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NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision Playoffs Preview: Georgia vs. Oklahoma / Alabama vs. Clemson

By Tim Gardner

The North Carolina High Country is loaded with college football fans eagerly anticipating the National Collegiate Athletic Association Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) Division 1 Playoffs. This column provides previews and predicted final scores of both semifinal games on January 1. The Oklahoma Sooners and Georgia Bulldogs face off in the 2018 Rose Bowl. And the Clemson Tigers and Alabama Crimson Tide play in the 2018 Sugar Bowl. The winners of each of these games will then play January 8 for the National Championship (2017 season).

Rose Bowl-Georgia vs. Oklahoma


Date: Monday, Jan. 1
Start Time:
 5:00 p.m. EST
 Pasadena, CA
 Rose Bowl

Georgia has not played against an offense as explosive as Oklahoma’s, led by Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, Baker Mayfield. The Sooners average a phenomenal 583 yards and 45 points per game. But first-year head coach Lincoln Riley’s Sooners have not played against a defense as talented and with as much speed as Georgia’s and a team that can control a game with the run like the Bulldogs can behind the nation’s best cast of running backs. The latter cast features all-stars Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. The tandem has combined for 2,123 yards this season and each has scored 13 touchdowns.

Georgia’s defense is led by college football’s finest defensive player in Roquan Smith, the Butkus Award recipient (nation’s top linebacker), and the likely Nagurski Award winner as the nation’s top overall defender. Few linebackers possess the sideline-to-sideline speed as Smith, who has 106 tackles and 6 sacks this season. He and fellow linebackers Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy, will try to harass and sack Mayfield to take pressure off the Georgia defending against his long throws. They have a stern task as Oklahoma has an experienced, imposing front five, anchored by redshirt junior left tackle Orlando Brown, who stands 6’ 8” and is listed at 345 pounds. They also block for a quality group of running backs led by Rodney Smith, who has 968 yards and 11 touchdowns.

The Georgia secondary, consisting of standouts J.R. Reed, Dominick Sanders and Deandre Baker will be severely tested by Mayfield, who has passed for 4,340 yards and 41 touchdowns this season. He has thrown touchdowns to thirteen players, including eight to Mark Andrews. Still, Georgia (12-1) should limit the Sooners effectiveness in the passing and running games. Georgia’s defense ranks second nationally behind Alabama in allowing just 5.58 yards allowed per pass attempt and has been mighty tough against the run.

The Sooners (12-1) are 4-0 against ranked teams, including 31-16 over Ohio State. They are the higher playoff seed in this game (2 versus 3). And on September 9 – the same night Georgia won 20-19 at Notre Dame– Oklahoma won at No. 2 Ohio State, 31-16. That’s the best road win of any playoff qualifier.

But even in a conference not known for its stingy defense, Oklahoma’s defense has not been spectacular– fourth in total defense, sixth in rushing defense and fourth in pass defense efficiency. The Sooners are led defensively by outside linebacker Ogbonnia Okoronkwo who has 17.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks this season (both of which are team-highs). The Sooners scored 38 or more points in winning their final seven games. But had they been held to 30 points each game, they would have lost three of those.  Baylor scored 41 points against Oklahoma, Iowa State 38 in the Sooners only loss, Kansas State 35 and Oklahoma State 52. In the latter game, the losing Cowboys shredded Oklahoma’s defense for 662 yards. 

And it isn’t as if Georgia can’t score a lot of points. Coach Kirby Smart’s Bulldogs are extremely balanced offensively and scored more than 40 points in seven of their 13 games. They ranked third nationally in offensive efficiency behind their sensational true freshman quarterback, Jake Fromm, who has thrown for 2,173 yards and 21 touchdowns and only 5 interceptions behind a much-improved offensive line from a season ago. Fromm has excellent receivers to throw to such as Jason Wims (38 catches and six touchdowns) and Terry Godwin (29 catches and six touchdowns).

Except for the one-point Notre Dame win and a fourteen point victory (24-10) over South Carolina, the Bulldogs won by at least 21 points in their 10 other victories. They surrendered more than 20 points only twice all season. And they avenged their only loss (40-17 at Auburn) by thumping the same Tigers (28-7) in the Southeastern Conference Championship game.

The teams rate almost dead even among their kickers. Georgia’s Rodrigo Blakenship is a perfect 55-of-55 on extra point kicks and has made 15 of 17 field goal attempts with his longest being 49 yards. Oklahoma’s Austin Seibert is 75-for-75 in extra points made and 15-for-18 in field goals with his longest being 51 yards.

If Georgia can run the ball effectively to extend drives, the Bulldogs should win and perhaps by double-digits, particularly if they get a lead of at least 10 or more points late in the game. That would put tremendous pressure on Oklahoma’s offense to have to score a touchdown and conversion point or points-plus to catch up. Georgia simply has a better chance of controlling the clock with the running game and keeping Mayfield and the Oklahoma offense off the field than Mayfield and Company have of scoring a pile of points against the Bulldogs.

