It's here. The 2nd edition of the College Football Playoff is upon us. Two semifinal games between four deserving and talented teams will take place on New Year's Eve and will determine who will go on to the National Championship and be crowned the best in this great sport. First at 4 PM ET, #4 Oklahoma will take on #1 Clemson in the Capital One Orange Bowl. Then at 8 PM, #3 Michigan State will face #2 Alabama in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl. Here at jaydawg.sportsblog.com, I have laid out a comprehensive preview of each team, profiled the top player from each team, and looked at the two semifinal games. Hope everyone has a good holiday season and enjoys what should be a very entertaining New Year's Eve.
#4 Oklahoma Sooners
Record: 11-1 (Big 12 Champions)
Head Coach: Bob Stoops
Many people forget that Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops was on a very hot seat in Normon, Oklahoma, this season. I, for one, thought he was a lame duck coach. Anyway, his Sooners have had a remarkable season. The main credit for the 2015 success goes to two men - Baker Mayfield and Lincoln Riley.
Lincoln Riley was brought in to be Oklahoma's new offensive coordinator last offseason to install his new up-tempo spread offense in Norman. Riley at 32 is one of the youngest and brightest offensive coaches in the college game. He is definitely a candidate to get a head coaching job of his own especially with what he has done with the Sooner offense this season.
The other big reason and maybe the biggest reason for Oklahoma reaching the CFB Playoff is the emergence of Baker Mayfield. Mayfield transferred to Oklahoma from Texas Tech in the offseason, won the starting quarterback job, and has been simply sensational. He's a strong armed, dual-threat quarterback that is one of the best signal-callers period. He is a dynamic player, and the Sooners wouldn't be where they are now without him. In my mind, he should have been a Heisman finalist (more on Mayfield later).
It's not all Mayfield though. This Oklahoma team is ultra-talented particularly on the offensive side of the ball. You don't have to look far to see the playmakers. They're in the same backfield. The one-two punch of backs Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon have proven to be a formidable pair. They have combined for 2,469 yards and 27 touchdowns either rushing or catching passes out of the backfield. Probably the biggest weapon besides Mayfield on this offense is his favorite target in the passing game, leading receiver Sterling Shepard. He's caught 79 passes in 2015 for 1,201 yards and 11 scores. Pass-catchers Dede Westbrook and Durron Neal have made significant contributions in the passing game as well.
This offensive unit as a whole is one of the best in all of college football. They rank in the top 20 in the major offensive categories, but what really stands out is that this unit is 3rd in the country in points per game. The defense is not quite as stellar, but a major portion of that can be attributed to playing in the high-powered offensive landscape that is the Big 12.
How did they get here? Well, they navigated through a Big 12 schedule with only one regular season loss. That loss was the fifth game of the season - a fluky disappointing result to big rival Texas. From that point on, Oklahoma ran the table beating four teams in the top 25 highlighted by wins over #6 Baylor, #18 TCU, and #11 Oklahoma State. They ended up winning the Big 12 outright and were considered one of the top four teams in the country and worthy of a spot in the CFB Playoff.
#3 Michigan State Spartans
Record: 12-2 (Big Ten Champions)
Head Coach: Mark Dantonio
Probably the most disrespected team in the playoff, the Michigan State Spartans are seen by many as a long shot to win it all. Make no mistake; this team is pretty darn good. They are very deserving as well. They got here by winning the Big Ten Championship a few weeks ago against over then #4 and undefeated Iowa, 16-13. The Spartans were down 13-9 late in the 4th, and Connor Cook and the MSU offense marched down the field on a 22 yard drive to score the go-ahead touchdown to win the football game.
It was a gusty drive, and it is the reason the Spartans are here. Oh yeah, they also went 11-1 in the Big Ten with wins over #7 Oregon, # 12 Michigan and an upset win with a backup QB over defending National Champions and previously undefeated Ohio State in Columbus. That was the biggest moment of the season without a doubt.
Connor Cook is one of the top pro-style QBs in the country and is the leader of the Spartans. Combine that with a tenacious defense that the Spartans have been known for under Dantonio, and you've got a good chance to be pretty good. Michigan State under Dantonio has their own certain style. They like to play physical defense and run the football.
The main guy they use to tote the rock is L.J. Scott with 691 yards rushing. Gerald Holmes is second on the team with 534 yards on the ground. Connor Cook's main target is star receiver Aaron Burbridge. Burbridge has 80 receptions for 1,219 yards and seven touchdowns.
The defense is not bad either. It has only given up an average of 20.5 points per game, which ranks in the top 20 in the country. Riley Bullough leads the team in tackles with 95 total tackles. Probably the best pro prospect on this defensive unit is DE Shilique Calhoun, who leads the Spartans in getting to the QB with 9 sacks and numerous tackles for loss.
#2 Alabama Crimson Tide
Head Coach: Nick Saban
Alabama is Alabama again. It looked like the Tide wouldn't be in this position right now if we had asked many after Week 3 of 2015. The Crimson Tide had just lost 43-37 at home against Ole Miss and looked bad doing it. They turned the ball over five times but still almost came back and won thanks to a late rally by Jake Coker. This game turned out to be a fluke as Alabama proved how dominant they were afterwards. This served as Jake Coker's first big statement that he was worthy of the starting job at Alabama.
