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Your Full, Official Inside NU College Football Playoff Preview

Hey, 50% of the playoff teams are a variety of cat, after all.

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NCAA Football: Advocare Classic-Auburn vs Oregon Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Northwestern has next to no relation to the College Football Playoff. The ‘Cats have rarely been involved in the national championship picture. The closest they ever got was 1936, when they were ranked number one for three straight weeks before losing their season finale to Notre Dame. The only other season where they’ve ever been ranked number one was 1962. So, why write this preview here?

Because college football is awesome, that’s why. A lot of you follow this site because you love Northwestern, but also because you love college football. I don’t have to explain how entertaining the sport already is, and the college aspect adds tradition, pageantry and emotion that all accumulates on the biggest possible stage.

The playoff is the climax of this amazing sport, so I believe I owe it to you, our loyal readers, to give you a full preview of the big event. Enjoy.


We will be going team-by-team, in order of ranking, before breaking down the individual matchups themselves. Let’s begin with the improbable top seed:

LSU

NCAA Football: SEC Championship-Georgia vs Louisiana State Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Last season, with Joe Burrow at the helm, LSU was 68th in total offensive yards per game. This year, they were number one team in total yardage by a wide margin.

We’ve all heard variations of the Burrow story many times over. All you need to know is that for an entire decade there has been enough talent in Baton Rouge to play with anyone including their rivals in Tuscaloosa, but failures from the offensive play callers and the quarterbacks relegated them to good but not great status.

In comes Burrow, and now the Tigers are just great. He’s smashed records and captured the hearts of Americans in what has been a dream season, and now a lot of people expect his team to finish it off.

LSU is almost a two touchdown favorite over Oklahoma as of now, and while a lot of that has to do with the Sooners’ shortcomings (which we’ll get to), it’s also a nod of respect to what the Tigers have done in 2019.

No team has been featured in prime time as much this year as the boys in purple and gold, and every time they have answered the bell. Their battle with Texas was an early candidate for game of the year, as Burrow announced his Heisman candidacy with this clutch throw.

LSU wasn’t fazed trailing the Florida Gators 28-21 in the third quarter, and battled all the way back to win the game convincingly.

Their matchup with Auburn served as probably Burrow’s worst performance of the year, and he still finished 32 of 42 on passes for 321 yards and a touchdown in a 23-20 LSU win.

And of course, the very next game they faced Alabama in not only their statment game, but running back Clyde Edwards-Hilaire’s star turn, as he dominated with four total touchdowns and this incredible, highlight-reel third-down conversion.

(Important note: Edwards-Helaire is currently questionable to play in the Peach Bowl against Oklahoma following a hamstring injury in a recent practice).

LSU then hung 37 on a Georgia defense that hadn’t give up more than 20 points all year and had only allowed 14 red zone trips in 12 games, and the Tigers barely had to break a sweat.

So yes, we’ve all heard about the offense, about Burrow and Edwards-Hilaire and receivers Ja’Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson, who each eclipsed 1,000 receiving yards and combined for 32 touchdowns. Short of a catastrophic injury to Burrow, there doesn’t seem to be a way of slowing this offense without slowing down the pace and grounding your own offense.

However, the defense down in Louisiana has drawn some ire from the media, specifically after they surrendered 37 points, 614 total yards and 212 rushing yards from up-and-down quarterback John Rhys Plumlee against 4-8 Ole Miss.

This run by Plumlee was particularly incriminating as to LSU’s back-line tackling consistency.

I wouldn’t say that the LSU defense is a weakness. They’re still loaded with talent with future studs such as K’Lavon Chaisson, Derek Stingley Jr. and Thorpe award winner Grant Delpit (even if that award was a bit undeserved, with Delpit in the midst of arguably the worst full season of his career).

They’re not going to suffocate teams and be able to win 17-10 like SEC national champions of old, but they aren’t some sieve that’s going to get obliterated at every turn. They just need to keep their opponents from scoring as much as their offense, which produced 40 or more points in 10 of their 13 contests this season.

It’s felt like LSU’s year all season long, and it’s definitely possible that they finish it off with their first national championship belt since 2007.

Ohio State

NCAA Football: Big Ten Championship-Ohio State vs Wisconsin Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

After Ohio State won the first ever college football playoff in the 2014-15 season, they went 48-6 over the next four years, won two Big Ten titles, three bowl games and made the playoff in 2016. Ohio State fans, still, have by-and-large been incredibly frustrated with the program during those seasons.

To say they’re ungrateful isn’t completely unfounded. But the reason Buckeye fans have been upset is because they know how much they’ve underachieved. They recruit on the same level as Alabama and Clemson, yet have consistently failed to play at the same championship level.

