College Football Playoff Review: Football 101
Well that sucked.
The two semifinal games were about as exciting as a wet firework.
Orange Bowl: Clemson 37, Oklahoma 17
Cotton Bowl: Alabama 38, Michigan State 0
Both of these games, on paper, looked like interesting match-ups between teams that play very similar styles of football: the Orange Bowl had promise to be one heck of a display of fast-paced exciting offense, and the Cotton Bowl looked like a tough defensive struggle with poetic runs of five yards made possible by pure heart and desire. No matter what kind of football fan you are, the College Football Playoff looked like it would provide you with some quality drama over the New Year's Eve holiday.
As one could tell from the final scores, neither game turned out to be very competitive at the end. Clemson and Alabama went into the half, decided to turn up the intensity and subsequently blew their respective opponents out of the solar system.
In the interest of fairness, the Orange Bowl had a very good first half, with the Tigers and Sooners giving each other about as good as they got for the first half. Deshaun Watson running the zone read run scheme to perfection against Baker Mayfield's improvisation. The first half was characterized by a back and forth with strong offense and good, competitive defense. This all changed when Samaje Perine went down with an injury, ultimately killing OU's running attack, and the Clemson offensive line took over and started blowing the Oklahoma defense off the line. Four yards. Five yards. Nine yards. Clemson started churning yardage on the ground like it was nothing. In the second half, Clemson outscored Oklahoma 21-0. Just absolute pure domination.
The Cotton Bowl, after a quarter and a half of each team feeling the other out, was a demolition. Neither team could score on the other for the first twenty-two minutes while both were running into the walls of front-seven units that the two teams possess. It was a matter of which passing game would break out: the Spartan attack featuring Connor Cook, one of the best QBs in the country with Burbridge and Kings, or the Tide's Jake Coker along with Calvin Ridley and his merry band of WRs. As one can imagine, looking at the score, it was Coker and the Tide's air attack that took control with some impressive game planning by Lane Kiffin. Cook never did quite recover from his injured shoulder, and when he threw an interception at the goal line at the end of the first half, that was all she wrote. Alabama took control from that point on and crushed Michigan State for the rest of the game.
There are a couple of takeaways from both of these games: Deshaun Watson looks like the best player in the country; his gravitas on the field led to almost all of Clemson's offensive production. The threat of him in the run game not only helps his tailback (Gallman was amazing in Orange Bowl), but it also helps his offensive line, because the defense is forced to read and react against that run game, which slows the defensive line down, therefore making them easier to move off of where they want to be. Without Watson, I'm not sure that the Tigers win the ACC, and they definitely wouldn't be in the semifinal. He has the most potential to dominate any particular game he's in. On the other hand, Alabama's front line is an impressive unit to behold. They held Michigan State's tough running attack to almost nothing (MSU had a a net rushing total of -2 yards until the fourth quarter, when the game was already out of hand), and they got consistent pressure on Cook, especially up the middle without blitzing. The Spartan QB was constantly harassed and either taking sacks or throwing inaccurate passes to his receivers, who were blanketed in double-coverage.
This leads to the most important lesson of all, which is the fact that football is incredibly simple: whichever team can physically move the other against their will will win the game 99.999999999% of the time. The most important players to watch aren't the WRs, they aren't the RBs, and they really aren't the QBs. The most important players to watch are on the offensive and defensive lines. If one team's line beats the other team's line, that team is going to control the entire pace of play and the other team will be taken out of what they want to do.
For example, Clemson destroyed Oklahoma in the second half because the Tiger offensive line was pushing the Sooner defensive line back four and five yards on nearly every play. When that happens, the defense can't run downhill to take care of the run game, and is therefore on its heels. This is the death knell of good defense, as the defense is already unsure of what will happen on a given play; they have to react to the offense by the nature of the offense having possession of the ball. If they're delayed an extra half second by not being able to run toward the line to make plays, then they are at a severe disadvantage (after all, an average football play takes about three seconds, if that; meaning a half second represents about 18% of the total time of the average play).
This works the other way as well; Alabama was able to crush Michigan State because their defensive line blew apart the Spartan offensive line, and stopped the run before any tailback could get started. They also prevented the quarterback and receivers from ever getting into a comfortable rhythm (which is nigh essential to a strong passing attack). The Spartan offense was rendered impotent because the offensive line couldn't hold their position consistently.
Winning the line play is Football 101. And these two games put that fact on full display.
Given that, as far as a prediction for the National Championship game, I can't bring myself to pick against Alabama and that defense. As much as I love Watson (and I still think that he's the best player on the field), the Crimson Tide are a stronger overall team.
Alabama 34, Clemson 17.
I hope that I'm wrong.