The Tide ran the table the rest of the year behind a Heisman winning running back and a dominant defense. The highlights were a blowout win over then #8 UGA, an 18 point victory over #9 Texas A&M, a blowout of then Heisman frontrunner Leonard Fournette and #2 LSU, and an SEC championship victory over #18 Florida.
Nick Saban is the best coach in college football. Yeah, he's better than Urban Meyer. He's hoping to get his fourth national title ring at Alabama, and he's got a great chance to do this. Like aforementioned, the defense is amazing. It's one of the best that Saban and DC Kirby Smart (UGA head coach next year) has had in Tuscaloosa. It ranks as the #2 overall defense in the country. They also only allow an average 14.4 points scored on them a game, which is one of the best in the sport.
The front seven is the best unit in the nation and is filled with NFL talent. The defensive line is beyond stout, and it's virtually impossible to run up the middle on them. I guess that's is why they rank first in rushing defense. The line is led in the middle by 6-4, 312 pound defensive tackle A'Shawn Robinson who is bookended by two other monsters in Jarran Reed and Jonathan Allen (team sack leader with 10). The linebacking corps is led by inside linebacker and leading tackler Reggie Ragland. Ragland is so fun to watch, shows relentless pursuit, and is a tough tackler.
The defense has really been helped by the secondary's performance this year under new defensive backs coach Mel Tucker. He has taken this unit from one of weakness to a strength. Eddie Jackson leads the team with five interceptions and Marlon Humphrey is second with three. This defensive unit is truly special and should be remembered as one of the best Alabama has ever had.
The offense can hold their own too. Nick Saban has always loved to run the football and has a Heisman winning running back at his disposal. Derrick Henry is a massive man to say the least. He leads the country in rushing yards this season and is the focal point of their offense. The rest of the offense is good too.
The QB position was a question at Alabama in the offseason and even up until the game against Ole Miss. Jake Coker stepped to the plate and has certainly done an underrated job in Tuscaloosa. He has thrown for almost 2,500 yards with a 65.7 completion percentage and seventeen touchdowns.
The receiving talent around him certainly helps. Dynamic newcomer Calvin Ridley leads Alabama in receiving with 75 catches for 893 yards and 5 touchdowns. ArDarius Stewart, Oregon State transfer Richard Mullaney, and TE O.J. Howard have also been very important to the success of the passing game. This dimension of Alabama is in my opinion underrated due to Derrick Henry's presence and the Tide usually sticking to running the ball.
However, they can kill you both ways. Watch out for backup running back Kenyan Drake. When healthy, he is one of the most explosive and versatile players on this team. Alabama is truly hard to beat and is my pick to win it all this year.
#1 Clemson Tigers
Head Coach: Dabo Swinney
What a season it has been for Clemson. Head coach Dabo Swinney deserved monstrous credit for the play of his Tigers and has been voted as AP Coach of the Year in college football. This Clemson team is different from others under Swinney. It is supremely confident and hasn't lost a game they shouldn't or fallen apart in the clutch like seasons gone by. Swinney has been in the process of turning his team into a college football power, and he has certainly done just that.
It doesn't hurt though to have a guy leading the team at quarterback Deshaun Watson that was a Heisman finalist. Swinney has nothing but praise for Watson, and Clemson wouldn't be where they are today without the Gainsville, GA, native. The dual-threat quarterback leads the team in passing and is currently second in rushing. He plays with a remarkable calmness in high-stress situations and stellar in the clutch.
Running back Wayne Gallman leads Clemson on the ground with 1,332 yards and ten touchdowns. Artavis Scott leads the Tigers in receiving yards with 805 yards on 85 catches with five scores. Wideouts Deon Cain, Charone Peake, and TE Jordan Leggett have also made significant contributions in the passing game. They've combined for over 1,500 yards this season.
Clemson's defense has been excellent this year under defensive coordinator Brent Venables. Look for that name to be mentioned as a hot commodity in the coaching world in the coming years by the way. Anyway, his unit ranks seventh in the nation in thwarting opposing offenses. Clemson's defensive line is strong as well as their linebacking corp. Linebacker B.J. Goodson leads his team in tackles with 91 and fellow linebackers Ben Boulware and Shaq Lawson have also been instrumental in this stop unit. The secondary is solid as the Tigers boast the #5 pass defense in the country.
This Clemson Tiger team might be the most overshadowed undefeated team in Power-5 history. This team is really good. There's not a weakness that I can see on this entire team. There is a reason they are the top seed in this playoff.
THE BIG FOUR
QB Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma
Mayfield has brought new life to the Oklahoma football program. He is one of the most prolific playmakers in all of college football. Mayfield has passed for 3,389 yards with a 68.6 completion percentage and 35 touchdowns. Besides his strong and accurate arm, Mayfield can makes plays with his legs as well. He has added 420 yards and 7 scores on the ground. He is the biggest reason the Sooners are in the playoff this year.
