• All four of the teams in the College Football Playoff are capable of winning the national title. Here is how each could do it.
By SI.com Staff
December 23, 2016

Think you know exactly how the College Football Playoff will play out? It’s not that clear.

Sure, top-seed Alabama is the defending national champion and boasts an undefeated record entering its Peach Bowl semifinal against Washington. But No. 2 Clemson may be just as good or even better than it was last season when the Crimson Tide needed a clutch onside kick to help put away the Tigers in the title game. And No. 3 Ohio State boasts some of the most impressive wins of the season with its young, revamped roster coming into form down the stretch. And don’t write off No. 4 Washington, undaunted by the challenge of facing Alabama on New Year’s Eve after blowing out nearly everyone in the Pac-12 with its balanced attack and ferocious defense.

There are strong arguments for any of the four playoff teams to end the season with the national title. SI’s college football experts make the case for each of the four.

College Football
The case against eight: Why College Football Playoff should stay at four teams
Associated Press

This story appears in the December 12, 2016, issue of Sports Illustrated. To subscribe, click here.

You don't want Bama. We know, you think you do. We've seen you there, waving your poster board claiming that you indeed want the Crimson Tide. But look deep into your soul. Are you sure you want to subject your favorite team to what's about to happen? Really?

You wanted Bama back in 2014. That team had flaws that Ole Miss exposed in Oxford and that Ohio State gleefully took advantage of in the Sugar Bowl. You wanted Bama last year. That team needed Nick Saban to call an onside kick in the national title game because Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson kept tossing touchdown passes. But you don't want Bama now.

College Football
Bowl Picks: Staff predictions for each game, the College Football Playoff

This might be Saban's best Alabama team, and he's already won four national titles with the Tide. The decision to start freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts has made the offense a chimera that can beat defenses as an up-tempo spread or as a pro-style bulldozer. And while the 2011 defense had better numbers than this one, it played in a more boring football world. That '11 defense resembled Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator. The T-800 could blow up anything that moved in a predictable pattern, but it might have struggled with a jet sweep run-pass option. This year's D seems more like Robert Patrick in Terminator 2. The T-1000 could liquefy itself and re-form in whatever shape the task required. Linebacker Tim Williams coming off one edge and defensive end Jonathan Allen coming off the other might be the football version of morphing one's arms into swords.

Get SI's special Alabama College Football Playoff Preview issue

The Tide have grown adept at boosting other phases of their game when one lags. Consider the first quarter of their 54-16 win over Florida in the SEC championship. Alabama's offense was awful, running six plays for minus-seven yards. Yet the Tide ended the quarter up 16-9. Why? Because junior linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton's 40-yard interception return set up a field goal. Then sophomore cornerback Minkah Fitzpatrick returned an interception 44 yards for a touchdown. Then sophomore running back Derrick Gore blocked a Florida punt and freshman running back Joshua Jacobs scooped up the ball and returned it 27 yards for another TD.

College Football
Saban, Alabama get easy transition in promoting Sarkisian to offensive coordinator

By the time Alabama's offense woke up and opened the second quarter with an 88-yard touchdown drive, the defense and special teams had thoroughly demoralized the Gators. The Tide's defense and special teams have combined to score 14 TDs, so an opponent can expect to be on the business end of one of these massive momentum-changers.

"We don't like that. We don't like giving up points," senior linebacker Reuben Foster said after the game. "We don't like giving up first downs. We hate that." Foster sat next to Saban as he spoke, and it's no accident that he sounded like his coach. No group of Alabama players since Saban arrived in 2007 has so parroted the man. If he has finally figured out how to insert copies of his brain into his horde of former five-star recruits, just put down that poster board. There is no hope for you or anyone.

Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

This story appears in the December 12, 2016, issue of Sports Illustrated. To subscribe, click here.

What’s better than a team with a playoff pedigree, a deep and disruptive defensive front, a savvy two-time Heisman Trophy finalist at quarterback and abundant skill-position threats? That same package of talent and experience when it's motivated and ticked off. This is Clemson in 2016, a club that sometimes drifted in the early part of the season and squeezed out five one-score victories before its high-wire act caught up with it. When Pittsburgh upset the Tigers 43–42 on Nov. 12—in Death Valley, of all places—the defeat didn't put their title hopes to bed as much as it awakened them. "Prosperity is a terrible teacher," coach Dabo Swinney said a couple of days afterward. His team seemingly learned something anyway, following the defeat with two straight wins by more than 20 points before building a three-touchdown lead against Virginia Tech and holding on to win the ACC championship game 42–35. Beware, College Football Playoff participants. Clemson sleepwalks no more.

