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Is There Any Stopping Another Alabama-Clemson Title Game?

gfoster (Geoff Foster, sports editor): After weeks of crunching every possible playoff scenario, we finally got our two matchups for the College Football Playoff: Clemson vs. Notre Dame and Alabama vs. Oklahoma. We have to wait until Dec. 29 to see those games. But in the meantime, we have some 37 bowl games to distract us from our families over the holidays.

Let’s start with the big two. Were you surprised by the playoff selections? I think the committee avoided all of the doomsday scenarios as the conference championships played to form.

neil (Neil Paine, senior sports writer): Yeah, they mostly got out of the woods compared with some of the scenarios we talked about here. Only thing that would have helped them more would be if either Oklahoma or Ohio State lost, but that didn’t happen.

To your question, I wasn’t too shocked about the picks. Much was made of Georgia potentially making it, but it seemed very unlikely that they’d take a two-loss nonconference champ over a pair of one-loss conference champs — even if UGA was probably better talent-wise. I was really only slightly surprised they took Oklahoma over the Buckeyes. If you look at the power ratings like Football Power Index or Simple Rating System, or something like ESPN’s Strength of Record, Ohio State was the superior team. But the committee probably held OSU’s strength of schedule against it — as well as that bad loss to Purdue and the near-loss against Maryland.

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, general editor): It helped for the Sooners that, in the Big 12 title game, they beat the only team to have beaten them.

neil: Yes — you definitely heard the phrase “they beat every team on the schedule” thrown around.

sara.ziegler: And I feel like the committee members had Ohio State’s near-loss to Maryland on their minds.

(I know I did.)

Josh Planos (Josh Planos, contributor): I wasn’t all that surprised either. Three were shoe-ins, and if the playoff format has taught us anything it’s that most of college football’s elite programs hog all the playoff spots, and the committee will do everything in its power to eschew controversy. Ohio State certainly wasn’t lacking in that department this season.

gfoster: Oddly, I think blowing out Michigan in such ugly fashion actually hurt Ohio State, because most people seemed to write off that game (rightly) as UM being overrated rather than Ohio State beating a team ranked fourth in the country.

neil: And yet the Wolverines were allowed to (easily) be Notre Dame’s most signature win… 🤔🤔🤔

sara.ziegler: Notre Dame getting its special dispensation, as per usual.

neil: It was funny during the selection show to hear the note about how Vegas would have the Irish as underdogs against every other team in the playoff conversation (except UCF, I guess).

Josh Planos: During Northwestern’s third-quarter scoring run on Saturday night, while Gus Johnson was firing off catch phrases, you could almost hear the committee scratching out the Buckeyes. Would a 40-point win in the Big Ten championship game even have gotten Ohio State over Georgia?

gfoster: Last year, if it hadn’t lost to Stanford, Notre Dame could have easily finished the season with one loss and would have not have made the playoff. In that spot, not having a conference championship would have really worked against the Irish because they wouldn’t have had another opportunity for a signature win. But this year, we see the advantage for ND. Win all your regular season games, as easy as they may be, and you are in.

But likewise, Northwestern didn’t really give Ohio State much of a resume boost. So … it’s Wisconsin’s fault for being lousy I guess.

sara.ziegler: But of course, Geoff, that’s only the case for ND — not for any other non-Power Five teams. (😢 UCF)

gfoster: UCF needs to boost its strength of schedule if it wants to be taken seriously.

sara.ziegler: For sure. And I don’t think the Knights should have gotten in. But it’s not like Notre Dame’s schedule was off the charts.

gfoster: For all we knock ND, they are playing teams like NC State, USC, Syracuse — all of whom would be one of the hardest games on UCF’s schedule.

neil: How can they improve their SOS, short of joining a better conference? (Or is that basically it?)

I don’t think any real power team wants to play them nonconference. No upside there, only downside.

gfoster: You could get a mid-tier Power-Five team that would take them at home, no? When Notre Dame was playing Michigan in Week 1, UCF had UConn — quite possibly the worst team in FBS.

neil: Defensively, at least.

sara.ziegler: Though that UConn game was a conference game.

Josh Planos: They followed it up by playing South Carolina State, too.

sara.ziegler: They scheduled North Carolina, but that was canceled because of the hurricane.

gfoster: North Carolina is also terrible.

sara.ziegler: And that’s the other problem: You can schedule a mid-tier Power-Five team, but you can’t guarantee they’ll be good.

neil: Or if you’re Notre Dame, you can schedule prestige Power 5 teams and not know if they’ll be good.

sara.ziegler: UCF did schedule and beat Pitt, which was good enough to get trampled by Clemson in the ACC title game.

gfoster: Truth is, maybe UCF does need to move conferences? TCU managed to do that when it was facing similar problem.

sara.ziegler: Or we could solve this with an eight-team playoff!

neil: This.^^

gfoster: Well, yes.

sara.ziegler: Solve it for this year, anyway.


gfoster: NO ONE is against that.

neil: Except conference and university presidents.

gfoster: As for this year, this is the first time both playoff games have double-digit spreads. Which falls in line with some lopsided lines in the conference championships. Any reason to like the underdogs here?

