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What To Watch For In The College Football Playoff Semifinals

The College Football Playoff has a little something for everyone — even if your favorite Group of Five program has once again been relegated to watching the festivities from the proverbial couch.

LSU is both the only first-time playoff participant and also the top seed. Oklahoma, for a second consecutive season, enters a semifinal matchup as a double-digit underdog, meaning that the Sooners will be on the wrong side of the two most lopsided spreads in playoff history.1 And the Ohio State and Clemson matchup represents a showdown between the two most dominant teams in college football, according to total team efficiency.

While it’s certainly exciting that we’re one step closer to crowning a national champion, historically, playoff semifinals have been pretty dull.2 But we’re hoping that these four teams buck that trend and give us a rousing finale to the season that, if nothing else, proved that the Alabama Crimson Tide aren’t invited to every party. Let’s break down the two games this weekend and spotlight a matchup to watch in each.

Fiesta Bowl

No. 2 Ohio State vs. No. 3 Clemson

ESPN’s Football Power Index: Ohio State with a 54.4 percent win probability

Shortly after Clemson mercilessly thumped Ohio State in the 2016 playoff semifinals, Urban Meyer hired Ryan Day to turn around an offense that had just been shut out on national television. Under the direction of former offensive coordinator Tim Beck, the Buckeye offense struggled early and often in a 31-0 loss, marking the first shutout of Meyer’s head-coaching career.3

In the three seasons since, Clemson and Ohio State have been the most successful programs in the nation, sporting the two highest winning percentages over that period and combining to go 78-5.

In Day’s first season as head coach, the Buckeyes have produced two Heisman finalists and the nation’s third-leading rusher. Ohio State scores 3.61 points per drive, the top mark among teams in the playoff, and just 9.2 percent of Buckeye drives result in a three-and-out, the lowest rate for any Big Ten team through 13 games in any season since at least 2004.

This is by far the most efficient offense Ohio State has had in at least the last 16 seasons, with the Buckeyes producing 0.31 expected points added per offensive snap; at the Division I level this season, the average offensive snap generated 0.07 expected points added.

Day’s offense now faces the unenviable task of lining up against a Brent Venables-led defense. What’s more, Clemson’s defense is the most efficient it’s been under him. After a nail-biting win over North Carolina in late September, Clemson turned on the heat against its competition from games 6 through 13. Over that stretch, Trevor Lawrence and the Clemson offense have outscored opponents by 337, a margin 86 points higher than the next-best team, Ohio State.

Head coach Dabo Swinney’s team has not entered a game favored by less than 24.5 points since Sept. 7 against Texas A&M. Even more jaw-dropping: the Tigers have managed to cover the spread all but two times

Matchup to watch: Isaiah Simmons vs. Justin Fields

Simmons, Clemson’s Butkus Award-winning linebacker, has been my favorite defender this season not named Chase Young. The first player in program history to win the award, Simmons has also done it despite having played the position for less than two seasons; he joined the Tigers as a safety before eventually switching positions.

Simmons combines track-star speed, a 40-inch vertical leap and uncanny reflexes. Perhaps it’s no wonder that in high school, other players’ parents would refer to him as “LeBron.”

Led by Simmons, Clemson’s defense has allowed 3.96 yards per play this season, second only to Ohio State. But the team’s splits with Simmons on and off the field are telling: In the 166 snaps Clemson faced without him, opposing offenses averaged 4.77 yards, but in the 635 plays with Simmons on the field, opposing offenses have averaged 3.76 yards. That mark would be good enough for the fifth-best overall team defense in at least the past 15 seasons.

“I feel like I’m bringing something to the game that nobody else has,” Simmons told ESPN’s David M. Hale. “That no one else can.”

Perhaps inspired by Venables calling him “twinkletoes” early in his career, Simmons is certainly bringing the pressure now: No defensive player in this year’s playoff has a higher pressure rate (34.6 percent). He also leads the Tigers in tackles, tackles for loss, forced fumbles and sacks.

In an era when NFL teams pay top dollar to players who effectively cover the slot and edge, Simmons can do both. He’ll line up against tight ends and hold his own against speedy wideouts. He’ll slither past would-be blockers for sacks and read a QB option as if he had drawn it up.

When Simmons exits the field, opposing quarterbacks improve their completion percentage by more than 12 percentage points. Like just about every quarterback, Fields’s production dips considerably when he’s under duress. And seeing as how the Buckeyes have allowed season-high pressure rates in three consecutive games, Simmons could put up quite the stat line in this one. And though Fields is a strong runner and arguably the best dual-threat QB since Cam Newton, I wouldn’t recommend trying to take on Simmons in the open field.4

Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl

No. 4 Oklahoma vs. No. 1 LSU

ESPN’s Football Power Index: LSU with a 67.2 percent win probability

This game’s splashy line is attributable to just how talented the LSU Tigers are. When head coach Ed Orgeron isn’t crunching Red Bull cans against his body, he’s overseeing an offense that scores in flurries. Over the past decade, SEC teams have averaged 2.23 points per drive. This season, the Tigers are scoring 3.6 points per drive behind a rewired offensive framework that has effectively rewritten the conference record book. LSU has gone undefeated against a schedule that included five top-10 opponents, including two top-five opponents that were essentially home teams.5

But Oklahoma — with Heisman finalist Jalen Hurts under center and leading an offense that keeps defensive coordinators up at night — represents LSU’s biggest defensive challenge to date, at least on paper.

Matchup to watch: Joe Burrow vs. the worst pass defense in the playoff

I mean, did you see that play against Georgia in the SEC title game?

That was against one of the best pass defenses in the nation!

With a Heisman in the trophy case, which he won by obliterating the field, the Burrow Tour will set its sights on the worst pass defense by far in the playoff, as defined by EPA allowed. The best quarterback in college football doesn’t discriminate, either: Burrow shreds defenses at every distance interval:

A nation-leading 87.7 percent of his passes are considered catchable, and his adjusted completion percentage of 82.2 percent is on track to be the highest mark produced by a major-conference QB since at least 2011.

There’s no denying that Alex Grinch has elevated the performance of Oklahoma’s much-maligned defense in his first season as defensive coordinator. But a team needs all of its talent on the field to even have a puncher’s chance against LSU. Oklahoma will have no such luxury since the Sooners will be without starting safety and second-leading tackler Delarrin Turner-Yell. Ronnie Perkins, who leads the team in sacks, is out, too.

LSU swung big when it completely revamped its offense during the offseason. Its return on investment — more offensive touchdowns this season through three quarters than in any single season since at least 2004 — has been extraordinary. And Oklahoma might be the latest team to find itself on the wrong end of a Burrow-led buzzsaw that cut its way past the record book and to the program’s first-ever playoff berth.


  1. The 13.5-point spread is tied for the second-most lopsided with Alabama versus Washington in the 2015 semifinals.

  2. Only two of the 10 all-time matchups have been decided by fewer than 10 points.

  3. It was the third-most lopsided game of the playoff era.

  4. With Fields’s knee giving him difficulty, it’s a safe bet he won’t try his luck against Simmons.

  5. LSU beat Alabama on the road and won the SEC championship game over Georgia in Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

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