The College Football Playoff is finally here, with both semifinals matchups taking place New Year’s Day on ESPN. Mac Jones and #1 Alabama take on Ian Book and #4 Notre Dame in the Rose Bowl, followed up by Trevor Lawrence and #2 Clemson facing Justin Fields and #3 Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl.
Let’s take a look at this season’s four playoff teams.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish
The Fighting Irish finished 4th in the final AP rankings after going 10-1 and losing to Clemson in the ACC Championship.
While they lost almost all their momentum after losing by 24 two weeks ago, this is still a Notre Dame team that was ranked inside the top 10 all year.
Notre Dame’s offense put up 35 points and 455 yards per game this season. This unit was led by quarterback Ian Book and running back Kyren Williams.
Book completed 64% of his passes and threw for 2,600 yards, 15 touchdowns and just two interceptions. He also ran for 430 yards and an additional eight touchdowns.
Williams is the focal point of this teams running game, rushing for 1,061 yards on the season. He was a factor in the passing game as well, finishing with 282 receiving yards and 13 total touchdowns.
While Notre Dame can clearly score on offense, its key factor this year has been its defense. The Fighting Irish held opponents to 19 points per game.
With Alabama, the best offense in the country, on deck, Notre Dame’s defense will have to put up their best performance of the season if they want to pull off the upset.
Ohio State Buckeyes
This is where things get tricky. We don’t know a whole lot about this year’s Buckeyes squad.
Ohio State only played six games, winning all of them, and capped off the regular season barely squeezing past Northwestern in the Big Ten Championship. They trailed 10-6 most of the game, and scored a late touchdown to make it a 22-10 final score.
Nevertheless, this is still an Ohio State team that was a playoff favorite before the season started and had quarterback Justin Fields under center for every game.
Fields was a preseason favorite to win the Heisman, and despite only playing six games still put up solid numbers.
The Buckeyes scored 42.5 points per game while racking up almost 530 total yards in each outing. The defense did let up about 21 points per game, but when you score double that, the games are usually never close.
Fields completed 73% of his passes for 1,521 yards, threw 15 touchdown passes and 5 interceptions. He also ran for an additional 274 yards and 5 touchdowns.
Ohio State’s running attack was led by a two-headed monster in Master Teague and Trey Sermon. Teague finished with 494 scrimmage yards and six touchdowns, while Sermon had 709 scrimmage yards and three touchdowns.
It’s so difficult to analyze this team and these numbers because they only played six games.
They didn’t beat any major opponents, and Fields looked horrible in the Big Ten Championship. He completed 44% of his passes for 114 yards, zero touchdowns and 2 interceptions.
Will they prove the haters right and wind up a fluke who should’ve never been in the playoff, or is everyone sleeping on the Buckeyes?
Dabo Swinney, Trevor Lawrence and the Clemson Tigers put up another solid year, finishing 10-1 and knocking off then-undefeated Notre Dame in the ACC title game.
While their one loss did come against Notre Dame back in November, Lawrence didn’t play due to COVID-19 protocols. And as everyone saw two weeks ago, this is an entirely different team when Lawrence is under center.
The Tigers offense put up 45 points per game and 508 yards to go along with it. Their defense, despite being a lot younger and less dominant than recent years, gave up only 18 points a game.
Lawrence was on pace to win the Heisman before he missed the games against Boston College and Notre Dame due to COVID-19. Through nine games, he completed 69% of his passes, and threw for 2,753 yards, 22 touchdowns and 4 interceptions. He also ran for 211 yards and another 7 touchdowns.
Speaking of running the ball, Clemson has one of the top backs in the country in Travis Etienne. Etienne finished the season with 1,406 scrimmage yards and 15 touchdowns. Clemson’s offense also features wide receiver Amari Rodgers, who racked up 69 receptions, 966 yards and 7 touchdowns.
This team’s been virtually unstoppable since getting Lawrence back, and it doesn’t look like that’ll stop anytime soon.
Alabama Crimson Tide
This team was the definition of a juggernaut in the 2020 season.
The Crimson Tide had their fair share of battles with COVID-19, including missing head coach Nick Saban for their battle with Auburn.
However, none of that seemed to matter, as Alabama finished undefeated at 11-0. ‘Bama was led by their elite offense, which put up 50 points and 544 yards a game.
The defense did their thing as well, holding opponents to 19 points per game. Despite this low average number, however, offenses have shown this defense can be exposed, highlighted by Florida scoring 46 points in the SEC Championship.
Offense is what guides this Alabama team, and it’s a good one. It’s actually a little crazy how statistically good they are. Quarterback Mac Jones, running back Najee Harris, and receiver Devonta Smith are all in the Heisman Trophy conversation.
Jones completed 77% of his passes for 3,739 yards, and threw for 32 touchdowns with only 4 interceptions.
Harris finished with 1,262 rushing yards, 316 receiving yards and 27 total touchdowns.
Smith had 98 receptions, 1,522 total yards and 18 touchdowns. He even ran back a few punts for touchdowns.
An interesting note is no other pass-catcher on Alabama had more than 50 receptions, but these three players alone have made Alabama almost impossible to stop.
They drive down the field and score with ease, and Alabama looks like the favorite to win it all heading into the semifinal games.
Matchups and Predictions
Alabama vs. Notre Dame
Notre Dame leads the all-time series with Alabama 5-2, but only one of those games have been in the last 30 years.
What happened in that one game?
Alabama beat Notre Dame 42-14 in the 2012 BCS National Championship, scoring the first 35 points of the game.
At first glance, this year’s meeting has a similar energy to it. Alabama scores at will. It almost looks easy.
Notre Dame’s defense is good, but are they THAT good? They just got ran over by Clemson, and have given up 28.6 points per game in their last five games.
Can Book and Williams keep up with Alabama?
The Fighting Irish can for sure pull off an upset here. The defense needs to play their best game of the season while Book and Williams move the chains enough to keep Jones and company off the field.
It could turn out to be a closer game than people think, but expect Alabama to win and make a National Championship appearance for the fifth time in the last six years.
Clemson vs. Ohio State
This year’s Sugar Bowl gives us a rematch of last year’s semifinal, where the Tigers out dueled the Buckeyes 29-23 in an instant classic.
Clemson leads the all-time series 4-0, with three of the matchups played in the last eight years. Clemson outscored Ohio State 100-58 in those games, including a 31-0 shutout in the 2016 CFP Semifinal.
Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney doesn’t seem worried about his New Year’s Day opponent, and the Tigers have looked really good down the stretch. The Buckeyes haven’t.
The Sugar Bowl features the potential top two quarterbacks off the board in Lawrence and Fields, and should be another classic.
Ohio State’s potential is unclear due to injuries and COVID-19 issues all season, but they’re here for a reason.
This game ultimately comes down to the play of Fields and Lawrence. Fields needs to play better than he did in the Big Ten Championship if Ohio State wants to stay in this game.
And while Lawrence may not win the Heisman, he’s the most valuable player in the country. Just look how Clemson’s been with him on the field compared to off.
If Fields bounces back from his last performance, Ohio State can keep it close and even pull off the upset.
But expect Lawrence and Clemson to control the game, and move on to face Alabama in the National Championship for the fifth time in the last six years.
Lifelong sports fan fulfilling a childhood dream. I’ll talk sports all day. Passion and hot takes are my thing… there’s always a story. Yankees. NY Giants. Knicks. Texas Longhorns. Yes… being a Knicks fan is rough, but my time will come (hopefully). Senior at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut.