It's almost that wonderful time of year again: college football playoff season! Last weekend, plenty of upsets and last second losses shook up the Top 10 rankings, meaning the match-ups this weekend will result in A LOT of interesting debates and determine the final Top 4 rankings. These rankings will decide who gets to enter the College Football Playoffs and compete for a national title. Below, I'll break down the games that I believe will have the most impact on the playoff rankings, and predict my top 4 teams after Championship weekend.
SEC Title Game: #6 Georgia Bulldogs vs. #2 Auburn Tigers
Time for a good old fashioned SEC rivalry rematch, courtesy of the Deep South's Oldest Rivalry. The Georiga Bulldogs are coming into this game looking both for vengeance and to spoil their rival's playoff chances after losing to the Auburn Tigers earlier this season. UGA lost their #1 ranking to Auburn in a game that can really only be described as an ass kicking. Auburn won the turnover battle, bottled up UGA's potent ground game, and confused the Bulldogs' young quarterback in a game that needed some help from the passing game in order to compete, resulting in a resounding victory.
Come Saturday, the two teams will play in a neutral site game in Atlanta, GA for the SEC title and a guaranteed seat in the Playoffs. UGA Head Coach Kirby Smart was brought in to help build this team based on his coaching pedigree (longtime defensive coordinator and mastermind under Nick Saban at Alabama), while Auburn's Gus Malzhan has long been regarded as an offensive genius, building the offense that propelled Cam Newton to a Heisman and National title in 2010, and then competing for another a few seasons later in 2014. This game should come down to these coaches returning to their coordinator roots and trying to outthink the other.
UGA has built a Saban-esque engine that is trying to learn how to dominate opponents and maintain a certain level of physicality all game. The offense, guided by a tandem of young quarterbacks, relies on their stable of running backs to grind out tough yards, get first downs constantly, and generally carry the offense. On the other side, their defense, constructed by Smart to mirror Saban's own juggernaut, man-handling opponents all season long and generally owning the line of scrimmage. Smart had long been revered as Saban's heir apparent, and it's obvious why. Now, he just has to exorcise a certain demon that likes to wear visors and dad khakis.
Auburn under Malzhan has developed a knack for weird wins in really big games. There was the tipped Hail Mary against UGA, and then there was the 109 yard kick return for the Iron Bowl win over Alabama (Praise the Kick Six!!!), and then there's this entire season: a transfer quarterback from Baylor named Jarrett Stidham, who sat out basically all of last season, has earned the starting job and has been a revolution for the Tigers, stringing together win after win in the hellhole that is the SEC, beating UGA once and defeating heavyweight favorite Alabama in the annual rivalry game. Of course, he's had help from an always impressive rushing attack and a surprisingly resurgent defense, but Stidham has been the story of the season. Malzhan has been iffy when it comes to finding and recruiting a quarterback of his own, but a transfer like Cam Newton or Stidham usually bears fruit for his Tigers.
This game will come down to UGA's ability to keep the ball out of Stidham's hands by controlling the tempo with turnovers on defense and a conservative rushing attack by the offense. Kirby Smart will need to mix up defensive looks and confuse Auburn, otherwise it'll be another long day for a defense that loses its teeth when they get tired. My prediction: Auburn 24, UGA 17.
ACC Title Game: #7 Miami Hurricanes vs. #1 Clemson Tigers
Interestingly enough, these two teams actually don't have a lot of history playing against one another. Unfortunately the last time they played, Clemson won 56-0. The defending national champs Clemson Tigers are going to play the #7 ranked Miami Hurricanes for a seat in the playoffs, and this game will feature two aggressive, angry defenses led by some of the best defensive coordinators in the country. They force turnovers, they hit hard, and pretty much everyone is going home with a black eye. Basically, good championship-level football.
Miami's head coach Mark Richt, current recipient of the ACC coach of the year award, has brought the swagger back to The U. A team desperate for identity since 2002, this year's team has been defined by the "turnover chain", a celebratory chain given to the player who forces a turnover for the U. It's gaudy, it's heavy, it's huge, but it's very Miami. It's something the teams of the 80s and 90s regularly wore every day, and that was the goal defensive coordinator Manny Diaz set for himself and his players: regain the swag and the energy of those great teams. The talent has been there; Miami has regularly churned out NFL talent for decades, but the performance on the field hasn't matched up with the draft pedigree. Diaz and the defense are the backbone of this young team, and they'll be leaned on big-time Saturday just as they have been all season.
It's weird to think that Clemson is the defending national champions. No one has really mentioned it in the last 3 months or so. They've been regarded almost as a fringe playoff team despite literally just winning the national title game against Alabama. Maybe that's a testament to the talent recruited by head coach Dabo Swinney and his staff. Clemson lost star quarterback Deshaun Watson, star receiver Mike Williams, starting running back Wayne Gallman, several defensive stars at several positions, all to the NFL by the way, and they still were ranked in the top 5 all season long. That's impressive, especially given the relative inexperience of the players forced to step up and become starters this season. Clemson has faced a regular roster turnover over the last 5 seasons, yet they are consistently in the conversation for title contention. The defense, coached by future head coach Brent Venables, has suffered the most turnover on the team, but has probably been the most impressive part of Clemson's team. They find success not with talent, but through talent and defensive scheming.
In a game featuring two extremely talented defenses that can force turnovers and stifle offensive tempo, the wild card will which quarterback can survive the longest. Clemson's Kelly Bryant has the unfortunate job of following the legend that is Deshaun Watson, but he's been up to the task so far this season, albeit with an injury scare or three. Miami's Malik Rosier has been a phenom all season long, showing up in primetime in the big time moments and coming through for his team. If Rosier can cut down on the turnovers and deliver the ball to the playmakers in the running and passing game, Miami should be able to grind out a win against an opponent that plays in a very similar manner. My prediction: Miami 34, Clemson 30.
