"Action" Jackson here again, and since we reviewed some mock Super Bowl match-ups, I thought this week we would review the College Football Playoffs (Dec. 31st) and National Championship Game (Tampa Bay, 2017). As always, these predictions are my own opinion and not to be used for any official gambling/betting purposes. I am picking 4 teams to make the 2016-2017 College Football Playoffs based on my previous college football Power Rankings and will break down coaching ability, rosters, and the factors that account to each team's playoff push and pursuit of the 3rd annual College Football Playoff National Championship Trophy. For those that do not know, the participants in the Playoff system are determined by a small committee of judges that rank the top 25 teams in the nation; the top four of those 25 teams play in semifinal games on New Years' Eve, and the winners of those games play one another for the National Championship on Jan. 9th, 2017.
No. 1 Seed: Alabama Crimson Tide
It feels good to be king, and in the land of College Football, Nick Saban reigns supreme. It would be easy to claim that Alabama is the New England Patriots of CFB based on their consistent success, except Bill Belichick would only growl at you when pressed in an interview, not curse your existence for ever publicly questioning him. Saban is an excellent coach and recruiter, and it's easy to bring in 4- and 5-Star caliber players when you win as often as his program has. Four national championships in the last eight seasons is nothing to scoff at, and The Crimson Tide are the favorites to repeat and secure another one. This season, there is again no clear starter at the all important quarterback position, but Saban has a back-up plan: a 6 ft 2 in, 230 lbs giant of a running back that makes his last starting running back look small. Bo Scarbrough will be taking the starting snaps at tailback for the Tide, giving the Tide a new weapon on offense. On the other side of the ball is a 3-4 base defense that could make the rest of the SEC (Southeastern Conference) very, very nervous; with multiple NFL caliber starters at key positions, the Crimson Tide stand a very good chance of surviving the meat grinder that is the SEC and making it to their 3rd consecutive College Football Playoff.
Alabama's head coach knows how to coach a defense. Nick Saban and Bill Belichick worked together for three years (1991-1994) when Belichick coached the Cleveland Browns and Saban served as his defensive coordinator. Like Belichick, Saban possesses a defensive coordinator's mentality in his head coaching role. They play excellent defense throughout the season and they put their players into a defensive system that the coach has complete control over, rather than depending on certain players to make insane plays. Most importantly, they understand that while offense is pretty and sells tickets in the regular season, running the football, controlling the clock, and playing strong defense wins championships in December and January. I feel that this type of controlling, conservative gameplay will be Saban's go-to this season. With a defense that could basically start in the NFL and the basis of a very strong running game, Alabama will win games this year not by blowing people out with deep threats like Julio Jones or Amari Cooper (like seasons past), but by controlling the clock and winning with smart, tactical play-calling and allowing the defense to seal the deal. This may upset offensive coordinator Lane Kiffen, but since I hate Lane Kiffen and all that he represents, I don't care what he thinks.
Their schedule involves the SEC, so of course, it will be tough; they open the year with a neutral site match against the USC Trojans in Arlington, TX at the Dallas Cowboys Stadium (JerryWorld). If Alabama can win that game, find a way to defeat their newfound rival Mississippi (they have beaten Alabama the last two years, and they play on the road in Oxford this season), and somehow manage to shut down LSU running back and Heisman Candidate Leonard Fournette like they did last season, their trip to the College Football Playoffs will be assured. The rest of the SEC will beat each other up enough that the Crimson Tide can secure another conference championship and be seeded as a top four team in the playoff bracket.
No. 2 Seed: Clemson Tigers
The class of the ACC ( Atlantic Coast Conference) currently, head coach Dabo Swinney's Clemson Tigers looked downright unbeatable last season thanks to Quarterback and Heisman hopeful Deshaun Watson and a clutch defense. Swinney's energetic approach and reputation as a player's coach was something his Tigers feed off and carry onto the field. They genuinely want to win for him, and it definitely helps with recruiting more talent to play in Clemson, South Carolina. The past 3 recruiting classes have been excellent for Clemson, bringing an influx of talent that has allowed them to not only compete with ACC rival Florida State, but also steal talent from in-state rival University of South Carolina. That SEC caliber talent has brought Clemson into the national spotlight, and instead of "Clemsoning" like everyone thought (getting into a good position and completely floundering under pressure), they clawed their way to a perfect 14-0 season, a National Championship berth, and an unfortunate loss in a thrilling match-up with perennial powerhouse Alabama. Clemson will look to prove that they can consistently compete on a national level and become a powerhouse as well.
