Clemson, Alabama, Michigan State and Oklahoma will square off in the College Football Playoff. Which storylines are we most looking forward to?
There may not have been much drama in the selection of the College Football Playoff field, but there will be plenty when the games kick off on New Year’s Eve. No. 1 Clemson’s meeting with No. 4 Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl and No. 2 Alabama’s clash with No. 3 Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl feature no shortage of storylines. So which one are we most looking forward to? SI’s experts weigh in:
Brian Hamilton: The fate of the No. 4 seed
Last year, Ohio State started 16th in the initial selection committee rankings and won the national championship. This year, Oklahoma started 15th in the committee’s first top 25, and it's arguable that the Sooners are playing as well as anyone in the country right now.
For a second straight year, we have a scorching hot No. 4 seed entering the postseason. For a second straight year, will that momentum carry that team to a title?
Lindsay Schnell: The continued redemption of Bob Stoops and Oklahoma
I’m just amazed and impressed with the Sooners' turnaround this season because a year ago we were all wondering (aloud, no less) if Stoops had lost his magic and it was time to move on. Baker Mayfield and a switch back to the Air Raid re-energized the program; now Oklahoma is playing as well as anyone. The defense is back to its usual self, dominating the Big 12 statistically. Oklahoma has been on a revenge tour this year and has already beaten four of the five teams it lost to last year. Appropriately, that tour will continue with the fifth team, Clemson.
Zac Ellis: What happens to Alabama?
In September we buried Alabama. Then it won 10 straight games and showed why the dynasty isn't dead after all. But now the Crimson Tide face a Big Ten team in a playoff semifinal, a scenario that didn't work out well for them last year. If Nick Saban—who is set to lose vaunted defensive coordinator Kirby Smart after this season—drops to 0–2 in the playoff, how do the natives in Tuscaloosa respond?
Joan Niesen: The possibility of another Cinderella story
I'm most excited—curious might be the better word—to see if the committee's seedings hold up better this year than last year, when No. 4 seed Ohio State dominated throughout. Just think: This time a season ago, a lot of us thought Urban Meyer's squad was the fringe team that could have been left out of the playoff entirely, and a few weeks later, it proved it was the best team in football. This year, the playing field seems a bit more even, but I'm curious to see if another No. 4 seed, Oklahoma this year, can run away with the thing and if Clemson really is deserving of the top spot.
Colin Becht: Can Oklahoma and Alabama get revenge?
Clemson embarrassed Oklahoma in last year’s Russell Athletic Bowl with a 40–6 beatdown. The defeat capped a disappointing five-loss season, spurred Bob Stoops to make the staff changes that have revitalized the Sooners and contributed to linebacker Eric Striker returning to Norman (“I don’t want to go out like this,” Striker said after the game). Of course the key difference this year is the quarterbacks—both of them. The Tigers’ Deshaun Watson missed last year’s meeting with a torn ACL while Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield sat out last season due to NCAA transfer rules. In the other semifinal, Alabama may not have lost Michigan State, but the Spartans still symbolize the Big Ten’s rise that Ohio State helped start with its win over the Crimson Tide in last year’s playoff.
Chris Johnson: The quarterback battle in Clemson-Oklahoma
The Tigers and Sooners feature two of the nation's best passers in Deshaun Watson and Baker Mayfield, respectively. Had I told you before the season that "best" would apply to both of these players by early December, you'd have thought I was half-crazy. Many foresaw Watson's emergence into a dynamic dual-threat playmaker, but Mayfield walked on at Oklahoma after leaving Texas Tech (where he also walked on) and had to beat out Trevor Knight for the starting job. Now Watson and Mayfield are legitimate Heisman Trophy contenders and will meet on one of college football's biggest stages. Both signal-callers can burn defenses through the air and with their legs, but Mayfield arguably possesses a better receiving corps as well as a more imposing rushing attack to complement him. One thing is clear: Neither Watson nor Mayfield should have an easy time leading their teams down the field, as Clemson and Oklahoma are tied for ninth nationally in total defense.
Ben Estes: Oklahoma trying to finish off unlikely comeback story
A season ago the Sooners went an uninspiring 8–5, and Bob Stoops was forced to make big offensive changes amid whispers that his job security could soon be in question. Oklahoma was No. 19 in the preseason AP poll, by far the lowest among the four playoff teams, and an afterthought even in the Big 12, with TCU and Baylor expected to vie for the conference title and playoff participation. Then, of course, the Sooners fell to an average-at-best Texas team in October. Given the above, Oklahoma rebounding to win it all behind its revamped offense would make it one of the more surprising national champions in recent years. The Sooners’ 2015 would become the type of story that makes college football so great.