Football fans can argue about it until the cows come home, but it’s time for the 2018 College Football Playoff semifinals to take place. Maybe on Saturday, we’ll find out whether the selection committee was spot on or off course in its rankings.
Tiebreaker.com takes a look at the two games.
No. 2 Clemson (13-0) vs. No. 3 Notre Dame (12-0)
Goodyear Cotton Bowl
4 p.m. ET
If experience means anything, and we always hear that it does, Clemson seems to have a massive advantage against Notre Dame.
The Irish have never played in the CFP. The Tigers own a timeshare. This will be their fourth straight semifinal. If they win, it will be their third title game. At last count, 48 of their players have been to at least on CFP. That’s got to mean something.
“I don’t know that there’s really any magic bullet other than we have an experienced football team,” said Irish coach Brian Kelly. “There’s (on ND) a lot of veterans that have played a lot of big games. Logged a lot of miles. But we’re not going to be able to duplicate four (years) of Playoff experience.”
But this wouldn’t be the first time in college football history when familiarity could breed overconfidence. Just because the logistics are second nature doesn’t mean a team that should win will win.
You must remember Howard, a 45-point underdog, beat UNLV 43-40 in Las Vegas in 2017? And you’d admit, Notre Dame’s football program has a much better pedigree.
The Irish are undefeated for the first time since 2012. That season didn’t end well, unless, of course, you feel a four-touchdown battering from Alabama (there’s that team again) doesn’t constitute a crash landing.
And it’s not as if this year’s model left skid marks. The opening-week win over Michigan (24-17) and the 36-3 victory over Syracuse in November at Yankee Stadium were eye candy. Still, four of the dozen wins were by less than a touchdown. They beat Vanderbilt and Pittsburgh by five. Nice, but hardly administered with a shillelagh.
Clemson has just pummeled people and it’s been necessary at times. Its yearly battle against South Carolina has been used as a cautionary tale. The Gamecocks scored five touchdowns. They also lost by three touchdowns
Let’s talk offense. This is where Clemson’s advantage shows, not just against the Irish, but against everyone. The Tigers averaged 74 more yards per game than Notre Dame this season. So the task seems clear: Keep the ball away from them.
Theoretically, it seems possible. The Irish can run the ball. More specifically, Dexter Williams might be the rival of Clemson’s sophomore Travis Etienne in that very important area. He gained 941 yards this season and he played in just the last eight games after returning from suspension. Once extrapolated, that’s 1,412 yards over 12 games. Not bad.
The Tigers, who allowed an average of less than 100 yards rushing, led the nation allowing 2.4 yards per attempt. Can they contain Williams, who averaged 6.6 yards per carry and more than 10.0 yards against Florida State and Virginia Tech?
Then there’s quarterback Ian Book to contend with. His page reveals more mobility than his predecessor, Brandon Wimbush, so he can dart out of trouble (250 yards rushing) therefore creating containment issues for the front seven. He also completed 70.4 percent of his throws. He’s also been money late in games, throwing seven fourth-quarter TD passes.
Do not presume it will be that simple. Clemson’s defensive line borders on fearsome, led by All-American end Clelin Ferrell, who has 10 ½ sacks. Perhaps that might be diminished now that lineman Dexter Lawrence’s status for the game is in limbo after failing a drug test. If he declares for the draft, he will be a first-round pick. That’s a huge loss.
The Tigers’ D has been overlooked at times because of its potent offense. It might be unfortunate for Notre Dame that it certainly realizes it.
Meanwhile, Etienne, behind his steamrolling offensive line, put up some lively numbers, rushing for 1,464 yards and 21 touchdowns, including four over 40 yards. Did you know no Notre Dame back has ever ran for that many yards or scored that many TDs in one season? Now you do.
As important as QB Trevor Lawrence has been, Etienne is the one who kept defenses from focusing just on the pass. If the Irish try that, they might get a good look at Etienne’s back as he runs away from them.