One factor that made the Tigers so dangerous last season was their incredible home field advantage. It is called "Death Valley" for a reason, and the Tigers feed of the electric energy their fans and field generate. Dabo Swinney knows how to get his players on board with his program, and the staff he has gathered together over the years know how to get the job done. Question: what is the biggest problem analysts are saying Clemson will have this year? Answer: the loss of multiple defensive starters to graduation and the NFL Draft. Guess what? That was their problem last season. They still finished in the top 10 in total defense (yardage allowed) and only allowed an average of 21.7 points a game. Defensive Coordinator Brent Venables knows how to get the most out of his players; expect another top 20 defensive effort from his overachieving 4-3 base defense. And on the offensive side of the ball? Two words: Deshaun. Watson. The dual threat junior is a future top 5 NFL draft pick, and has the majority of his offensive weapons from last season returning to help him secure a championship. Clemson's most talented receiver Mike Williams was injured last season, and Watson still had an incredible year; with Williams healthy, and workhorse running back Wayne Gallman II returning, Clemson's offense has a set of Triplets that can carry them through the season into the playoffs.
The ACC is top-heavy; Clemson's main obstacle will be division rivals Florida State. This game is basically an NFL scout's dream, as both teams feature talents that will be playing on Sundays within the next year. If Clemson can make it past the Seminoles and their run-heavy offense, the ACC will be theirs to lose. The rest of their schedule is very winnable, with the only remaining wild-card being a rivalry game against South Carolina. Rivalry games make teams extra unpredictable, but Clemson has owned this match-up for a few years now, allowing them to cruise to the playoffs with another undefeated season and a top 2 seeding.
No. 3 Seed: Michigan Wolverines
Life is good if you're Jim Harbaugh. You coached at Stanford and had an excellent program there, you coached a successful NFL team for a few years, you made Pete Carroll redder than normal a few times a year, and now you're back at your alma mater, guiding them to a 10 win season and a top 5 recruiting class in your first season. Jim Harbaugh is making his Wolverines the college version of the 2012-2013 49ers: defense-oriented, strong run game, great athletes on both sides of the ball, and mediocre quarterback play until he finds his golden child to develop. This is good and bad, since Harbaugh is a former Quarterback and knows exactly what he wants in a field general. His emotional, "ra ra ra" personality did not sell well to the paid professionals of the NFL, but his players in Ann Arbor love it and rally behind it. Jim Harbaugh was made to be a football coach, and he's a damn good one.
Offense for the Wolverines last year was: 1) let Jake Ruddock try and show he can play Quarterback, 2) throw to Jake Butt a few times, 3) run the ball, and 4) throw in some Wildcat plays with Jabrill Peppers. All of that worked for a while, but was not enough against the more talented defenses of Ohio State and Michigan State. In order to combat this, Michigan will need to completely commit to Jim Harbaugh's offensive philosophy that worked so well with his Stanford teams and his early days with the 49ers. Going back to running the football down your opponent's throat, letting the other team tire themselves out trying to stop it, and then working the play-action pass to your NFL caliber tight end and talented receivers on the outside will make the offense a lot more dangerous than simply going three and out all the time and tiring out your most versatile defensive asset. Speaking of Mr. Peppers and his ability, this will be the Wolverines' strength in 2016-2017. This young man can play ball, no matter where he lines up, offense or defense. Peppers has been seen lining up in an outside linebacker role in spring practices, but sources say he will see time at safety, corner, and linebacker throughout the season. In my opinion, using him in the "Star" position (safety/linebacker hybrid) will allow the rest of the defense to make plays around the versatile athlete, and allow him to showcase his talents before the NFL inevitably calls his name. Cornerback Jourdan Lewis is another future NFL talent, and his return to the Michigan secondary will allow them to give the offense good field position and as much time of possession they will need to secure wins for Michigan. Defense wins championships, and defense is what Jim Harbaugh does best. First year defensive coordinator Don Brown previously coached at Boston College, who had the No. 1 defense in college football last season. He'll bring that knowledge to a very talented group, helping them get to the next level.
The Big Ten is a lopsided conference, with all the powers in one division: the Big Ten East, where Michigan has to play both Michigan State and Ohio State in order to win the divisional and conference title. Luckily for the Wolverines, this is down year for both the Spartans and the Buckeyes. Michigan State lost a number of starters to graduation and the NFL Draft this past offseason, including long-time starting Quarterback Connor Cook, and Ohio State has to start a lot of inexperienced underclassmen on both sides of the ball after losing the majority of their stars to the NFL Draft. Both games against those teams will be on the road this season, in East Lansing and Coumbus, but given the previously mentioned factors, and Harbaugh's "us against the world" mentality driving his team to prove everyone wrong, look for Michigan to take the division title, allowing them to win the conference with ease and secure a top 4 seeding, making the playoffs.
