Alabama vs Florida (SaturDAY 3:30ET, CBS)
This 17.5-point spread is the most lopsided SEC Title Game since 1996, when ironically Florida was the heavy favorite over Alabama. This time, of course, the Crimson Tide are Goliath and the Gators are David. Derrick Henry has been the heartbeat of this Alabama team, and his Heisman chances may be decided in this final game. Fortunately for Henry, it doesn’t look like there is much of a chance that Florida will be able to score enough to keep up in this game, and team success obviously plays a large role in determining a Heisman winner. But unfortunately for the huge running back, Florida boasts the 9th-ranked rushing defense, and 5th-ranked total defense in the nation—the going will not be easy, and the stats will be hard to come by. And while this Gator offense has reached new levels of ineptitude, it was never all that strong to begin with, and was never the catalyst to UF’s success. With players like Jonathan Bullard, Antonio Morrison, and Jordan Sherit getting healthier for this game, Florida’s defense will be out to prove that it belongs while the Crimson Tide could be looking forward to the playoff.
However, I cannot pick Florida to win this game due to its shortcomings on offense, and Alabama’s greatness on defense. I will say that Florida has two distinct advantages: its defense and its mindset. This is Florida’s season. It doesn’t have much more to play for (not to make it sound like a lost season, because it has certainly been a great one). Sure, a New Year’s Six Bowl would be nice, but it’s not an SEC Championship. The Gators have everyone telling them that they don’t belong on the same field as Alabama, and that ought to scare Crimson Tide fans. And not to mention, Kirby Smart cannot be completely focused after being named Georgia’s new Head Coach. I anticipate this game will be closer than the spread indicates, but Alabama will be victorious.
ALABAMA 23 FLORIDA 10
What if? Scenarios
Alabama is in the College Football Playoff.
If Clemson and Stanford both lose, and Florida beats Alabama by 20+ points, there is a chance that Florida could make the playoff as a 2-loss SEC Champion. The committee could cite defensive injuries against Florida State and the most impressive victory of the season (big win over Alabama) as reasons for putting Florida in the Playoff. And to those complaining in Columbus: what makes Florida’s loss to Florida State that much different than Ohio State’s loss to Michigan State (without Connor Cook)? Both losses were in November. And both teams looked quite pedestrian throughout the season. Florida is far from a lock to make the Playoff even if the upset trifecta occurs on Championship Saturday, but there is a chance. And the deciding factors will be the Committee’s feelings towards conference championships and the SEC.
Iowa vs Michigan State (SATURDAY 8:00ET, FOX)
Ohio State entered the season as the first unanimous preseason #1 team in AP Poll history, but the Spartans of Michigan State seized back the division in its 17-14 upset in the 'Shoe. We knew if it wasn't going to be Ohio State representing the East, it would be Dantonio's squad. As for the West? This 12-0 campaign by Iowa is one of the most improbable we've ever seen. Has their schedule been a gauntlet? No, but they do have 2 wins over currently ranked teams, which puts them right on par with the other contenders. Their style of play is as "Big Ten" as it gets; a ground-pound, ball-control offense supported by a stout, gritty defense. So while their style of football isn't as flashy as the other contenders, it is hard to argue with the word "UNDEFEATED."
However, this will be Iowa's toughest test this season. Remember, the Hawkeyes avoided Ohio State, MSU, Michigan, and Penn State from the East Division, so it is difficult to gauge how they stack up with the other Big Ten talent. Even with question marks surrounding Connor Cook's health, Michigan State was firing on all cylinders in the 55-16 blowout win over Penn State. It's not exactly the "No Fly Zone" anymore in the secondary, as the pass defense ranks 75th nationally. But, like Iowa, the run defense is strong. Unlike the Iowa quarterbacks of old, CJ Beathard brings a slice of mobility and enough creativity to extend plays. This added element will make the game closer, but in the end, I am trusting the battle-tested Spartans more. Michigan State has the more impressive wins, has a championship pedigree and a thirst for the Playoff that I am not sure Iowa can match. This is a level that Ferentz and Iowa are not familiar with -- the pressure is on them for once, they are the hunted. It's a true Playoff play-in game, and I see Michigan State punching their ticket to the Final Four.
MICHIGAN STATE 37 IOWA 30
What if? Scenarios
Michigan State Wins
Michigan State is in the College Football Playoff (likely #4).
Iowa is in the College Football Playoff (likely #4).
If either team wins by 21+
In a blowout scenario, the case can be made for the Big Ten Champ to move into the #3 spot, jumping Oklahoma. This would alter the semifinal matchups. Upsets in the ACC and/or SEC title games will also shift the teams around.
Stanford at USC (SATURDAY 8:00ET, ESPN)
Back in August I correctly predicted that USC would win the Pac-12 South and play for the league title – however, I was about 3 losses off, and could have never predicted the off-field distractions that transpired. Welcome to college football. As the dust settles, it is Stanford that represents the North Division despite losing to runner-up Oregon. And the league’s best shot at a Playoff bid is the 2-loss Cardinal – NOT USC, UCLA, Oregon, or Arizona State, who were all more highly-touted in the preseason. David Shaw proved that last year’s 5-loss campaign was a temporary fluke, and not a step back towards the mediocrity of old. But this isn’t exactly the Stanford we’ve seen recently. While the defense isn’t reaching the elite levels of its predecessors, the offense has a weapon unseen in years here: Christian McCaffrey, who is just 215 yards behind Barry Sanders NCAA record for all-purpose yards in a season. It’s Kevin Hogan’s 4th season under center, and it’s his best yet (2500 yards, 68%, 23 TD to 7 INT). Not seen on the stat sheet are his leadership and poise in big games.
