A preview of the New Year’s Six, including the College Football Playoff Semifinals
Lines and totals courtesy of Bovada as of Wednesday afternoon
‘Tis the season, bowl season. 2019 is fast approaching and before we hit a long offseason, I take a look at the six marquee games of college football’s postseason. Let’s dive in:
Florida v. Michigan (-6.5), O/U 51
I see this game as two teams who are trending in opposite directions.
Florida exceeded expectations this season and finished the year strong, winning their last three including a convincing road win over their rival Florida State. In those three games, the team’s biggest question mark, quarterback Felipe Franks, accounted for 10 touchdowns and no turnovers. The Gators have continued that momentum by putting together a strong recruiting class. I have little doubts that Florida will show up ready to go and fully motivated in this contest.
On the other hand, it’s difficult to know where Michigan stands coming into this game. They had their playoff hopes smashed by Ohio State in the final week of the regular season. Since that loss, four key starters have announced they will not play in the bowl game (RB Karan Higdon, RT Juwann Bushell-Beatty, LB Devin Bush, DL Rashan Gary). There have also been rumors swirling about Jim Harbaugh leaving for an NFL job. Harbaugh squashed the rumors a few weeks ago, but his name continues to be mentioned when NFL openings are discussed. Harbaugh addressing the rumors may have been a strategy to keep his recruiting class intact, or he may genuinely want to wait another year or two in Ann Arbor even with some attractive head coaching positions (Packers, Browns, Jets) likely available this offseason. Either way, the weeks leading up to the bowl game have been filled with distractions for the Wolverines.
The narrative of Harbaugh struggling against rivals dominated headlines this season, but he’s also struggled when good coaches have had extended time to prepare for his style of play since he became the Michigan head coach. The success of opposing coaches has come at the beginning of the year (Utah in 2015, Notre Dame this season), or end of the season (Florida State in the 2016 Orange Bowl, South Carolina in last year’s Outback Bowl). I trust Dan Mullen to come up with a game plan to score against Michigan and think the Florida defense will be getting some love after this game with their performance. I like the Gators to pull the upset in Atlanta.
Prediction: Florida 24, Michigan 20
Notre Dame v. Clemson (-12.5), O/U 56
For the first time in recent memory, the main focus of the headlines Notre Dame received this season have been for their play on the field. The quarterback controversy has been resolved, there were no rumblings about the school making a coaching change, and outside of Dexter Williams’ suspension to start the year, there are no notable off-the-field issues to speak of for the Irish. It’s surprising to see Clemson come into this matchup as the team with more questions and distractions, as Dexter Lawrence and two other players have been suspended for the game. Clemson has plenty of depth on their defensive line to overcome Lawrence’s absence, but it’s the last thing Dabo Swinney and his staff want to be worrying about in this matchup.
I think the Irish matchup much better with Clemson than the talking heads do. Defensively, the Irish don’t have a glaring weakness. Led by Jerry Tillery and Julian Okwara, the Irish are stout up front. The linebackers and secondary have been solid all year. The defense has not seen weapons like Clemson has all season, so they will definitely be tested, but I don’t expect the Tiger’s to march up and down the field on the Irish, scoring at will. The key for Notre Dame defensively will be stopping Travis Etienne in the running game and forcing freshman Quarterback Trevor Lawrence into 3rd and longs, allowing the Irish to drop 6 or more and disguise coverages. Offensively, the Irish are balanced. Dexter Williams is a load, and Ian Book has the weapons to challenge the Clemson secondary. The Tigers gave up over 500 yards to South Carolina through the air, highlighting the weakness of their team. If Book has time, he will give Miles Boykin and Chase Claypool the opportunity to make big plays down the field.
The key to this game will be the first quarter, as this game could get away from the Irish in a hurry if they have a sluggish start. If Notre Dame can put up a score or two on Clemson early and jump out to a lead, I love their chances against the Tigers. Many have said Notre Dame hasn’t played anyone like Clemson, but the Tigers haven’t seen anyone as good as Notre Dame either. I expect this game to be much closer than the experts in the desert think, and I think the Irish get a late score to come out on top.
