This weekend finally sees the top four teams in college football – according to the playoff selection committee at least – go head-to-head for a place in the Championship Game. Gridiron breaks down the field…
1. ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE
National titles: 17
Head coach: Nick Saban
Saban is arguably the greatest college football coach of all-time and certainly the modern era. Closing in on his seventh National Championship – a mark which would break Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant’s record – he again presides over the number one team in the country. Despite repeated early entries to the NFL, his ability to win the recruiting battle in the fertile regions of the south and then coach the hell out of kids means it’ll be a shock if the Crimson Tide don’t take the prize again this year.
Quarterback: Tua Tagovailoa
He came off the bench in a no-win situation during last year’s National Championship Game only to do the impossible. The encore? Narrowly missing out on the Heisman after a spectacular season to underline his incredible talent. Accurate, with a cannon for an arm and the ability to make plays with his feet, Tagovailoa is the best quarterback of the Saban era, which is a scary proposition. The only question is whether he’ll be fully recovered from a lingering knee injury that made him look human in the SEC Championship Game.
Led by Tagovailoa and a corps of receivers that includes Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs and DeVonta Smith, as well as tight end Irv Smith, Alabama have the ability to score from anywhere. Ruggs is a game-breaker with his 4.2 speed, while Smith consistently picks up yards after the catch. The offensive line is strong, led by left tackle Jonah Williams, and the stable of backs lessens the burden on Tua (or Jalen Hurts). Damien Harris and former High School Player of the Year Najee Harris are one and three on the depth chart, but it’s the number two, Josh Jacobs, who is the real stud.
This unit lost Da’Ron Payne, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Ronnie Harrison and Rashaan Evans to the NFL but plugged in Quinnen Williams, Patrick Surtain Jr., Deionte Thompson and Mack Wilson – and haven’t missed a beat. Williams has been America’s best defensive player and is a top-five pick should he declare for April’s NFL Draft. Georgia proved that you can run outside zone with some success, but this unit has the ability to lock down even the best offenses on their day. They will certainly face one in Oklahoma in the playoff semi-final and need to bring their A-game if they’re to advance.
This isn’t easy because the Tide have been so dominant. Special teams have struggled somewhat, especially down the stretch. ‘Bama missed a number of field goals and five extra points, had a punt blocked against Auburn and – although they contained Mecole Hardman in the SEC title game – were a block away from giving up a monster return. Elsewhere, the corners are young, although Shyheim Carter has quietly had a really good season. They’re not quite the greatest college football team of all-time but somewhere in that conversation.
Road to the Playoff:
It wasn’t the toughest schedule of ever – Arkansas State, The Citadel, Louisiana Lafayette to name but three examples of why. But, in the big games, Saban’s men delivered, including a 29-0 crushing of LSU on the road, 30-point win in the Iron Bowl and the come-from-behind victory against Georgia. However, they won’t have played an offense like Oklahoma or faced a signal-caller like Kyler Murray, so it will be hugely intriguing. On the flip side, Oklahoma’s defense is so bad that Alabama could score 70.
2. CLEMSON TIGERS
National titles: 1
Head Coach: Dabo Swinney
Swinney is easy to love. The former walk-on wide receiver at Alabama took over in Death Valley after the mid-season sacking of Terry Bowden and hasn’t looked back, turning the Tigers into the Crimson Tide’s closest rival both on and off the field. He’s won 53 games in the last four years and coached Clemson to the playoff in each of those campaigns, famously winning it all two seasons ago. For perspective, when Swinney took over in 2009, Clemson had last won 10 games in 1990; they have now done it in eight straight years.
Quarterback: Trevor Lawrence
The #1 high-school player in the country in 2017, Lawrence has enjoyed a remarkable rise. The ACC Newcomer of the Year has thrown for almost 3,000 yards and 24 touchdowns with just four picks, having beaten out incumbent Kelly Bryant. He has grown in stature throughout his true-freshman season despite missing a game-and-a-half with an injury suffered against Syracuse. Whether Lawrence is experienced enough to win a National Championship might be the only question, but it seems likely he’ll deliver at least one title before being the first pick in the 2021 draft.
Lawrence is the leader but, much like Tagovailoa at Alabama, this isn’t a one-dimensional attack. The offense is powered by sophomore running back Travis Etienne, who’s had a Heisman-finalist-type season – 1,463 yards rushing and 21 touchdowns – and been ably assisted by Lyn-J Dixon, Adam Choice and Tavien Feaster. Out wide, sophomores Tee Higgins and Amari Rodgers, along with freshman Justyn Ross, have been perfect complements to senior slot Hunter Renfrow, while the line has protected Lawrence well – only eight sacks – and opened 3,377 yards worth of running lanes at 6.5 per attempt.
A second national title would be fitting for this unit, led by monster defensive tackles Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence, with end Clelin Ferrell, linebacker Tre Lamar and shutdown corner Trayvon Mullen offering support. They’ve held teams to less than 100 yards rushing in more than half their games this season, but haven’t been completely perfect, giving up 510 yards passing to lowly South Carolina – albeit without Butkus finalist Lamar – and 190 rushing to Pittsburgh in the ACC Championship Game. Their ability to get pressure inside would cause the other three remaining teams big problems.
Again, they’re a fairly complete team but experience could be the one factor that slows Clemson down. Lawrence and his core offensive playmakers – aside from Renfrow – are all freshmen and sophomores and it could be a season too soon. In the semi-final against Notre Dame’s experienced secondary led by Julian Love and Alohi Gilman, Lawrence will see some of the best DBs in the nation, something he’s not yet come up against. How he navigates the back end of the Irish defense will be a huge indicator as to how ready the Tigers are.
