Bleacher Report Expert Predictions for College Football Bowl Season

Bleacher Report College Football StaffFeatured ColumnistDecember 14, 2017

Bleacher Report Expert Predictions for College Football Bowl Season

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    Nick Chubb
    Nick ChubbJohn Bazemore/Associated Press

    It's time to stop arguing about whether the College Football Playoff selection committee got it right and start trying to figure out who will win these incredible games.

    Considering each of the four semifinalists is being predicted to win the national championship by at least one of Bleacher Report's college football experts—Matt Hayes, David Kenyon, Adam Kramer, Kerry Miller, Brad Shepard and Greg Wallace—we should be headed for three entertaining games to determine a champ.

    Though the playoff gets the vast majority of the national attention, there are 37 other bowl games over the next few weeks. And we've got some burning questions about all of the action:

    • Which conference ends up "winning" bowl season, and which one "loses" it?
    • Which player has the best individual performance?
    • What's the most entertaining game aside from the New Year's Six?
    • Can UCF upset Auburn?
    • And, of course, who wins the Sugar Bowl and the Rose Bowl?

    Our experts are on the case.

Which Conference Has the Best Overall Showing in Bowl Season?

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Matt Hayes (@MattHayesCFB)

    The Big 12. While Oklahoma may not win the national title (or even the semifinal against Georgia), the matchups throughout the remainder of the conference are favorable. We'll get a good indicator of where things are headed starting Dec. 23 with Texas Tech (vs. South Florida), West Virginia (vs. Utah) and Texas (vs. Missouri). 

                         

    David Kenyon (@Kenyon19_BR)

    I'll take the American Athletic Conference. Memphis, Navy, UCF and South Florida all play power-conference opponents, but I'm picking all of them except UCF against Auburn. Houston, SMU and Temple are all favored in their respective games too. If this happens, get ready for some serious "Power Six" branding this offseason. 

                      

    Adam Kramer (@KegsnEggs)

    Let's make a deal. This year, regardless of how good or bad a conference is in a remarkably small sample size—at a time when star players are sitting and interim coaches are coaching—let's not go hog nutty calling conferences frauds or putting others on thrones. Oh, I hate that.

    That said—and it needed to be said—I really feel like the SEC is in a wonderful position to win big, meaningful games in bright spots—starting with two playoff games and working down from there. Alabama and Georgia are both capable. Auburn and LSU could win in marquee spots. Even Missouri seems likely to upset Texas. They just have a lot of live spots, and while the conference won't win every game (duh), I could see this being another really great year.

                                         

    Kerry Miller (@kerrancejames)

    The SEC already kind of won bowl season by getting two teams into the College Football Playoff. But in terms of wins and losses for the next month, I've got a good feeling about the ACC. Excluding pseudo-member Notre Dame, the league is sending 10 teams to bowl gamespossibly 11 games if Clemson reaches the national championship. I see the ACC winning at least seven of those games, as Virginia Tech's battle with Oklahoma State is the only one that seems almost certain to go against the conference.

                                                

    Brad Shepard (@Brad_Shepard)

    I'm going with the SEC, which will roll up with a 6-1 record in non-playoff bowl games and wind up with at least one team advancing to the national championship. The only squad I see right now that's a definite loss is Mississippi State against Louisville, and that's only because quarterback Nick Fitzgerald won't play. Of course, South Carolina could lose to Michigan, and Notre Dame could beat LSU. But those are toss-ups. Considering I think Alabama will play in the championship game after getting healthier this month, all that adds up to a strong showing by the conference. Auburn will hand Central Florida its first loss of the season, too. 

                   

    Greg Wallace (@gc_wallace)

    The SEC had a 2017 season defined by polar opposites. The league became the first FBS conference to place two teams in the College Football Playoff and had nine bowl qualifiers, but it also saw six teams change head coaches, with five firings and Dan Mullen's jump from Mississippi State to Florida. How does that translate into the postseason, especially with two teams being run by interim head coaches?