College Football
Can Clemson upset Ohio State, return to title game?

Junior quarterback Deshaun Watson remains the great equalizer as a dual-threat playmaker. Any reports of his regression are greatly exaggerated: His 2016 numbers (67.6% completion rate, 37 touchdowns, 15 interceptions) compare favorably with his 2015 stats (67.8%, 35 TDs, 13 picks). Watson has the improvisational skill to counter the athleticism or sophistication of any defense; he proved that, if you recall, by scorching Alabama for 478 total yards and four touchdowns in last season's 45–40 championship game loss. This year Watson has distributed his passes well enough that six receivers have 29 or more catches; double-covering one target is bound to create opportunities for another. If Clemson has a concern, it's providing a ground game to keep defenses honest, but that worry has been muted by a late-season revival: After just three 100-yard efforts in the first 10 games, junior tailback Wayne Gallman had two in the last three.

Get SI's special Clemson College Football Playoff preview issue

Meanwhile, the defensive front collapses pockets and pushes back the line of scrimmage. The Tigers enter the playoff with the nation's No. 6 overall defense, per Football Outsiders' S&P+ metric, thanks in large part to 112 tackles for loss, which is tied for third nationally. Their top three linemen—senior Carlos Watkins, sophomore Christian Wilkins and ACC defensive rookie of the year Dexter Lawrence—each weigh more than 300 pounds but have disruptive speed and agility. No shock that they combined for 32 tackles for loss and 15 quarterback pressures alone, because most offenses can't budge or elude all of them at once. Clemson's 24 takeaways are tied for 20th nationally, so while it can force opponents into mistakes, this isn't a unit that thrives on errors. It might be something better, though. Behind that stout defensive front, the Tigers impose themselves on opponents instead of reacting as the play unfolds. That's a more reliable tactic no matter what sort of attack comes their way in the playoff.

No one disputes Clemson's raw talent; it matches up nicely with that of any of the CFP entries. Now the Tigers are playing with a serrated edge, too.

Icon Sportswire via AP Images

This story appears in the December 12, 2016, issue of Sports Illustrated. To subscribe, click here.

When Ohio State stunned Miami 31–24 in double overtime to win the 2002 national title, it marked the peak of the Jim Tressel era. The Buckeyes entered the game as 12-point underdogs, and that victory helped usher Tressel-ball into the college football vernacular. Tressel-ball meant conservative play-calling and a nearly obsessive affinity for punting.

The arrival of Urban Meyer after the 2011 season would mean a more wide-open offense, frequent fourth-down gambles and a general upgrade in football aesthetics. But as Ohio State enters the 2017 College Football Playoff with a weak offensive line, pedestrian wideouts and no game-breaking tailback, Meyer needs to rekindle the conservative ethos of his predecessor. "If Ohio State is going to win the national title," said a coach who scouted them extensively this season, "they're going to have to win it on defense and special teams."

College Football
Ohio State lifer Luke Fickell set to bring singular focus to Cincinnati

Sound familiar? The Buckeyes' offense is a paradox. It led the Big Ten in scoring offense (42.7 points per game), total offense (479.5 yards per game) and rushing offense (258.3). Junior quarterback J.T. Barrett is 26–3 as a starter. But Ohio State has sputtered against stout defenses, yielding six sacks and 11 tackles for loss to Penn State and eight sacks and 13 tackles for loss to Michigan. Any hopes of a national title in Columbus center on fending off perhaps the country's two best defensive lines, Clemson's and Alabama's.

How do the Buckeyes do that? Tressel-ball. Opponents will try to limit explosive junior running back-receiver Curtis Samuel. Penn State did that successfully in its 24–21 upset, as Samuel ran the ball only twice from scrimmage. (He delivered a 74-yard touchdown on one of those carries.) For the Buckeyes to win, they will need to figure out ways to force-feed Samuel (7.7 yards per carry), use Barrett 18 to 24 times as a runner and get 6'5", 258-pound junior tight end Marcus Baugh into mismatches. Ohio State's limited ability to stretch the field vertically will allow opponents to crowd the box, so pounding freshman tailback Mike Weber between the tackles remains a tricky proposition. "Let's face it," says the opposing coach. "He's not Carlos Hyde or Ezekiel Elliott."

