To college football fans, the holiday season means the beginning of a jam-packed bowl schedule. And while there are certainly many excellent bowl games coming our way, it’s important not to let the College Football Playoff get lost in the fray. The semifinals will consist of two bowl games on Thursday, December 31. This will be followed by the 2016 CFP National Championship on Monday, January 11. We know that the championship will take place at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, AZ, but only two of four teams will be granted the opportunity to make the trip.
It’s been a while since we made our 2016 CFP National Championship predictions, but one of our top four teams has indeed made it to the semifinals. Below, we’ll assess all four teams in the running to become this year’s champions. We’ll also discuss the possible match-ups for this year’s championship in order to make some predictions as to which team will be walking away the victors.
Capital One Orange Bowl – Oklahoma
The Capital One Orange Bowl will kick off this year’s semifinals as the Oklahoma Sooners face off against the Clemson Tigers for a spot in the 2016 CFP National Championship. These teams will face each other at Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens, FL, at 4PM (EST). Currently ranked fourth in the nation, the Sooners will have a tough fight ahead of them if they wish to come out on top against Clemson.
Oklahoma went 11-1 this season, 8-1 in conference play. The biggest mark against them was a 17-24 loss to the Texas Longhorns, a team that didn’t manage to beat a great many teams this season. This was the first year they’ve won the Big 12 Championship since 2012, back before the BCS ceased to exist. And it’s been even longer than that since they’ve had a shot at a Division I title. In short, the Sooners are having a better season than they’ve had in many years. But that doesn’t mean that everything is looking up for them right now.
One of the biggest issues facing Oklahoma as they approach the Orange Bowl is defense. While there’s no doubt that LB Eric Striker is intriguing to watch in the press, he’s something of an analogy for the Sooners as a whole in the sense that it took him a while to get settled. Now, he’s one of the leading defensive players on a team that’s been improving all season but still has to beat a team that’s been solid all along. It isn’t that Oklahoma’s defense is weak—the scoreboard begs to differ in all except for their one loss and their one narrow 30-29 win against TCU—but rather that it simply might not be quite as strong as Clemson’s.
That said, the Sooners have got a very strong offense that will make the Orange Bowl highly enjoyable to watch. Much of OU’s offensive prowess can be attributed to the growth of QB Baker Mayfield as a player. But as noted by ESPN, Oklahoma’s offense doesn’t lean so much on a single player as it does on teamwork. For instance, they note that the success of WR Sterling Shepard would not have meant as much without the support of players such as FB Dimitri Flowers, who delivers his own big plays from time to time. This isn’t a team in which one star player rules the field, even if Mayfield and Shepard make it seem that way. They’re chock-full of guys who have done their part to pull some of the weight, and that’s a good thing to see in a college football team. It might not help them win the 2016 CFP National Championship, and it might not even help them get there to begin with. But it certainly won’t hurt.
Capital One Orange Bowl – Clemson
The Clemson Tigers are first in the nation right now, which isn’t surprising given the strength of their team. Our original 2016 CFP National Championship predictions had put them fourth, but they managed to perform wildly better this season than any of the other four teams who had topped our list. Not only do they look good for the semifinals, but they have a decent chance at winning the whole thing.
Having gone 13-0, Clemson is the only undefeated team vying for a spot in the 2016 CFP National Championship. They almost lost that streak a couple of times, largely due to the fact that their schedule wasn’t quite as easy as Oklahoma’s. The narrowest victory on Clemson’s schedule this year as a 24-22 win against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. But that was a non-conference game, and losing wouldn’t have changed the fact that the Tigers were 8-0 in conference play this year. Upon winning the ACC Championship, they completed their first undefeated regular season in more than thirty years. The last was in 1981, a year in which they became national title-holders.
