No more haggling and debating. The College Football Playoff selection committee has spoken, and the semifinal matchups are set.
All four teams own national championships, although it was 25 years ago for No. 4 Washington and 35 years ago for No. 2 Clemson. No. 3 Ohio State won the inaugural College Football Playoff in 2014 and No. 1 Alabama has won four of the past seven national titles.
Clemson and Ohio State will be playing for the second time in the past four seasons in the postseason. Clemson rallied for a 40-35 win in the Orange Bowl to cap the 2013 season, and similar to that game, this matchup features a pair of seasoned quarterbacks who have performed and delivered on big stages.
Clemson’s Deshaun Watson has accounted for 43 touchdowns this season and gave Alabama’s vaunted defense fits in the national championship game a year ago with his ability to run and pass. The one knock on Watson, who has racked up 739 yards of total offense and 11 touchdowns in his past two games, is that he’s prone to turnovers. He has thrown 14 interceptions this season.
Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett is equally difficult to defend with his ability to create. He has passed for 2,428 yards and 24 touchdowns (and just five interceptions), while also rushing for 847 yards and nine touchdowns.
Ultimately, it may come down to whether Ohio State can force Watson and that Clemson offense to commit turnovers. The Buckeyes have intercepted 19 passes this season, tied for third most in the country, and it’s difficult to see Ohio State winning this game if the Buckeyes don’t take the ball away and create some short fields for the offense.
Getting to Watson on first down will also be critical. In his past two games, he has completed 25 of 29 passes for 307 yards and six touchdowns on first down.
Ohio State has been steady defensively all season. The Buckeyes are third nationally in scoring defense (14.2 points per game) and have allowed more than 24 points only once. Clemson’s defense, meanwhile, has been more of an enigma. The Tigers are loaded on the defensive line. The one-two punch of Christian Wilkins and Carlos Watkins is as talented as it gets, and the Tigers are tied for second nationally with 112 tackles for loss. It’s going to be a real challenge for Pat Elflein and the rest of that Ohio State offensive line to block the Clemson front, but the Tigers have given up their share of points. In their past six outings, they’ve allowed at least 34 points three times.
For all the debating over the past 24 hours, nobody is debating that Alabama is the No. 1 team entering the playoff. The Crimson Tide have been dominant all season and dismantled Florida 54-16 on Saturday in the SEC championship game, their 15th straight win over a nationally ranked team. They get the No. 4 Huskies in Atlanta, too, which should be a huge advantage for the Tide. It’s an easy trip, and they’re more than a little familiar with the Georgia Dome.
The first thing Washington is going to have to do if the Huskies are going to have any chance in this game is not beat themselves. Alabama has a way of pouncing on other teams’ mistakes and then not letting them back in the game. The Crimson Tide have scored 14 non-offensive touchdowns this season and have allowed fewer than 20 points in 11 of their 13 games.
Now, the Tide are playing a quarterback in Jalen Hurts who has added a different dimension to the offense, but he is a true freshman who threw a pair of interceptions in the first half two weeks ago against Auburn. Washington is big, physical and disruptive on its defensive line and has a couple of playmakers in its secondary — cornerback Sidney Jones and safety Budda Baker — who are capable of matching up with Alabama’s top receivers and causing problems.
The Huskies have also been excellent on special teams. Dante Pettis returned a punt 58 yards for a touchdown in Washington’s win over Utah, and big plays are a must — on offense or special teams — if you’re going to beat Alabama. That’s where somebody like Pettis or John Ross (17 receiving touchdowns) comes in. Nobody has run the football on Alabama this season. The Huskies’ best shot is to hit some explosive plays, get ahead and make Hurts beat them throwing the football.
Of course, that’s a lot easier said than done against an Alabama defense that is faster across the board than it has ever been previously under Nick Saban.