    I think pretty well. The SEC should win at least one of its two CFP semifinals, and it has favorable matchups against Notre Dame, Michigan and Wake Forest. The conference will go at least 6-3 and prove it is the deepest league in college football beyond the likes of Alabama, Auburn and Georgia.

Which Conference Has the Worst Overall Showing in Bowl Season?

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    Jonathan Taylor
    Jonathan TaylorMorry Gash/Associated Press

    Matt Hayes

    The Big Ten. Shunned by the College Football Playoff, the league has underperformed this season and will rely on heavyweights Ohio State (vs. USC), Wisconsin (Miami, Fla.), Michigan (South Carolina) and Penn State (Washington) in four critical games. They're all toss-ups and could go horribly wrong.

                             

    David Kenyon

    I'll stay in the "Group of Five" here. I'm anticipating a rough showing from Conference USA. Although head coach Lane Kiffin should help Florida Atlantic wallop Akron, there are otherwise a bunch of toss-ups. (Southern Miss is the outlier since Florida State awaits.) C-USA needs Marshall (vs. Colorado State), Louisiana Tech (vs. SMU) and UAB (vs. Ohio) in particular to come through. 

                      

    Adam Kramer

    I live outside Chicago and have a Big Ten heart. I hate the narrative that the conference can't win this time of year. That being said, the B1G is without a playoff team, and it has a handful of really interesting matchups. I do believe that Ohio State and Northwestern (vs. Kentucky) are likely to win. Outside of that, however, many of these feel like coin-flip games. I also feel like being outside the playoff limits a conference's exposure and general success level. A win by Penn State and Michigan State (vs. Washington State) and a few others changes the picture, although it won't come easily. 

                        

    Kerry Miller

    Though most of my colleagues are picking the SEC for best conference, I think it's going to be a long few weeks for the SEC. The only SEC team I feel confident about winning its game is Auburn against UCF. South Carolina (vs. Michigan), Mississippi State (vs. Louisville) and Kentucky (vs. Northwestern) are all underdogs by roughly a touchdown. Texas A&M vs. Wake Forest is a coin flip. According to Odds Shark, Missouri is favored by a field goal against Texas, but I have no idea why. Same goes for LSU against Notre Dame.

    Add it all up and it's not far-fetched to think the SEC could go winless outside of the New Year's Six gameswhich would go a long way toward reinforcing the season-long notion that this was a down year for the league, aside from its top three teams.

    Additionally, it's probably going to be a rough postseason for Conference USA. It already had a six-win team denied a spot in a bowl game (UTSA), and it may well go 1-8 with Florida Atlantic beating up on Akron for the only win.

                                

    Brad Shepard

    It doesn't feel like the Big Ten got many favorable bowl matchups, at least at first glance. This was conference championship weekend's big loser, with Ohio State knocking Wisconsin out of the playoffs and then failing to get in over Alabama. The conference will also fail to come out on top in bowl season. While I think Ohio State will beat USC and Wisconsin will handle the Miami Hurricanes, nothing else stands out. Purdue, Michigan, Iowa, Northwestern and Michigan State all drew difficult matchups, and this is where the speed discrepancy with other leagues will come into play.

                                  

    Greg Wallace

    While there was plenty of debate about whether Ohio State or Alabama should have grabbed the final spot in the College Football Playoff, there was little doubt that the Pac-12 would be left out. USC quickly faded from serious playoff consideration and finished eighth in the final CFP Top 25. That says a lot about the league's overall strength.

    The Pac-12 qualified nine bowl teams, but many have challenging matchups. 

    Oregon—fresh off losing Willie Taggart to Florida State—faces a potent Boise State team in Las Vegas. Utah drew West Virginia in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. An interim-led UCLA team gets Kansas State in the Cactus Bowl. Michigan State will be no picnic for Washington State in the Holiday Bowl, and the same goes for Arizona State vs. NC State in the Sun Bowl. Even the Trojans will face a motivated Ohio State team in the Cotton Bowl.