The Tigers don’t have any of the mild concerns on defense that we noted with Oklahoma, even if they don’t always lead by the bigger margin (we’ll get to that). As far as passing coverage is concerned, Oklahoma should be worried about CB Cordrea Tankersley. He’s one of the top corners in the nation, with double the interceptions of any other defensive player at Clemson. He’s able to consistently pick off the ball when it’s thrown his way, which is going to stifle the Sooners’ ability to gain big yards. On the ground, they have to worry about players like DE Shaq Lawson, the top defensive player in the whole of the Atlantic Coast Conference this year. He’s got 10 sacks this season, as well as 22.5 tackles for loss. He’ll want to end the season on a strong note, since he’s leaving Clemson for the NFL draft next year.
If we had to pick something other than the difficulty of their schedule to explain the sometimes average margins by which Clemson tends to lead, it would be that their offense isn’t always as explosive as it could be. That said, they’ve played a number of games with an injured receiver. Now that WR Artavis Scott has gotten surgery and is expecting to heal by New Year’s Eve to play in the Orange Bowl, there’s no telling how he’ll do. He might be better than ever, or he might start to struggle. Even so, Scott tends to bring his “A” game whenever he can. He also plays well with QB Deshaun Watson, who had received early Heisman buzz after leading the team to victory in the ACC Championship. He didn’t win the trophy, but he can still win the title if he and his team stay the course.
Goodyear Cotton Bowl – Michigan State
Airing at 8PM (EST), the night of semifinals will continue with the Goodyear Cotton Bowl at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX. The Michigan State Spartans, currently third in the NCAA, will be facing the Alabama Crimson Tide for a shot at the 2016 CFP National Championship. They weren’t one of our top choices, but they’ve still got some fine qualities to establish them as potential victors this year.
Michigan State went 12-1 this season, 7-1 in conference play. Their low-scoring 16-13 win in the Big Ten Championship against the Iowa Hawkeyes might raise some red flags, however, as it wasn’t the first game in which they failed to rack up too many points. They also lost 38-39 to the Nebraska Cornhuskers, making them the second team on this list after Oklahoma to have squandered a potentially undefeated season to a team that finished with a 5-7 record. That’s a really specific thing to share with a team, and it doesn’t give us much faith.
That said, they still have a strong chance. Even Alabama coach Nick Saban (who used to coach the Spartans himself) notes that they’ve been growing as a team for the past three years. Their defense has a number of strong points, their corners most definitely among them. While CB Darian Hicks has managed consistent play (despite losing time to illness and injury), it’s actually fellow CB Arjen Colquhoun who has emerged as the best starting cornerback at Michigan State. This has given the Spartans a great edge on pass defense, while DT Joel Heath has held back the offense on the ground. Still, the string of injuries they’ve suffered this season is alarming. They’d better hope those players are truly healed, or they’ll be losing some big names in defense right when they need them the most.
Speaking of injuries, QB Connor Cook is hoping to recover from shoulder surgery to play in the Cotton Bowl Classic this year. He’s been struggling with his shoulder for over a month now, but he claims to be feeling better now than he has in weeks. Cook is an excellent passer, and the time off has probably helped him, but there’s always a bit of speculation when a player returns from injury just in time for the big game. In this case, he’ll probably be fine. He’ll have had a month and a half to heal at that point, so expect to see some yardage out of Michigan State that we haven’t seen in a while. Cook recognizes that he’s going to play a big role in determining MSU’s chances of winning, and he’s a little worried about the size of Alabama’s defense. Even so, he’s ready to give it all he’s got.
Goodyear Cotton Bowl – Alabama
Alabama is currently second in the nation, and their potential placement in the 2016 CFP National Championship is anything but a surprise. Their early-season loss to the Ole Miss Rebels in Tuscaloosa had shaken our faith (long with that of many others), but they’ve been quite strong since then. And much like Clemson, they have a pretty good chance of going all the way.
