If you’re still on the fence about which playoff teams to bet – Clemson or Oklahoma, Michigan State or Alabama – Covers has enlisted the help of expert college football bloggers for each of those programs, who give three reasons why their favorite college football teams will cover the spread on New Year’s Eve.
Crimson & Cream Machine blogger Rich DeCray takes up arms for Oklahoma against Clemson blogger Ryan Kantor of Shakin The Southland, and Michigan State blogger Joe Tuohey of The Only Colors takes on Alabama blogger SaxonRBR of Roll Bama Roll.
Capital One Orange Bowl
Oklahoma Sooners vs. Clemson Tigers (+3.5, 64.5)
WHY OKLAHOMA COVERS
Rich DeCray writes for Oklahoma blog Crimson & Cream Machine. Follow them on Facebook and Twitter @CCMachine.
The Oklahoma Sooners have created 26 turnovers over the course of the year. Behind that defensive effort, OU has enjoyed a plus-10 turnover margin leading to the playoff berth. With the instincts of Zack Sanchez and the work ethic of Jordan Thomas in the secondary, the Sooners have become a difficult team to throw the ball against regardless of perceptions of defense and the conference.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Clemson Tigers have lost 25 turnovers (13 interceptions and 12 fumbles) leading to a few close games. Although Dabo Swinney’s squad is undefeated, they have a minus-2 turnover margin. If the turnover issues continue, Clemson could be in some trouble. Giving up a short field to Baker Mayfield and Sterling Shepard is not a wise move.
Ability to move the chains
It’s no secret that many people thought Baker Mayfield deserved an invite to NYC for the Heisman Trophy presentation. Throwing for 3,389 yards to go alongside 35 touchdowns to five interceptions with another 420 yards on the ground and seven more touchdowns, Mayfield dazzled on the field. Displaying a level of moxie not seen on Owen Field in years, Mayfield also showcased a knack for escaping would be tacklers and extending plays.
The determination helped Oklahoma move the chains when it seemed a punt remained imminent. However, the Sooners also rely on possibly the best running back duo in the nation: Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon. Racking up 1,291 yards on the ground, Perine is OU’s best option. But, Joe Mixon possesses great hands in combination with speed and power. As a freshman, Mixon collected 749 yards himself.
Rounding out the threats as one of the most consistent players on the roster, Sterling Shepard finally remained healthy throughout the season. Shepard produced 1,201 yards while drawing double teams each and every weekend. The Clemson defense is talented but they’ll have their work cut out for them if they hope to stifle every threat the Sooners offer.
Special teams touchdowns
Alex Ross has yet to return a kickoff and Sterling Shepard has yet to return a punt for a touchdown this year. It has to happen at some point, as the two are electric return men. Bob Stoops has remained adamant that a big play on special teams will happen. If Clemson’s punter continues to go rogue like he did in the ACC Championship game, a big play is bound to happen for one of Oklahoma’s returners.
WHY CLEMSON COVERS
Ryan Kantor writes for Clemson blog Shakin The Southland. You can follow them on Facebook and Twitter @STSouthland.
Defense causes havoc
Bill Connelly’s S&P+ provides an insightful defensive statistic called “Havoc Rate”. It’s essentially the percentage of the time a defense causes chaos or, well, havoc. This includes sacks, interceptions, passes broken up, forced fumbles, etc. Oklahoma’s defense is at 16.7 percent. Clemson’s defense wreaks havoc 21.3 percent of the time. That’s higher than any of the defenses Oklahoma has seen all season. Clemson’s defensive line is a strength. If they can win the battle upfront, it changes the dynamic for an explosive OU offense. Against a very young OU offensive line, I believe Clemson can win that battle.
Mayfield vs. S&P+ Top 60 defenses
Oklahoma has faced five defenses in the S&P+ Top 60 so far this season:
No. 18 West Virgnia
No. 25 Tennessee
No. 56 TCU
No. 58 Oklahoma State
No. 60 Baylor
On the full season, Mayfield has averaged some extremely impressive numbers:
282 passing yards
69 percent completion
2.9 passing TDs
However, against these five quality defenses his numbers dip dramatically. Be sure to notice the yardage and completion percentage:
197 passing yards
58 percent completion
2.6 passing TDs
Deshaun Watson faced six defenses in the S&P Top 60 (they happen to all fall in the Top 50):
No. 3 Boston College
No. 9 Florida State
No. 22 Louisville
No. 33 Notre Dame
No. 34 NC State
No. 48 App State
On the year, Watson also averaged some impressive numbers:
270 passing yards
70 percent completion
Against the six defenses in the S&P+ Top 60 he faced, those numbers don’t flinch:
272 passing yards
67 percent completion
Because Watson has faced tougher defenses and avoided the statistical drop off that Mayfield has experienced when playing quality defenses, one has to feel better with Watson at the helm against a premier defense. Oklahoma has the S&P+ No. 12 defense. Clemson’s defense is No. 6.
