10 Biggest Factors in the College Football Playoff
The College Football Playoff is fast approaching, and with just 20 days until the Cotton Bowl and Orange Bowl kickoff, each team is looking for an advantage over its opponent.
It's no secret that Alabama has been one of the most dominating teams in college football in recent memory, but it has shown it is not invincible. Michigan State may have less talent than the Crimson Tide, but the Spartans are well-coached and limit their mistakes, forcing their opponents into turning over the ball.
Clemson is the nation's No. 1 team with an undefeated record of 13-0, but it has not faced an opponent like the Oklahoma Sooners. Sure, North Carolina was a good test for the Tigers, but how will they respond to a relentless Sooners team that never shies away from a dogfight? If anyone can keep up with the Tigers offense on the scoreboard, it’s the Sooners.
These games will feature some of the best players in the nation on the four best teams in the country. What gives a team the upper hand in games like these?
Before looking through the slides, keep in mind that they are not ranked in matter of importance.
Here are the 10 biggest factors in the College Football Playoff to keep your eye on.
Stopping Deshaun Watson
This is easier said than done.
Watson is arguably the most dynamic quarterback in college football. His performance against North Carolina in the ACC Championship Game only further solidified his candidacy for the Heisman Trophy.
After throwing for 289 yards and three touchdowns in addition to tallying 131 yards rushing and two scores in that title game, Watson is more than capable of scorching any defense.
But the Oklahoma Sooners are not like any other defense.
They are tied for fifth in the nation in sacks (38) this season and are seventh in interceptions (19). The Sooners allow just 20.8 points per game to their opponents, which is 20th in the country. Watson and his Tigers offense average 38.5 points per game.
Watson, who will be in New York for the Heisman Trophy presentation, will need to play like the best player in the nation to topple Oklahoma.
Sterling Shepard Getting Downfield
Sterling Shepard is the best receiver on the Oklahoma roster, and it's not even close.
He has 79 receptions for 1,201 yards and 11 touchdowns, leading the team in each category. The second-best receiver for the Sooners is Dede Westbrook, who has 42 grabs for 674 yards. Although undersized at 5'10", Shepard is one of the best at creating separation, and he's likely excited to prove it against the nation's best team.
Clemson's Ability to Run the Ball
While the Sooners defense tries to stop Watson from running riot all game long, it has to be careful not to overlook Watson's partner in the backfield. Wayne Gallman is one of the most underrated running backs in the country and doesn’t receive the attention he deserves.
The sophomore tailback has 1,332 rushing yards on the season and 10 touchdowns, averaging 5.5 yards per carry. Perhaps his most impressive game this season was the most recent one Clemson played, when he put up 187 yards on the ground against North Carolina.
His 31-yard run against the Tar Heels was his longest in the game, but he still managed a way to churn out yards, even in goal-line situations when he scored a touchdown from three yards out in the third quarter.
If Watson struggles, the Tigers will have to rely on Gallman to pick up the slack, and he is more than capable of doing so.
Can Clemson Stop Mayfield?
A lot has been said about Watson's season and rightly so. But Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield has been equally impressive, and many feel, Mayfield included, that he was snubbed as a Heisman finalist.
"I feel like I've had a pretty good [season]," Mayfield told Edward Aschoff of ESPN.com. "I feel like I deserved an invite to New York, but ultimately my goal is the national championship, so that's what I'm focused on."
It's hard to argue with Mayfield there, as he ranks second in the nation in yards per pass attempt (9.6) and pass efficiency rating (178.9) and in the top 10 in passing touchdowns (35) and completion percentage (.686). The Austin, Texas, native has accounted for 42 touchdowns and only five turnovers. He has also rushed for 420 yards and seven touchdowns, accounting for 42 touchdowns on the season with only five turnovers.
Clemson has a defense that is ranked 18th in the nation in points per game allowed to an opponent (20.2), but Mayfield leads one of the most dangerous offenses in the nation.
Samaje Perine is only a sophomore, but he is already a household name in college football. He is a terror in the backfield, accumulating 1,291 yards on the ground and 15 touchdowns with a 6.1 yards-per-carry average. To put that in perspective, his yards-per-carry average is better than Derrick Henry's (5.9) and Christian McCaffrey's (5.8), who are both Heisman finalists.
To say the least, he's a beast.
Perine is going to be a nightmare for Clemson's front seven, which has actually been solid against the run this season, ranking 23rd in the nation in rushing yards allowed per game.
Connor Cook's Ability to Stand Tall in the Pocket
Connor Cook is one of the best pocket passers in college football, and when he has time to throw, he can deliver dimes.
But the issue with being a good pocket passer is that he needs time to throw. And unfortunately for Cook, he has to face the best defense in college football in Alabama.
The Crimson Tide lead the nation with 46 sacks this season, an average of 3.5 sacks per game. They allow just 184.2 passing yards to opposing quarterbacks and have forced 16 interceptions this season.
Cook is a good quarterback, but his completion percentage of 56.9 leaves a lot to be desired when he is going to face an Alabama defense that specializes in disrupting a passer's time in the pocket.
Michigan State Generating First Downs
This one sounds simple, but this is how the Spartans can beat Alabama. Michigan State is efficient on third down, ranking sixth in the nation with a 50.3 conversion percentage.
By staying on the field and generating longer drives, the Spartans can keep Alabama's offense—in particular Derrick Henry—off the field. He is averaging 45 carries over his last two outings and is coming off a 44-carry performance that saw him rush for 189 yards and two scores.
If you're Michigan State, you don't want to see him on the field.
Derrick Henry won the Maxwell and Doak Walker award this past Thursday night and then won the Heisman Saturday night.
Michigan State will have its hands full trying to stop Henry in the backfield, much like Oklahoma will have a tough time stopping Watson. Henry is the one player who can get Alabama's offense into rhythm by setting up the play-action pass, bringing the defense's safeties down in the box and just tiring out the defense with the amount of carries he gets per game.
He leads the nation in rushing yards (1,986) and touchdowns (23) and will look to punish Michigan State's front seven, which ranks seventh in the nation in rush defense.
Alabama Limiting Mistakes on Special Teams
Alabama has few weaknesses, but in the SEC Championship Game, the Tide showed vulnerability on special teams.
Sure, they blocked a field goal and a punt that led to a safety, but they also made some head-scratching plays at the same time. They allowed Florida to run a punt back for a touchdown and gave up a silly block-in-the-back penalty on a big punt return.
Usually, Alabama can get away with those types of mistakes. But Michigan State has a history of taking advantage of an opponent's special teams miscues.
Michigan State's Front Seven
Michigan State's rush defense was briefly mentioned earlier in this list, but this unit is the most important for the Spartans if they want to keep their championship dream alive.
Ranked seventh in the nation by allowing just 113.1 yards on the ground, the Spartans defense will have to keep Henry at bay the entire game so that Cook and his offense can remain competitive.
If Michigan State has its way, this game will be long, drawn-out contest similar to the Big Ten Championship Game against Iowa, which the Spartans won 16-13.
If Michigan State can create turnovers and stop Alabama and Henry from running the ball, then it would have a chance to end up playing for the national championship.