former top recruit who hadn’t been good enough to even become the primary backup at Ohio State. Many restaurants would not even prepare crawfish on demand for this forgettable duo.

Everything has changed since then. Burrow won the Heisman with the highest margin of victory ever. While there have been out-of-nowhere Heisman winners before, Burrow might be the first that had played significant time and appeared mediocre only to burst into superstardom. Meanwhile, Orgeron has ascended to Cajun God status. And first-year passing game coordinator Joe Brady has killed off fears that Orgeron would recruit well but coach schematically backward teams.

The Tigers have been contenders before, but they’ve never looked like this—an offensive-minded scoring machine looking to outpace the nation. They’ll face Oklahoma, the offensive powerhouse that produced the last two Heisman winners and no. 1 overall draft picks, except this time around, LSU has the Heisman winner and likely top draft pick in Burrow. In the past, LSU’s hope would’ve been to shut Oklahoma down with outrageous defensive talent. A new-look LSU will actually try to keep pace with Oklahoma offensively, and truly might do it.

Orgeron and Burrow have changed their life stories since that crawfish dinner—and so have the Tigers, a program reborn in a new, thrilling image.

The Retool

You know how when sharks lose their teeth another row simply pops in to replace them? That’s Ohio State. In the last 12 months, the Buckeyes have lost Urban Meyer, widely considered one of the greatest coaches in college football history, when he abruptly decided to retire after a season in which he was suspended. They lost Dwayne Haskins, the quarterback who set the school record for passing touchdowns and was picked in the first round of the NFL draft. And they lost Nick Bosa, the outrageously talented defensive end who is currently running away with the NFL Rookie of the Year race.

But in stepped head coach Ryan Day, who has led the Buckeyes to an undefeated record (and who landed the top recruiting class in the Big Ten for 2020 by a mile). In stepped Justin Fields, a dual-threat QB considered by some the top recruit in the class of 2018, who put up 50 total touchdowns this season. And in stepped Chase Young, the quarterback-swallowing defensive end who might actually be more terrifying than Bosa, and could be the second OSU defensive end in two years to be the no. 2 pick in the draft.

If I were in charge of the playoff committee, I would have ranked OSU as the top team in the country. Unfortunately for the Buckeyes, they were ranked second and drew Clemson, clearly a tougher opponent than fourth-ranked Oklahoma. That said, this matchup should go a lot better than the infamous 2016 31-0 playoff matchup between these two—these are two equally frightening football machines.

The Repeat

By any chance, do you remember last year’s national title game? The one where Clemson decapitated Alabama, the reigning king of college football, and paraded its head around on a spike for all to see? The one where true freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who wouldn’t be allowed to leave for the NFL until 2021, dismantled a fearsome defense of soon-to-be pros?

It seems like so long ago. At the beginning of 2019, Clemson seemed like the undisputed best program in the sport, and Lawrence was the only player any college football fan could talk about. The Tigers successfully ditched the attention with an early season nail-biting one-point win over a mediocre North Carolina team and a weak schedule with few marquee games to capture national viewership; Lawrence ditched the attention by beginning the season with an uncharacteristic spike in interceptions.

And so, Clemson is ranked no. 3 despite a 13-0 season the year after winning a national championship. Burrow won the Heisman, Fields was a runner-up, and Lawrence wasn’t even a finalist. But this is an ideal scenario for head coach Dabo Swinney, who normally has to look really hard for bulletin board material, but can now easily find people legitimately questioning his squad. The matchup with OSU puts Fields and Lawrence, the top two recruits in the class of 2018, against each other. It also will give us a chance to see whether the diminished hype for this team was deserved, or whether Clemson is still capable of demolishing seemingly perfect opponents.

The Reboot

It’s still a bit odd to see Jalen Hurts as Oklahoma’s QB. Like Burrow and Fields, he’s a transfer, but unlike Burrow and Fields, Hurts made a significant impact at his old school. At Alabama, Hurts got the Tide to national title games as a freshman and sophomore before being benched at halftime of the 2018 game for Tua Tagovailoa. Hurts was viewed as a weak-armed, run-first game manager, while Tua could propel the Tide offense to new heights.

But now Hurts is at the helm of the most explosive offense in the country. (And his team is in the playoff, unlike Alabama.) Just like Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray before him, Hurts transferred to Oklahoma and head coach Lincoln Riley has reshaped the offense around him. With Hurts’s legs more effective than his arm, the Sooners are more run-heavy than ever—but don’t worry, they’re still just as effective offensively.

The Sooners lead the nation in offensive SP+. Unfortunately, LSU is no. 2, and while the Tigers also have a strong defense, the Sooners are still ranked 41st in defensive SP+. They could possibly beat LSU in a shootout, but there’s a reason this is considered the less competitive of the two playoff games.