Bleacher Report Expert Predictions for the College Football Playoff

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystDecember 27, 2019

Bleacher Report Expert Predictions for the College Football Playoff

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    Ohio State head coach Ryan Day
    Ohio State head coach Ryan DayMichael Conroy/Associated Press

    We've reached the penultimate step in a college football journey that began back in August: The College Football Playoff is about to begin.

    There are no big surprises as far as this year's collection of teams is concerned.

    Clemson opened the season at No. 1 in the Associated Press poll. Oklahoma and Ohio State debuted at No. 4 and No. 5, respectively, as the favorites to win their conferences. And though we expected either No. 2 Alabama or No. 3 Georgia to represent the SEC, LSU climbing from preseason No. 6 to postseason No. 1 can hardly be considered a stunning development.

    But now that we're here, who actually wins this thing?

    Bleacher Report's college football experts—David Kenyon, Kerry Miller, Joel Reuter and Brad Shepard—answered eight burning questions ahead of the national semifinals, including:

    • Which of this year's Heisman finalists will excel in postseason play?
    • How many times will we need to hear about next year's Heisman race during the Fiesta Bowl?
    • How many points will the winner score in the Peach Bowl?
    • Which running back will have the biggest day?
    • And which of these teams will be back again next year?

    Our experts are on the case.

Which of the 4 Heisman Finalists Has the Best Individual Day?

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    Joe Burrow, Justin Fields, Jalen Hurts and Chase Young
    Joe Burrow, Justin Fields, Jalen Hurts and Chase YoungJason Szenes/Associated Press

    David Kenyon

    Oklahoma quarterback Jalen Hurts could end up statistically superior, but the easy answer seems like the proper one. LSU signal-caller Joe Burrow has flummoxed defenses all season, and Oklahoma will be without its best pass-rusher, Ronnie Perkins, and starting safety Delarrin Turner-Yell. Burrow should be headed for his seventh 300-yard, four-touchdown game of the year.

            

    Kerry Miller

    Jalen Hurts. I don't know if it will be enough for Oklahoma to win the Peach Bowl, but the Sooners QB is going to have a huge game against an LSU defense that struggled with the likes of Sam Ehlinger and Tua Tagovailoa. With Rhamondre Stevenson's suspension impacting Oklahoma's depth at running back, it will need Hurts' legs more than ever, too. He'll rush for 120 yards and throw for 250 more while accounting for at least three touchdowns. 

            

    Joel Reuter

    No reason to overthink this one. Iowa State quarterback Brock Purdy carved up the Oklahoma defense for 282 yards and five touchdowns earlier this season. That might be the floor for what Burrow will do to the Sooners secondary in the Peach Bowl. The Heisman Trophy winner has thrown for 4,715 yards and 48 touchdowns this season, and he’s poised for another big game.

            

    Brad Shepard

    When Oklahoma has played against great offenses this year, the Sooners have had issues on defense. They are much improved in the first year under new defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, but they haven't faced anything like Burrow yet.  With Oklahoma down a couple of key defenders, this has Bayou Bengals air attack written all over it. Thus, I'll say Burrow shines while the Tigers roll, especially considering LSU's abundance of receiving talent is going to be a major issue for OU.

Which Under-the-Radar Player Will Have the Most Impressive Performance?

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    LSU RB John Emery Jr.
    LSU RB John Emery Jr.Chris Graythen/Getty Images

    David Kenyon

    Clemson defensive tackle Tyler Davis isn't a household name. However, he's put up 8.5 tackles for loss with 5.5 sacks this season. Ohio State has a decent group of talent on the offensive line, but the Buckeyes are still prone to giving up pressure. If Davis can create that disruption from his interior spot, Clemson will earn a massive edge.

            

    Kerry Miller

    With LSU's Clyde Edwards-Helaire nursing a hamstring injury, look for 5-star true freshman running back John Emery Jr. to set some new career highs. He received a grand total of eight touches in LSU's last six games, but he might be suddenly thrust into a prominent role in the College Football Playoff, just like Tua Tagovailoa was two years ago. And let's not forget that Oklahoma allowed six rushing touchdowns in its loss to Kansas State back in October.

