Loaded College Football Playoff Field Could Be Its Strongest Yet

The playoff semifinals over the last five years have been largely duds, but this year looks poised to be different.
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College Football Playoff 2019 Bracket

The College Football Playoff selection committee did its job with distinction, reaching the correct (but close) final conclusion by placing LSU at No. 1 and Ohio State at No. 2.

There will be some caterwauling from Columbus, just as there would have been some bellyaching from Baton Rouge if the decision had gone the other way. Don’t listen to any of it. The Tigers’ demolition of Georgia, coupled with the Buckeyes’ two-touchdown deficit against Wisconsin, necessitated changing the order of the top two from what it had been the previous two weeks.

Committee chairman Rob Mullens said Sunday that it was “extremely close” but cited the respective conference championship game performances as a deciding factor.

In addition, LSU’s strength of schedule moved ahead of Ohio State’s in the final Sagarin Ratings. The Tigers’ quality victories are simply a smidge better than the Buckeyes’ quality victories.

That was the only difficult decision the committee had to make. The field separated itself in orderly fashion, most notably when Utah flopped in the Pac-12 championship game and cleared the path for the Big 12 champion. That turned out to be Oklahoma, although the Sooners might have had a few nervous moments Saturday night when the Badgers threatened to make a case for a two-loss team to make the field for the first time.

Thus the field is set: No. 1 LSU will play No. .4 Oklahoma in the Peach Bowl in Atlanta; No. 2 Ohio State will play No. 3 Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, Ariz. Both games will be played Dec. 28.

We have a playoff field that, on paper, might be the strongest in its six-year history. There are three powerhouses and one wobbly team that nevertheless possesses the firepower to potentially keep things interesting.

This is the best collection of offenses we’ve ever seen in the playoff. For the first time, all four teams rank in the top five nationally in scoring: Ohio State is No. 1, LSU third, Clemson fourth and Oklahoma fifth. All four teams are averaging scoring in the 40s per game, a playoff first.

And even the defenses aren’t too shabby. The national rankings in scoring defense: Clemson is No. 1, Ohio State third, LSU 27th and Oklahoma 49th. That’s a massive upgrade for the Sooners over their two most recent playoff teams, which finished 101st (2018) and 68th (2017).

Average winning margins are all three scores or better: Ohio State 36.2 points, Clemson 35.9, LSU 26.6, Oklahoma 18.7.

This playoff seems likely to feature the No. 1 draft pick in 2020 (either Ohio State’s Chase Young or LSU’s Joe Burrow) and the No. 1 draft pick in 2021 (Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence). Each team could have a Heisman finalist, if as many as four players are invited to New York. (We’ll find that out tomorrow.)

You have one quarterback who has never missed the playoff (Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts, who played for Alabama the previous three years). You have another QB who has never lost a college game (Clemson’s Lawrence). You have three QBs who transferred because they were not on top of the depth chart (Hurts, Burrow and Justin Fields) and became saviors in their new locales.

If you want an area of demarcation, it’s in coaching success at the playoff level. Clemson’s Dabo Swinney has a 5-2 record and two national championships; Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley is 0-2; LSU’s Ed Orgeron and Ohio State’s Ryan Day have never done this before.

Predicted entertainment value for these semis: sky high.

Which would be a pleasant change.

While the playoff has undeniably enhanced the sport, the playoff semifinals themselves have been duds. Of the 10 played to date, only two have been legitimately dramatic: the Georgia-Oklahoma Rose Bowl overtime shootout from the 2017-18 playoff; and the Ohio State-Alabama Sugar Bowl upset from the 2014-15 playoff. Those were both one-score games.

The other eight semis have been decided by an average of 25.1 points. Most were over by halftime.

This year, the expectation is for at least one semifinal classic. An Ohio State-Clemson clash is delicious on every level, matching unbeaten teams that have dominated their conferences and possess virtually no glaring weaknesses. There will be stars all over the field

The Notre Dame-Clemson matchup last season was the first semifinal meeting of unbeaten teams in playoff history, but not many people saw that as a close game going in. Las Vegas certainly didn’t, establishing the Tigers as an 11-point favorite. Turned out even that was too charitable, with Clemson rolling 30-3.

The reigning national champion Tigers are on a 28-game winning streak and have won eight straight games by 31 or more points. They’re performing exactly how they played last year, when they stormed into the playoff and blew out both the Fighting Irish and Alabama. And they are simmering with resentment (perhaps manufactured) about being considered a notch behind both LSU and Ohio State.

(That’s more the fault of the Atlantic Coast Conference than Clemson itself. The league has failed to produce any quality challengers.)

Ohio State, meanwhile, has worn the "complete team" mantle bestowed by the selection committee all season. The Buckeyes have shut down offenses and blown up scoreboards in equal turns, and specialized in throwing knockouts at some point in time in every game. The knockout came later than usual in the Big Ten title game, but it came just the same—a 27-0 flurry in a span of less than 24 minutes. They will be light years better than anyone Clemson has played this season.

If Oklahoma punches above its weight, maybe we’ll have two engaging semifinals. LSU’s defense has improved radically in recent weeks, allowing a total of 17 points in its last two games, but the Sooners present a stress test the Tigers haven’t seen since giving up 41 points to Alabama Nov. 9.

The single weakest link of the four teams is the Oklahoma defense, which will be tasked with slowing down a Burrow & Co., attack that scored at least 36 points in all but one of its games this season and has topped 40 10 times.

But given playoff semifinal history, even one great game would be better than most years. This is a stout playoff field, which hopefully will deliver for the sport’s fans.