The Most Intriguing Matchups in the College Football Playoff

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistDecember 28, 2017

The Most Intriguing Matchups in the College Football Playoff

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    As the spotlight focuses on the two biggest remaining games of the college football season, individual matchups will play a massive role in who wins the College Football Playoff games between Alabama and Clemson and Georgia and Oklahoma.

    Whether it's the chess match between playmaking quarterbacks and dynamic defenders, or even when it gets a little more personal such as an offensive and defensive lineman clashing in the trenches or a star receiver and defensive back meeting on an island, the playoffs will be filled with intriguing showdowns.

    Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield will fling it all over the field unless Georgia gets pressure on him with guys such as Butkus Award winner Roquan Smith. 

    Alabama killer Hunter Renfrow must be a key for the Crimson Tide after he torched them in the past two national championship games, so it's only natural that UA would take All-American defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick and make the Clemson receiver his central focus.

    Even the head coaches will share the spotlight. This is going to be a postseason full of excitement, games within games and grudge matches between some of the best players in the country.

    Let's take a look at the top battles that could determine who advances to play for this year's national championship.

Alabama QB Jalen Hurts vs. Clemson DE Clelin Ferrell

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    Another game of cat and mouse will come in the Alabama-Clemson matchup when the country's best defensive line tries to rattle Crimson Tide sophomore quarterback Jalen Hurts.

    Dabo Swinney and defensive coordinator Brent Venables can line up stars in Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence to make things difficult on an Alabama offense that is capable of being dominant but has had difficulty at times establishing an identity under first-year coordinator Brian Daboll.

    But nobody will be called on to disrupt as much as Tigers defensive end Clelin Ferrell.

    The 6'5", 265-pounder is a sure-fire early round NFL draft pick, and the Tide must find a way to slow him down. Only North Carolina State's Bradley Chubb was a bigger all-around defensive force in the ACC this year. Ferrell wound up with 62 tackles, including 17 for a loss and 8.5 sacks.

    Now he'll try to make things difficult on Hurts, who has struggled immensely against quality pass-rushes. When Alabama lost its season-ending game to Auburn in the Iron Bowl, that other set of Tigers turned up the heat on Hurts, not allowing him to go through his progressions.

    That helped AU get the Tide off the field; Alabama was just 3-of-11 on third-down conversions.

    It's the blueprint by which Venables' team will want to elevate the temperature on the Tide. Hurts is far from perfect, and while he has shown some improvement passing downfield, it's not his strong suit. If Ferrell and Co. can get in the backfield, Hurts could panic.

    A season ago, Hurts endured one of his worst games since bursting onto the scene in Tuscaloosa in what wound up a close loss to Clemson in the national championship game. If Ferrell can rattle Hurts, the Tigers may be the favorites to run away with Round 3 of this budding rivalry. 

Georgia RB Nick Chubb vs. Oklahoma LB Ogbonnia Okoronkwo

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    Yes, this game is going to be a grudge match between Oklahoma's high-flying offense and Georgia's soul-stealing defense. But it would be foolish to not even glance over at the other side of the ball.

    The Bulldogs have the second-ranked rushing offense in the SEC and 10th nationally, averaging more than 263 yards per game. Though Sony Michel and D'Andre Swift are big parts of that, senior Nick Chubb is the bell cow.

    UGA wants to control the game on the ground, keep the ball away from Mayfield and the Sooners and win with hard-nosed football. To do that, Chubb needs a big game in a grind-it-out scheme.

    If Chubb and Co. are controlling the tempo, it's going to look good for the Bulldogs. That's why the Sooners, and specifically defensive leader Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, need to alter that quickly.

    Okoronkwo is tougher on the field than his name is to spell. The 6'1", 240-pound second-level defender can do everything from get after the quarterback to plug gaps against the run. Yes, he'll be asked to make life difficult at times on true freshman signal-caller Jake Fromm, but Chubb will be a focus.

    When he lines up at linebacker, Okoronkwo will have his eyes on Chubb and Co. He's second on the team with 71 tackles and leads the Sooners with 17.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks. He knows that while OU's numbers don't look great on his side of the ball, they are getting better.

    And this challenge against the Dawgs is going to be one of the biggest and most unique of the season, coming from dealing with the pass-happy Big 12 opponents week after week.

    "Very physical," Okoronkwo told the Associated Press of Georgia. "They're very physical. They're going to try to out-will you and challenge us. The challenge is just not getting enough bodies on bodies in the game. They always find a way to get an extra guy unblocked."

    If one of those guys roaming free is Chubb, Oklahoma is in trouble.

Alabama DB Minkah Fitzpatrick vs. Clemson WR Hunter Renfrow

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    Two years ago, former walk-on Clemson receiver Hunter Renfrow broke out in a game that featured two of the most talented rosters in recent memory.

    Though Alabama won that 2016 national championship game, Renfrow had seven catches for 88 yards and two first-quarter touchdowns. Last year, for an encore, he set a career high with 10 catches for 92 yards and two more touchdowns, including the game-winner.

    It was sweet because it gave the Tigers their first title under Dabo Swinney. It was even sweeter because some Tide players, such as former defensive back Marlon Humphrey, still disrespected him, according to CBSSports.com's Dennis Dodd.