Big Ten Title Game: #8 Ohio St. Buckeyes vs. #4 Wisconsin Badgers
In a conference that has really beaten the crap out of one another all season long, there remains one undefeated team: the Wisconsin Badgers are riding a strong running game led by a freshman running back, helping them stay undefeated and ranked high in the playoff standings. Ohio St., on the other hand, has suffered a couple of pretty embarrassing losses this season at the hands of Oklahoma and Iowa. This game is rematch of similar seasons; the Badgers have yearned for respect and scratched and clawed their way to an undefeated season in a season full of upsets and last second losses. Ohio St. is hoping to play spoiler to Wisconsin's playoff aspirations, as well as possibly working their way back into the conversation.
Wisconsin is known for 3 things: growing uber-talented offensive linemen seemingly on trees, a fanbase that loves cheese almost as much as they love football, and a running back system that frequently churns out NFL-level talent. Monte Ball, Melvin Gordon, and now Johnathan Taylor. The true freshman has run for over 1800 yards in a pretty tough defensive driven division, and he's now a Heisman contender. I think it's fair to say he will be the offensive focal point of the game plan. This running game, complemented by defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard's chippy defense, has kept Wisconsin in game and gotten them out of some tough situations. They're a Big 10 team after all, so passing the ball is still foreign to them.
Ohio St. seems to just be getting by on Urban Meyer's name and his smarts as a coach at this point. The team has had a roller coaster of a season, losing to teams like a title contender in Oklahoma and a giant-killer in Iowa. Starting quarterback J.T. Barrett seems like he's been in college since 1978, and he's been a reliable starter since he came to the Big Ten. But the redshirt senior has a huge setback ahead of him: after a knee injury suffered in a sideline incident against Michigan last week, Barrett quickly had corrective surgery with the intention of playing this Saturday. To some, this is a sign of a tough football player, a gladiator who would do anything for his team. To me, it's foolish and a recipe for disaster. His knee will be targeted by a very aggressive defense and he won't be nearly as effective playing on one and a half legs. Urban Meyer is one of the best offensive game planners ever, but I don't know what he's planning with this one. The offense hinges on Barrett's ability to throw on the run and to be feared by the opposing defense as a threat in the option game. None of that can happen if he's hobbled by a lingering knee injury.
In a game dictated by physicality, a major injury to your starting quarterback is going to have a huge effect on the outcome of this one. Wisconsin has been able to enforce their will on teams all season, and Ohio St.'s offensive line will have their hands full trying to protect their quarterback and his half a knee. My prediction: Wisconsin 35, Ohio St. 14.
Big 12 Title Game: #11 TCU Horned Frogs vs. #3 Oklahoma Sooners
Another rematch game that will affect the playoff outcomes? Yes, please. In the game 3 weeks ago, TCU was unable to keep up with, or even slow down, Baker Mayfield and the run-n-gun Oklahoma offense. Mayfield is a Heisman front-runner with gaudy passing stats and an amazing supporting cast, and with the way this team is rolling, I'm not sure anyone can slow the Sooners down. The Horned Frogs think they're up to the task, though, and have a few tricks up their sleeves for their next opponents.
TCU head coach Gary Patterson, known for his innovation of the 4-2-5 defense and his team's defensive superiority in a conference that is almost completely devoid of defensive talent, has had his hands full with wide open passing attacks like Oklahoma's. His defense is built to provide the front seven enough time to pressure quarterbacks by showing pre-snap alignments in one formation, and the secondary dropping into something completely different and creating confusion. The defensive line is very capable of getting into the backfield and causing chaos, but with one of their starting safeties currently suspended for the first half of the game, TCU will need to depend on a rotation of pass rushers to get pressure on the elusive Mayfield and slow down this deadly passing game. Quarterback Kenny Hill and the TCU offense make very few mistakes in a very methodical approach that's kept them in the top 10 rankings for the majority of the season. A vengeance win over Oklahoma would make this season all the better. If Hill can stay clean and prevent himself from making one too many mistakes, it could be the x-factor in a wild game.
Since Baker Mayfield arrived on campus after transferring from Texas Tech, Oklahoma's offense has never been the same. His ability to make plays downfield and his elusiveness in the pocket has made him quite possibly the most dangerous offensive threat this season. Mayfield plays with an edge that Oklahoma hasn't seen since Brian Bozworth left for the NFL. He gets insulted, gets disrespected, and he deals it right back out. His offensive line is full of NFL talent, his receivers are all capable of getting open against the best defensive backs, and he knows how to score and score quickly. Unfortunately, he doesn't play defense, and that can hurt him in this game. Like I mentioned, the Big 12 doesn't like defense. The team is capable of the occasional turnover or forcing a punt or two, but leaning on them to keep you in the game is asking for trouble.
Oklahoma is made to win shootouts, not compete with defensive juggernauts, so they'll need to score early and often to win this game. TCU is made to beat you with a superior defensive effort and a mistake-free offensive attack. If Mayfield can keep himself upright and throw the ball downfield like he wants, Oklahoma should walk into the playoffs. My prediction: Oklahoma 42, TCU 24.
What's all this mean?
Based on my predictions, we'll be looking at a postseason that features the SEC Champ Auburn, ACC Champ Miami, Big Ten Champ Wisconsin, and Big 12 Champ Oklahoma. If I had to rank them, I'd say:
Since the playoffs are tournament style, #1 Auburn would play #4 Miami, and #2 Oklahoma would play #3 Wisconsin. We'll wait until next week to break down the actual playoff rankings and games.
These are my picks for championship weekend, am I completely wrong, or do you agree? Continue the conversation on Twitter!
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