Just a season ago, we got the chance to finally see a college football playoff to determine a national champion instead of simply crowning a team based on a single bowl. While the 4-team format still can leave a lot to be desired and could someday be changed for an 8-team field, for now, it has to be considered progress. In 2014, we saw two blowouts and a memorable game that gave Ohio State a national title, and now the end of 2015 gives us three new contenders and a college that always lurks in search for the ultimate prize.
As the national semifinals will take place on New Year's Eve, the spotlight will shine on Clemson, Oklahoma, Alabama, and Michigan State as they fight for a spot in January 11´s final game. Their selection as the four best teams in the land was mostly non-controversial and they are bound to produce a couple of memorable games, and in them, we get the chance to make a few bucks in the process.
Here we present our preview and picks for the college football semifinals, which are ready to give us a great ending for 2015.
#4 Oklahoma vs. #1 Clemson
Wednesday, 4 pm ET
Despite being the lone unbeaten team on Division I, Clemson finds itself as a 4-point underdog in its clash against Oklahoma, who went 11-1 and salvaged its national title hopes after a shocking home loss versus unranked Texas. In their seventh full year under Dabo Swinney, the Tigers have finally broken through after four straight seasons finishing with 10+ wins and in the final top 25. In fact, 2015 is just the second time in history in which Clemson has finished as #1, with the other one coming during their only national championship, in 1981.
On the other hand, Oklahoma is on year 17 of the Bob Stoops era, with the legendary coach finally getting another crack at a title following the one he won back in 2000. Stoops has led the Sooners to a bowl game every year he's been at the helm, with a disappointing 8-8 record that includes last year's postseason meeting against the very same Clemson Tigers, who dismantled Oklahoma in a 40-6 blowout that became the worst bowl loss in Stoops' tenure. Clemson has gone 4-3 in bowl games under Swinney.
However, last season's bowl meeting will have little to do with what we will see to close out 2015, especially considering how both teams took a step forward this year. Clemson survived a couple of early shaky games to become a true force in the ACC, including a stretch of seven straight double-digit wins that solidified their status as the #1 team in the land. The end of the year saw them beat #10 North Carolina to secure a spot in these playoffs, and while it was only their third game against a ranked opponent, there is no way to deny Clemson's body of work and statistical profile.
The Sooners' path was a bit different, as they faced tougher competition in the Big 12, including a final 3-game stretch that secured Oklahoma's selection as the #4 team. This brutal part of the calendar saw Oklahoma beat #6 Baylor, #18 TCU, and #11 Oklahoma State, with two of these wins coming on the road. By the level of competition alone, the Sooners could have ranked higher, with the third-most prolific scoring offense in the nation and a star QB in Baker Mayfield, but they sure seem happy to be part of the mix for a possible appearance in the championship game.
The Tigers were not far behind with 38.5 points per game (15th), but the true key to this contest may reside in what both defenses can do to stop the opponent. Both of them ranked in the country's top 20 in total defense and points allowed, which bodes well for what should be an evenly-matched contest. Clemson holds edges in pass defense and has been known for killing opposition drives easily (24.86% success rate on third downs), but Oklahoma has been better in red zone defense and overall yards per play.
With both squads being similarly capable through the air and with power rushing, it could all come down to the little details. Bob Stoops' experience and the knowledge that this may be his final chance to earn a ring could play a role, especially for an Oklahoma team that has been on a mission following their only loss. Oklahoma's final seven games included an average 52 points scored, and their 9-3 record against the spread was the third-best in college football. Big-conference teams frequently struggle covering big spreads, but Oklahoma's consistency and momentum are undeniable.
Clemson's close calls led them to a mediocre 6-7 record against the spread, right next to teams like Tulane and USC. Even as the end of the year required them to play their best football and find ways to win and remain undefeated, the overall body of work and the strength of schedule faced can't match Oklahoma. While the start to the game should be tight as both teams figure out how to approach a few matchups, the Sooners just have too much firepower to be stopped.
The Pick: Oklahoma -4
#3 Michigan State vs. #2 Alabama
Wednesday, 8 pm ET
For the fifth time in the past 7 seasons, Alabama will get a chance to win a national title under Nick Saban, which is already a remarkable feat. Meanwhile, Michigan State is still looking for its first national championship since 1966, and while the school will always be known mostly for its basketball program, what Mark Dantonio has done to raise the football team to national relevance should also be celebrated and culminated with this surprise appearance in the final four.
The Spartans needed all they could get from luck and talent to reach this spot, as the Big 10 was extremely top-heavy and Michigan State was at the bottom of the pile when considering preseason contenders in the conference. The miracle win versus Jim Harbaugh's Michigan was probably a sign of things to come, as MSU knocked off the national champions on the road and then defeated the previously unbeaten Iowa to secure the Big 10 title. Statistically, Michigan State is not impressive in any area, but they play disciplined football like few college teams can.
On the other hand, Alabama just finished another typical Crimson Tide season, with an early loss threatening to derail everything only for Nick Saban and his crew righting the ship towards another championship run. After losing 43-37 to #15 Ole Miss, Alabama won 5 games against ranked opponents, handling the always tough SEC opposition for Saban's seventh straight season with at least 10 wins.
Contrary to MSU, the Crimson Tide excels in one particular area, with the third-best scoring defense in the country, and a top-30 rushing attack that features Heisman winner Derrick Henry and his 23 touchdowns. The Spartans finished 15th in rushing defense, so the winner of this matchup will go a long way in determining the outcome of the game. MSU's offense can be considered mostly capable, but they will struggle if they fall behind early and have to make big plays to come back.
Both teams were middling against the spread, with MSU's close games leading to a 5-7-1 losing mark and Alabama finishing 7-6 by virtue of many lopsided spreads. The number for this game has been set with the Tide laying 10 points, which seems fair considering their roster and status as a public team. What could loom large is how Alabama has faltered in recent bowl games as a big favorite. Even as Saban has gone a healthy 5-3 in bowl games with 3 national championships to his name, the last two seasons have ended abruptly for an Alabama team that was everything but itself.
As 17.5-point favorites over Oklahoma in the 2013 Sugar Bowl, Alabama lost 45-31, and in last year's Sugar Bowl semifinal as 9-point favorites, the Tide took a hard 42-35 defeat versus Ohio State and their third-string quarterback. While Saban must be ready to avenge those two hard losses, he is going against a coach in Mark Dantonio who has won his last four bowl games after starting his MSU career with a 0-4 record. In the end, something's gotta give.
While Alabama looks superior in many categories, the Big 10 has proven to be a tough ticket for Alabama in recent years, as its particular style of football matches up well against the Tide´s strengths. Even as Alabama should prevail in the end, the game should be much closer than it looks on paper.
The Pick: Michigan State +10