By Neil Patrick Healy
The debate is done, the stage is set and four teams are left standing to pursue the holy grail of college football: the national championship. The first matchup pits the high-flying offenses of the Clemson Tigers against. the four-seed Oklahoma Sooners in the Orange Bowl. Later in the afternoon is the defensive slugfest of the Alabama Crimson Tide versus the Michigan State Spartans in the Cotton Bowl Classic. Plan your New Year’s around sitting by the TV, because you’re not going to want to miss this.
ORANGE BOWL – CLEMSON VS. OKLAHOMA
If you like points in bunches, then you’re going to love this matchup. Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield leads an offense that averages 46 points per game. Clemson isn’t a slouch when it comes to point either; averaging 38 points per game behind Heisman hopeful quarterback Deshaun Watson. Expect a shootout in Miami New Year’s Eve.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Whichever team can stop the running game and make the offense one-dimensional is going to win. What makes both of these offenses tick is the balance they have between their playmaking mobile quarterbacks and their hard-nosed run game. Take that away and you limit the huge plays.
After that, it’s really simple: Which quarterback plays better? Both teams field Heisman candidates and both lead high-octane offenses. Both complete almost 70 percent of their passes (Watson 69.5 and Mayfield 68.6) and both can make plays with their feet.
I have more faith in Clemson’s front seven stopping Oklahoma’s running game than Oklahoma’s. Clemson defensive end Shaq Watson’s 20.5 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks will lead a very young, but talented, front seven in perusing Mayfield. Mayfield has shown Johnny Manziel-like ability at times, but he has not faced a defensive front like Clemson’s in the defenseless Big 12. If Watson can keep the offense tempo and efficiency moving while sticking with their running attack, I see Clemson taking one step closer to their first National Title since 1981. Clemson wins in a wild one.
COTTON BOWL CLASSIC – ALABAMA VS. MICHIGAN STATE
One word to describe how this game will shake out: physical. Styles make fights and this game will be like two steam engine trains crashing into each other over and over for four quarters. Both Alabama head coach Nick Saben and Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio are old school, grumpy, smash mouth style of football where the coaches and the game will reflect their personalities.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Both defenses have a physical front seven and running backs that get yards after contact, so those will cancel each other out. This game will come down to which quarterback can make plays in the passing game. Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook is 32-4 in his three years as the starter in East Lansing and he has won some big games. None were bigger than the Big 10 championship game last Saturday against Iowa. With a hurt shoulder that forced him to miss a critical game earlier in November against Ohio State, Cook led one of the most methodical drives ever. Twenty-two plays and 82 yards that chewed 9 minutes off the clock is a drive that will go down in school history. Leading the Spartans to two Big 10 championships in three years, Cook is a winner.
On the flip side, Alabama quarterback Jake Coker has had an interesting road up to now. After losing the starting job to future No. 1 overall pick Jamis Winston at Florida State, Coker transferred to Alabama only to lose the starting job again to Blake Sims. In his senior season, Coker has been solid for the Tide, but has the benefit of running back Derrick Henry carrying the ball 339 times this season for 1,986 yards and 23 touchdowns. If Michigan State can slow down Henry, Coker will have to make plays without the benefit of play action.
No one is picking Michigan State because of the allure of the SEC that Alabama has been riding this season. I’m going against the grain here and going with Michigan State because of Cook. The difference between both of these teams is quarterback play. Cook is a projected first-round draft pick who has been a three-year starter, while Coker is above average. Is Coker as a legit NFL prospect? No way. Cook is the key in this game and with about three weeks to heal his shoulder, he should be able to come out ready to go. Michigan State doesn’t get enough credit, but the Spartans will after this win. Michigan State pulls off the “upset.”
NATIONAL CHAPIONSHIP GAME – CLEMSON VS. MICHIGAN STATE
A Big 10-ACC challenge at its finest. The high-powered Clemson Tigers offense goes up against the gritty Michigan State Spartans defense in Glendale, Arizona. The Spartans’ 15th-rated run defense or the Tigers’ 15th rated run offense?
KEYS TO THE GAME
Can Michigan State contain Deshaun Watson and keep him in the pocket? The Spartans have only faced one team with a quarterback with the ability to make plays outside of the pocket: Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett. Now the Spartans did a great job containing Barrett to 15 carries for 44 yards, but the whole quarterback situation with Barrett and Cardale Jones threw both of them off their groove. Watson has been on fire all season and has made plays through the air and on the ground, but if Michigan State’s defense can keep Watson from scrambling and force him to make plays from the pocket it may expose some flaws.
Clemson slows down the Spartans’ running game while Watson makes enough plays to seal the win. Clemson just has more athletes on defense than Michigan State can handle and the Tiger front seven will give Cook troubles. Clemson has the 12th-rated pass defense and has forced 14 interceptions while only giving up 16 touchdowns. The game will be close because Clemson has lived on the edge all season, but the Tigers will continue to run the ball well with running back Wayne Gallman. Other than Dabo Swinney hitting the Nae Nae, this will be the proudest day in Clemson football history.
Neil Patrick Healy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @NP_Healy.