Or is this destined for Clemson vs. Alabama again?

neil: Maybe if Tua is still hurt? (He won’t be. And they will destroy Oklahoma.)

sara.ziegler: And it’s hard to see Notre Dame doing much against Clemson.

neil: Clemson vs. Bama Part IV is pretty redundant at this point. But at least there’s a chance it doesn’t play out according to chalk. Under the old BCS system, they’d automatically be slotted in at 1-2. (Although that would have been very uncontroversial.)

gfoster: It’s hard to see any team doing much against the Tigers’ defense. Look at the line of Pitt QB Kenny Pickett in the ACC title game: 4 of 16 for … wait for it … 8 YARDS.

That’s 0.5 yards per pass attempt. (538 math skills, folks.)

Josh Planos: Yeah, we don’t know about Tua’s health. Oklahoma’s offense puts up video game numbers, so you’d expect Alabama to need to bring at least something to the table in that regard. Trevor Lawrence is playing the best secondary he’s seen all season. Brian Kelly is probably pretty motivated that his team’s recent struggles were broadcast on a Showtime series.

sara.ziegler: If Tua plays, you gotta think he’ll go to town on the Oklahoma defense.

Will he actually have to play all four quarters? LOL

Josh Planos: Have we ever seen the likely two top vote-getters in the Heisman race square off in the postseason? Is this the best QB battle in terms of single-season QBR that we’ve ever seen? Each is on pace to set the single-season record (though that will change, I’m sure).

gfoster: It might not change for Tua against that Oklahoma defense that gave up 700 yards to West Virginia.

The Sooners also might be without their best receiver: Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, which would be a significant blow to Kyler Murray.

neil: Josh, we almost got 1-2 Heisman QBs in the 2008 title game: Tebow vs. Bradford.

(But Tebow finished 3rd in the voting.)

(Colt McCoy finished 2nd????)

sara.ziegler: Wow

gfoster: If we had an eight-team playoff, my guess is that it would be Alabama-UCF (lol), Clemson-Washington (I’m thinking they must include a token Pac-12 in this new world), Notre Dame-Ohio State, Oklahoma-Georgia.

neil: What would the line be on that Tide-vs.-Knights game?

gfoster: 28.5

Josh Planos: Without McKenzie Milton? 30+

neil: Isn’t that the same line they gave the Buffalo Bills vs. Alabama?

gfoster: The Bills are like the sixth worst team in the NFL now. Shows how misguided those types of stories are.

sara.ziegler: Would a Pac-12 team even make an eight-team playoff this year? The committee had Michigan at No. 7.

Which is kind of amazing — another two-loss Power-Five team above poor UCF.

neil: I would guess an eight-team playoff would have an automatic berth for a Pac-12 champ.

sara.ziegler: There’s obviously no way to do this without some controversy.

neil: Then we can get into those fun March Madness arguments about “at-large” bids.

gfoster: Right … and one token non-Power Five. (Or in this case two, because of ND.)

neil: Notre Dame is Power Five! (According to our tier system.)

gfoster: Let’s talk about the other bowl games. Any others you are particularly excited for?

neil: UGA-Texas should be fun, I think.

Josh Planos: Maybe it’s because I’m a sucker for the nostalgia of Big 8 football, but Missouri vs. Oklahoma State. FPI is really high on the four-loss Tigers (like, higher on the Tigers than UCF and LSU), and each of Oklahoma State’s past five games have been decided by no more than 7 points. If nothing else, there will be a lot of points.

sara.ziegler: Missouri never should have left the Big 12.

neil: I always forget they aren’t in the Big 12 now.

sara.ziegler: Wisconsin vs. Miami in the Pinstripe Bowl is kind of a fun throwback.

gfoster: That should be called the Pinstripe Lack Of Motivation Bowl.

sara.ziegler: Haha

Josh Planos: Fun is an interesting word.

Is this the underachieving bowl? And did any team underachieve more than Wisconsin? All we heard throughout the preseason was that Jonathan Taylor could win the Heisman, they returned the entire offensive line, and Alex Hornibrook was returning for a 12th year of eligibility.

gfoster: In the bowl games, it’s always fun to identify the games where one team is really pumped to be there and the other has zero interest. For instance, Purdue vs. Auburn in the Music City.

You think Auburn is getting up for that?

Josh Planos: If they couldn’t get up to bully UCF last year, they’re not getting up to try and corral Rondale Moore.

neil: Also, the biggest early spread in a lower-tier bowl might be the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. ESPN has BYU as a 14-point favorite over Western Michigan

I always root for the Directional Michigans though.

gfoster: Sad that Alabama-Oklahoma might be the most lopsided bowl game.