    This could get ugly for the Pac-12—as bad as 2-7.

Which Player Posts the Most Ridiculous Stat Line?

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    Quinton Flowers
    Quinton FlowersJohn Raoux/Associated Press

    Matt Hayes

    Lamar Jackson, Louisville: He's playing his (presumably) last game for the Cardinals against a Mississippi State team whose staff has been gutted and won't have its best player (QB Nick Fitzgerald). An interim defensive coordinator and a new quarterback in Keytaon Thompson mean more opportunities for Jackson and the Louisville offense. This should be a routand the easiest pick of the bowl season.

                         

    David Kenyon

    With a nod to USF quarterback Quinton Flowers, give me FAU running back Devin Singletary. He's already obliterated school records with 1,796 yards and 29 touchdowns on the ground, and Akron's defensive splits in losses are just abysmal. I wouldn't be surprised to see 250 yards and four scores from Singletary, who was six yards from hitting those yards in a game earlier this season. 

                          

    Adam Kramer

    Flowers is coming off a 500-yard passing, 100-yard rushing performance against the UCF Knights, so give me him against Texas Tech in the Birmingham Bowl on Dec. 23. Yes, you should watch this contest and all bowl games, but this particular matchup is fascinating.

    While I think Texas Tech will likely win this game, Flowers has had a brilliant football career and has managed to stay underrated throughout. This game will demand points, and I believe he will deliver them. I say he will finish with 378 yards passing, 95 yards rushing and four touchdowns. Not terrible.

                                               

    Kerry Miller

    This wasn't quite the senior season we had in mind for South Florida's Flowers when we spent all summer hyping him as a potential dark horse for the Heisman Trophy. He had some serious duds against the likes of Temple and Cincinnati.

    But he finished strong with 503 passing yards, 102 rushing yards and five total touchdowns in the season finale against UCF. Going back to 2000, it was just the second 500/100 game in the Sports Reference database. And he gets to face a Texas Tech team that allowed more passing plays of 10-plus yards than any other bowl team.

    Alternatively, you can't go wrong when picking a receiver facing Kansas State's secondary. Whether it's Josh Rosen or Devon Modster at quarterback, expect a monster performance from UCLA's Jordan Lasley.

                                   

    Brad Shepard

    I'll go with Devin "Motor" Singletary. The Florida Atlantic running back is one of the best players in college football you've never heard of. And he will show out in front of the home folks in the Boca Raton Bowl as Lane Kiffin's Owls dance all over Akron.

    The Zips won't have an answer for one of the hottest teams in the country, and they're going to get blown out in a statement game for Kiffin on the way to perhaps being next year's Central Florida. The Zips have the nation's 100th-ranked rush defense, and Singletary will announce his name to the world in the final game of his sophomore season. 

                                             

    Greg Wallace

    Lamar Jackson quietly had an excellent junior season. Coming off his Heisman Trophy sophomore year, Louisville's standout quarterback was just as fun to watch, throwing for 3,489 yards with 25 touchdowns against six interceptions and rushing for 1,443 yards and 17 scores. With a good effort against Mississippi State in the TaxSlayer Bowl on Dec. 30, he's on pace to surpass both yardage figures from 2016.

    The Bulldogs have a solid defense, allowing 20.4 points per game. But Jackson should be motivated by his poor effort against LSU in last year's Citrus Bowl as well as the fact that this is likely his last collegiate game. Expect him to put up 425 yards of total offense with five touchdowns as Louisville bests the Bulldogs.

What Will Be the Most Entertaining Non-Playoff Game?

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    James Washington
    James WashingtonBrody Schmidt/Associated Press

    Matt Hayes

    Washington vs. Penn State. These are two teams with CFP hopes in 2017 that lost critical games they should have won. There's star power all over the field: at quarterback (Trace McSorley and Jake Browning), tailback (Saquon Barkley and Myles Gaskin) and wideout (DaeSean Hamilton and Dante Pettis). 

