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What To Watch For In The College Football Playoff Semifinals

Defenders of the establishment were rewarded again over the holidays by the College Football Playoff. Only those with all of human history as a barometer could have foreseen that even in a batty season in which the Rose Bowl would be played in Texas, the selection committee would shun undefeated Group of Five conference champions Cincinnati, Coastal Carolina and San Jose State.

So it appears that a hearty congratulations is in order for fans of the status quo, as the seventh field in the playoff era will crown another (Power Five) national champion.

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Let’s set the table.

No. 2 Clemson (10-1) vs. No. 3 Ohio State (6-0)

Line:1 Clemson by 7.5

A rematch of last year’s semifinal, the definitively better matchup of the two playoff games features not only two of the top quarterbacks, but two of the top overall prospects in the 2021 draft class: Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State’s Justin Fields.

Lawrence is 34-1 as a starter and — unless he decides to return to school — is almost certain to be the top pick in the upcoming draft, which means he will be a member of the Jacksonville Jaguars organization at this time next year. Fields went vegan over the offseason and was on track to set the all-time single-season record for completion percentage until Northwestern did what it always does: makes things unpleasant for opposing offenses. Fields will have to settle for one of the greatest quarterback seasons in Big Ten history, as defined by Total Quarterback Rating, giving him two of the top three since the metric was introduced in 2004.2

Even with ACC all-time leading rusher Travis Etienne in the backfield, Lawrence’s talent is such that Clemson has relied on the pass more (56.9 percent of total snaps) this season than it has in any under head coach Dabo Swinney.3 Had he not contracted COVID-19, Lawrence likely would have a strong case to be Clemson’s first Heisman Trophy winner — a crying shame, indeed.

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In previous seasons, with outside possession receiver Tee Higgins in the fold, Lawrence aired it out. What’s unique about this season, then, is that Lawrence is seldom being asked to attack downfield.

This was the first season in which offensive coordinator Tony Elliott wasn’t sharing those duties. It has shown. Relative to last season, Lawrence’s air yards per attempt have dropped by almost 16 percent, with his seasonal mark ranked second to last among ACC starters. Much of that was a result of how Elliott designed the offense to maximize space for speedster Amari Rodgers, who has made 52 of his 69 receptions out of the slot,4 and Etienne, who has set school records for receiving yards this season.

Elliott won’t be calling the plays in the Sugar Bowl; he tested positive for COVID-19 and will be unavailable for the game. But his offensive scheme still figures to be problematic for the Buckeye defense given that Ohio State’s secondary has been repeatedly exposed by shallow crossing routes, as was the case in the team’s narrow win over Indiana. In eight fewer games, Ohio State has equalled last season’s total for passing touchdowns allowed and has allowed more passing yards per game than any defense in the Big Ten. This is the worst Buckeye pass defense of the playoff era by opponent adjusted completion percentage (69.8 percent) and expected points added per game.

Lackluster defense notwithstanding, Ohio State does feature the superior offense, one capable of keeping the Buckeyes in every matchup. Compared with every FBS offense in the playoff era, the 2020 Buckeyes rank eighth in efficiency (93.2).

Fields has the luxury of throwing to Chris Olave, perhaps the Big Ten’s best receiver. Running back Trey Sermon is coming off the greatest rushing performance in Buckeye history. Ohio State will need them both given that Fields will likely have his hands full: The Tigers are first in the nation in Football Outsiders’ standard downs sack rate behind two true freshmen in Bryan Bresee and Myles Murphy on the defensive line.

Swinney certainly feels that Ohio State is undeserving of the meeting, but this figures to be an exciting battle between even teams. ESPN’s Seth Walder pointed out that, according to the Football Power Index, the team strength battle between the two is so thin that the location of the game mattered in picking the favorite.

No. 1 Alabama (11-0) vs. No. 4 Notre Dame (10-1)

Line:5 Alabama by 20

As is tradition, there’s onslaught potential in one of the playoff semifinals. This figures to be the biggest point spread in the history of the playoff, which would give Alabama the three steepest lines of the era.6

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Recent history hasn’t been kind to Notre Dame when the Irish are within striking distance of a national title. The 2018 semifinal and 2012 national championship game were inarguably one-sided.

The headline-grabbing point spread is warranted: This is a historically dominant Alabama Crimson Tide, the first SEC team ever to run through a 10-game conference slate unbeaten. The Tide have by far their worst performing defense in the playoff era (77.1 efficiency),7 but they offset it with the most devastating offense the sport has ever seen (97.8 efficiency) — yes, even more dominant than LSU’s offense was last season.

Bama is rolling on offense

Top 10 FBS offenses of the playoff era (since 2014) by efficiency

Season Team Offensive Efficiency
2020 Alabama 97.8
2019 LSU 97.2
2017 Oklahoma 96.6
2018 Oklahoma 96.4
2018 Alabama 95.6
2019 Ohio State 95.3
2019 Alabama 94.4
2020 Ohio State 93.2
2016 Oklahoma 92.2
2014 Oregon 91.3

Offensive efficiency is on a scale of 0-100. 2020 data through games of Dec. 19.

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian legitimately has three Heisman candidates at his disposal, so it goes without saying that the Tide have done unspeakable things to opposing defenses. They have put up at least 40 points in 10 of their 11 games and enter this matchup on a three-game streak of 50-plus-point performances. Notre Dame most recently was held to 10, its lowest point total since 2018.

The Irish do boast one of the nation’s most talented offensive lines, led by guard Aaron Banks, who is best described as a large human or “The Dancing Bear.” Ian Book is the winningest quarterback in the history of a school that seemingly always wins. And this is the best offense that head coach Brian Kelly has had in his tenure by points per drive (2.86) and drive score percentage (47.7 percent).

But there is an endless number of question marks for the Irish, most notably whether a defense that isn’t elite and whose star player and protector of the back end, Kyle Hamilton, is nursing an ankle sprain has a prayer’s chance of keeping DeVonta Smith and the vaunted Tide offense in check.

Maybe Smith and Mac Jones and Najee Harris will get lost on the way to the stadium. Maybe Kelly will find a skeleton key in his luggage. Maybe 2021 will continue to lay waste to expectations in the way 2020 did. But barring that, the Irish are looking at a rude end to the first season in the team’s 114-year history that wasn’t played as an independent. And the Tide are merely looking at another opportunity to do what they have done all season: Roll.

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  1. Courtesy of Caesars Sportsbook.

  2. Russell Wilson’s 2011 season at Wisconsin ranks first.

  3. Swinney took over as head coach in 2009.

  4. Rodgers is averaging nearly twice as many yards per catch as he is air yards per target, and he is among the most deadly receivers in the country in the open field.

  5. Courtesy of Caesars Sportsbook.

  6. Alabama covered in only one of them, so that’s something for the Irish to hang their tiny hat on.

  7. It’s almost as if Nick Saban knew his defense was lacking when he told reporters in late October that defense is no longer key.

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