Prediction: Notre Dame 31, Clemson 30
Oklahoma v. Alabama (-14), O/U 77
Oklahoma has everything needed offensively to give Nick Saban’s defense fits. They have a dynamic, dual-threat quarterback in Heisman-winner Kyler Murray. They boast the Joe Moore Award winners as the Most Outstanding Offensive Line Unit in College Football. They have explosive weapons on the outside in CeeDee Lamb and Marquise Brown (assuming Brown is healthy). They also have a play-caller who has a history of giving SEC defenses trouble, highlighted by Lincoln Riley’s team putting up 48 on the Georgia Bulldogs in last season’s Rose Bowl. The Alabama defense, as talented as they are, has not been as strong as defenses of their past. They have been exposed at times this season, although they haven’t faced a team that has the offensive firepower of Oklahoma that can consistently hurt them. The multitude of weapons and creativity on offensive means Oklahoma will be able to score on Alabama. The Sooners also have a huge edge in the kicking game over the Tide.
The problem for Oklahoma is that Alabama will have no trouble scoring on them, either. Alabama’s defense isn’t as good as it’s been in year’s past, but they’re still talented and are head and shoulders above the Oklahoma defense. The Sooners defense only held one of their last five opponents under 40 points. Those opponents included Kansas and Oklahoma State, which were both home games. Like Clemson, Alabama has some distractions with starting left guard Deonte Brown being suspended for the rest of the season. The line hasn’t been able to keep quarterback Tua Tagovailoa upright lately, and some of that is his own fault by holding on to the ball too long. Tua’s ankle injury is a concern, but I expect the Tide to have no problem gashing the Sooners for big plays. I’m confident Jalen Hurts could put up 40+ points on Oklahoma if needed. Damien and Najee Harris should have no problem getting chunk plays on the ground, and the terrific trio of wideouts (Jerry Jeudy, Jaylen Waddle and Henry Ruggs III) should have plenty of room to operate in the Oklahoma secondary.
I expect this game to be close…for a half. I think the Sooners will be able to match the Tide point for point early on. Saban and his staff will then make adjustments and shore up things defensively. Ultimately, I think the Sooners defense is too much to overcome against a team with as much talent as Alabama, and the Tide will roll in the second half to a comfortable win.
Prediction: Alabama 49, Oklahoma 31
LSU v. UCF (+7.5), O/U 55
The Knights won’t be sneaking up on their bowl opponent this season. Last year, Auburn was burnt out after playing Alabama and Georgia a combined three times in a four week span. They were close to a playoff berth before falling short in the SEC Championship to the Dawgs. The Knights were on an emotional high coming into the bowl undefeated, overlooked and motivated to send Scott Frost out with a win before his departure to Nebraska after the game. UCF took advantage of the moment and defeated the Tigers 34-27.
I think the Knights have ridden this season’s emotional wave to its end after a comeback win over Memphis in the AAC Championship Game. The Knights were able to bounce back from a halftime deficit thanks to help from the home crowd and a lackluster performance from the Tigers’ offense. The Tigers they’ll face on New Year’s Day will not have the same letdown, as I expect LSU to come into this game ready to play. More so than any other bowl game, motivation can be the great equalizer between the Group of Five team and their New Year’s Six opponent. The Group of Five team will always have a chance if their opponent shows up flat and starts off sluggish. Fortunately for LSU, Ed Orgeron, for all of his faults, has his teams emotionally ready in big spots. The Tigers will come prepared.
I think the absence of McKenzie Milton will be glaring in this game. I don’t think his replacement, Darriel Mack Jr., will be able to expose LSU’s secondary enough even without Greedy Williams, and Devin White playing is key for the Tiger’s defense. The mismatch athletically between the two sides will be evident, but I also think the quarterback matchup will go the Tiger’s way. I expect Joe Burrow to play well and the Tigers to come out with a victory.
Prediction: LSU 28, UCF 17
Washington v. Ohio State (-7), O/U 58
One of the most intriguing matchups of bowl season pits Dwayne Haskins Jr. and Ohio State’s passing attack against the Washington secondary. In almost any other season, Haskins wins the Heisman with these mind-boggling stats: 4,580 passing yards, a 175.8 QB Rating, and 51 total touchdowns while completing 70% of his passes. The Buckeyes have weapons all over the field and are led by Haskins and their four veteran receivers (Parris Campbell, K.J. Hill, Terry McLaurin and Johnnie Dixon). The key for Ohio State’s offense may be establishing the run with J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber to maintain some balance against the Washington defense. This will allow for head coach-in-waiting Ryan Day to open things up for Haskins through the air. That may be a difficult task for Day against the Huskies’ strong defense. Washington, led by defensive backs Byron Murphy and Taylor Rapp, has let up only 9 passing touchdowns all season and an average of 185 passing yards a game. Both teams will have their strongest units on the field when Ohio State has the ball.