                      

    David Kenyon

    If you enjoy scoring and/or creativity, I'd check out the Birmingham Bowl (USF vs. Texas Tech), Foster Farms Bowl (Arizona vs. Purdue) and Liberty Bowl (Iowa State vs. Memphis). Of those three, I'm most interested in the Birmingham Bowl. In all likelihood, Quinton Flowers is going to set school records for career touchdown passes and rushing yards, and I'd like to watch him close out a great career. 

                            

    Adam Kramer

    I am deeply interested in the Camping World Bowl and not just because it has an amazing name. I love that we get to watch Virginia Tech and Oklahoma State match up, assuming stars from these teams play.

    Both teams were brilliant at times this year. Both play with far different styles. Both are brilliantly coached. Both will likely score. Even after all these weeks, this feels like a thermometer. I believe we will get many, many points, and the outcome will be awfully close. (Pokes by six, I'll say.)

                              

    Kerry Miller

    (Checks schedule to see when Khalil Tate is playing.) Hey, that Foster Farms Bowl between Arizona and Purdue should be a fun one! And for one of the few times this season, you don't need a subscription to the Pac-12 Network to watch Tate run all over the field.

    Purdue's defense put up great numbers in Big Ten play, but was that sudden improvement on D or just a product of two-plus months of facing terrible offenses? Considering the Boilermakers didn't draw Ohio State or Penn State in conference play, I'm inclined to believe the latter, and I expect this to be a high-scoring, wildly entertaining affair.

                            

    Brad Shepard

    It depends on your definition of "entertaining." If you're looking forward to high-octane offenses, this one won't be it, but the game I'm excited to see is TCU and Stanford in the Valero Alamo Bowl on Dec. 28.

    Both of these teams play a hard-nosed brand of football that I like to watch, and you've got the intriguing matchup of Heisman Trophy runner-up Bryce Love against the Horned Frogs' fourth-ranked rushing defense. You know David Shaw will have his Cardinal ready to play, and Gary Patterson will be ready for the chess match. Two of the nation's best coaches are going head-to-head. 

                   

    Greg Wallace

    There are some interesting games out there beyond the New Year’s Six, and one of the best will be in Orlandoan even matchup between No. 19 Oklahoma State and No. 22 Virginia Tech. The Cowboys didn’t quite live up to expectations this year, but they still average 46.3 points per game (ranked third) and nearly 400 passing yards per game (ranked first) with QB/WR combo Mason Rudolph and James Washington.

    Virginia Tech had a solid 9-3 season in head coach Justin Fuente's second year in Blacksburg and has a stingy defense, allowing 13.5 points per game (ranked fifth). Expect this to be a close, competitive game with plenty of points on each side in a late-afternoon treat on Dec. 28.

Does UCF Prove It Belongs with a Win over Auburn?

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    McKenzie Milton
    McKenzie MiltonJohn Raoux/Associated Press

    Matt Hayes

    No it won't. UCF will play a top-level defense for the first time this season, and it will run into a rested and healthy Auburn team that was a game away from playing in the CFP. These two teams aren't remotely at the same level, and UCF staffs double dutyworking for UCF and recruiting for Nebraskawill be too much to overcome.

                    

    David Kenyon

    Perhaps my fellow prognosticators will disagree, but I think UCF could prove it belongs even in a loss. The college football community generally agreed that Auburn played the best of any program in November, right? There's no reason a close loss to that team should be considered a failure for the Knights. 

                                

    Adam Kramer

    No, it won't. And look, I don't think this will be a blowout by any means. UCF should have received more love from the College Football Playoff selection committee—this, to me, is undeniable. But Auburn is going to have an enormous advantage on the line of scrimmage, and I feel like that will be the major issue here.

    If UCF applies some offensive pressure early, perhaps that will change. Quick screens and quick releases are where I would go with the game plan here, Scott Frost. I just don't feel like that will be enough, and that's not a knock on UCF. Auburn is one of the best six teams in college football and will likely showcase that. However, the Knights will be tough for a while.

