2018 College Football Playoff Preview

PAULA R. LIVELY [(CC BY 2.0)] / FLICKR
Clemson, Oklahoma, Georgia, Alabama will play for national title

The 2017 college football regular season has come to a close, but bowl season now looms in the near future. For the fourth consecutive year, the NCAA postseason with be highlighted by the College Football Playoff. Once again, the near-impossible task of selecting the top four teams in the country was completed by the playoff selection committee. Filling the tournament’s first three spots appeared straightforward, while the debate surrounding the selection the final team was much more contentious. Ultimately, the committee made the decision to choose four 11-1 teams to compete for the national title.

 

Clemson Tigers

Showing no symptoms of a championship hangover, Clemson is poised to make a repeat title run this coming January. Last year, the Tigers defeated Alabama in stunning fashion to win the team’s first national title since 1981. This year, Clemson will get a chance to bring down the Crimson Tide again, as the teams are set to square off in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1.

Although several important players who were on last season’s championship team have since graduated or now play in the NFL (including star quarterback Deshaun Watson), head coach Dabo Swinney has proven to be resilient in his developmental and recruiting efforts. This season, Clemson is led by junior quarterback Kelly Bryant, who has established himself as a legitimate dual-threat offensive star. Bryant is among the most accurate passers in the nation, ranking sixth in completion percentage. In addition to his 2,678 passing yards, Bryant’s 646 yards and 11 TDs on the ground show that he can get things moving with his legs as well.

While Bryant has been up to the task offensively, the Tiger defense has held its own as one of the best defenses in the country. Clemson gives up the sixth fewest yards per game (278) and the second fewest points per game (12.8). When it mattered most this season, the defense has stepped up for Clemson. The Tigers allowed just six points to a talented Auburn team that fell just shy of winning the SEC, 21 points to the reigning Heisman winner, Lamar Jackson, in a victory over Louisville and just three points to Miami in last weekend’s ACC championship game.

Clemson’s one loss this season came on the road against a questionable Syracuse team, where the Tigers fell 27-24. Outside of this one blemish on their record, the Tigers have handled every other team on their schedule. Each of the team’s 11 wins have been decided by seven points or more, with an average margin of victory of 19.7. Still, critics question the strength of Clemson’s schedule and how the team will fare against mightier competition.

 

Oklahoma Sooners

Champions of the Big XII, Oklahoma sits at the number-two seed heading into the playoffs. The Sooners’ success this season can be largely attributed to the team’s prolific offense, quarterbacked by Heisman favorite Baker Mayfield. The passionate, energetic and often irreverent senior has flat-out balled this season, racking up 4,340 yards and 41 touchdowns through the air –– both of these numbers rank second in the nation. Mayfield and the athletic wideout duo of Mark Andrews and Marquise Brown have shredded opposing defenses, leading the nation in total offensive yards and offensive efficiency.

Averaging 44.9 points per game, offense has obviously proven to be an important asset to the Sooners’ success. Oklahoma’s defense, on the other hand, has shown flashes of greatness in certain games, particularly in victories over Ohio State and TCU in last weekend’s Big XII title game. Overall, though, the Oklahoma defense has been wildly inconsistent and will have much to prove as it matches up against a solid Georgia team.

Much like Clemson, Oklahoma has been able to take care of business against most every opponent. The Sooners overcame an early-season upset loss at home to Iowa State as they went on to secure a quality win at Big XII rival Texas, a shootout win at Oklahoma State and two separate wins over TCU. Oklahoma will now travel out to the west coast to play Georgia in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1.

 

Georgia Bulldogs

As the one-loss champion of the SEC, Georgia has earned a spot in the college football playoff for the first time. The Bulldogs flew under the radar for most of the season, even after a one-point win at Notre Dame. Powered by a top-tier defense that ranks fourth in yards allowed per game and third in points allowed per game, Georgia rattled off nine straight wins to begin the season before falling to Auburn on the road. The Bulldogs were given a chance at redemption last weekend, though, as they dominated the Tigers this time around in Atlanta to secure Georgia’s first conference title in 12 years.

Georgia’s punishing defensive front and talented secondary has unquestionably carried the team into the playoffs, but the Bulldog offense has also vastly improved compared to previous seasons. The success of this offensive unit this season has been surprising, especially considering that the quarterback at the helm, Jake Fromm, is a true freshman. Despite his youth, Fromm has not shied away from the spotlight; his 168.2 quarterback rating is seventh in the nation and his confident performance in the SEC championship game make Fromm look like an experienced veteran.

Dominant defense and proficient quarterback play are not the only things that have helped the Bulldogs thrive. A healthy ground game, led by senior running back Nick Chubb, has been key for Kirby Smart’s team. After a breakout freshman campaign, Chubb was sidelined by a significant knee injury during his sophomore season. Since then, Chubb has run the ball with purpose, amassing 1,175 yards and 13 TD’s over the course of this season. After his 77-yard outing against Auburn, Chubb officially took his place as the SEC’s second all-time leading rusher. Now on the biggest stage, the Bulldogs will depend on a balanced offense that leans on Chubb’s skillset and Fromm’s steady passing style.

 

Alabama Crimson Tide

Rounding out the fourth and final spot is Alabama. Deciding who was going to fill this spot was a virtual toss-up between the Tide and the Ohio State Buckeyes. Alabama started the season with an impeccable 11-0 record but finally lost on the road to Auburn in its final regular season game. The loss sent Auburn to the SEC championship game to play Georgia. The Crimson Tide, therefore, did not get a chance at conference title. Ohio State, on the other hand, suffered two regular season losses but was still able to find its way into the Big 10 championship game where the Buckeyes took down Wisconsin. Despite winning their conference with a 10-2 record, the committee selected one-loss Alabama out of the SEC.

For the first time, the playoffs will feature two teams from the same conference. While Alabama is not a conference winner this year, the university’s football prowess is well established. The Tide have won four national titles since 2009, including their most recent one in 2015. Under head coach Nick Saban, Alabama is known for playing a physical style of football behind a typically enormous line on both sides of the ball. This year’s Alabama squad is no different; the Tide rank tenth in the nation in rushing yards per game and number one in total defense.

Outside of their one loss, the Tide has consistently out-physicalled their opponents. Dynamic sophomore quarterback Jalen Hurts has performed well through the air and on the ground, throwing for 15 touchdowns and running for eight. His one interception is the fewest among QB’s with a minimum of 200 passing attempts. Aided by a two-headed monster in the backfield, junior running backs Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough have combined for nearly 1,500 yards rushing and 19 TD’s.

Many still question if the Tide’s schedule this season was strong enough to properly prepare them for the Playoff, but Alabama is still packed with veteran players –– like the ones mentioned above –– who have legitimate playoff experience under their belt. The experience and the physicality of Saban’s team may become a pivotal factor when the Tide takes on Clemson on New Year’s Day.

 

Allstate Sugar Bowl

#1 Clemson vs #4 Alabama

8:45 p.pm ET, Jan.1

National Championship

Monday, Jan. 8

Winner of Sugar Bowl vs Winner of Rose Bowl

Rose Bowl Game

#2 Oklahoma vs #3 Georgia

5 p.m. ET, Jan. 1

 

Written by: Dominic Faria — sports@theaggie.org