Lawrence, who replaced starter Kelly Bryant in September and threw two TD passes against Pitt in the ACC Championship Game, is going to give Notre Dame a lot of problems. He doesn’t make many mistakes and has thrown for 2,606 yards and 24 TDs. His go-t0 guy is Tee Higgins (54 receptions, 10 TDs).
This seems inevitable even though the Irish allowed only seven TD passes this season with 12 interceptions. Its secondary, led by Julian Love and Alohi Gilman, is instinctive and aggressive and has not looked overmatched at any point. Lawrence has the arm strength to counter that.
No. 1 Alabama (13-0) vs. No. 4 Oklahoma (12-1)
Capital One Orange Bowl
8 p.m. ET
This year’s awarding of the Heisman Trophy basically came down to a coin flip between Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa and Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray.
It could have gone either way. Heads, everyone would have been happy. Tails, no one would have complained. In the end, it was Murray who struck the pose, succeeding Sooner Baker Mayfield in the trophy case.
We mention this because the CFP semifinal between the Crimson Tide and Oklahoma may come down to whether Murray or Tagovailoa has the better game.
How good are these quarterbacks? Oklahoma punted only 29 times. The Tide had nine more. You don’t stop them. You only hope they will eventually get bored.
Until a few days ago, there were doubts either would be well enough to play. Tagovailoa (37 touchdown passes, four interceptions) had ankle surgery the day after the Tide’s win over Georgia in the SEC Championship Game. Murray hasn’t been feeling well and missed a media availability.
Tragedy has been averted on both sides. And this is very good news. Especially for the Sooners, a 14-point underdog against the defending national champions who have won five titles in nine seasons for Nick Saban.
Murray accounted for 4,945 all-purpose yards and 51 touchdowns this season, his last as a football player. When the playoffs end, he will join the Oakland A’s and begin his professional baseball career, which only seems fair considering the ninth overall pick in the 2018 draft signed for $4.6 million.
The Sooners have enjoyed an offensive boon this season, accumulating points (49.5 per game) in rapid style. The problem is, they’ve also allowed almost as many and may be the worst defensive team ever to contend for a national championship.
Oklahoma is 96th in the nation after allowing an average of 32.4 points and 448 yards. What’s more, the Sooners have the worst pass defense in the country, even worse than UConn, which was historically dismal defensively.
If you’ve seen Alabama receiver Jerry Jeudy, you know this is going to be a major problem for Oklahoma.
Murray’s guy this season has been Marquis Brown, but he injured a foot during the Big 12 Championship Game against Texas. And the Sooners coaches haven’t been overly forthcoming regarding his status for Saturday.
“I hope so,” said co-offensive coordinator Cale Gundy on Wednesday.
Brown, a junior, made 75 catches for 1,318 yards and 10 touchdowns. With tag team partner, sophomore CeeDee Lamb, they became the first pair in Oklahoma football history to each record 1,000 receiving yards in the same season. Brown had eight catches for 114 yards as a TD against Georgia in last year’s Rose Bowl, also a national semifinal.
Meanwhile, Tagovailoa announced this week he “80 to 85 percent.” It’s the 15 percent Tide fans worry about, even though his absence would result in the return of Jalen Hurts. It was Hurts to orchestrated Alabama’s comeback win over the Bulldogs when Tagovailoa had to come out.
“Tua’s been able to practice and get all the reps that he’s needed to get,” said Saban. “It’ll be interesting to see after having a few days off, with the additional rehab, how that impacts his ability to get closer to 100 percent.”
Alabama averages 47.9 points and its defense in No. 2 nationally in points, 10th in total defense and No. 4 in scoring defense (14.8). But Georgia proved you can create a dent. The Bulldogs ran for 153 and threw for 301 and Sooner fans smiled. But before they fell behind by 14 points in the SEC Championship Game, 35-28, Alabama had defeated everyone else by at least 22.