clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

CFP Semifinal Preview & Open Thread

New, comments

Before the Irish face the Buckeyes, the last games of 2015 will narrow the playoff field to two.

Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Orange Bowl: Clemson vs. Oklahoma, 4 p.m.

As Irish fans, we're all probably much more familiar with the Tigers, who edged Notre Dame by two points in the typhoon/monsoon/tropical storm in Death Valley. After beating the Irish, Dabo Swinney's squad dominated Georgia Tech, Boston College, and Miami. In another huge home game Deshaun Watson had a huge second half to dispatch FSU, and Clemson managed to keep a perfect record in closer games down the stretch against Syracuse, South Carolina, and UNC (yes, even ELITE teams sometimes have close wins against bad teams like the Orange and Gamecocks).

A key to Clemson's success has been how well-rounded this team is - since facing Notre Dame, the defense has taken a small shuffle back (by small shuffle, from best in the nation to #5 or 6) and Watson and the passing game have really come to life (not that he was struggling earlier by any means). Last season the Tiger passing offense was outstanding with Watson healthy, but Clemson couldn't run the ball at all (107th) - fast forward to 2015 and Wayne Gallman (5.5 YPC) and Watson (6.3 YPC) have the Tigers up to 28th. A young offensive line has found its stride quickly, and the defense has been suffocating, led by playmakers at every level. Even after losing a lot of defensive talent to the NFL draft, Clemson is #14 in adjusted sack rate, #5 in overall havoc rate, and a viable answer to "Who has the best defense besides Alabama?"

The Sooners took some time finding an offensive flow with new OC Lincoln Riley and Baker Mayfield at quarterback, and needed a 4th quarter comeback (and Tennessee collapse) to escape Neyland Stadium with a win. Three weeks later they inexplicably were held to 17 points and lost the Red River Shootout to Texas. Since then, Oklahoma has cruised, finishing with strong statements against a back-loaded Big 12 schedule with a 10-point win at Baylor, building an early lead and holding on for a narrow win versus TCU, and crushing Oklahoma State by 35 in Stillwater.

Like the Tigers, Oklahoma has been extremely balanced - there are no huge weaknesses to point to. Offensively Baker Mayfield became a Heisman contender in his first year in Norman, with a 69% completion rate and 7:1 touchdown to interception ratio. He's a fantastic athlete who improvises well and can escape pressure and hurt teams on the ground (582 yards rushing, 6 YPC) as well. Semaje Perine and Joe Mixon combined for over 2,000 yards rushing and 22 TDs and have been home-run threats (#8 in rushing explosiveness). The receiving corps is deep and talented, led by Sterling Shepard (15.2 yards per catch, 1201 yards, 11 TDs).

Defenses rarely get credit in the Big Twelve - traditional stats don't account for pace, which leads to more possessions, which lead to more yardage and points. S&P+ rates the Sooners are both a top-6 passing and rushing defense - rarely giving up big plays in the passing game, and not allowing teams to find consistent success running either. Oklahoma has had some luck in missing Trevone Boykin, Seth Russell, and mostly missing Mason Rudolph who played only one possession in the Bedlam game. But you don't apologize for that luck, you just take it, and the Sooners contained other solid offenses at close to full strength like Texas Tech and West Virginia.

Tale of the tape:

Clemson rank

Oklahoma rank

Edge

F+ Ranking

2

F+ Ranking

3

Tigers

Pass Offense

3

Pass Defense

6

Tigers

Run Offense

28

Run Defense

6

Sooners

Pass Defense

3

Pass Offense

10

Tigers

Run Defense

13

Run Offense

18

Tigers

Keep an eye on:

  • Clemson has small advantages in a few categories above, but one big advantage - they're great at getting after opposing quarterbacks, and Oklahoma hasn't protected Mayfield well. The Sooners are #120 in standard down sack rate, Clemson is #1. Mayfield has been great at making plays out of bad situations, but the Tigers could force him to throw the ball away (or pay a high price for taking chances) or rough him up a little if he can't get the ball out quickly.
  • The one area where Clemson has been below average is giving up a few too many long runs for a great run defense- they've allowed 10 runs of 30+ yards this season (#84, Alabama's given up one). Oklahoma has 13 runs of 30+ yards (#19) and the 8th most explosive run game by Rushing IsoPPP. There's a good chance of Perine or Mixon breaking a long run in this game.
Predictions:

Vegas Line: Oklahoma -3.5

S&P+: 31-29, Clemson

FEI: Clemson 27-26

MB: Clemson, 38-31

This will be a great game to watch - two really evenly matched teams that play really well on both sides of the ball. Both teams want to move quickly on offense and are in the top-20 in adjusted pace, and even with quality defenses I think this will be a high-scoring game - in 2015 I think the best offenses in the country have a decent advantage over the best defenses (minus maybe Alabama). I'm surprised to see the Sooners favored by over a field goal in this game - it feels like over-emphasizing Oklahoma's season-ending wins as well as Clemson's close games against South Carolina and UNC.