                       

    Kerry Miller

    I don't often openly root for or against teams, but I would love nothing more than to see UCF win this game. Not because of some kind of hatred for Auburn or the SEC, but because I want future Group of Five powerhouses to actually have a snowball's chance in hell of competing for the playoff. And a win over Auburn—the CFP committee's No. 2 team near the end of the regular season—would be a huge step in that direction.

    Unfortunately, I don't see it happening. Auburn is so much better than any defense the Knights have faced to this point in the season, and the Tigers have more than enough offensive firepower to score on virtually every possession against UCF. Not only will Auburn win the game, but it will be one of the three biggest blowouts of the bowl season.

                            

    Brad Shepard

    UCF belongs, but it won't beat Auburn if the Tigers come ready to play. AU can play disinterested at times, as it's proved during the Gus Malzahn era. But when the Tigers are on, they're one of the best teams in the country. It was a shocker that Georgia handled them so easily in the SEC Championship Game, winning the rematch and surging into the playoff. That'll make AU mad.

    With Malzahn staying in place on the Plains and Kerryon Johnson healthy after some time off, the Knights won't have an answer for Auburn's offense. Plus, this will be the best defense UCF has seen all year. Auburn will win by a couple of scores. 

                         

    Greg Wallace

    The Group of Five's recent track record against the Power Five in high-level bowl games is not bad. Four years ago, George O'Leary's UCF team beat Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl before cratering to a winless record in 2015 that opened the door for Scott Frost.

    Two years ago, Tom Herman and Houston beat Florida State in the Peach Bowl. Now, an unbeaten UCF gets another chance to prove its worth. The Knights average an eye-popping 49.4 points per game, but they have yet to face a defense like Auburn's, which is tough, physical and allows 17.3 points per.

    The question is motivation: Is Auburn excited about playing a second consecutive game in Mercedes-Benz Stadium after watching its College Football Playoff hopes die there Dec. 2? Frost is expected to coach UCF with his staff. I think the Knights will send him off on a high note, and McKenzie Milton will open his 2018 Heisman Trophy campaign in impressive fashion with a 38-28 win.

Will the Big Ten Champ or the Pac-12 Champ Win the Cotton Bowl?

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    J.T. Barrett
    J.T. BarrettDarron Cummings/Associated Press

    Matt Hayes

    I'm picking the Pac-12 champ. All things being equal in big games, I take the best quarterback on the field. J.T. Barrett just hasn't played well consistently in big games. His high point of the season was an important comeback win over Penn State, but other than that, those games have been an issue. He can't go throw for throw, play for play, with Sam Darnold and the USC offense.

                     

    David Kenyon

    Ohio State is beatable when Barrett struggles as a passer. However, seven of USC's 13 opponents reached 250 yards through the air. Plus, excluding the head-shaking loss at Iowa—while I'm not overlooking it, that was clearly an outlier—the Buckeyes had a terrific defense over the final 11 games. I'll pick Ohio State in an enjoyable yet not particularly dramatic showdown.

                        

    Adam Kramer

    I'll take Ohio State, and I feel pretty good about this one. USC, the team I picked to win the College Football Playoff before the season began, just has never quite looked right—even while it was winning a bunch of football games. And while I love Ronald Jones II and still feel Darnold is a mighty fine quarterback most of the time, I just feel like Ohio State is better in so many places—starting with the defensive line.

    I could see this game being close and fun and somehow managing to live up to the hype. And while a superhuman effort from Darnold (see: last bowl season) could swing the result toward USC, I think Ohio State will carry its late-season momentum onward.

                                    

    Kerry Miller

    Between the Cotton Bowl and the Fiesta Bowl (Washington vs. Penn State), this is where we'll get a sense of how far the Pac-12 was behind the other power conferences this year. Ohio State may well score 50 points against this USC defense, and I can't see any scenario—aside from a few awful interceptions from Barrettin which the Trojans keep pace against the Buckeyes D.