No. 4 Seed: Houston Cougars
Who? What? Houston? Really? Yes. Really. The "Group-of-Five" team from the AAC (All-American Conference) that no one expected to be any kind of successful last season put their foot in Florida State's you-know-what on national television in the Peach Bowl, showing the world that they are legit and they can compete with just about anybody. In his first season as Head Coach, Todd Herman unleashed starting Quarterback Greg Ward, Jr. onto the College Football world, and he delivered in a big way. Not the biggest quarterback, Ward, Jr. showed that he is the best possible player to lead the team to continued success and build off their 13 win season. I think I still hear some doubters in the very back there. Think about this: Ward, Jr. was one of two quarterbacks to pass for over 2000 yards and rush for over 1000 yards. The other? Deshaun Watson. This young man is legit, and his team is legit. Todd Herman was previously the offensive coordinator at Ohio State, and he has brought some of the magic that made Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett a wonder to watch two years ago.
Offensively, it's Ward, Jr.'s show, and he has plenty of weapons to utilize, 4 of whom are returning from last season. Projected starting running back Duke Catalon is finally eligible to play after transferring from the University of Texas, giving them a viable threat on the ground to help Ward, Jr.'s passing attack. What makes the Cougars the most impressive, however, is their potent defense. Houston was the No. 8 rushing defense last season, and that should only improve with their excellent recruiting efforts and player retention in the front seven. The majority of their run defenders will be long term starters or upperclassmen. However, on the back end, there will need to be an improvement, as they were vulnerable to the wide-open passing attacks of the modern era offenses in the AAC. There's plenty of experience in the secondary, so this should improve as the season wears on.
In order to cement their status as a Playoff contender, Houston will need to win their neutral site season opener against the Oklahoma Sooners, another possible Playoff contender. However, two things work in the Cougars favor in this match-up: 1) Oklahoma will need to run the ball in order to have a sustainable offense, which Houston can stop with their superior front seven, and 2) Oklahoma has no idea how to stop dual threat quarterbacks, as evidenced by Deshaun Watson's dissection of their defense in the CFB Playoff semifinal last season. If Houston proves themselves against Oklahoma, people will begin to read into the hype surrounding this dark horse contender, beginning a season that everyone should pay attention to.
Before the National Championship Game, there will be two semifinal games played: the No. 1 seed plays the No. 4 seed, and the No. 2 seed plays the No. 3 seed. As referenced in the graphic above, these games are in a neutral site, located in a particular Bowl Game that rotates annually. Based on my predictions, that means Alabama will play Houston, and Clemson will play Michigan. I feel that Alabama will be able to beat the Cougars; they've had practice with dual threat quarterbacks, and are more experienced on such a large stage. On the other side, I think Clemson's defense against Michigan's offense would decide the match-up, and the Clemson defense is more battle-tested and capable of beating the conservative, run-heavy West Coast passing scheme Harbaugh has been known to utilize at Stanford and with the 49ers in his early days. That means the 2017 National Championship would be a rematch between Alabama and Clemson, with the high-powered Tigers' offense matching up against the hard-hitting Crimson Tide defense. Given what happened in the previous match-up of these two in last year's game, I believe Clemson will win the trophy before Deshaun Watson heads to the NFL to become the next great starting quarterback. Clemson will win 24-17; their fully healthy offense will be too fast and spread out for the hard hitting 3-4 Alabama defense to keep up with, even in sub packages, and Deshaun Watson will showcase the maturity and ability worthy of this high praise from Nick Saban.
These are my College Football Playoffs and National Championship Predictions! Do you agree or disagree? Please comment and connect with me on Twitter @mrjackson__ to continue the discussion.
Next week: Heisman Hopefuls! Who will win the coveted trophy?
Side note: Ex-NFL Coach Dennis Green passed away on Friday, July 22nd from cardiac arrest. This is a tragedy; heart issues are usually treatable and preventable in most cases, and it is always a shame to see someone pass away when there is more they can contribute. Green will be remembered for his high-powered offenses during his time as Head Coach of the Arizona Cardinals and Minnesota Vikings, as well as his ability to identify wide receiver talent in the NFL Draft, where he orchestrated the drafting of both Randy Moss and Larry Fitzgerald, two future Hall of Famers. Dennis Green also provided us with one of the best post-game speeches ever after his Cardinals lost to the Chicago Bears in 2006. He was 67 years old. RIP.
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