    Maybe the third time's the charm for the Tide, who'll try to find a way to stop him. Perhaps the best way to do that is to spy him with Fitzpatrick, though that's hard to do with talent like Deon Cain surrounding him.

    Fitzpatrick plays all over the field for Alabama, and he can do everything from sit back in center field, play press coverage or be an enforcer in the box.

    Renfrow has crushed the Tide two seasons in a row, so the junior star needs to play a major role in stopping him in what will likely be Fitzpatrick's final college game. It's clear this year the focus is on Renfrow, Fitzpatrick told 247Sports' Charlie Potter.

    "Very underrated, very undervalued around the country. He's a real shifty guy; they get the ball to him in space; he runs really crisp routes; and he catches very, very well. I mean he's a competitor, man, and when you go against receivers like that, you know you're getting better, getting him better, too. So, we're just going to go out there, compete and do what we've got to do."

Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield vs. Georgia LB Roquan Smith

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    Baker Mayfield is the best quarterback in college football. Throughout his career, the former Texas Tech walk-on has risen to the occasion against some of the best defenses in the country, freelancing with defenders breathing down his neck.

    He's anything but a pocket passer; when the pressure is cranked up, Mayfield weaves away from it and elevates his game. It's not uncommon to see him slithering from the certain grasp of a would-be sacker and completing a pass downfield.

    That sixth sense will be tested in Pasadena against Georgia and all its fire-breathing defenders, led by Butkus Award-winning linebacker and havoc-wreaking extraordinaire Roquan Smith.

    Smith terrorized quarterbacks everywhere in 2017, racking up 113 tackles, including 10.5 for a loss and 5.5 sacks. He'll pin his ears back and go after Mayfield, and so will some of his compadres.

    Whether they can at least make things hard on him will go a long way in determining whether the Bulldogs win. If Mayfield has time to assess the situation downfield, Georgia's secondary may not be able to hang with the Sooners.

    "He's a tremendous asset for us because of his speed," Georgia coach Kirby Smart told the Associated Press' Charles Odum in regard to Smith. "But we can't make this Roquan Smith against Baker Mayfield because that's not the case."

    There are a lot of really good players on both sides of the ball, sure. Guys such as UGA pass-rusher Lorenzo Carter and Oklahoma left tackle Orlando Brown will have major roles.

    But if Mayfield is dominating, Smith isn't doing his job, and if Smith is in the backfield all night, it's going to make things tough on the nation's top player.

    So, it is a big battle. Whoever wins it may just win the game.

Clemson MLB Kendall Joseph vs. Alabama RB Damien Harris

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    Alabama's Damien Harris is the most underrated and perhaps underappreciated running back in the country. The Crimson Tide get into trouble when they get away from featuring him, and the perfect example of that came in the second half of the Auburn loss.

    With the Tigers looking to make Hurts one-dimensional, it's pivotal for Daboll and the Tide to establish their stable of running backs and stick with that strength. 

    With all the talent Alabama possesses in the offensive backfield in Harris, Bo Scarbrough, Joshua Jacobs and Najee Harris, the Tide could wear teams down if they just would. That's not even to mention Hurts' read-option abilities.

    Clemson, the team best suited for those waves of talented backs, can toss out player after player at linebacker.

    "We probably have more functional depth at linebacker than we've ever had," Swinney told the Greenville News' Scott Keepfer.

    Even so, a fresh-legged Harris in the second half can cause trouble for any defense.

    That's why another unheralded player—linebacker Kendall Joseph—will be a key to slowing down Harris. With All-ACC second-level mate Dorian O'Daniel keying on stopping Hurts' running abilities while the defensive line tries to keep him from seeing downfield in the pass game, Joseph is the steady force.

    As the cog in the middle of that Clemson defense, he'll be zeroed in on Harris. He was only a third-team All-ACC performer, but he was a quiet storm in the middle of a field full of stars for Venables. How well he fits the gaps and plugs running lanes will go a long way in helping Clemson get Alabama off the field.

Georgia Head Coach Kirby Smart vs. Oklahoma Head Coach Lincoln Riley

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    The College Football Playoff is blessed this year with some of the top players in the nation, from Heisman Trophy-winning signal-caller Baker Mayfield to all-world Alabama star Minkah Fitzpatrick, who may just be the best defensive back of the Saban era.

    But while this Final Four business has become old hat for Saban and Swinney, there are two new kids on the block in the other semifinal.

    Georgia defensive-minded head man Kirby Smart will get to match wits with Oklahoma offensive guru Lincoln Riley.

    After the Dawgs ended the Mark Richt era, Smart suffered through a rocky first season before a breakout campaign in 2017 that was made possible by a fast, aggressive defense.

    While Smart enjoyed some of the best defenses in the history of the sport under Saban while a coordinator at 'Bama, this is his team with his signature.

    When Bob Stoops stepped down from the Sooners before this season, Riley slid right in from his offensive coordinator role. As it turned out, he was the best man for the job, leading the Sooners to the nation's No. 1 total offensive output at more than 583 yards per game.

    It'll be a clash of styles in the Rose Bowl, with Georgia's aggressive, smash-mouth defense versus a Sooners offense that will fling it around with Mayfield but can also hit home runs on the ground with running back Rodney Anderson.

    The winner will be which coach's team executes its strengths.