It’s the other side of the ball that likely will decide this game. Since he led the Huskies to the playoffs his sophomore year in 2016, Jake Browning’s production has regressed and plateaued. In 2016, Browning threw for 43 touchdowns and 9 picks. In the last two seasons, Browning has thrown 35 touchdowns and 15 interceptions combined. Myles Gaskin running the ball has been the bread and butter of the offense, and the Ohio State defense has had trouble stopping the run this season. However, the Buckeyes have had more trouble with defending the run in spread offenses (see: Purdue, Maryland) than they have with the more traditional running approach that Washington deploys (see: Michigan, Michigan State). Will Chris Peterson be able to come up with enough explosive plays in the passing game for the Washington offense?
Ultimately, I think the Huskies’ lack of firepower offensively will be the difference in this ballgame. Washington has only scored more than 30 points against a Power Five opponent twice this season. They scored over 30 against UCLA and Oregon State, who combined for five wins. In comparison, the Buckeyes offense only failed to score 30 points three times, against Michigan State, Penn State (two top 20 scoring defenses in the country) and Purdue (can’t explain that one). Washington also has a top five scoring defense, but they haven’t played against an offense as prolific as Ohio State’s. I think the Buckeyes outlast a stingy Washington defense.
Prediction: Ohio State 31, Washington 20
Texas v. Georgia (-13), O/U 58
Georgia has had a bumpy bowl offseason. For the second consecutive year, the Bulldogs squandered a first half lead to Alabama as the backup QB came in to save the day again for the Tide. Jake Fromm was special in the first half, but like the National Championship Game the previous season, struggled to convert on third down as the game wore on. In the last two seasons, Smart’s teams have bounced back exceptionally well after defeats. Last year, Georgia lost to Auburn in the regular season but came back and defeated them in the SEC title game to make the playoff. This season, the Dawgs used a bye week to help overcome a loss to LSU by dominating Florida in their next game. At some point, I expect one of these losses to have a lingering effect on the team. I think the manner in which they lost to Alabama this season may finally be the one that does the trick. Since the loss, Kirby Smart campaigned for his team to be included in the playoff field and was denied. He’s also been asked numerous questions about his backup quarterback, former number one overall recruit Justin Fields, potentially transferring.
On the flipside, I liked the way Texas was playing late in the year. They rebounded from consecutive losses to beat Texas Tech on the road and a gritty Iowa State team in Austin. They also hung around with the Sooners in the Big 12 Championship Game before a few key plays late did not go their way. Sam Ehlinger has also had some time to further recover from a nagging shoulder injury and should be 100% healthy for this game. Georgia did a great job of covering Alabama’s wide receivers in the SEC Championship game, but Texas’ receivers present a different challenge. Alabama’s receivers specialize in speed, which Georgia was able to keep in check for most of the game. The Longhorns have two big, strong receivers on the outside in Collin Johnson and Lil’Jordan Humphrey. With Thorpe Award winner Deandre Baker skipping the game, both receivers will have a mismatch every time they line up. Even when either receiver is covered, Ehlinger has confidence throwing it up to them, giving them a chance to make a play. I believe Texas will be able to score. The concern I have against Georgia would be the Longhorns’ defense against a powerful Bulldog offensive line. The Texas defense hasn’t played against teams that run Georgia’s style of offense. We will see if they can hold up.
Throughout the buildup to the college football playoff reveal, announcers like Kirk Herbstreit said Georgia deserved to be in the field because they’re one of the four best teams. Peers such as Rece Davis correctly refuted that by saying they lost their two biggest games and at some point, that has to matter. I think Georgia is one of the four most talented teams in the country, but Texas is not far off. A lot of Texas’ talent is very young, but they’ve gotten a lot of experience through the course of this season. Texas hasn’t been to a BCS-level bowl game since they lost to Alabama in the National Championship Game in 2010. The fans will travel in full force to New Orleans, mitigating any perceived home field advantage the Bulldogs will have in this game. The last factor for me is Tom Herman, whose numbers as an underdog have been well documented. Since 2016, Tom Herman has been an underdog 12 times. He is 9-3 ATS in those games with six outright victories. When doubted, his team is always ready to perform. Go against this man at your own risk.
Prediction: Texas 31, Georgia 24
Thank you for reading all season long. See you in 2019.