            

    Joel Reuter

    While quarterback Justin Fields and running back J.K. Dobbins get the bulk of the headlines for the Ohio State offense, wide receiver K.J. Hill has been an integral piece of the puzzle as well. The senior has scored a touchdown in five straight games, including two scores against Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game. He has a team-leading 51 receptions and 10 touchdowns on the year, and he could be a difference-maker once again in the Fiesta Bowl.

            

    Brad Shepard

    Most of the focus in the Clemson secondary is on Tanner Muse and A.J. Terrell, but Derion Kendrick has quietly become a force in coverage for Dabo Swinney's Tigers. After coming into college as a receiver, he transitioned to the defensive side of the ball, and he earned second-team All-ACC honors this year opposite Terrell. Look for him to get several passes thrown his way, resulting in a big play that helps Clemson beat the Buckeyes.

Which Running Back Racks Up the Most Yards in the Semifinals?

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    Oklahoma RB Kennedy Brooks
    Oklahoma RB Kennedy BrooksSue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    David Kenyon

    Provided he's available, Clyde Edwards-Helaire has a great chance with Oklahoma not having either Perkins or Turner-Yell on defense. But given the uncertainty of Edwards-Helaire's health, I'll take Kennedy Brooks on the other side of that matchup. He's already the Sooners' lead back, Trey Sermon is hurt, and Rhamondre Stevenson is suspended. This version of the Oklahoma offense is a run-first attack, and Brooks will handle a larger-than-normal share of the carries.

            

    Kerry Miller

    Oklahoma's Rodney Anderson led all semifinalists in rushing yards two years ago. Oklahoma's Kyler Murray tied for the most rushing yards in last year's semifinals. In keeping with that trend, I'll take Oklahoma's Kennedy Brooks. It took nearly two months for the Sooners to finally realize how good Brooks is and to start feeding him the ball more often, and then he averaged 118.6 rushing yards over his final five games. Something in that vicinity would be better than anything I expect to see from the Fiesta Bowl.

            

    Joel Reuter

    There are few players in college football with more big-play ability than Clemson's Travis Etienne, who led FBS at 8.2 yards per carry. He has racked up 1,500 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns on the ground this season, including 90- and 86-yard scampers. The Buckeyes allowed 148 yards on 7.4 yards per carry to Wisconsin star Jonathan Taylor in the Big Ten Championship Game, so running on them is not impossible.

           

    Brad Shepard

    I believe it's going to be tough sledding through the air for Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields against Clemson, so I expect the Buckeyes to focus on establishing the run in the more evenly matched of the two semifinal games. For that reason, it's hard to go against J.K. Dobbins, even though he needs to deal with the nation's ninth-best rush defense. Dobbins hasn't gotten as many headlines as Etienne has this year, but he's going to have more yards than him on Saturday.

Over/Under 48.5 Points for the Winning Team in the Peach Bowl?

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    LSU head coach Ed Orgeron
    LSU head coach Ed OrgeronJohn Bazemore/Associated Press

    David Kenyon

    Over. If you say under, you hate fun. I do not hate fun. I'm glad we've covered that. Seriously, though, I'm wondering if Oklahoma tries to shorten the game. Sooners head coach Lincoln Riley is a smart guy, so I'm confident he understands the reality of the situation. Oklahoma's offensive efficiency slowly declined throughout the season, and the Sooners probably can't hang 50 on LSU. But the inverse is undoubtedly true.

            

    Kerry Miller

    When the top four were first announced, I felt like this was destined to be something similar to Georgia's 54-48 double-overtime win over Oklahoma from two years ago. The two best offenses in the nation against a pair of defenses that each went through a significant rough patch or two this season? They can't set the over/under line high enough, right? But with the rash of injuries and suspensions, I've since decided this thing is going to be more sedated with a winning score in the upper 30s. Thus, my pick is the under, but I'll absolutely be rooting for the over.

