Bama Should Roll If Secondary Plays Well
By John Ventola
The second College Football Playoff (CFP) semifinals will be played today as the four top-ranked teams battle it out in the Capital One Orange Bowl and the Goodyear Cotton Bowl. The victors will meet for the CFP championship on Monday, January 11th, at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona.
Last season’s eventual champion, Ohio State, upset No. 1 ranked Alabama and No. 2 ranked Oregon in dominating fashion. The talented Buckeyes parlayed the running of
Ezekiel Elliott and the passing and running of third string quarterback Cardale Jones to march to the title. Fourth-ranked Ohio State’s -run gave every school able to make a CFP semifinal the belief that anything can happen if a team plays at peak performance for two games.
This season unbeaten Clemson (13-0) waltzed through its ACC schedule while also besting Notre Dame by two points (24-22) at Clemson. The Tigers narrowly beat Louisville (20-17) and a weak South Carolina (37-32), but did top conference contenders North Carolina (45-37) and Florida State (23-13). Dual-threat quarterback Deshaun Watson is the engine that ignites Coach Dabo Swinney’s group. As Watson goes, so goes Clemson.
Clemson recovered from a mediocre 10-3 season in 2014 when it lost to Georgia, Georgia Tech, and Florida State. Improved play by Watson was the key. His offensive production kept a suspect defense off the field.
Oklahoma Coach Bob Stoops went back to the drawing board after a disappointing 2014 season where the Sooners finished 8-5. He made some defensive adjustments and turned his offense over to quarterback Baker Mayfield, a talented junior transfer from Texas Tech. The defensive changes were needed to keep up with the fast-paced
offenses of the Big 12 run by Baylor, TCU, and Oklahoma State, all teams that defeated the Okies in the 2014 campaign.
This season Oklahoma’s only loss came against Texas. The 5-7 Longhorns managed to hold on for the upset, and take some of the heat off of their coach Charley Strong. Mayfield went on to lead the team to the coveted No. 4 CFP spot where Oklahoma is hopeful the position proves a winner again this year.
Rematch—you bet. Clemson and Oklahoma met in last season’s Citrus Bowl where Clemson led 40-0 after three quarters on the way to a 40-6 one-sided victory.
So the questions on the afternoon Orange Bowl are: Is Clemson one-dimensional and too dependent on Watson? And, did Stoops, in his 17th year in Norman, change enough things around to be competitive against a team that embarrassed his squad twelve months ago?
Alabama, and their coach Nick Saban, is the only team to make the CFP playoffs the
first two years. Saban will run his Heisman Trophy winning back Derrick Henry until Michigan State defenders are seeing double, but he also has the luxury to go to steady quarterback Jake Coker. Ninth year Spartans Coach Mark Dantonio will try to counter with talented quarterback Connor Cook. Cook passed for 24 touchdowns for the second straight season.
Michigan State has talent, but they were probably the luckiest team in recent years. The Spartans won four games by three points, (Oregon, Ohio State, Iowa, Purdue), by four points on a last-play touchdown (Michigan), and seven points over a weak Rutgers team. Their only loss came against rebuilding Nebraska (38-39), making the Ohio State win the key to their CFP appearance.
Unbelievably, the Spartans would be bowling elsewhere if Michigan had handled a bobbled punt snap correctly with ten seconds left in their October matchup. Punting on fourth and two with ten seconds left, Wolverine punter Blake O’Neil bobbled the snap, panicked, and then was hit as he tried to get the ball in position to punt. Michigan State safety Grayson Milled hit O’Neil, the ball popped into the air where it was caught by freshman Jalen -Watts-Jackson and returned for the winning score from forty yards out.
Henry will be a major focus, but make no mistake the key to the game will be the play of Alabama’s defensive line. The Tide’s defensive backfield has been a problem at times, but Saban’s rotation of nine defensive linemen, none weighing under 270 pounds, led Alabama this year.
Alabama gave up only 962 yards rushing this season, 74 yards per game, and 2.4 yards per carry. The defensive line push and stunts and blitzes orchestrated by Bama
defensive coordinator Kirby Smart will have Cook on his toes.
Alabama’s only loss came when the pass defense let Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly run and pass the Rebels to victory. However, the Tide would have still won the game (37-43) if they had not had an uncharacteristic five turnovers, three interceptions and two fumbles, against the Rebs.
Saban let Ohio State sneak up on him last year, I do not think that will happen this year.
Clemson hammered Oklahoma last year. Note: Watson and Mayfield did not play in that game. I would expect Clemson to prevail, but would not be surprised to see Oklahoma facing off with Alabama for the championship.
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