Monday, December 7, 2015

Early thoughts on the CFB Playoff match-ups

If styles make fights then the committee didn't do us any favors with these playoff selections, squaring off the two physical running teams against each other while the spread/QB focused teams meet on the other side of the bracket. I can't complain too much about the rankings as they more or less reflect how I would rank these teams based on their resumes this year.

Let's start with a few quick notes on each team:

1. Clemson

The Tigers are undefeated and have taken down several good teams including Notre Dame (arguably the best team in the country before injuries) and Florida State. They are keyed by DeShaun Watson on offense while their defense is all about Mackensie Alexander locking down top WR targets and their FS T.J. Green provides an extra man in the box to stuff the run.

Whether or not Watson can be handled is likely to be a major theme of the playoffs while Alexander's impact will also be sizable.

2. Alabama

This is the most talented team in the country but I'm still hesitant about Jacob Coker. The Bama defense is going to be a major handful for every opponent and if you don't have the ability to attack every part of the field with good players and schemes you probably just aren't going to score many points against them. Only two teams broke 20 on them and both were spread passing squads (Ole Miss and A&M).

The offense is loaded as well but there's a reason Coker couldn't win the job from Blake Sims last year and why they had to simplify the offense for him this season. If you can stop Derrick Henry (big if, there) and pressure Coker you can limit them from breaking 20 as well.

3. Michigan State

The "team of destiny" it would appear. Usually the team that gets into the playoffs due to repeatedly climbing out of tough spots and winning close games eventually gets beat. The best teams don't have to win close games all the time, they just blast people's doors down and take victories.

The Spartans are rounding into form at the right time though so we'll see. They've solidified their secondary by moving Demetrious Cox to full time safety and now have what might be the best safety tandem in the playoffs. The team that boasted that honor last season won. Their defensive front is exceptional against the run or pass and very, very physical. I wish we were seeing OU take these guys on as it would be a jarring difference for them from facing the more finesse-based teams in the Big 12.

Their run game is good and Connor Cook can make NFL-level throws, so they can find offense even against good secondaries and defenses. Their biggest problem is that an opposing team that can take away Burbridge without getting gashed by the run is going to erase their entire offense.

4. Oklahoma

The alternative "team of destiny" that rode in on the backs of wins against teams reeling from recent injuries to their starting QBs. Oklahoma has been playing excellent football over the last two months, but it's hard to know how much mettle they really have due to their level of competition.

The Sooners are an Air Raid team that is actually built around the running game, throwing to Sterling Shepard, and Baker Mayfield's improvisational skills. Their defense is a very athletic odd front team similar to what Oregon has looked like on defense in recent years but with better pass-rush and a healthier secondary than the Ducks had going into last year's playoff. Also better ILBs.

Now onto the match-ups:

Clemson vs OU

Early line: Oklahoma -2 (now OU -3)

It's easy to see this game proving to be a lower scoring contest than commonly assumed simply because OU is well equipped to handle Clemson's spread while the Sooners are likely to struggle facing a defense with the level of athletes Clemson has and without Mayfield's safety blanket (Shepard) likely to be open as often thanks to Alexander's coverage.

In fact, it's not hard to see Clemson having some success replicating Texas' strategy of locking down receivers and controlling Mayfield by virtue of having lots of good athletes on the field tracking him down. The quality of Big 12 defenses this year was down due to TCU's injury problems, Texas' youth, and K-State's injuries. OU had a good defense but their own offense didn't have to face it on Saturdays.

The line frankly makes no sense save for the fact that there's always likely to be money coming in for OU. Clemson has been equally impressive this season while facing a tougher schedule when you factor in Oklahoma's luck with opposing team injuries. I'll have to look deeper but early on I like Clemson a lot in this one.

An Oklahoma victory would probably look like hanging around and getting Mayfield going late in the game, a difficult formula to stop. If they can't handle Watson's running though I could see this getting away from them.

Alabama vs Michigan State

Early line: Alabama -9

Alabama is probably a superior overall team than Sparty, although Dantonio's team is putting things together at the right time, but I don't love this match-up for them.

The popular refrain is that Alabama always crushes pro-style offenses...I think it's more accurate to say that this Alabama defense crushes all offenses and they'll probably crush Michigan State's as well. The issue is what happens if they get into a low-scoring slugfest like Iowa, Michigan, or Ohio State found themselves in earlier this year?

I firmly expect the Spartan defensive front to be able to handle Derrick Henry and the Tide running game and then the game will become a matter of which QB makes more big plays and avoids mistakes. Are you betting on Connor Cook's ability to thread the needle against Bama coverage? Or Coker's ability to diagnose Sparty's six-man zone pressures that send Bulloughs flying through the A-gaps while athletes like Darian Hicks or Montae Nicholson read his eyes?

I'm betting on Sparty in that scenario.

Of course, I reserve the right to change my mind after further reflection and film study but that's how I see things so far.

1 comment:

  1. I've watched OU 12 times this year and Clemson in a monsoon only. The Tiger navy is stout, but this will be a land war.

    The most concerning matchup for the Sooners is that between the Tiger DL and the Sooner OL. The 2013 and 2014 Sooner OL were my favorites since 2008, and the Tigers stuffed them.

    Both lines lost a lot to graduation, but Clemson's has been superior this year. OU's OL has improved throughout the season, like Ohio St's 2014 OL. Will it be enough for the Sooners to raise the flag?

    This projects to be a one score game regardless. With Venables' defenses prone to giving up big plays (historically and this year), I imagine 4th quarter fireworks will be crucial.