by Justyn Spanski
Phil Steele Publications Associate/PhilSteele.com Contributor
**NOTE**: All PS #’s of players mentioned can be found in Phil Steele’s 2019 College Football Preview. All statistics, pass efficiency defense ratings, and power ratings can be found on PhilSteele.com as a subscriber to Phil Steele Plus. Subscribe to Phil Steele Plus right now for just $34.00 through the Super Bowl LIV on the PhilSteele.com Store. Follow Phil Steele on Twitter to receive all of Phil’s insight and analysis for this week’s bowl games and all college football news @philsteele042.
Stranger things have happened in the past over the College Football Playoff’s five- year history. In the inaugural College Football Playoff in 2015, Urban Meyer’s Ohio State Buckeyes entered the playoff ranked fourth after a 59-0 rout of Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game. The Buckeyes were led by running back Ezekiel Elliot and backup quarterback Cardale Jones, who took over for the injured JT Barrett midway against Michigan.
Jones demonstrated excellent poise and leadership for a redshirt sophomore making his first career start on one of college football’s biggest stages, finishing 12-17 for 257 passing yards and three scores. Despite a strong performance against Wisconsin, many experts and fans were convinced the Cleveland native had no chance of leading Ohio State past consensus number one Alabama in the Sugar Bowl semifinal game.
Entering the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans as an eight point underdog to the Tide, the Buckeyes shocked the nation defeating Nick Saban’s team 42-35 behind a 230 yard rushing performance from Elliot. Elliot and Ohio State rode their “Ohio Against the World” mantra to the College Football Playoff Championship game in Arlington, TX against the Oregon Ducks and Heisman winner Marcus Mariota where they defeated the unbeaten Ducks 42-20 to claim the first ever College Football Playoff national championship.
While a story as incredible as the Buckeyes’ 2015 one could not possibly happen since neither LSU, Ohio State, Clemson, or Oklahoma lost their quarterback to a devastating season ending injury before the playoff, it is uncertain which two teams will square off in New Orleans for this year’s College Football Playoff National Championship and how they will get there.
Below we will preview how each of the four teams playing the Peach Bowl and Fiesta Bowl can punch their ticket to New Orleans for a spot at college football glory.
CHICK-FIL-A PEACH BOWL
WHO: No. 1 LSU vs. No. 4 Oklahoma
WHEN: Saturday, December 28, 4:00 PM EST
WHERE: Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta, GA
HOW TO WATCH: ESPN
HOW LSU REACHES THE TITLE GAME…
To many fans, the answer is simple. Joe Burrow. Heisman winner Joe Burrow is how the Tigers punch their ticket. Burrow can ultimately be the biggest contributor to LSU securing a spot in the title game in their home state, but the Tigers will need a full team effort, especially on defense.
The 2019 Tigers racked up the individual accolades including Heisman, Maxwell, and Davey O’Brien winner Burrow, Biletnikoff winner Ja’Marr Chase, Thorpe winner Grant Delpit, Coach of the Year winner Ed Orgeron, and the Joe Moore award winning best offensive line in all of college football.
Many experts considered true freshman cornerback sensation Derek Stingley a snub for the Thorpe, and it is easy to understand given the Baton Rouge native’s statistics and play. Once again, the true freshman will be called upon to shut down arguably one of the top receivers in the country in the Sooners CeeDee Lamb. The PS#1 DB is coming off a two interception performance against Georgia in the SEC Championship and shutting down Lamb will only further prove that Stingley is one of college football’s premier defensive players.
The job is far from finished…
So FINISH it
Victory for LSU! pic.twitter.com/E8xTaXby4t
— LSU Football (@LSUfootball) December 26, 2019
Burrow may have a few extra passes in store tomorrow given the injury status of running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire. This should be no problem for the Athens, OH native given his remarkable 77.9% completion percentage and ability to find receivers Chase, Justin Jefferson, and Terrace Marshall for big plays.
If the Tigers play mistake-free football, have Stingley limit or shut down Lamb, and Burrow performs at the level he has all season, it will be a Louisiana championship as Coach O will lead his team into New Orleans on January 13 for a shot at a 15-0 season and the national title.
HOW OKLAHOMA REACHES THE TITLE GAME…
In Lincoln Riley’s third season at the helm of Oklahoma, the Sooners have won three Big 12 championships and reached the playoff three times. However, Riley has failed to secure a semifinal win and spot in the championship the past two years. This Saturday, he will look to claim his first in the most shocking fashion by taking down the number one team in the country.
Heisman finalist Jalen Hurts has the Oklahoma offense surging once again, averaging 140 yards more than their opponents have allowed on the year, good for third best in the country. The graduate transfer from Alabama has been sensational throwing and running the ball this year, passing for 3,632 yards and 32 scores while rushing for 1,255 yards and 18 touchdowns.
𝙏𝙝𝙞𝙨 is Oklahoma.
𝙏𝙝𝙞𝙨 is what we do.#OUDNA #BoomerSooner pic.twitter.com/4DQoYw6LK6
— Oklahoma Football (@OU_Football) December 27, 2019
Hurts has formed a strong connection with All-American wideout CeeDee Lamb, and the junior will need to get open against Stingley for big plays. Running back Kennedy Brooks will also need to be relied on for a big game and to help take the heavy load off Hurts.
The most important key to Oklahoma’s upset chances will be the defense. Defensive coordinator Alex Grinch has done a superb job this year, taking over for a defense that allowed 454 yards per game in 2018. Linebacker Kenneth Murray leads the way with 95 tackles, and the captain of the defense will need to have a sensational game given the absence of defensive lineman Ronnie Perkins, who was suspended for the Peach Bowl along with two other Sooners for a failed drug test.
While a miracle for Oklahoma to defeat LSU may be a little extreme, the Sooners will certainly have to play a near perfect game to defeat the Tigers. It will have to start with the offense taking care of the ball, which they have had trouble doing at times this year, and it will have to end with the defense thwarting the Burrow led offense, which no team has been able to do this year. It will arguably be the biggest upset of the bowl season if the Sooners can punch their ticket to New Orleans, and it is most certainly possible given Riley’s coaching and Hurts’ leadership.
PLAYSTATION FIESTA BOWL
WHO: No. 2 Clemson vs. No. 3 Ohio State
WHEN: Saturday, December 28, 8:00 PM EST
WHERE: State Farm Stadium, Glendale, AZ
HOW TO WATCH: ESPN
HOW CLEMSON REACHES THE TITLE GAME…
If you were to scroll through the Clemson team pages in Phil Steele’s 2019 College Football Preview, you would find that Dabo Swinney’s team is loaded with PS#1, #2, and #3 ranked players at nearly every position. This is not by chance or luck, but purely a decade’s worth of recruiting, hard work, and ability to build Clemson as one of college football’s premier programs.
The Tigers are once again #ALLIN and have their eyes set on back-to-back national titles. Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne will once again look to engineer the same production they did during last year’s playoff run against Notre Dame and Alabama. Wideouts Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross have been Lawrence’s most reliable targets all year and they will look to find ways to get open against Ohio State’s talented secondary.
‘Twas the day before Christmas…
And the Tigers were stirring.#ALLIN pic.twitter.com/2KniDITzfm
— Clemson Football (@ClemsonFB) December 25, 2019
Clemson’s defense is once again the nation’s best, allowing only 10.6 points per game. Defensive coordinator Brent Venables has once again gotten consistent play out of a talented and experienced defense that features leading tackler and Butkus winner Isaiah Simmons, who is the nation’s best linebacker, as well as veteran secondary members AJ Terrell, Tanner Muse, and K’Von Wallace.
Before the Tigers reported to training camp in August, players logged off Instagram with one final post that included the hashtag #CUinJanuary. The hashtag speaks loud and clear to the expectations Swinney has of his highly talented team and how bad the members of this Clemson team want another title. For Clemson to earn a spot to play for their second consecutive national title next month, Lawrence and Etienne will both need to have massive performances like last year’s playoff games while the defense must get pressure to Buckeyes quarterback Justin Fields who is entering the game with a knee injury and will not be able to escape the pocket as well as he is normally able to.
HOW OHIO STATE REACHES THE TITLE GAME…
Like Clemson, the Buckeyes are also loaded with PS#1, #2, and #3 recruits at every position. And while many of the players on the roster are recruits from former head coach and three time national champion Urban Meyer, you cannot help but recognize and applaud the excellent job Ryan Day has done in his first full season as the head boss in Columbus.
An offensive mastermind, Day has taken Ohio State’s offense to a new level this season behind Heisman finalist quarterback Justin Fields and running back JK Dobbins. The duo got off to a slow start against Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship game earlier this month but finished strong and were two key reasons for Ohio State’s turnaround in the second half of that game. Fields is nursing a knee injury headed into this semifinal matchup and will not be able to run the ball like he normally would, making it imperative that he gets the ball out quick to receivers Chris Olave, KJ Hill, and Binjimen Victor as the Clemson defense will be bringing pressure early and often.
Nagurski and Bednarik winner Chase Young is the most feared pass rusher in all of college football, and he will need to step up and have a big game after two quiet performances against Michigan and Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game to end the regular season. Thorpe finalist Jeff Okudah is arguably the top draft prospect at DB and he will look to display why he earned that label against the Tigers top wideouts in Higgins and Ross. Captain and linebacker Malik Harrison as well as senior safety Damon Arnette have been vocal about playing with a chip on their shoulder and how much a trip to New Orleans would mean to them and their teammates.
The Buckeyes offensive line has done an excellent job protecting Fields in 2019, but they will need to do that now more than ever against Clemson with Fields banged up. Fields will need to make crisp and accurate throws in the pocket like he has all season, as it could be the deciding factor in the game. JK Dobbins will utilize his same workhorse nature, grinding out hard extra yards. Young must return to his form before his two game suspension in November, since it could help alleviate pressure off a not 100% Fields but more importantly, create a long evening for the Tigers offense. If Ryan Day’s team can limit the Tigers passing attack and run the ball effectively with Dobbins and backup running back Master Teague, the Buckeyes could be headed down to the Bayou for a shot at their second College Football Playoff National Championship.
Built on toughness and forged through love, our journey continues.#GoBucks #ToughLove pic.twitter.com/cKJWEcZ0XP
— Ohio State Football (@OhioStateFB) December 26, 2019