Look no further than the season following their 2015 title, in which OSU started future NFL stars Joey Bosa, Ezekiel Elliott and Michael Thomas, and was loaded from head to toe with future draft picks, yet went an ultimately disappointing 12-1 and played down to their competition all year. Thomas just broke the NFL record for receptions in a season, but in that year for Ohio State, he only finished with 781 receiving yards.

That’s why Buckeye fans were highly skeptical going into this season. They thought the team might even step back toward the 10-2 or 9-3 level. The exact opposite happened. The Buckeyes were utterly dominant in all their games against weaker competition, and have wins over four teams currently ranked in the top 25.

In terms of position-by-position talent, OSU might have the most head-to-head advantages. J.K. Dobbins is the best running back in the playoff and the offensive line is the best run blocking unit. Jeffery Okudah is the best defensive back, better even than Stingley and Delpit for LSU. And Chase Young serves as a one man wrecking crew at defensive end, finishing with 2.5 more sacks than any player in the country despite missing two games.

I’m still amazed by this play in particular.

He didn’t use any moves or scheme! He just sprinted by the guy, and because he’s so unbelievably fast at the position, he had the quarterback wrapped up in a matter of seconds. If you look closely at the picture below, you see that by the time the ball has been snapped, Young is already a full two steps ahead of his fellow defensive linemen.

The star end has been somewhat contained in the last few games, failing to register a sack against both Michigan and Wisconsin. Whatever. I don’t think he’s slowing down. Those are two good offensive lines that completely based their scheme around trying to stop him. Young still made impact plays and pressures, and freed up his teammates due the attention he continually drew. This picture from the Wisconsin game is absolutely comical.

In 2018, Greg Schiano somehow managed to make a defense loaded with future NFL starters below average, as the Buckeyes finished 68th in total yardage allowed and gave up 49 and 52 to the likes of Purdue and Maryland. Fortunately, Schiano will not face the problem of having an overly talented defense as he heads back to Rutgers.

The story has completely flipped here in 2019. Ohio State ranks second in the country in total yardage allowed and third in points allowed per game.

There are only two major concerns on that side of the ball for the Buckeyes:

  1. Jeff Hafley, their defensive coordinator, has accepted the position as the next head coach at Boston College, and even though he will still be there to help guide the players in the playoff, you have to wonder whether him having one foot out the door will hurt the team.
  2. Middle linebacker Tuf Borland. He’s not a bad player. He could definitely play at Northwestern or a myriad of other Power Five schools, but he might not be cut out for playoff football. Borland is a throw back to more traditional linebackers, a beefy run stopper with a name that makes you think he eats nails for breakfast without any milk. However, he also is fairly slow for the position and can get easily attacked in pass coverage and runs to the outside.

The offense for the Buckeyes is as lethal as it’s ever been. Fields accounted for 50 offensive touchdowns and just one interception. Dobbins is only 171 yards away from a 2,000 yard season and has become adept at turning what should be 10-yard gains into 30 or 40-yard plays. H-back K.J. Hill is now the school’s all-time leader in receptions, and wide receiver Chris Olave is probably going to be a first round draft pick in 2021 because of plays like this.

If I was just going off of tape and personnel alone, I think I’d pick Ohio State to win it all. There are just two things holding me back.

The first is Justin Fields’ health. After getting injured in the Michigan game, he looked shaky at times in the conference championship and uncomfortable while moving around in the pocket. The sophomore quarterback told the media that his knee is only about 80-85% and that he can’t move it as much as he’d like to. He’s likely wearing a small brace and won’t be at optimal health for the most important game of his career so far. Yikes.

The second is the “Clemson Curse,” as Ohio State fans call it. Let me explain:

Ohio State’s first meeting with Clemson in the 1978 Gator Bowl was legendary Coach Woody Hayes’ last game, as he famously punched a Clemson player after he intercepted the pass of Buckeye quarterback Art Schlichter. Hayes was fired and OSU lost.

In 2013, Ohio State had already had their perfect season ruined by Michigan State, and added to the disappointment by losing to an inferior Clemson team. The Buckeyes had the game under control before a muffed punt flipped the momentum, and late in the game, beloved quarterback Braxton Miller suffered a brutal shoulder injury so serious that this would be the last football game he ever played at quarterback.

And you all remember 2016. Ohio State was the most inexperienced team in the country, but managed to sneak into the playoff, only to get boat raced by the Tigers 31-0.

It just feels like every time that they meet Clemson, something goes terribly wrong for the Buckeyes. They have everything they need to not only upset the Tigers, but also to win their second championship in the playoff era. It’s up to them to overcome historic precedent.