QB Connor Cook, Michigan State
Cook has NFL prospect written all over him. His health could be an issue though. Anyway when healthy, he's one of the best pocket passers period. He can make all the throws and has give Michigan State more of a downfield threat. This year he has thrown for 2,921 yards and 24 scores despite missing the entire game against Ohio State.
RB Derrick Henry, Alabama
The 2015 Heisman Winner was truly worthy of the award. He was the best running back in college football this year. He seems to be an even better person as well. Henry is a big back with a 6-3, 242 pound frame. Henry is extremely powerful, who hardly ever goes down with the initial tackler. Henry has very underrated speed, and when he gets started, he is a nightmare to bring down. He broke Hershel Walker's single-season rushing record in the SEC this year with 1,986 yards and 23 touchdowns. Henry has had four games rushing over 200 yards. The freak of nature has certainly been fun to watch this year.
QB Deshaun Watson, Clemson
Watson is probably the perfect player to build a team around. I remember saying he would be a Heisman candidate one day after watching his first college game. He's surprised even me as he was a Heisman finalist this year and has more chances to win this award. Watson has accumulated 3,512 yards through the air this year as well as being the second leading rusher at Clemson with 887 yards.
THE SEMIFINAL MATCHUPS
Capital One Orange Bowl:#4 Oklahoma vs. #1 Clemson-Dec. 31 at 4PM on ESPN
When it was announced by the CFB Playoff committee that Oklahoma would play Clemson in a CFB Playoff semi in the Orange Bowl, I was ecstatic. This should be one entertaining affair. Both offenses know how to light up the scoreboard. The QB matchup will be fun to watch as well. Deshaun Watson and Baker Mayfield are probably the two best quarterbacks in the college game. (Yes, I hear your expletives, TCU and Boykin fans.) Both players will have something to prove in this game.
For Mayfield, he shouldn't be too happy about his Heisman snub, and Watson should be motivated by the fact that a current OU player said TCU QB Trevone Boykin is better. Not only do these two QBs want to prove themselves as the best, but Bob Stoops and Dabo Swinney will seek to lead their team to another victory and once again destroy the stigma that they can't win the big ones.
Oklahoma has to have a balance offensive attack and rely on Perine and Mixon's running abilities as well as Mayfield's arm. This Clemson defense is very stout after all, and defending the pass is one of their specialties. For Watson and Clemson, they just have to do what they do and try to manage the game and keep the formidable Sooner offense off the field as much as possible.
The Sooners have the better offense stat wise in this game, but it's close. I think both teams will come in with a chip on their shoulders and with something to prove. This one should be a dandy, and I feel like this one should see a solid amount of points on the scoreboard. This game is probably the toughest of the two games to pick. I definitely could see either team winning this football game.
Cotton Bowl-#3 Michigan State vs. #2 Alabama-Dec. 31 at 8PM on ESPN
To finish the night off, the Michigan State Spartans will take on the Alabama Crimson Tide in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic to cap off New Year's Eve. Alabama is the powerhouse, name-brand program, and most are picking the Tide to win this game. Be wary though, Mark Dantonio has made this Michigan State team into a perennial player on the big stage. He's done an outstanding job in East Lansing and should be commended. Nick Saban's teams are always tough to beat, and Dantonio knows it. It's weird how similar these two teams are in style. They both love to be physical and play good defense and run the ball. To me, Alabama just does it a bit better.
As you've read previously, this Alabama team is supremely talented. Their game plan in this ball game will to hopefully continue to play solid defense and run the ball with Derrick Henry behind one of the best offensive lines in the nation. The difference in this Spartan team than Dantonio has had in the past is that he has a superstar quarterback in Connor Cook.
Cook has struggled with injuries this year, but if he's healthy, he's one of the best. The way to beat Alabama is with an on-fire QB. The Tide must not let Cook beat them through the air and dictate the game to them like what happened in last year's Sugar Bowl against Cardale Jones and Ohio State. This Alabama defense will also be have to be careful to have a guy blanketing top receiver Aaron Burbridge the entire game.
For Michigan State, the keys to winning this game are simple. Spread the ball out in the passing game, be balanced on offense, and force Alabama quarterback Jake Coker to beat you. They have to try to stop or at least slow down Derrick Henry in this game. Good luck. Even if they do for a while, most teams Alabama has faced have been worn down eventually because the Tide will throw Henry at you play after play.
Even if they do manage to neutralize Henry, I think Jake Coker has been underrated, and with the receiving corps that the Tide has, they can still move the ball. This still has to be the game plan for MSU. I think Alabama will ultimately prevail in this game, but it will be a tight defensive struggle. If you are like me, this is the kind of football I love.
Overall, I am really looking forward to these two playoff games. These games will feature four exciting, talented, and worthy teams. It should be very entertaining. So on New Year's Eve, sit back on the couch, enjoy the holidays, and have fun watching what promises to be some very good football .
*All Images Via Getty Images, collegefootballplayoff.com, or orange bowl.com unless otherwise noted
**All times eastern
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