Overall I like the Tigers slightly better at quarterback (and this is more gut feeling than anything solid, but I love Deshaun Watson) and on defense, where I think they'll have a better chance of forcing turnovers and sacks. The Sooners pass defense has been excellent defending long passes, but Watson is so accurate and such a great decision-maker that I think the Tigers can move the chains methodically taking what the defense gives them. I also think Clemson's defensive line will clog running lanes and force enough pressure to have Dabo Swinney dancing at the end of this one.

Cotton Bowl: Alabama vs. Michigan State, 8 p.m.

For a second straight year the Crimson Tide are the favorites heading into a semifinal with the Big Ten champions. Can the Spartans replicate Ohio State's success last season?

While everyone waits for Nick Saban and Alabama to take a step back, the Tide just keep rolling. Even against Ole Miss, when Cooper Bateman started and struggled before being pulled and everything was going the Rebels' way, Alabama still had a few late drives in the 4th quarter to try to win. Since giving up 43 in that game the defense has held opponents to an average of 11.7 points per game, and is the single best unit in the playoff. Jake Coker has stabilized the quarterback position, and Lane Kiffin has made a wise decision to never let anyone hypothesize that he hasn't run the dang ball with Derrick Henry enough times.

Michigan State jumped to the #3 ranking in the college football playoff after beating Iowa in the Big Ten Championship game, but is the heavy underdog. The Spartans started the season with a nice win over Oregon (still finding their way with Vernon Adams at QB), but then played down to their competition with games that were close in the 4th quarter against Purdue, Rutgers, and Indiana. Mark Dantonio's squad was written off after the controversial loss to Nebraska, but rallied to play their best football of the season over the last four games, highlighted by wins at Ohio State and in Indianapolis over Iowa.

The Spartans are the only team in the playoff with a senior quarterback, and while Connor Cook has struggled with injuries at occasional bouts of inconsistency, he has a strong track record in big games - 2-0 in conference championships and 2-0 in major bowl games with wins over Baylor and Stanford. Despite the loss of Pat Narduzzi the Michigan State defense starred in the win in Columbus and shut down the Hawkeyes running game in the Big Ten title game.

Tale of the tape (ranks S&P+):

Alabama rank

Michigan State rank

Edge

F+ Ranking

1

F+ Ranking

6

Bama

Pass Offense

28

Pass Defense

10

Sparty

Run Offense

13

Run Defense

21

Bama

Pass Defense

1

Pass Offense

30

Bama

Run Defense

1

Run Offense

98

BAMA

Keep an eye on:

  • Michigan State's defense has performed well against the run, but mostly from limiting explosive runs (15th best) versus making opponents inefficient (72nd in opponent rushing success rate). The Spartans will have to hold Derrick Henry to small and negative gains to prevent methodical drives and force passing downs for the Tide to keep them off schedule.
  • Connor Cook will be the key to scoring points for Michigan State, but he's going to have the #2 pass rush in the country after him. The Sparty offensive line has been solid in protection (top 25 nationally) but there may not be many open receivers against the best passing defense in the land.
  • Alabama doesn't turn the ball over much (0.54 per game, #34) but Michigan State has forced 28 in 2015, averaging 1.23 per game (#9). Scoring points on Bama's defense is huge challenge, so anything that special teams or the defense can do to shorten the field or put points on the board will be enormous.
Predictions:

Vegas Line: Alabama -10

S&P+: 30 -19, Alabama

FEI: Alabama 26-20

MB: Alabama, 34-17

I like the Crimson Tide to cover and win comfortably here. Beating Alabama under Nick Saban has typically required a super-efficient, two-dimensional offense, which Michigan State simply doesn't have. The Tide have shut down great pro style running attacks (even Leonard Fournette), and to put it kindly, the Spartans' is bad. That puts tremendous pressure on Connor Cook, the offensive line, and receivers in the passing game, where once again Bama's defense has been the best in the country. I don't think Michigan State has the athletes to win battles in the secondary, especially if Alabama is able to force passing downs and can make the Spartans one-dimensional.

It's a close matchup when Alabama has the ball, but still I think it will be a much easier task for the Tide to score than MSU. Against Ohio State the Spartans had success with off man coverage and loaded boxes against the run, and I'd anticipate a similar strategy - force Coker to throw to win. It may take little while for Alabama to find a rhythm, but I think Lane Kiffin and company will hit a couple of explosive passing plays (Calvin Ridley starts getting even more national attention) and then grind out first downs with Henry.