After 13 weeks of college football, four teams did enough to reach the College Football Playoff. Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, and Washington have each earned a chance to prove they are the best team in college football. On New Year’s Eve, two teams will be moving on to the final step, the chance to win it all in the Playoff’s third season. Will Alabama, in their third playoff appearance, win back to back titles with their suffocating defense and true freshman at quarterback? Will Clemson achieve glory on their redemption tour after falling short last season? Can Ohio State win their second title in the playoff era with their youngest group they’ve had in a long time? Or, will Washington, with their high powered offense and talented secondary, shock the world and bring it home? Four teams remain, and two will go home. Who will they be? Let’s dive in.
Chick Fil-A Peach Bowl: (1) Alabama vs. (4) Washington
Draft Talent to Watch
Washington: WR John Ross, CB Sidney Jones, DL Elijah Qualls, DL Vita Vea, CB Kevin King, S Budda Baker
Washington features a loaded group of prospects, and all will have a chance to show us what they can do against a great Alabama team. John Ross has the speed and route running that teams covet. The secondary has a chance to lock down Alabama WRs Calvin Ridley and Ardarius Stewart. Budda Baker can lay the boom, even with his size, but also has speed to play centerfield. Qualls and Vea can wreak havoc up front, and could pressure freshman Jalen Hurts and rattle Alabama’s offense.
Alabama: DL Jonathan Allen, LB Reuben Foster, DE Ryan Anderson, DL Dalvin Tomlinson, CB Marlon Humphrey, S Eddie Jackson, TE OJ Howard, OT Cam Robinson, EDGE Tim Williams
If this isn’t an indication of Alabama’s defensive talent, I don’t know what is. Jonathan Allen is ridiculously athletic on the inside, and Williams and Anderson provide pressure on the edge. Reuben Foster is as good a linebacker as I’ve ever seen. Marlon Humphrey is a great tackling corner, and Eddie Jackson is a ballhawk in the secondary. OJ Howard clearly sits as the top tight end in the class, and Hurts should be looking for him a lot today over the middle.
How Do You Beat Alabama’s Defense?
Alabama’s defensive stats are unreal. They are allowing under 4 yards per play, give up less than 250 yards per game, and have scored 10 defensive touchdowns. There might not be a weakness on the entire side of the ball here for Alabama. All four of the defensive lineman are on the draft radar, and if you aren’t disciplined, they will live in the backfield. Reuben Foster runs the show, and his sideline-to-sideline play is something to account for. The secondary features Marlon Humphrey and Minkah Fitzpatrick, who can both make plays and tackle well. The discipline on this defense is unreal. So, how do you stop it?
Well, Jake Browning has been one of the best quarterbacks in the country this season (3280 yards, 42 TDs, 7 INTs), and part of that falls on how good his weapons on the outside have been. John Ross has the speed to beat anyone down the field, and Dante Pettis has been a great compliment with his physicality and hands. Browning and company have the ability to throw deep and create big plays, a formula that Ohio State used two years ago. Yes, Washington can throw it deep, but that Ohio State team also had Ezekiel Elliott, a power and speed back who had a huge game. The moral of the story? Washington needs to move the football on the ground as well as through the air. If Washington becomes one dimensional, Alabama can get to Browning by rushing only four guys and dropping seven into coverage, a formula that could give the Huskies fits. Running backs Myles Gaskin and Lavon Coleman will need to find holes against the Alabama front to ensure that the passing game will open up. That running game needs to be a factor for Washington.
How Will True Freshman Jalen Hurts Handle The Pressure?
Jalen Hurts is the first true freshman starter in the Nick Saban era. He has done very well in his first year at Alabama, but the playoff is another level of pressure. How will he handle the pressure? Well, for one, he seems like he’s going to be an excellent player in college football and a future Heisman contender, and it seems like there’s no panic in him at all. After an interception against USC to open his career, he came out and responded like a true veteran, forgetting that interception even happened. That short term memory is what breeds good quarterbacks. Hurts is responsible for 34 TDs and only 9 interceptions. The key is that Hurts can beat you through the air and on the ground. He’s not as electric as Lamar Jackson, but he’s extremely smart with the football and has great efficiency running an offense. He will be able to lean on Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough in the run game, and he has plenty of weapons to look for on the outside. Ridley and Stewart are great playmakers on the outside, and versatile tight end OJ Howard can make big plays down the field. Washington does boast plenty of talent on the defensive side, but Hurts has the poise and the weapons to move the ball and do enough to win.
Alabama: OJ Howard
Howard can do it all as a tight end. He will be important as a blocker when Harris and Scarbrough get the call, and when Hurts takes off, he has the athleticism to get down the field and open up lanes for Hurts. He’s also a big time deep threat, as last year’s title game showed. With the Washington secondary being so talented, it might be up to Howard to get open on intermediate routes to pick up key third downs to sustain Alabama’s drives.