            

    Joel Reuter

    Over. LSU has averaged 47.8 points per game this season and topped the 48-point mark six different times. They also hung 37 points on an excellent Georgia defense in the SEC Championship Game. Though improved from previous years, this is not an excellent Oklahoma defense. I'll save my score prediction until later, but, spoiler, I have LSU scoring 52 points.

           

    Brad Shepard

    I'm going to go under, simply because I thinkeven though it goes against every fiber of his beingLincoln Riley knows he cannot win a barn-burner against LSU. The Sooners will try to control the clock more than usual and lean on Kennedy Brooks and the run game while sustaining drives with Jalen Hurts' feet as well. This one won't go much lower, and LSU will still come out victorious, but the Tigers are going to fall just short of that mark.

How Many Mentions of Next Year's Heisman Race During the Fiesta Bowl?

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    Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence
    Clemson QB Trevor LawrenceSean Rayford/Associated Press

    David Kenyon

    A lot. That conversation is really interesting because Clemson graduates most of its offensive line. However, Trevor Lawrence already had comparable stats, save for touchdowns, in each of the past two seasons. Ohio State might return a few blockers from this unit, and the Chris Olave/Garrett Wilson combination is so exciting. Justin Fields is probably a safer projection as a finalist, but Lawrence is very likely going to New York, too.

            

    Kerry Miller

    It all depends on how much dead air needs to be filled during lengthy reviews or injuries. If the flow of the game is palatable, I expect Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit to keep most of the attention on the here and nowand when they do venture into discussions about the future, they'll mostly be about the national championship since we'll already know the result of the Peach Bowl. But I do think we'll be force-fed a few way-too-early Heisman remarks during the first quarter for a total of four brief mentions.

            

    Joel Reuter

    If the 2020 college football season started today, Fields and Lawrence would be the clear co-favorites to win next year's Heisman Trophy. So, naturally, that's going to be a big storyline. I'm going to take this question entirely too seriously and make a legitimate guess. I think there will be one dedicated graphic for next year's Heisman race and four additional mentions.

           

    Brad Shepard

    Can we count that high? This year's epic showdown is going to have massive ramifications, as the top performer between Fields and Lawrence will get a jump start on next year's race. It's only fitting that two former prep stars from the fertile recruiting grounds of Georgia who were ranked Nos. 1 and 2 overall in the 2018 recruiting rankings, per 247Sports, will be the biggest stars in the game. They've both got plenty of weapons coming back, and the sky is the limit for their talent. If you're going to get sick of the talk during this game, you may as well mute your television for the next 12 months.

No. 1 LSU vs. No. 4 Oklahoma: Who You Got Winning the Peach Bowl?

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    LSU Safety Grant Delpit
    LSU Safety Grant DelpitGerald Herbert/Associated Press

    David Kenyon

    LSU. The SEC champs were my choice before the injuries and suspensions put a dent in Oklahoma's depth, and those absences only sealed the prediction. Oklahoma has a much-improved defense, but it's still not among the nation's "elite" units. And for three-plus months, we've watched LSU obliterate top-tier and above-average defenses.

            

    Kerry Miller

    I want to pick Oklahoma for the reasons I went over here, but I've got LSU winning 38-35. Most people seem to be viewing this game as a formality before LSU faces the winner of the Fiesta Bowl, but the Sooners are going to give the Tigers quite a scare. Lincoln Riley's guys are incredible on offense, per usual, and this is the best defense Oklahoma has had in nearly a decade. But Burrow and the Tigers will do just enough to get the W.

            

    Joel Reuter

    The Tigers are 13.5-point favorites, and I just don't think the Sooners have the defense to slow down Joe Burrow and the LSU offense. That said, Oklahoma has enough offensive firepower that the Tigers will need to keep their foot on the gas, and that will mean a big number on the scoreboard. LSU 52, Oklahoma 38.

           

    Brad Shepard

    This should be tons of fun. Between Burrow's high-flying LSU offense and Jalen Hurts' big-play Oklahoma unit, points are going to come early and often. But while the Tigers defense hasn't been dominant this year, Dave Aranda's side of the ball is full of playmakers, and they're going to be healthy. Guys like Grant Delpit have had plenty of time to heal and play with a new pep in their step. That's why I think the Tigers are going to be too tough and win 45-33.

