College Football Playoff features four uniquely talented teams


Graphic by Suzie Sun

Matthew Conway, Sports Contributer

The College Football Playoff rankings were released last week, with the top four teams, in order, being the Clemson Tigers at #1, the Oklahoma Sooners at #2, the Georgia Bulldogs at #3, and the Alabama Crimson Tide at #4. One of the playoff semifinals pits the defending national champs against a program that has gone 87-9 in the past seven seasons, including three national championships. First-ranked Clemson takes on fourth-ranked Alabama in the third straight postseason battle between coaches Dabo Swinney (Clemson) and Nick Saban (Alabama). The two teams have split the matchups thus far, with Alabama winning the national championship two years ago and Clemson taking the crown last year.

On offense, ‘Bama is led by bruising running backs Damien Harris and Bo Scarborough, receiver Calvin Ridley, and quarterback Jalen Hurts. Hurts gives them a unique dimension with his impressive running ability, but Clemson’s defensive front should be more than up to the task of stopping him. For the Tigers, quarterback Kelly Bryant and a dominant defensive line chock-full of NFL prospects, including projected first-round pick Christian Wilkins, lead the way. This game will be decided through the air. Ridley, the top receiving prospect in the upcoming 2018 draft, is a dynamic player who could be an X-factor in the playoff for ‘Bama if Clemson’s secondary is unable to slow him down.

The Oklahoma Sooners and Georgia Bulldogs square off in the second national semifinal. Led by showy and controversial quarterback Baker Mayfield, now the Heisman winner after lighting up Big 12 defenses to the tune of 41 touchdowns and just five interceptions, the Sooners are one of the top teams in the nation on offense. Defense could be their Achilles heel. Big 12 opponents averaged 30 points per game against Oklahoma, showing a major flaw which could be exposed by Georgia’s multi-dimensional offense.

The coaches of the Sooners and Bulldogs are both relatively new to the game. Kirby Smart, Georgia’s 41-year-old head coach, won three titles as a longtime defensive coordinator at Alabama under coach Nick Saban. Smart sent tons of talent to the NFL, coaching future pros like Dont’a Hightower, Reggie Ragland, Jonathan Allen, Mark Barron, Terrence Cody, Rolando McClain, and CJ Mosley.

Smart’s impressive performance under Saban led to Smart accepting the head coaching job at his alma mater, the University of Georgia, after the 2015 season, in which ‘Bama won the national championship. Longtime Bulldogs coach Mark Richt had been fired after the 2015 season, and Smart took over and immediately rejuvenated the program, experiencing tons of success running the ball despite losing stud Todd Gurley, who finished third in the NFL in rushing as a rookie in 2015.

On the other side is first-year head man Lincoln Riley, who was Oklahoma’s offensive coordinator under Bob Stoops for two seasons before being named the head coach this offseason following Stoops’ retirement. The 34-year-old Riley also knows the Big 12 from his career as a quarterback at Texas Tech in the early 2000s. The Sooners made the College Football Playoff in Riley’s first season as offensive coordinator and have only experienced more success since then, winning the Big 12 for the third straight year this past season.

The Bulldogs are starting a true freshman, Jake Fromm, a local product and five-star quarterback recruit. Fromm hasn’t had to do too much this season thanks to Georgia’s star running back duo of seniors Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. He has passed for 21 TDs with five interceptions, but is capable of much more. We’ll see what he can do when the Rose Bowl between Oklahoma and Georgia kicks off on Monday, January 1 at 4 pm. UGA is currently favored by 1.5 per ESPN, but according to IB Times, “the Rose Bowl spread is a pick’em”.

Oklahoma can beat Georgia, but only if the Sooners get a solid performance from their defense. Georgia’s offense has looked solid, but not outstanding this year. The key in the Rose Bowl for both teams will be defense. Whichever squad minimizes the other’s red zone trips and gets more third down stops will emerge victorious.