Washington: Myles Gaskin
Washington needs to run the football, otherwise Alabama can and will drop seven into coverage. There needs to be a threat on the ground that draws attention, and Gaskin could provide that threat. If Gaskin is able to find holes, Alabama could be on their heels defensively.
Alabama is just too strong. Washington has the big play ability to keep things close early, and may surprise many folks with their exceptional secondary. But, Alabama is too physical, too disciplined, and too smart to allow a more finesse team to beat them. Washington has a chance, but they need to find running room to unleash Ross and Pettis deep. On the other side, Hurts needs to be smart and patient to allow plays to develop. Alabama has the weapons to help him out on the big stage. Alabama has big play ability on both sides, and that will keep them on track to a title.
Alabama 25, Washington 20
Playstation Fiesta Bowl: (2) Clemson vs. (3) Ohio State
Draft Talent to Watch
Ohio State: S Malik Hooker, CB Marshon Lattimore, CB Gareon Conley, LB Raekwon McMillan, C Pat Elflein, RB Curtis Samuel
Ohio State boasts extreme talent in the secondary like Alabama and Washington. Conley, Lattimore, and Hooker have all been on the round 1/2 radar. McMillan is a solid linebacker who makes a ton of plays in the run game. Curtis Samuel is the wild card here. He probably won’t leave, but his ability to extend runs outside and line up in the slot to run routes as a receiver will be huge to help his draft stock rise.
Clemson: WR Mike Williams, CB Cordrea Tankersley, QB DeShaun Watson, RB Wayne Gallman, TE Jordan Leggett, DL Carlos Watkins, DL Dexter Lawrence
Clemson has talent on the offensive side of the ball, with Watson and Williams driving a lot of discussion. Many are still unsure about Watson, but Williams is a sure fire number one wide receiver. Gallman is on the radar, but he projects more as a day two or three prospect. Jordan Leggett’s receiving ability has shot him up draft boards. Along the defensive line, Carlos Watkins is a solid interior pass rusher with a high motor. As for Dexter Lawrence, he is more of a future prospect watch. He can’t come out this season, but he is a player that many will keep an eye on in the next couple years.
How Does Ohio State Get Its Run Game Going?
Ohio State’s main weakness is its offensive line. They have allowed a ton of pressure this season, and that makes life tough for JT Barrett and the run game. We know Ohio State loves to run the ball, and can attack you from many areas in the run game. Mike Weber was their 1000-yard back this season, and his power running style allows Ohio State to get a push north and south. Curtis Samuel is their speed and all purpose back. He can get to the edge and turn sweep plays into big gains. And don’t forget, JT Barrett also likes to run. Ohio State loves to have all three out there and force defenses to choose where to go. That type of zone reading style will be put to the test against the Clemson front. Carlos Watkins and company will be able to shed blocks against Ohio State’s weak offensive line. Plus, when you have a downhill player like Ben Boulware, the run scheme needs to take him into account. Clemson will get serious pressure on the interior, so it’s up to Urban Meyer and the staff to figure out a way to get the run game going.
Watson vs. The Secondary
DeShaun Watson has been a big time player the last two seasons, in the passing game as well as a running threat. If Ohio State can stay in their rush lanes, they will be able to keep him in the pocket, where he still needs to develop more. The key for Ohio State’s defense is to maintain coverage long enough for the pass rush to get to Watson. They won’t have an easy task though. Mike Williams looks like a man among boys when he lines up outside. Hunter Renfro is a slot threat that will attract some attention. Plus, Jordan Leggett has become a big time playmaker in Clemson’s offense. It will be up to Conley, Lattimore, and Ed Reed-clone Malik Hooker to make plays and play tight coverage to get off the field. DeShaun Watson struggled at times in the championship game last year, and with a secondary like the Buckeyes have, coupled with Raekwon McMillan underneath, it will be quite a challenge for Watson. We will see whether he’s up to it.
Ohio State: Curtis Samuel
Samuel is the all purpose back. He has speed to get outside and gain huge chunks of yardage. He also can line up in the slot and run solid routes. Clemson will have to key in on Samuel if they want to stop Ohio State’s complex running attack. Expect Samuel to be used in all kinds of ways.
Clemson: DeShaun Watson
There isn’t a more important player on that field for Clemson than Watson. Yes, Watkins and Boulware will be huge on the defensive side, but it will be up to Watson to carry this team to another championship opportunity. He can do it all, and he will determine whether Clemson gets that shot.
Clemson has too much up front and so much motivation on the defensive side of the ball. It’s important to bottle up Weber and Samuel and force Barrett to throw the ball a ton to win this game. On the other side, Ohio State must find a way to stop the receivers and DeShaun Watson and force Watson into bad decisions. Ohio State has a young group, but Urban Meyer will key in on this team to make them believe. I think Barrett is going to show the world in the night game that he can carry an offense through the air as well as running a complex show on the ground. But, Watson and company are very experienced, and they have the group to pull this out.
Clemson 28, Ohio State 26