    This feels like one more chance to watch Darnold's biggest strengths and weaknesses on display. He'll throw for close to 400 yards, but he'll also toss three interceptions in a game that isn't all that competitive.

                              

    Brad Shepard

    This is going to be another one of those "mad team flexes its muscle" games. Ohio State believes it should be in the playoff after winning the rugged Big Ten. Instead, a squad (Alabama) that didn't even win its division made it, and the Buckeyes will be out to prove they're the real deal once more on a big stage. USC had an uneven year, and the Trojans must deal with losing one of their play-callers (Tyson Helton) to Tennessee. The Buckeyes will send out the J.T. Barrett era in style with a big win. 

                                     

    Greg Wallace

    With the Rose Bowl hosting a playoff semifinal and the Big Ten and Pac-12 getting snubbed from the playoff, the Cotton Bowl gets to host what is essentially a Rose Bowl matchup in JerryWorld. Ohio State and its fans surely aren't happy about being left out of the playoff, and USC took a step forward in head coach Clay Helton's second full season with a Pac-12 title.

    The Buckeyes will be motivated to show that the playoff committee made a mistake. It's Barrett's final collegiate game, and the jury is out about whether this will be Darnold's last one. OSU has a more powerful offense and a stingier defense, and the Buckeyes will force Darnold into multiple turnovers and stake their claim for a top-4 final finish with a 27-17 victory.

No. 2 Oklahoma vs. No. 3 Georgia: Who Ya Got?

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    Baker Mayfield
    Baker MayfieldTony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Matt Hayes

    I love all things Baker Mayfield and the way he wills his team in big games. But there's a significant difference on the lines of scrimmage, and that's where Georgia will win the contest. The Bulldogs can run with power and throw off play action, and more importantly, they can rush the passer and cover on the outside to force quicker decisions by Mayfield. 

                             

    David Kenyon

    The big question for the Rose Bowl is whether Oklahoma's run defense will show up. Jake Fromm has been efficient at quarterback, but Georgia would rather lean on Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. If the Sooners can contain those future NFL backs, Fromm will be tasked with matching Mayfield's pace. I anticipate a heart-racing finish, and I really don't care who wins. Put me on the record for an Oklahoma victory, though. 

                                                      

    Adam Kramer

    Give me Georgia, and I'll admit that picking against Mayfield doesn't feel smart or wise or all that comforting. But the Georgia defense will present Oklahoma with its toughest test in some time, and I feel like that will at least slow down Mayfield some. I also feel like Georgia's running game, which was so strong near the end of the year, could likely dictate the pace of the bowl and keep Mayfield off the field—something the Bulldogs would absolutely love to do.

    While the quarterback edge obviously goes to the Sooners, Fromm has made some masterful throws this year. I think he'll be comfortable in the moment, and it wouldn't shock me at all to see him do his part to keep Georgia in the thick of this game. It should be fun and close, but give me the Dawgs.

                 

    Kerry Miller

    Nothing but respect for the numbers Mayfield put up this season, but he hasn't had to deal with anything close to the defense Georgia is bringing to this game. TCU had the best passing defense in the Big 12, and the Horned Frogs only ranked 75th nationally in passing yards allowed per game. Even the early contest against Ohio State needs an asterisk, given the trouble that young secondary had the previous week against Indiana.

    Georgia ranks No. 2 in passing yards allowed per game and held all 13 of its opponents to 253 yards or fewer through the air. I'm not saying the Bulldogs are going to completely shut down Mayfield. That's impossible. But they'll do enough on defense for their elite rushing game to take advantage of a lackluster Sooners defense. Give me the Dawgs in a 31-27 thriller.

                                                  

    Brad Shepard

    This is the most intriguing matchup of the entire season for me. I have no idea wins between these contrasting brands of football. With the Bulldogs, you have a run-oriented team that also plays a physical style of defensive football. The Sooners aren't known for stopping many people, but 2017 Heisman Trophy winner Mayfield puts the team on his shoulders and just outscores everybody. This game could go either way. But since I'm not sure, I have to go with Mayfieldthe veteran quarterbackover UGA and freshman starter Fromm. I think OU makes one more play.

