The matchups for the College Football Playoff are finally set. Here’s an early preview of what to expect when No. 1 LSU faces No. 4 Oklahoma and No. 2 Ohio State faces No. 3 Clemson.
No. 1 LSU vs. No.4 Oklahoma
College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl
Saturday, Dec. 28, 2019, Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta
4 p.m., ESPN & ESPN app
Opening line from Caesars Sportsbook: LSU -10
Power up that scoreboard because it’s gonna be lit up early and often.
Two of the nation’s best offenses will go toe-to-toe when LSU and Oklahoma meet.
The Sooners have been down this road before. Lincoln Riley has had them running at peak performance for the past three years behind Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray and Jalen Hurts. LSU is new to this scoring party, with Steve Ensminger and Joe Brady opening up the offense and bringing forth a powerful, multifaceted attack.
The difference this year for Oklahoma? The defense is much better than it was a year ago, when it was one of the worst in the conference. LSU, on the other hand, gives up more yards and points now than Dave Aranda is accustomed to, but because the Tigers have become so proficient offensively, it hasn’t been much of an issue.
Key player for LSU: Burrow, the likely Heisman Trophy winner, is the man the Tigers have ridden to this point. Only twice all season has he failed to reach 300 passing yards, and he has set SEC records. He has been the linchpin to LSU unlocking the explosive offensive attack that Ensminger and Brady cooked up. He’s got great receivers, led by Chase, a Biletnikoff finalist, and a handy running game spearheaded by Clyde Edwards-Helaire. But Burrow, who also is a handy runner, is what Brady calls “an NFL quarterback.”
Key player for Oklahoma: Lamb is the Sooners’ best player, but Hurts is the most important because his ball security will go a long way in deciding how this goes for Oklahoma. He turned the ball over five times in two games against Baylor, the best defense he has faced this season. Oklahoma was able to overcome those miscues in both meetings to pull out wins, but LSU’s offense is much more explosive and won’t be as forgiving if Hurts gives the Tigers extra possessions. If Hurts does take care of the ball, he gives the Sooners a chance every time out with his arm and his legs, accounting for 51 touchdowns and more than 4,900 offensive yards.
Matchup to watch: LSU’s front seven has had some — shall we say — issues with mobile quarterbacks this season. Mississippi State’s Garrett Shrader and Texas’ Sam Ehlinger each ran for 60 yards and a touchdown against the Tigers, and Ole Miss’ John Rhys Plumlee gashed them for a whopping 212 yards and four scores. So what’s someone like Hurts, who can run with speed and power and who has already amassed 1,217 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns this season, going to do? Don’t be surprised if part of the answer from defensive coordinator Dave Aranda is playing safety Grant Delpit more in the box and using his speed to spy Hurts and keep him from breaking containment.
X-factor: Alex Grinch has been a difference-maker in his first season as Oklahoma’s defensive coordinator, helping a previously inept unit to something even better than respectability at times. So what will he have in store against an LSU offense that does so many things at such a high level? How will he use his freakishly athletic linebacker Kenneth Murray to pressure quarterback Burrow while simultaneously helping limit running back Edwards-Helaire? How much havoc will Neville Gallimore wreak? Can Grinch mask an up-and-down secondary against a group of receivers in Chase, Justin Jefferson and Terrace Marshall Jr. that’s as good as any in the country? If Grinch can at least slow down this Tigers offense, he’ll be a hero. But if he can’t, it’s hard to imagine the Sooners keeping pace. Imagine that. — Sam Khan Jr. and Alex Scarborough
Dabo Swinney commends Justin Fields and Ohio State on their talent and expresses his excitement about facing them.
No. 2 Ohio State vs. No. 3 Clemson
College Football Playoff Semifinal at the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl
Saturday, Dec. 28, 2019, State Farm Stadium, Glendale, Arizona
8 p.m., ESPN & ESPN app
Opening line from Caesars Sportsbook: Clemson -2
Quarterbacks Justin Fields and Trevor Lawrence were the No. 1 and 2 overall recruits in the 2018 class. Both are from Georgia; there were debates about which was the better prospect; and both have already shown why they were so highly coveted.
Now we get to see them head-to-head in this matchup between Ohio State and Clemson.
Lawrence has more experience in the playoff, leading Clemson to a national championship last season, and Fields has thrown 40 touchdowns to only one interception this season. The Ohio State offense has been similarly balanced, like Clemson’s, with playmakers in the passing game and the run game.
Both offenses rank in the top five in yards per game, and Ohio State has put up the most offensive points per game this season (48) of any FBS team, although Clemson is not far behind at No. 3, averaging 44.9 points.
Those two units, however, will both have a challenge on their hand with the opposing defense. These are the top two teams in the country in yards allowed per game and pass yards allowed per game, with Clemson at No. 1 and Ohio State at 2 in both categories. On top of that, both defenses are in the top five for offensive touchdowns allowed. Fields and Lawrence are going to be challenged in a way they haven’t yet seen this season.
Key player for Ohio State: The easy answer here is Fields, but in Ohio State’s key games so far this season, the offense has relied on running back J.K. Dobbins. In games against Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan, Dobbins ran for 531 yards and eight touchdowns altogether.
Key player for Clemson: LB Isaiah Simmons is Clemson’s do-it-all defender, and he’s a matchup nightmare for opposing coaches. He can work off the edge as a pass-rusher, spy mobile QBs, tail a running back sideline to sideline and match up with a speedy slot receiver. He’s been the fulcrum for Brent Venables’ defensive scheme this year, as Clemson has once again been one of the top defenses in the nation.
Matchup to watch: Ohio State CB Jeffrey Okudah vs. Clemson receivers Justyn Ross and Tee Higgins. There are matchups of elite players all over the field, including Chase Young vs. Ohio native Jackson Carman in the trenches as well as the dueling QBs, both from suburban Atlanta and both of whom worked with the same QB coach growing up. But the one that stands out is in the secondary, where Clemson’s pair of all-world receivers will face their toughest test to date in Ohio State’s Okudah. Higgins has been a monster this season, highlighted by his three-TD performance in the ACC championship game. Ross was the key to Clemson’s playoff run a year ago, racking up 301 yards and three TDs against Notre Dame and Alabama. Still, few corners in the country have the size (6-1, 200 pounds) and athleticism to match up the way Okudah does. He has allowed just one TD all season according to ESPN Stats & Info data, and opposing QBs are completing well below 50% of their passes thrown his way. Clemson will try to find ways to get a matchup advantage with its pair of big corners, but Okudah makes that tougher, and fellow corner Damon Arnette has been solid all year, too.
X-factor: Experience. Ohio State has been exceptional this season with first-year coach Ryan Day and first-year starting QB Fields running the show, but the postseason is a different beast. Whereas Urban Meyer was a playoff veteran, this year’s crop at Ohio State will be largely doing this for the first time. Not so on the other side, where Clemson is in the playoff for the fifth straight year, and the majority of the key figures — Lawrence, Travis Etienne, Higgins, Ross, Simmons and, of course, Swinney — have beaten a well-worn path through the postseason. Moreover, there will be the looming specter of what happened the last time these two teams faced each other in a playoff game in Arizona, a 31-0 Clemson win. Ohio State might be better off with a team full of players who weren’t around for that heartache. — Tom VanHaaren and David M. Hale