Clemson

NCAA Football: ACC Championship-Virginia vs Clemson Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

If you didn’t know the official seeding and only paid attention to what the media has been saying since the announcement of the playoff teams, you’d probably think Clemson was the number one ranked team in the country. Nope, Clemson has been “disrespected,” and slid to number three despite being the undefeated, defending national champion (which also happened to Florida St. in 2014, contrary to what Dabo Swinney proclaimed so confidently).

Clemson opened as a two and a half point favorite over the higher seeded Buckeyes courtesy of Action Network, and are still favored at -2 as we speak, even though Ohio State is projected to have a significant advantage in fan attendance.

It’s not without good reason. Clemson is currently on a 28-game winning streak, an impressive feat no matter how limp the rest of the ACC is. Ever since their one-point win over North Carolina, the Tigers have been rollicking, outscoring their last eight opponents by an average of over 42 points per game. Not to mention, their quarterback is almost a lock for the number one overall draft pick in 2021, and has never lost a collegiate game.

The major flaw with Clemson, as many have pointed out, is that they’ve played absolutely nobody of significance. The ACC was worse than the AAC this year, and that’s not even a joke. What even is their best win? Beating a 7-5 Texas A&M by 14? Demolishing 8-4 Wake Forest? Hanging 62 on a Virginia team that lost to Miami? Their schedule served up so many cupcakes, you’d think that Swinney would be pushing 300 pounds by now.

Thus, the argument goes that because Clemson doesn't have any quality wins, we don’t know how good they are. They might just be a good but not great team in a dumpster fire conference, and they’ll have trouble adjusting to a higher level of competition in Ohio State.

That would be a great point if this was some newcomer team that hadn’t been a contender in years prior. We’re talking about Clemson, who has made the playoff in five consecutive seasons, won two of the last four titles and absolutely blitzed Alabama in the national championship game last year. We already know that this team is for real because their core and identity have remained intact from years prior.

Only one team gave Clemson a legitimate test all year—the Tar Heels of North Carolina. UNC finished 7-6 after yesterday’s Military Bowl blowout of Temple, but that’s a deceiving record. The Heels played in nine games decided by one score or fewer and went 3-6 in those contests. They were competitive and had a chance to win every single game they played in this year. The team that pushed Clemson was really an 8-4 or 9-3 squad that suffered a couple of bad breaks.

One thing that I’m gonna keep my eye one is how well teams are able to generate pressure on Lawrence. The Tigers have only given up 1.1 sacks per game this year, the seventh-best rate in the country and the best out of any of the four playoff teams. When you give Lawrence time or fail to bring him down, you’re asking for your secondary to get skewered.

That’s a throw back across his body as defenders chase after him that he lofts perfectly over the defensive back to give his receiver an easy touchdown. Wow.

If it was just Lawrence they’d be dangerous enough, but that’s not the case. Their offense is loaded with potential first round draft picks, namely running back Travis Etienne and receivers Justyn Ross, Tee Higgins and Armani Rogers.

Etienne racked up jaw-dropping stats: 1,500 rushing yards, 19 total touchdowns and a ridiculous 8.2 yards per carry even while sitting out the second half of most of his games.

He doesn’t have a particular style or quirk, he’s just an absolute burner in the open field.

Remember how Mike Williams looked absolutely unstoppable in the 2016 national championship game, jumping over Alabama corners to make ridiculous catches like it was nothing? Well with Higgins, those kind of plays are the norm. He combines his 6’4” stature with incredible ball skills and speed to rack up touchdowns even when defended well.

And then the defense. Oh, the defense. Despite only returning three starters and losing an entire front line to the NFL, Clemson boasted the nation’s best group in terms of total yards allowed, and did not give up more than 20 points in a game all season.

The group was spearheaded by linebacker Isaiah Simmons, a projected first round pick that somehow runs a 4.37 40-yard dash despite being listed at 230 pounds. He recorded 93 total tackles, seven sacks and is an absolute menace on the field.

It annoys me how Swinney and Clemson fans have played the, “No one respects us card.” Everyone does. You’re Clemson for Pete’s sake. Everyone thinks you’re a great team, it’s just upsetting that we couldn’t get invested in your season when you played crap teams all year.

I for one respect this team and believe it’s a reasonable pick to go with the Tigers to win it all again this year.

Oklahoma

NCAA Football: Big 12 Championship-Baylor vs Oklahoma Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

How do I put this lightly? Well, um ... I don’t respect Oklahoma. Like, at all.

No, I’m not disputing the committee’s decision. Things shook out in a way that the four selections were practically indisputable. But I don’t think we should pretend that the Sooners are near the same level as the other three qualifiers.

Quite honestly, they’re not even the fourth best team in the country. The fourth best team is Alabama with a healthy Tua Tagavailoa. Don’t act like it’s not true. Led by a not entirely healthy Tagavailoa, they pushed LSU as hard as anybody this season. They’re currently projected to smash the record for first round picks from one school in a single year. And let’s face it, everyone celebrated when they lost to Auburn because we still feared they could win the playoff should they get in.

