The Sugar Bowl
No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide vs. No. 4 Ohio State Buckeyes
Played at the Superdome, New Orleans, at 8:30 PM
As a Buckeye fan and alum, I could not be more excited for this game. Make no mistake, I fully expect Alabama to beat us, but there is no denying how incredible it feels to be a part of a school that made it to the first ever college football playoffs. But with that said, I have the utmost faith in Urban Meyer to keep this game competitive and, under the right and fortunate circumstances, pull off the upset win. Ohio State received some mixed news in between the BIG Championship Game and now when it was announced that offensive coordinator Tom Hermann was taking the Houston job, but he is still going to coach this game. It is a shame, because when those two guys are together, it doesn't matter who the quarterback is. Cardale Jones had the game of his life against Wisconsin, but he is going to have a much bigger challenge against Alabama's defense. Alabama has a tough defense, but they are not impregnable as the Iron Bowl showed. Urban has beaten Saban before, and it is going to take a big night from Cardale Jones to make this game competitive. The key to beating Alabama is having a quarterback with good football IQ and be a true dual threat. Jones showed that he can make a lot of difficult throws and his strong arm is going to give him an advantage against Alabama's defensive backs. His top target is going to be Devon Smith, a 6'1 receiver who absolutely torched Wisconsin to the tune of four catches for three touchdowns, all on long passes of over thirty yards. Saban's defense is more vulnerable to the deep pass this year than they have been recently, and a few of those are going to have to connect to keep them in this game. Ohio State has some good secondary receivers, but none of them have really had very consistent play. I expect Smith to see a lot of double teams, so it is going to be up to Jalin Marshall, Jeff Heuerman, and Michael Thomas to do Cardale a favor and beat their man on the majority of plays. The unit that will be tested most is the offensive line which has the task of opening lanes and protecting Cardale from a relentless pass rush. Sophomore running back Ezekiel Elliott is going to have to find space to run and rip off a couple of long runs to keep the defense on their heels. He has had some big games against staunch defenses, but this will easily be his biggest test of the year. I would also expect Urban to use true freshman Samuel Curtis at running to back as he should be fully healthy after the couple of weeks off. As long as Ohio State is able to keep Alabama from dominating one phase of the offense, Ohio State will definitely have a chance to put up some points on another tough defense.
Alabama has had an offensive resurgence with Lane Kiffin calling the plays which has really taken them to a new level when they are in sync. By far, their most valuable asset is wide receiver Amari Cooper. Cooper is as important to his team as anyone else in the nation, and it really isn't even close. Kiffin calls his number on almost every passing play which has paid insane dividends. Cooper has posted a ridiculous line of 115 catches, 1656 receiving yards, and 14 of Blake Sims's 26 touchdown passes. Cooper can get open on almost any route and can make a lot of contested receptions, but he ca occasionally drop some routine passes. Still, he has burned pretty much every corner he has gone up against, but goes up against a defense which has the best deep pass defense in the country. Blake Sims has to play a cleaner game than he has recently. He has only seven picks on the year, but three came against Auburn which gave him a lot of trouble with their pressure. Ohio State has a terrific defensive line which is led by Joey Bosa and Michael Bennett. They will have to do a good job of containing Sims who has been able to make a surprising amount of plays with his feet this year. He isn't a burner, but he has a great feel for where his blockers are and where the pressure is coming from. Sims has some other receiving targets in DeAndrew White and tight end OJ Howard, but they will only get their number called a few times in this game. The Buckeyes did a great job of bottling up Heisman runner up Melvin Gordon, but Alabama's stable of backs is a different beast. TJ Yeldon and Derrick Henry combined for 1827 yards and 20 touchdowns on the season. It seemed that now matter how poorly one back would be playing, the other would be finding lanes all over. They are a great complement to one another and are both very dangerous catching passes out of the backfield. Ohio State's linebackers are going to have to play perfect gap assignment in order to limit the damage Yeldon and Henry can do. If they are able to keep Ohio State from stacking the box, they should find a good amount of success against a talented by young secondary.