Road to the Playoff
The ACC has been dross this year and their schedule lacks a statement win. ‘Who have they beaten’ is a fair comment, although it wasn’t the Tigers’ fault that Florida State had their worst campaign in decades. Tight wins against Texas A&M and Syracuse are something of a concern and they won’t have played a team as talented as Notre Dame since losing 24-6 to Alabama in the Sugar Bowl last season.
3. NOTRE DAME FIGHTING IRISH
National titles: 11
Head Coach: Brian Kelly
The Irish haven’t sniffed a title since 2012 when Kelly juggled quarterbacks on an unbeaten season that ran from South Bend to South Beach before losing to Alabama in the title game. Two years ago, the Irish were 4-8 and it seemed as though he’d be out, but the school stuck with Kelly and that faith has been repaid: he is 22-3 since. The least exciting of the coaches in the final four, Kelly is the only Irish head man to go undefeated and untied twice since Frank Leahy, and the first to go undefeated twice since Ara Parseghian, putting him among the rich pantheon of Notre Dame coaches.
Quarterback: Ian Book
Book took over from incumbent Brandon Wimbush early in October and never looked back. The pro-style passer from California brought big plays to the offense, but also the calm, assured presence of a game manager. Book suffered a rib injury against Northwestern and missed the win at Florida State before returning to lead the Irish to victories against Syracuse and USC, although his completion percentages dropped significantly and he is the fourth-best passer in the playoff. That said, Book is more than good enough to win it all.
Although they had a keynote win in the season opener against Michigan, the Irish didn’t really hit their stride until Book got the job and running back Dexter Williams returned to the line-up after missing the first four games. He’s the bell cow who could make life difficult for Clemson’s defense in the semi-final. Miles Boykin will draw the opponents’ number one corner on the perimeter, and look out for wide-out Chase Claypool and tight end Alize Mack, with the latter able to threaten any linebacking corps in the country. Book needs to return to mid-season form for this group to click.
An experienced group with terrific players at all three levels, this is an under-the-radar unit who could really surprise some people in the playoffs. Led by linemen Jerry Tillery and Julian Okwara up front, they can shut teams down and force turnovers. Linebackers Te’von Coney and Drue Tranquill are playmakers and Julian Love might be the best corner in the final four. Safeties Alohi Gilman and Jalen Elliott are terrific as well; the former is the beating heart of this entire unit.
The Irish aren’t built to come from behind, so getting Williams going early will be huge. They also don’t want to find themselves in too many third-down situations because they’ve struggled all season: they’re ranked 58th in the nation and will need to improve significantly if they’re to win it all.
Road to the Playoff
Doubt can be a great motivation but, much like Clemson, the Irish have been asked the same question repeatedly: ‘Who have you played?.’ The Week 1 win against Michigan carried significant weight as the season progressed but, beyond that, Notre Dame struggled past Pitt, Vanderbilt, Ball State and USC. The win against Stanford didn’t really stack up as the season progressed, but the beatdown of 13th-ranked Syracuse was an eye opener. ‘How good are they’ is the overriding thought. We’ll find out…
4. OKLAHOMA SOONERS
National titles: 7
Head Coach: Lincoln Riley
Riley is one of the hottest young coaches around and it’s plain to see why. An offensive mastermind, he propelled Baker Mayfield to the Heisman in 2017 and repeated the trick with Kyler Murray a year later. The 35-year-old is highly coveted by the NFL and could jump this season for an opportunity in either Green Bay, Cleveland or Dallas. If he stays, Riley might win multiple National Championships as his play-calling style and offensive mastery is reminiscent of Sean McVay.
Quarterback: Kyler Murray
Murray’s is a phenomenal story. He was the ninth overall pick in the most recent Major League Baseball Draft and has played this year before (apparently) heading off to spring practice with the Oakland A’s as a power-hitting outfielder. On the football field, Murray is the ultimate playmaker, accurate, with a cannon for an arm and the ability to break contain and score with his feet from anywhere on the field. Watching him test himself against Alabama will be a true thrill, and potentially the last we see of him. Unless he thinks his 5ft 10in frame can survive in the NFL…
Statistically speaking, the Sooners offense is one of the greatest in NCAA history. Murray has broken records set last year by Mayfield and has a strong case that his season in 2018 is better than the first overall pick’s. Despite losing star running back Rodney Anderson to a torn ACL, the Sooners have regrouped behind Murray and had big performances from Trey Sermon on the ground and Marquise Brown at receiver. If Brown – the cousin of Pittsburgh Steelers All-Pro Antonio – is healthy then this group can score on anyone, from anywhere.
Biblically bad. And that’s the painful truth. After defense cost them a place in the title game 12 months ago, Oklahoma have failed to fix the problems, piling pressure on the offense to score on almost every possession. An inability to stop the pass has hindered the Sooners all season long and their small corners will struggle against ‘Bama’s big, physical playmakers on the perimeter. Even a mid-season change at coordinator has had minimal impact.
One word: defense.
Road to the Playoff:
OU scored a lot of points, won a lot of games and, when they did lose, it was against their biggest rival on a last-second field goal. Tough road victories in Ames against Iowa State, Lubbock against Texas Tech and Morgantown against West Virginia help the schedule stack up and probably allow you to look past a couple of ‘got out of jails’, notably against Oklahoma State and Army, whom they needed overtime to beat. The Big 12 Championship win over Texas, avenging their sole loss, made the Sooners worthy semi-finalists.