                        

    Greg Wallace

    The Rose Bowl will have a non-traditional matchup with Oklahoma and Georgia, but it should be special regardless. The Sooners didn't miss a beat without Bob Stoops as head coach, putting up 44.9 points and 583.3 yards per game. Mayfield was at his best in his final season of college football, throwing for 4,340 yards with 41 touchdowns against five interceptions.

    Head coach Kirby Smart's Bulldogs also took a huge step forward in his second season: Fromm was efficient as a freshman, throwing for 2,173 yards with 21 touchdowns against five interceptions, and senior tailbacks Chubb and Michel combined for 2,123 yards and 26 rushing touchdowns.

    Ultimately, I feel this comes down to how well Georgia can stop Mayfield or at least limit him. The Bulldogs have a strong passing defense, allowing 158.3 yards per game. They'll slow him down enough for a 35-27 win.

Who Wins Round 3 Between No. 1 Clemson and No. 4 Alabama?

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    Hunter Renfrow
    Hunter RenfrowDavid J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Matt Hayes

    The most underrated aspect of the CFP selections: Alabama. The team got an extra week (the Tide didn't play on championship week) to rest its dinged-up linebacker corps. Alabama will be stout on defense and won't give up on the run late like it did in last year's game. That's enough to beat Clemson. 

                   

    David Kenyon

    Can I reserve the right to change my mind in a few weeks? If 'Bama is still banged up on defense, I'd lean toward Clemson. However, it seems Alabama should be much, much healthier at linebacker by New Year's Day. As long as that happens, I'll take the Tide, despite reservations about their passing game.

                                      

    Adam Kramer

    I love this game so, so much. I cannot possibly express how much I love when these two teams play football, regardless of what this outcome is. With that being said, I will take Clemson.

    Look, Alabama—even this slightly watered-down, less Alabama-y version—is still an amazing football team and a deserving favorite. I get that. But I also feel like Clemson is the more complete team, the better one, and a matchup issue for Tide head coach Nick Saban, which is rare.

    The Tigers defensive line is so deep and talented that it could disrupt Alabama's running game and throw the machine out of sync. Having seen quarterback Kelly Bryant in person at the ACC Championship Game, I also feel like he is a far better player than perhaps the rest of the nation gives him credit for.

    I will pick against Alabama reluctantly. I also can't wait for this. (I feel so strongly about it that I had to say it again.)

                    

    Kerry Miller

    In all three seasons of the College Football Playoff, one of the two games has ended up getting ugly. Oregon beat Florida State 59-20 in 2015. The following year, Alabama stomped Michigan State 38-0. And last year was Clemson's 31-0 shutout of Ohio State.

    Everyone is expecting this to be the game of the year, but I'm going out on a limb and predicting a Clemson blowout. I think Alabama is going to have a hard time running the ball against a front seven that has not allowed any opponent to average better than 4.6 yards per carry in a game all season. From there, putting Jalen Hurts in 3rd-and-long situations against this secondary could be a major problem.

    I hope I'm wrong. I want three overtimes and 100 combined points in the greatest rubber match in college football history. But I have Clemson winning 38-13.

                                 

    Brad Shepard

    Clemson is a very good football team that can show multiple looks on offense. It plays an aggressive brand of defense and does everything well. But Alabama is a different animal when it's healthy.

    Yes, the Crimson Tide have been uneven at times this year, struggling to find an identity under first-year offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, but they have enough playmakers on that side of the ball to win games, especially when they commit to the run. Plus, with a month off, UA will get some of those injured defenders back whose absence made it vulnerable late in the season. The Tide will win Round 3 in a close one. 

                       

    Greg Wallace

    The Tigers suffered a head-scratching loss at Syracuse but otherwise looked like the nation's most consistent team with a 12-1 record. Alabama made its way in despite a 26-14 Iron Bowl loss at Auburn that closed the door to an SEC title, but it took the Ohio State route into the playoff without winning its division.