Their loss to Ole Miss was the only real mark against the Crimson Tide this year, as they managed to go 12-1 for the season and 7-1 in conference play (the same as Michigan State). Winning the SEC Championship was big, if only because many questioned whether or not the SEC would make an appearance in the 2016 CFP National Championship at all this year. Most people assumed that a spot might be given to the LSU Tigers, which would have likely happened if LSU hadn’t suffered three losses in a row that put an end to their whirlwind season. Now that Bama has made it to the semifinals, they’re going to have to rep their team well in order to restore the shaken faith in this conference.
With the exception of the aforementioned loss to Ole Miss and a narrow 19-14 win against the Tennessee Volunteers, the Tide haven’t shown too many dents in their armor this season. Their defense was one of the primary components in their rise to the top of the Southeastern Conference, and they actually led the nation in run defense this season. There are a number of players they can thank for this, from DTs Jarran Reed and A’Shawn Robinson to LB Reggie Ragland. And that really doesn’t complete the list by a long shot. Much like Oklahoma’s offense, Bama’s defense is one which is fueled by cooperation and teamwork. To some fans, there might be the occasional player who manages to stand out. But by our count, it’s the defensive unit as a whole that makes this team shine.
It’s not too hard to praise their offense, especially with RB Derrick Henry receiving the Heisman Trophy this year. He may not have been one of our top predictions, but he also grew a lot over the season. He’s been increasing his focus, and he’s been the top-performing player in an offensive unit that managed to rack up an average of 34.1 points per game this season (which could be markedly higher if not for the Tennessee game mentioned earlier). In fact, their entire offensive line just won the first-ever Joe Moore Award. This 350-pound, 6-foot-tall trophy is to be awarded to the best offensive line in college football each year, and is named for the late offensive line coach Joe Moore. This means that, whether they win or lose the 2016 CFP National Championship, Alabama can officially call this a historic season.
2016 CFP National Championship
To assess each team’s chances of winning the 2016 CFP National Championship, we’ll discuss each possible match-up in turn. The first is between Oklahoma and Michigan State. These are two teams that appear to do slightly better in offense than in defense, although Michigan State has the slight defensive edge. We don’t really expect OU to win the Orange Bowl in the first place, but we definitely don’t expect them to become title-holders in the event of this particular outcome.
This doubly applies to a match-up between Oklahoma and Alabama. Not only does Alabama have a stronger defense, but their offense is unmatched. While we certainly appreciate Oklahoma’s strong sense of teamwork, they won’t be able to penetrate Alabama’s defense. They also don’t have the run defense necessary to stop Henry from getting the ball to the end zone. Of all four teams on this list, Oklahoma stands the least chance of victory this year.
Clemson, on the other hand, is almost definitely winning the Orange Bowl and advancing to finals. We noted that their offense wasn’t too explosive, which could hurt them if they face a decent run defense put forth by Michigan State. And as we noted, one of Clemson’s better receivers has just recovered from surgery. Putting the Tigers against a team with some of the best corners in the NCAA won’t help their chances. True, Tankersley is a strong corner as well. But MSU is doing better in the position, and the Tigers’ offense might not be able to handle it. If it comes down to Clemson and Michigan State, we might be hailing the Spartans as champions this year.
The most likely match-up is between Clemson and Alabama, which could easily be a pretty close game. Alabama’s best defense is on the ground, so Clemson will have to hope that their receivers can hold it together if they want to stand a shot. Clemson does have a pretty strong defense of their own, but it might not be enough to stop the incredible offense the Tide have delivered over their past few games. The best part of this game will be the opportunity to see QBs Watson and Henry lead their teams in a battle for victory, but Henry definitely has the slight edge. On the other hand, Clemson bucked our expectations the first time around. They could do it again.
Our overall prediction goes to either the Clemson Tigers or the Alabama Crimson Tide. The Tide may be ranked second, but they actually look to have the edge in this one. It may sound silly to suggest that the top-ranked team in the nation is the underdog in this case, but that’s what it looks like right now. Perhaps each team’s performance in the semifinals will suggest otherwise, but we’re currently giving Alabama the edge in the 2016 CFP National Championship.