No. 2 Ohio State vs. No. 3 Clemson: Who You Got Winning the Fiesta Bowl?

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    Clemson RB Travis Etienne
    Clemson RB Travis EtienneSean Rayford/Associated Press

    David Kenyon

    I'll take Clemson because of Trevor Lawrence's mobility. (Not his hair, sorry). Ohio State's primary weakness is in the middle of the field, and Lawrence should be ready to attack those linebackers. Even if the Buckeyes create some disruption, Lawrence has continually shown an ability to escape and create. Whether that means scrambling for yardage or finding a target on a secondary route, Lawrence can swing the game on that alone.

            

    Kerry Miller

    Ohio State has been my pick to win the national championship since early October, so I've got to roll with the Buckeyes here. But it should be a phenomenal battle between sophomore quarterbacks working on a combined streak of more than 250 pass attempts since their last interception. If either Lawrence or Fields has a rare moment of human error and tosses a pick, that may well be the difference. And I believe Chase Young, Jeff Okudah and the Buckeyes defense are more likely to benefit from a backbreaking turnover.

            

    Joel Reuter

    This one is going to be a flat-out battle. Both teams have elite rushing offenses and elite rushing defenses. They also both have supremely talented underclassman signal-callers who rarely make mistakes, which has helped them check in as two of the 13 teams in FBS with a turnover margin of at least plus-10. The Buckeyes are more battle-tested this year, while many of the Tigers' key players are back from the team that routed Alabama in the title game a year ago. In the end, I think Trevor Lawrence comes through with one more big play than his counterpart in a back-and-forth classic. Clemson 35, Ohio State 31.

           

    Brad Shepard

    I've gone back and forth on this game ever since the College Football Playoff was set. It's hard to ignore Ohio State's talent on both sides of the ball and its three legitimate Heisman Trophy candidates in Justin Fields (finalist), Chase Young (finalist) and J.K. Dobbins. But Clemson has been tested in these games for years. Travis Etienne is going to churn out some tough yards, and I like Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross making enough downfield plays for the Tigers to win and advance. I'll take Clemson in a 31-28 classic.

Which Playoff Team(s) Will Be Back in Next Year's Final Four?

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    Ohio State QB Justin Fields
    Ohio State QB Justin FieldsMichael Conroy/Associated Press

    David Kenyon

    Clemson and Ohio State should surprise no one. They have Heisman-caliber quarterbacks in Lawrence and Fields, respectively, should play outstanding defense once again and continually stockpile top recruiting classes. I'll save the hot takes on LSU and Oklahoma for after NFL draft declarations, though I'm more likely to say Oklahoma is back simply because of conference affiliation. LSU has a tougher road in the SEC. It is what it is.

            

    Kerry Miller

    Would it be completely ridiculous to say all four? Clemson and Oklahoma are clearly still going to be the best teams in their respective conferences. Ohio State is losing a bunch of key defenders, but the return of Fields is enough reason to believe the Buckeyes should win the Big Ten. My official way-too-early pick is three of the four returning to the CFP with Alabama taking LSU's place. However, it's worth keeping in mind that the Tigers will have home-field advantage in that SEC West showdown, so maybe we run this thing back again in 12 months.

            

    Joel Reuter

    At this point, it's hard to envision a world in which Fields and Lawrence fail to lead their teams back to the College Football Playoff. The other two teams have a tough road ahead replacing Heisman Trophy finalists under center, among other expected losses. There's always the looming specter of Alabama, too. I'll say next year's Final Four features two returnees and two new faces.

           

    Brad Shepard

    LSU's window is closing with Burrow leaving, and while the Tigers could strike it rich in the quarterback transfer market, nobody is ready to replicate what they have this year. The same goes for Oklahoma sans Jalen Hurts. But Clemson and Ohio State both have key cogs returning in the passing game, as well as enough elite young talent on defense to return and be the last two teams standing a year from now. The way Ryan Day and Dabo Swinney are recruiting, they're going to reload their rosters with capable playmakers and will be playoff-bound again in 2020.