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Previewing the College Football Playoff

 

Four of the best programs in college football are involved in this year’s College Football Playoff, which begins with the semifinals on Friday. There should be some great matchups on both sides of the ball in each game, with future NFL talent all over the field. Here’s what you can look out for in each game.

By: Greg Gifford

(4) NOTRE DAME VS. (1) ALABAMA

ALABAMA PASS GAME 

Mac Jones has had a fantastic junior season, leading all of college football in completion percentage (76.5). Jones has proven to be both extremely accurate (8th in Well Thrown%) and a good decision-maker (7th in Pickable Pass%). Being able to throw the ball to fellow Heisman Trophy finalist DeVonta Smith certainly helps Jones as well. Smith’s 124 targets were 19 more than any other Power 5 receiver, and he was targeted on 38.3% of his routes this season, fifth-highest among Power 5 players with 30 or more targets. At 5.2 Burn Yards per Route, he was the second-most productive receiver on a per-route basis. Notre Dame has been about average in terms of covering outside receivers this season (Smith lines up on the outside about 65% of the time). The Fighting Irish have improved a little since freshman Clarence Lewis took hold of a starting spot, but he and Nick McCloud may find it difficult to contain Smith.

(Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)

ALABAMA RUN GAME 

After back-to-back 1,200-yard seasons and a combined 37 rushing touchdowns the last two seasons, Najee Harris is no secret to college football. His biggest strength is arguably an ability to avoid tackles – his 0.3 Avoided Tackles per Touch was ranked seventh among Power 5 running backs this season. This could be a particularly bad matchup for a Notre Dame defense that was one of the country’s lowest-rated units in terms of tackle success.

NOTRE DAME PASS GAME

Fighting Irish QB Ian Book is the only signal caller in this year’s playoff that isn’t looking at future first-round draft pick status, but he has still put together a strong career. The key is Book’s running ability. His 7.0 yards per carry on 31 designed rushes was fourth-highest in the country, but maybe even more notable is his Power 5-leading 55 scramble attempts this season. Book tends to resort to his legs at the first sign of pressure, which potentially plays into the hands of Alabama true freshman Will Anderson Jr., who has been one of the nation’s leading edge defenders. Keep an eye on him against the Notre Dame offensive line. Left tackle Liam Eichenberg is a very good pass blocker, but right tackle Robert Hainsey has shown a tendency to give up pressure on the edge.

(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

NOTRE DAME RUN GAME

Every year, Alabama seems to have a couple run defenders who jump off the page (or line of scrimmage, if you will). The Crimson Tide unit is solid (and deep) this season, but it doesn’t currently have a Quinnen Williams or Jarran Reed. Notre Dame’s underclassman backfield of Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree have combined for 5.9 YPC and 3.7 YBCO (before contact). Those two will need to capitalize on their opportunities in order to neutralize the Alabama pass rush and give Book a chance.

 


 

(3) OHIO STATE VS. (2) CLEMSON

CLEMSON PASS GAME

It is no secret scouts everywhere think quarterback Trevor Lawrence is the best player in college football and a lock to go first overall in the 2021 NFL Draft. The junior can do it all, and the numbers back it up: 87.4% of his attempts were well thrown balls (best in college football); he threw only seven pickable passes in 278 true attempts; and he averaged 6.2 YPC on designed rush attempts and 6.1 YPC on scrambles. His top target in 2020 has been senior Amari Rodgers, who has the potential to be a nightmare for the Ohio State defense. Rodgers spends over 80% of his time in the slot, a position that has proven to be an extreme weakness for the Buckeyes. In fact, their 78.6 Burn-A% against slot receivers was dead last among Power 5 schools this season.

. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

CLEMSON RUN GAME

Travis Etienne has continued to be one of the best running backs in college football in his senior season and should be an important part of Clemson’s game plan. He runs behind a good offensive line, anchored by one of the top blockers in the country in left tackle Jackson Carman. The Tigers will be facing one of their toughest tests of the year against an Ohio State defensive line that goes eight deep with four terrific run defenders, headlined by defensive tackle Haskell Garrett. The senior has been arguably the best run defender in the country, with an absurd 32.3 RD% in Ohio State’s shortened season. The Clemson O-line will have to do everything it can to keep No. 92 out of the backfield and give Etienne some space.

OHIO STATE PASS GAME

Justin Fields gets a second crack at besting his former high school rival, Lawrence, in the playoffs. While Fields hasn’t put up the same advanced numbers as he did last year when he was fourth in Well Thrown% on the longest average air yards in the Power 5 conferences, he still ranks 11th this year in Well Thrown% with six pickable passes and a 74.4 Comp% on 160 true attempts. Garrett Wilson has had a terrific season in the slot, but his best overall pass catcher is junior Chris Olave. A year after having the best Burn% in college football, Olave is second this season with an 82.9 Burn%. He is open on 90% of his targets and averages 12 yards downfield per target, making him one of four players in the country who are open 85+% of the time with 11 or more air yards per target (his teammate Wilson is also in this group). Clemson’s Derion Kendrick (48 Burn-A%, 56 Open-A%) will likely be tasked with trying to rein in Olave on the outside.

(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

OHIO STATE RUN GAME

Former Oklahoma transfer Trey Sermon had a breakout game in the Big Ten Championship with a school-record 331 rushing yards. Overall, Sermon was third-best in YPC on disrupted runs at 5.1, meaning he has great ability to find more yards even when defenders get into the backfield. This Clemson defense is top 10 in the country in RD% as a team, so it should put Sermon and backfield mate Master Teague III to the test. Look out for a matchup between two future first-round NFL talents in junior right guard Wyatt Davis for Ohio State and true freshman defensive tackle Bryan Bresee of Clemson.

 

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