    Both sides feature excellent defenses that combine to allow 24.3 points per game, and both feature mobile, talented quarterbacks in Alabama's Jalen Hurts and Clemson's Kelly Bryant.

    I think big plays in the passing game will be the difference. Bryant will find Deon Cain and Tide nemesis Hunter Renfrow for game-changing plays in the mid- and deep-range passing attack, and Clemson will take Round 3, 31-25.

Last but Not Least: Who Wins the National Championship?

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    Jalen Hurts
    Jalen HurtsButch Dill/Associated Press

    Matt Hayes

    Yeah, it's boring, but it's reality. Best players, best team usually wins. That means more of Alabama. In a decade under Saban, Alabama plays its best when it has something to prove. So you think the Tide didn't deserve to be in the CFP? Watch them go prove it.

               

    David Kenyon

    Trusting the Sooners to stop a pair of NFL-caliber runners once is hard enough. Doing it twice is too much for me. Mayfield would keep Oklahoma competitive in any possible matchup, but I'll place my confidence in Nick Saban and a more reliable Alabama defense. 

                

    Adam Kramer

    I could genuinely see any of the four teams winning the College Football Playoff this year, which speaks volumes about what we’re in for and also the type of season we have had.  Seriously. No winner would shock me here. All four teams are great. None are unbeatable, something we've seen already.

    But I feel like, top to bottom, Clemson is still the most complete team of the bunch. I also think there's a certain edge and confidence that many of the players and coaches acquired last year that could help pave the way for continued success. I'll take the Tigers and Mr. Dabo Swinney, who looks awfully comfortable on this magnificent stage.

                

    Kerry Miller

    What happens in the semifinals is crucial information to consider for the national championship, so I hate trying to make this pick right now.

    I will say, though, that I find it strange how everyone seems to be picking either Alabama or Clemson. It's like, regardless of what happens on Jan. 1, the Sugar Bowl champ is going to beat the Rose Bowl champ. Is it because we're so excited about getting the Tigers vs. the Crimson Tide in the playoff for the third straight year that we just want to believe the winner has to be the national champion?

    I see it going the opposite way. The Sugar Bowl is going to be so physically and emotionally draining that the winner won't be at 100 percent for the national championship—similar to Auburn looking helpless in the SEC Championship Game after winning the Iron Bowl. And, wouldn't you know it, Georgia is the beneficiary of this one too. It's scary to pick the least experienced quarterback of the bunch, but give me the Bulldogs in what is essentially a home game.

                

    Brad Shepard

    If it's Alabama against Oklahoma, it again will be the same two contrasting styles we talked about in the OU-UGA game. If the Sooners survive, they'll have a blueprint on how to play 'Bama, considering Georgia coach Kirby Smart is a longtime Nick Saban disciple who has built a similar team in Athens. Though the Tide are the most talented team in the country, it's tough to see them as a national champion unless they play more on the same page than they have all season. If they do, they'll beat Oklahoma. But, for now, it just feels like this is Mayfield's year. The Sooners will be your champion. 

                   

    Greg Wallace

    Clemson-Georgia is one of college football's most natural rivalries that doesn't happen very often. The two teams have met 64 times in their history, but just four times since 1995, including a spirited, fun home-and-home series in 2013 and 2014.

    Meeting in the national title game in Atlanta? That's a classic in the making for these border rivals separated by just 70 miles. Dabo Swinney and Co. have matured into a true national power and would be playing in their third consecutive national title game. Meanwhile, Kirby Smart and Georgia have a legit home-field advantage playing in the heart of UGA territory.

    Clemson's salty defensive line will be tested by the Bulldogs' powerful running game, but Kelly Bryant is ready to step out of Deshaun Watson's shadow once and for all. He puts together a balanced, MVP-level performance and the Tigers take their second straight national title, 35-24, cementing his legacy as one of Clemson's greats.