Prediction: Georgia 34, Oklahoma 21


Sugar Bowl-Alabama vs. Clemson


Date: January 1, 2018

Start Time: 8:45 p.m. EST

Location: New Orleans, Louisiana

Stadium: Mercedes-Benz Superdome


College football enthusiasts will be treated to the third meeting between Alabama and Clemson in as many years, and if the third rendition is anything like the first two, it is going to be a titanic clash. Both teams are loaded with talent, and they have spent the last two seasons ruining each other’s national championship dreams.

Despite losing approximately eighty percent of its offensive production from last season, Clemson is 12-1 and has a 6-0 record against ranked teams, including 14-6 over Auburn early in the season. But the Tigers have the worst loss of any of the four playoff teams– 27-24 at unranked Syracuse. Still, Coach Dabo Swinney’s team is ranked number one nationally and is the top seed for the playoffs after torching Miami 38-3 in the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship game.

Alabama is 11-1, with its lone loss, like Georgia’s, coming at Auburn (26-14). And also like Georgia, Alabama’s loss was to a better team than either Oklahoma or Clemson lost to as Auburn was ranked in the nation’s top ten in both games (against Alabama and Georgia). However, the Crimson Tide has the least-best resume in terms of strength of schedule with its best win over number 17- ranked Mississippi State (24-21). But no matter the argument, Coach Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide deserved to be the fourth playoff team over Ohio State despite not being a conference champion. The Buckeyes were a two-loss team, falling by a whopping 31 points to unranked Iowa (55-24) and by 15 at home to Oklahoma.

Clemson has elite talent on both sides of the ball, and its defensive line might be the best in the country. Players like tackles Christian Wilkin and Dexter Lawrence and end Clelin Ferrell (nine sacks) have been outright devastating for opposing teams. Therefore, the Crimson Tide’s offensive front has to win the battle of the trenches if it is to prevail. Clemson’s is led defensively by linebacker Kendall Joseph, who has 86 tackles.

Junior quarterback Kelly Bryant has done a tremendous job replacing the legendary Deshaun Watson, and has led the Clemson offense with aplomb this season. He has passed for 2,678 yards and 13 touchdowns with a sterling 67.4 efficiency rating. If the Crimson Tide defenders can disrupt the pocket, putting intense and consistent pressure on Bryant, they could be able to force him into mistakes– perhaps at the worst times– that winds up costing Clemson the game. So getting productive outings from running backs like Travis Etienne and Tavien Feaster, who combined for more than 1,400 yards rushing and 20 touchdowns this season, is all-important for the Tigers.

Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts has been consistently productive leading its offense. He has thrown for 1,940 yards and 15 touchdowns. He has struggled at times when the Crimson Tide has had to rely on its passing game, but still has thrown only one interception all season. He has put a lot of hurt (no pun intended) on opponents running the ball as he has 768 yards rushing and has scored eight touchdowns. He averages 5.6 yards per carry.

Calvin Ridley is one of the better wide receivers in the country with 55 catches for 896 yards. But Alabama has had little production from the rest of its receiving corp. Cam Sims and Jerry Jeudy are tied for second on the team with only 14 receptions. Therefore, pounding the ball with running backs Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough will be a top priority for the Crimson Tide. Harris will be particularly tough for Clemson’s defense to stop as he averages 8.2 yards per carry. He has 906 yards and has scored 11 touchdowns. Scarbrough has added 549 yards and eight touchdowns.

If the Tigers are to beat the Crimson Tide, Bryant needs to be the best player on the field when Clemson has the ball. And he will have a great challenge, facing the best defense he has played this season. The Crimson Tide has a particularly awesome defensive front and a stellar group of linebackers. Alabama has fourteen players who have made at least 30 tackles and is led by defensive back Ronnie Harrison with 68 stops.

Alabama may have an edge if the game comes down to a made extra point or a field goal. Andy Pappanaslus has kicked 51 of 51 point-after-touchdowns and 15 of 19 field goal attempts, with his longest being 46 yards. Clemson’s Alex Spence has struggled at times, hitting only 7 of 12 field goal attempts. His longest of the season is also 46 yards. He has made 41 of 43 extra-point kicks.

Look for Alabama to out-physical and out-play Clemson over-all as the Crimson Tide wins a close game.

Prediction: Alabama 24, Clemson 19.

If my predictions are correct, it sets up an All-Southeastern Conference (SEC) National Championship game between Georgia and Alabama in Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Ironically, if that scenario plays out, it would be the Bulldogs’ third game in Atlanta this season after wins over Georgia Tech and Auburn in the SEC Championship game.

An All-SEC National Title game would offer more subplots than a William Faulkner novel. And it would be most fitting as the SEC is the nation’s best conference and has been for many years. In fact, at the end of the 2017 regular season (before the conference championship games), I considered SEC teams Georgia, Auburn and Alabama (in that order) to be college football’s three best teams, slightly ahead of Clemson, and then Ohio State.

Look for a National Championship game breakdown and prediction column later this week on hcpress.com.