Prediction: Alabama, 35-26
No. 2 Oregon Ducks vs. No. 3 Florida State Seminoles
Played at Rose Bowl, Pasadena, at 5:00 PM
I think that this is going to be the ultimate test for Marcus Mariota. He has shredded every defense that he has gone up against and the one loss on their season wasn't primarily his fault. He has played almost flawlessly this season, and yet he still has to win a big game in order to really validate the hype. Florida State's defense has been down by a wide margin compared to last year, but they still have a tremendous amount of athletes at every level of the defense that can neutralize an up tempo offense. The offense starts and ends with Mariota, although his number of carries this year wasn't particularly high. The Seminoles pass rush is much better than their run defense, so Mariota will have to get rid of the ball or start to run with it in a shorter amount of time than he is used to. Their linebackers are young and inexperienced, so if Mariota can get passed the first wave of defenders he can rip of some big yards in this game. His receiving corps isn't at full strength without their tight end Pharaoh Brown, but Mariota does a great job of distributing the ball to everyone at his disposal. Four players had more than 500 receiving yards and five players had at least five touchdowns. Mariota's receivers are going to have to beat a very athletic secondary, but Mariota himself is going to have to make a lot of very difficult passes. He is used to throwing into a lot of wide open windows, but he hasn't faced a secondary that can completely shut down a quarterback when they are clicking. One of his receivers is going to have to really step up and consistently gain separation to make Mariota's job a bit easier. Mariota is great at running the ball on keepers, but he doesn't keep it as often as he did last year. I expect him to take off a bit more this game as Florida State has the athletes to get pressure on him. You'll see him move around in the pocket a lot more, but he won't be afraid to take off if he has a good lane. But as I mentioned, with how weak the Seminoles run defense is Oregon should have a very balanced attack on offense. Royce Freeman is a tremendous running back for being only a freshman and has performed very well in some of Oregon's toughest games. Head coach Mark Helfrich cannot be afraid to get him involved and keep feeding him even if he isn't finding much room to run. He is a threat to score on any possession and has to get a lot of touches to keep the Noles honest on defense.
On the other side, Florida State carries the longest win streak in the country into their national semifinal game and is looking to add another win. Their offense will flow through their quarterback, the infamous Jameis Winston. Winston has not been nearly as effective this season as he was last year, but he has still had some incredibly gutsy performances to pull his team to victory. One of the biggest problems is their line which has not afforded him the protection that he had last year. This has caused him to have more picks, but he just has this knack for carrying the team and getting the win. His line is going to have to have a better game today as Oregon has a tremendous pass rusher in Arik Armstead. However, he should find a lot of success through the air as Oregon's star cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu went down for the season with a torn ACL and will obviously not have him for this game. None of the other corners are that proven, so Winston should be able to have some solid windows to make his throws. With Ifo out, receiver Rashad Greene should have a big day. Greene lines up all over the field and is easily their best threat on offense. He is adept at running any route, and I think that this will allow him to post over 100 yards today. The Seminoles have some other young receivers, but none of them are very proven and have been incredibly inconsistent. After tight end Nick O'Leary, no other receiver has more than 500 yards or four touchdowns. Either Travis Rudolph or Jesus Wilson is going to need to become a reliably secondary target for Winston today. But as was the case with Oregon, I think that Florida State's success really will hinge on their premier freshman running back Dalvin Cook. Jimbo Fisher really tried to get make Karlos Williams the primary running back this year, but he just isn't as explosive as Dalvin is. Cook has been averaging close to six yards a carry and has eight rushing touchdowns on the season. If Winston is able to connect on some passes deep, Cook should find a lot of space to run and really keep Oregon from getting into a rhythm defensively. If Winston struggles, it could equal a long day for Cook as well.
Prediction: Florida State, 31-30