Also a 14-point spread.

sara.ziegler: I’m actually pretty interested in how UCF does against LSU.

LSU is a good proxy for a playoff team, since the Tigers did OK against Bama (at least early on) and pounded Georgia.

gfoster: I actually think LSU will get up for UCF, mainly because of what happened to Auburn and all this chatter.

neil: Although I wish UCF had gotten one of the just-missed-it playoff contenders like UGA or Ohio State, just for experiment’s sake.

sara.ziegler: Yeah, that would have been better.

Though maybe it’s all moot with no Milton.

neil: True. It wouldn’t have settled the debate.

gfoster: LSU is actually still playing that game against Texas A&M. They are in their 134th overtime.

sara.ziegler: 🏈 💤

gfoster: But Neil, didn’t we see kinda see that the year they let Hawaii play UGA?

neil: Hah, yes I was thinking of that exactly. Poor Colt Brennan.

Josh Planos: Should’ve known that a haircut like this didn’t stand a chance.

gfoster: OMG

sara.ziegler: Why … would … you … do … that?

gfoster: He even has the little island that they don’t let anyone on.

neil: The run-n-shoot makes you do crazy things.

gfoster: OK, what’s the worst bowl game.

This answer is two parts.

Worst name and worst game.

neil: Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl

Can anything top that?

Short of bringing back the Poulan Weed Eater Bowl?

sara.ziegler: I love the Boca Raton Bowl.

Congrats, teams! You’re going to … Boca Raton!

gfoster: That’s the Cheribundi Boca Raton Bowl, Sara.

Josh Planos: Best bowl experience: The Makers Wanted Bahamas Bowl, FIU vs. Toledo.

Last season, folks could bring beer into the stadium. There were also archery opportunities near the concession stand.

I apologize for not answering the question, Geoff.

neil: I do miss the Popeye’s sponsorship for that one. Gave us an excuse to pick up fried chicken at Times Square and eat it in the office.

sara.ziegler: As if you needed an excuse for that, Neil.

neil: (Sorry again about the spicy tenders, Geoff.)

gfoster: The DXL Frisco Bowl is a rare short name that is terrible.

Jared Birmingham Bowl? It sounds like its named after someone named Jared Birmingham.

neil: I think “Jared Birmingham” is UCF’s backup QB.

Josh Planos: LOL

gfoster: I will say. I’m a big fan of the Cheez-It Bowl

I wish I had a bowl of Cheez-Its right now.

sara.ziegler: We didn’t talk about the best game of the weekend.

neil: Iowa State!

sara.ziegler: A dominant (not at all) win over powerhouse (not at all) Drake!

Josh Planos: I think Washington State could beat Iowa State by 40 points. Or the Cyclones could ride the Matt Campbell relevancy train to a 13-10 win.

sara.ziegler: That’s quite a range.

neil: And nothing in between.

sara.ziegler: LOL

neil: I’m also kinda intrigued by the Peach Bowl: Michigan vs. Florida. Feels like that is a constant matchup in the tier of bowls just below the prestige level.

That has happened in many Citrus Bowls, for instance.

Josh Planos: How. Do. These. Teams. Keep. Playing.

gfoster: Harbaugh’s only bowl win at Michigan was a romp of Florida. And Lloyd Carr’s final win was an upset of Tim Tebow Florida.

neil: And don’t forget about the 2003 Outback Bowl!

sara.ziegler: Who can forget?

neil: Grossman vs. Navarre.

gfoster: I’m excited for West Virginia vs. Syracuse in the Camping World. That feels like a 100-point game. I also am oddly interested in Boca Raton bowl! UAB is an amazing story. They won Conference USA just a few years removed from having their football program eliminated.

It’s at this time where I’d normally ask for predictions. But I imagine no one is picking an upset in the first two playoff games?

So let’s skip to the final predictions.

sara.ziegler: It’s pretty hard to pick against Alabama.

neil: Alabama 27, Clemson 24

sara.ziegler: Clemson has been dominant, obviously, ever since squeaking by Syracuse. But Bama is just too good.

Alabama 30, Clemson 18

gfoster: Clemson 35, Alabama 28

This isn’t (entirely) me being the contrarian. I think the Crimson Tide are kinda vulnerable to an upset. They start slow every game (tied with Citadel at halftime, remember) and it’s going to catch up to them at some point. Clemson defense can keep Tua off the field enough to win.

(Assuming they beat ND, who I think will make a game of it against Clemson.)

Josh Planos: Alabama over Oklahoma 35-14

Clemson over Notre Dame 21-7

Alabama over Clemson 28-14

sara.ziegler: I guess there’s nothing left to do but watch the games!

Geoff Foster is the former sports editor of FiveThirtyEight.

Neil Paine was the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Sara Ziegler is the former sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Josh Planos is a writer based in Omaha. He has contributed to The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post.