The Buckeyes' 30–27 double-overtime comeback victory over Michigan offers a peek at their national title blueprint. Their only two touchdowns in regulation came off turnovers—sophomore free safety Malik Hooker returned an interception 16 yards for a score in the second quarter, and sophomore linebacker Jerome Baker snared an interception late in the third quarter and returned it 22 yards to the Wolverines' 13. The field position after Baker's pick allowed Ohio State to snap a streak of eight consecutive offensive possessions without a score.

College Football
Bowl Picks: Staff predictions for each game, the College Football Playoff

The offense's troubles force the Buckeyes to rely on their defense. They like to isolate corners Marshon Lattimore, a sophomore, and Gareon Conley, a junior, on the opposition's two best receivers, which frees Hooker to play centerfield; he has six interceptions, three of which he returned for touchdowns.

With the country's No. 4 defense, No. 5 punter (Cameron Johnson) and an eighth-best turnovers gained (25), Ohio State will play to its strengths—sound familiar, Tressel-ball fans? Maybe Meyer will even wear a sweater vest.

Associated Press

This story appears in the December 12, 2016, issue of Sports Illustrated. To subscribe, click here.

Have you watched sophomore quarterback Jake Browning slice and dice defenses with remarkable efficiency? Seen junior safety Budda Baker deliver a hit? Stared wide-eyed as junior receiver John Ross sidestepped tacklers during a kick return?

If none of these individual highlights have persuaded you that Washington is good enough to win the College Football Playoff, check out the Huskies' footage from Sept. 30. It'll remind you how they demolished Stanford in Seattle that night, particularly in the trenches. Washington proved then that it's ready to play with any team in the country, even—gasp!—undefeated Alabama.

College Football
Familiar situation greets Chris Petersen as underdog Washington preps to face Alabama

Maybe you didn't get to see that 44–6 blowout, so let's recap: Washington and its 10th-ranked defense held the Cardinal and vaunted tailback Christian McCaffrey to 29 rushing yards while piling up eight sacks. (Remember, kids: Defense still wins championships.) Sure, it was an off year in Palo Alto, but Stanford did finish 9–3, and UW scored more points and gave up fewer against the Cardinal than any of their other opponents this year. The Huskies dominated all aspects of the game, which we've seen many times from the nation's No. 4 team, most recently in its 41–10 win over No. 8 Colorado in the Pac-12 championship game.

Browning & Co. know how to win in every way possible: They can blow you out (Stanford), come from behind (Arizona), start slow and finish fast (Cal), get a heroic play in a clutch moment (Utah) and lull you into thinking it'll be a game before blowing you out on your home field (Washington State).

Don't read too much into the 26–13 loss to USC on Nov. 12; it was the perfect storm for an upset. First Washington lost senior defensive end Joe Mathis (foot injury) early in the week, then starting junior middle linebacker Azeem Victor went down in the second quarter. But with the pressure of remaining undefeated gone, the Huskies settled back into destruction mode. They responded to whispers that without Mathis, the pass rush would lose its lethal edge by racking up nine sacks in their final three games.

College Football
The case for Alabama to win the College Football Playoff

Washington scores (No. 4 in the country, at 44.5 points per game), plays great defense (giving up only 316.2 yards per game) and has one of the nation's most dynamic returners in Ross. No offense to Browning, the Pac-12 offensive player of the year, who completed 223 of 353 pass attempts for 3,280 yards and 42 touchdowns and had the fifth-highest QB efficiency rating in the country at 176.5, but that award should have gone to his top receiver. A burner with great hands (76 catches for 1,122 yards and 17 touchdowns), Ross missed last season with a left-ACL tear. Every time he caught the ball this year there has been a better than one-in-five chance he'd wind up in the end zone. As a returner, he's brought back 14 kicks for 364 yards, including one touchdown.

But the biggest, baddest and best card UW has to play this postseason? The guy in charge. Third-year coach Chris Petersen showed at Boise State that he excelled in big games, particularly when he has a lot of time to prepare. (Call Oklahoma, Oregon and Virginia Tech for details.) Many believed the Huskies were destined to win a national title when they hired Petersen. No one thought it could happen this soon.

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)