In a year filled with surprises (most of the unpleasant variety), the College Football Playoff has given fans the rarest of gifts: comfort and stability. This year’s four semifinal teams — Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, and Notre Dame — have appeared in the Playoff a collective 18-times since the advent of the CFB playoff in 2015. So while the competitors may not have been a surprise, it’s difficult to argue that they aren’t deserving (Texas A&M fans may disagree).
Rose Bowl Game Presented by Capital One
#4 Notre Dame vs. #1 Alabama
Fri. Jan. 1, 4pm ET, ESPN
Current odds: Alabama by 19.5
After missing the Playoff for the first time last year, #1 Alabama is back with a vengeance. Many experts believe this could be the best overall squad the Crimson Tide has fielded since the Playoff began, and there’s ample evidence to support that. Despite losing two star receivers to the NFL draft last season, Alabama’s air attack hasn’t missed a beat; Jaylen Waddle is expected to return to the lineup for the first time since October and his 22.3 yards per catch is the best in the nation. If that weren’t enough, his teammate DeVonta Smith just became the first wide receiver to win the Associated Press college football player of the year award. Although their defense has played exceptionally well at different points through the season, Alabama’s offense is the reason why they’re currently favored by almost three touchdowns, a record point spread for a CFB Playoff game.
If #4 Notre Dame is going to pull off the upset, they’re going to need to put up a bunch of points. Lucky for the Irish, they have the weapons to do just that. Quarterback Ian Book is a dual-threat both passing and running, and he’s been smart with the ball, tossing just two picks while scoring a combined 23 touchdowns through the air and on the ground. But the most important player may end up being Notre Dame receiver Javon McKinley. As SI.com points out, in the six games in which McKinley hauled in at least five receptions, the Irish offense averaged 39 points on offense; in the five games in which he caught fewer than five balls, they scored an average of just 26.4 offensive points. It’s hard to imagine this game being a low-scoring slugfest, so Notre Dame will need both players to have big games if they want to advance to their first CFP National Championship Game.
Allstate Sugar Bowl
#3 Ohio State vs. #2 Clemson
Fri. Jan. 1, 8pm ET, ESPN
Current odds: Alabama by 7.5
The Sugar Bowl features a rematch of last year’s CFP Semifinal in the Fiesta Bowl, a 29-23 Clemson win that many felt was the college football game of the year. There may still be some lingering resentment, as Clemson coach Dabo Swinney ranked the Buckeyes 11th in the Coach’s Poll, supplying Ohio State with plenty of bulletin board material. In Swinney’s defense, Ohio State has only played six games, including the Big Ten Championship, compared to the 11-game schedule of the other competitors. However, it’s clear that Ohio State is among the most talented teams in college football; had the Buckeyes played a full schedule, their QB Justin Fields would almost certainly have been a Heisman finalist, and in the Big Ten Championship, running back Trey Sermon was virtually unstoppable, amassing 331 yards and two TDs on 29 carries.
But Clemson has Trevor Lawrence, the consensus best player in college football. His COVID-19 diagnosis ahead of their game against Notre Dame in November is likely all that prevented Clemson from a perfect season and the Tigers have the experience and fortitude to win when it matters. As a true freshman, Lawrence and the Tigers dominated Alabama in the National Championship game two years ago, but he struggled last year in their title game loss to LSU. With Lawrence likely heading to the NFL next season, his teammates are looking to send him off on a high note.
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