I know what you’re thinking—that’s a moot point. Tagavailoa isn’t healthy, so that hypothetical team no longer exists. But I watched all of the power five championships save for the aforementioned massacre of Virginia, and I can confidently say that Oregon and Wisconsin are better teams than Oklahoma, despite having two and three losses respectively.

The Ducks looked physically dominant against a Utah team that would have made the playoff over OU had they won, and Wisconsin was the first team to outplay Ohio State for multiple quarters in a game this season. While I wouldn’t pick either of those teams to beat LSU, I could at least see a scenario in which they physically control the game. The way they played to end their season convinced me of their strength.

Meanwhile, the Sooners have not been good in the second half of the year. They have simply survived against the average teams of the Big 12.

Here’s a basic synopsis of their last six games: The Sooners lost 48-41 to Kansas State in a game that was much more lopsided than the final score indicates, as OU gave up scores to the KSU offense on eight straight possessions at one point in the middle. Then after a bye week, Oklahoma hangs on to beat a 7-5 Iowa State 42-41 when the Cyclones went for two and the win but ran this terribly constructed play:

The next week, the Sooners trailed Baylor 28-3 before the Bears fumbled on their first play of the second half, flipped the momentum of the game, and ultimately led to a 34-31 comeback victory for OU. They followed that up by escaping with a 28-24 win over 5-7 TCU, their only somewhat-convincing win in a 34-16 game against Oklahoma State, and another very close win over the Baylor Bears, who in my opinion are the worst 11-2 team I’ve ever seen. So yeah, I would not say that this team has been on a roll as of late.

Statistically, Lincoln Riley’s squad is still great on offense, as their 554.2 yards per game are second in the country only to LSU (Interesting side note: all four of this year’s playoff teams are ranked in the top five in total yardage per game). Jalen Hurts accounted for 32 passing touchdowns, 18 rushing touchdowns, even one receiving touchdown, 4,914 yards from scrimmage and a second place finish in the Heisman voting.

He was also somewhat undeserving of that recognition. Fields, Young and even Lawrence were more worthy by my estimation. He wasn’t some empty calorie stats monger, but his success certainly seemed to be more a byproduct of his situation than his (admittedly impressive) individual ability. It’s not too hard to rack up stats when CeeDee Lamb can do this for you.

Hurts was also fairly reckless with the ball this season, committing 13 total turnovers, the equivalent to one giveaway a game. His turnovers, to make things worse, were incredibly poorly timed, like this one in the conference championship. Not only is it a blatantly terrible pass, but Hurts throws it late in the first half in his own territory, giving a wretched Baylor offense their chance to finally get a touchdown (which they soon did).

Outside of Hurts, the personnel is talented, but lacking in comparison to their playoff peers. Lamb is really the only player on offense or defense that has had social media buzzing with his brilliance.

Not to mention, three OU players in Rhamondre Stevenson, Ronnie Perkins and Trejan Bridges have reportedly been suspended for the semifinal. Stevenson was the team’s third leading rusher, and Perkins a starting defensive lineman. While not the most devastating losses for the team, the news certainly hurts their already bleak chances.

Overall, I just don’t believe in this Oklahoma team. They’ve been to the playoff three times, only to get thoroughly worn down by Clemson in 2015, give up 54 points to a defense-oriented Georgia team in 2017 and get blasted 28-0 in the first quarter of the Alabama game last year. I think history is going to repeat itself on Saturday night.

Final Predictions

It took 3,500+ words, but we made it. Finally.

LSU, Ohio State and Clemson each have an equal chance of coming out on top. They’re three of the best teams I’ve ever seen and finding flaws in them is just nit picking their greatness.

As I already said, I don’t think Oklahoma has a chance. I could definitely be wrong, it’s happened many times before. But nothing would shock me more than a Sooners’ title after everything I’ve observed this season. Give me LSU, 52-31.

As for the Fiesta Bowl, it’s honestly a toss-up. I wouldn’t fault anyone for picking either team in this scenario. I want to say Ohio State. I really do. It would be fun to see the Big Ten come out on top of the college football world.

But I can’t. I’m a big believer that in sports, history often repeats itself. It’s why I never entertained the idea of anything besides a Cavs-Warriors final from 2016 through 2018, or why I always pick the Patriots to win the Super Bowl.

Clemson always beats Ohio State, and think they’re going to do it again on Saturday. Tigers 31, Buckeyes 28.

And again, because Clemson has that history of winning, the five-year championship level greatness, and has consistently validated themselves when questioned, I’m picking them as my champion of the 2019-20 College Football Playoff.

They’ll take a barnburner of a national championship over LSU, 49-42.