I feel confident about what we will see from Stanford, a focused effort with a Rose Bowl bid on the line, plus an outside shot at cracking into the Playoff. USC is much more variable to me; is this team playing for revenge after the 41-31 September loss? Are they surging with positive energy after the announcement that interim Clay Helton is taking over full time? Was this also a major distraction this week? Are the seniors and NFL-juniors checked out mentally? Was the UCLA game their Super Bowl?
USC has been up-and-down this season, but at their best they are one of the most talented rosters in America. Ronald Jones, a breakout freshman tailback, is taking some of the pressure off of QB Cody Kessler, who has quietly pieced together another strong season (3128 yards, 68%, 27 TD to 8 INT). And of course WR JuJu Smith-Schuster is putting together an All-American caliber season (1302 yards, 10 TD), and calling out defenders to stiff arm. But injuries have also impacted the roster, one that is slowly growing back to full capacity after the NCAA sanctions. Two starting lineman were knocked out in October, while two starting linebackers are still out from 11/18 injuries.
Beating a team twice in a season is a tough task, but one that Stanford and Kevin Hogan are familiar with. In 2012, they beat UCLA twice in seven days to win the Pac-12 title. I see Stanford winning, and waiting for some help above them to enter Playoff talk.
STANFORD 30 USC 24
What if? Scenarios
Stanford needs some help to crack the Top 4, needing either Alabama or Clemson to lose. If Alabama loses, it becomes a debate with Ohio State for the #4 spot. Stanford has the credential of "conference champion," but also has TWO losses which is uncharted territory for the committee. Should Clemson lose, the debate widens to include 11-2 Stanford, 11-1 Ohio State, 12-1 UNC, and 12-1 Clemson. That scenario will depend on how badly Stanford beats USC, and how the ACC title game unfolds -- too many variables to predict, but it could mean Playoff Committee chaos.
A USC revenge win would eliminate the Pac-12 from Playoff contention, and would leave the door wide open for Ohio State to sneak back into the bracket with an upset in the ACC or SEC title games.
Clemson AT North Carolina (Saturday 8:00ET, ABC)
Clemson fans cannot be happy with the way this game turned out. On October 24th, after Clemson beat Miami 58-0, Tiger fans must have been thinking, “if we can just get past Florida State, we are in.” And then those same fans, hidden behind the fog of ESPN’s cameras in the aftermath of Clemson’s 23-13 victory over Florida State on November 7th, must have been crying out “WE ARE IN!!!” But then one week later North Carolina manhandled those same Hurricanes similar to the way Clemson did, and Tiger fans realized that there will be one final hurdle.
It has been a dream season for both schools. Undoubtedly, Clemson has been one of the best teams in the nation. There were plenty of question marks for this team heading into 2015, including the offensive line, the defensive front seven, and Deshaun Watson’s health. With the way Clemson has recruited, I felt that there was a good chance that the offensive line would hold up enough for Clemson’s skill players to take over games with their overwhelming talent and depth (even after Mike Williams went down). But the most remarkable thing about this Clemson team was its ability to reload on the defensive front after losing Stephone Anthony, Grady Jarrett, Vic Beasley, and Tony Steward. That is the sign of a great program. And, of course, Deshaun Watson has been much healthier than last year.
The Tar Heels are an eerily similar team to that of Gene Chizik’s former program, Auburn. In both 2010 and 2013, the Tigers started off relatively slow. North Carolina lost to South Carolina in week 1, and probably would have lost to Georgia Tech if the Yellow Jackets’ best defensive lineman, Adam Gotsis, weren’t ejected for targeting early in the game. But the offensive onslaught has been in full effect for weeks to finish the season, and the Tar Heels currently lead the nation in yards per play against power 5 opponents (FCS teams are NOT included in that stat).
However, North Carolina somehow avoided the top four defenses in the ACC—Boston College, Clemson, Louisville, and Florida State. It wouldn’t be a dream season without a little bit of luck after all. But this much is obvious if you watch a UNC game: the Tar Heels have a dominant offense. I expect Marquise Williams to give Clemson’s aggressive defense trouble with his legs as UNC receivers aren’t as inexplicably wide open as they are most Saturdays. I keep saying that Marquise Williams has proven throughout his career that he is inconsistent. Well, I guess after a dominant senior season he has proven me wrong. But I get the chance to say it one more time: don’t be surprised if Williams looks like a different Williams than we are used to seeing. While I won’t bet on Marquise flopping—I actually think he will put up 30+ points—I will bet on Clemson gutting out a close victory.
CLEMSON 40 NORTH CAROLINA 33
What if? Scenarios
Clemson is in the College Football Playoff.
North Carolina Wins Narrowly
If Clemson looks like the better team, but loses the game, don’t be shocked to see the Committee put Clemson in the Playoff over North Carolina. Clemson will have a better resume than Ohio State, and Ohio State’s loss also came late in the season. It would be a close call. However, if Stanford looks great against USC, the Cardinal would almost certainly get in as a conference champion.
North Carolina Wins Handily
As a one loss conference champion that has reeled off 11 straight wins, including the most impressive victory of the season, North Carolina will be selected to play in the College Football Playoff. Stanford has lost two games to two solid, yet unspectacular opponents. And you would have to admit that UNC’s big victory over #1 Clemson at a neutral location would look a whole lot better than Stanford’s improbable comeback victory over #9 Notre Dame at home. Right now, Stanford is seen as the superior team to UNC, which is why some people cannot imagine the Tar Heels getting in over Stanford and Ohio State. However, that will all change with a big victory in Charlotte on Saturday.
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