Shutting down No. 1 WRs
Oklahoma has an excellent WR in Sterling Shepard, who has 30 percent of the Sooner’s receptions. ESPN’s David Hale shares an interesting statistic with us. Aside from Stacey Coley of Miami (who still only had 54 yards), the opposing team’s most targeted receiving come into the game has failed to grab more than four receptions or 86 yards.
If Clemson can continue the trend and hold Shepard in check without double coverage, that may spell trouble for OU.
Goodyear Cotton Bowl
Michigan State Spartans vs. Alabama Crimson Tide (-10, 47)
WHY MICHIGAN STATE COVERS
Joe Tuohey writes for Michigan State blog The Only Colors. Follow them on Facebook and Twitter @TheOnlyColors.
Cook and Burbridge connection
Each member of this Spartan duo was named tops at their position in the Big Ten for the season, and for good reason. Cook and Burbridge managed to be quite effective against some stellar Big Ten secondaries, most notably “Regular Michigan” (my nickname for MSU’s rival). Burbridge has made a number of highlight-reel quality catches and excels at picking up yards after the catch. Cook should be fully healthy after the layoff since the Big Ten Championship.
Michigan State manages 5.3 points per drive that finishes inside of their opponents’ 40, good for 21st in the country, while Alabama manages just 4.8 (stats courtesy of Bill Connelly of footballstudyhall.com). There’s little doubt that Alabama is going to have some success in moving the ball. After all, they’ve got Heisman winner Derrick Henry. But if MSU can force the Crimson Tide into field goal attempts instead of touchdowns, MSU will keep it close and give themselves a chance to win.
Alabama is a brutally efficient defensive football machine, but they’re just 80th in the country in IsoPPP – a measure of explosiveness. Michigan State has a number of offensive playmakers, including receivers Macgarrett Kings, R.J. Shelton, and the aforementioned Burbridge. If MSU can find and exploit some gaps in Alabama’s defensive backfield, then they might be able to loosen things up for the running game and make some hay offensively. They’ve certainly got the personnel to do it.
WHY ALABAMA COVERS
SaxonRBR is the senior staff writer for Alabama blog Roll Bama Roll. Follow them on Facebook and Twitter @rollbamaroll.
Ideal schematic matchups
The Tide defense, despite much-ballyhooed recruiting adjustments to combat the hurry-up and spread offenses, still specializes in shutting down pro-style attacks just like Michigan State. The two teams the Tide played this season who were most similar to the Spartans were Wisconsin and Georgia, and the Tide won those games by a combined score of 73-27 with a yards-per-play advantage of nearly 2.5 yards a play. That latter number was impacted significantly by an 83 yard touchdown run from Georgia’s Nick Chubb that came well after the game was decided. When adjusting for garbage time, the Tide’s yard-per-play advantages in those games is in excess of four yards a play.
The only other back Michigan State’s faced this season that was of the same caliber as the newly-minted Heisman Trophy winner was Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott, and it’s a near-certainty that Henry gets more than 12 carries in this game. According to the S&P+ rankings, the Spartans are only the fifth-best rush defense the Tide have faced this season. Henry averaged 150 yards at five yard a carry against the four that were better. The Spartans allow backs to reach the second level at a rate roughly around the national average, and that’s a recipe for disaster against a back as good in the open field as Henry.
Inconsistent quarterback play
Connor Cook is the best quarterback the Tide’s faced this season, but unlike the Spartans defense he hasn’t shown up in the big games. In Michigan State’s games against Oregon, Michigan, and Iowa, Cook’s combined stat line was 54 of 103 for 711 yards, three touchdowns, and two interceptions, good for a completion percentage of just 52.4 percent and an average of 6.9 yards per attempt. That sort of performance won’t get it done against the nation’s No. 4 defense in opponent passer rating.
Join the debate in the comment section below. Who will cover in the College Football Playoff semifinals: Oklahoma or Clemson? Michigan State or Alabama?