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The Best Playoff Yet

By Jim Johnson
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There’s still nearly a month until the games will actually be played, but here’s the general gist of how the two respective matchups look, on paper.

The College Football Playoff is officlaly set and the committee got it right.

#1 Clemson will take on #4 Alabama in the rubber match that college football fans both need and deserve.

#2 Oklahoma is slated to battle the #3 Georgia Bulldogs in one of the most fascinating contrasts of styles that the committe has presented, to date.

There’s still nearly a month until the games will actually be played, but here’s the general gist of how the two respective matchups look, on paper:

#1 Clemson vs #4 Alabama

Clemson and Alabama square off for the third time in as many years, the victor likely to be favored in the subsequent National Championship.

The pair boast, arguably, the top two defenses in the country, ranking first and second in points per game allowed, top three in points per drive allowed, and top four in yards per play allowed.

The Tigers’ success starts up front, on the legs of the best defensive line in college football. In the interior, Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins form one of the most imposing duos that the sport has ever seen. Both have already earned first team all-conference nods, as has edge rusher Clelin Ferrell, who has emerged as one of the ACC’s premier sack artists. Opposite Ferrell, Austin Bryant, a second team team selection, has been less consistent, but not much less effective, overall.

The havoc wreaked along the line of scrimmage has allowed the linebacking corps to rack up run stuffs, and the four man pass rush grants Clemson the luxury of dropping linebackers into coverage, somewhere that Dorian O’Daniel has thrived, especially in slot coverage.

That, of course, trickles into the secondary that benefits greatly from the pressure on opposing passers, and returns the favor by ranking in top five, nationally, in pick-sixes.

Unlike years past, Alabama’s defensive prowess is due, first and foremost, to the secondary -- also the best in the country.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, one of the most versatile defenders in the game, is as effective as a single high safety as he is utilizing his history at cornerback, in coverage, as he is coming up in the box to make plays against the run. Better overall college football players, this season, could be counted on one hand, with fingers left over.

Fitzpatrick is not the only versatile defender on the backend of this defense, however. Rather, every starter in Alabama’s defensive backfield can do a number of things well. Levi Wallace, a former walk-on, has burst onto the scene as one of the SEC’s two or three best cover corners, and has been a weapon as an occasional pass rusher. Ronnie Harrison, a physical, head hunting safety, leads the team in tackles, and is tied for the lead in picks. Anthony Averett would be the best cornerback on most teams, and has just as many run stuffs as Harrison.

Both defenses are a show in symbiosis, where having the best unit in college football at a specific position group allows the rest of the defense to thrive.

Despite some early season concerns, Kelly Bryant has done all he can to assuage any concerns about his ability as a passer. He has had plenty of help, though, between Hunter Renforw and Ray-Ray McCloud, two of only nine players in FBS to have not registered a dropped pass this season, and Deon Cain, who has shaken off a slow start to lead the team in receving yards and touchdowns.

Bryant is not Deshaun Watson, but he doesn’t have to be, because the run game has improved markedly from where it was last season, which is saying something because it was already amongst the nation’s better groups.

Getting plenty of help from one the best run blocking offensive lines around, Clemson’s seemingly endless stable of ball carriers, Bryant included, pick up yards with an efficiency matched by very few, and, while they aren’t overarchingly very explosive, possess the ever-present home run threat that is Travis Etienne.

Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts, too, has, inexplicably, had to deal with criticism of his own. The Tide do not throw the ball often, but when they have, Hurts has protected the ball, with 15 touchdowns to just one pick, and ranks 12th in FBS for yards per attempt, overwhelmingly to Calvin Ridley, and his 10.5 yards per target.

For as deep as Clemson goes at running back, however, Alabama may go even deeper. The quarterback, like Clemson, has been the primary ball carrier, however the disparity is far less pronounced, giving the effortlessy elusive Damien Harris and the Mack Truck known as Bo Scarborough nearly even touches.

Regardless, while the offense that plays better may decide the outcome, the two defenses will be what this game is remembered for. Alabama and Clemson combined to score 151 points in rounds one and two of the battles that may come to define the early College Football Playoff-era. That number might not go up all that much, in round three.

#2 Oklahoma vs #3 Georgia

Oklahoma, led by presumtive Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield, boasts the best offense in college football, and, frankly, it’s not that close.

They score the most points per drive in the country, and average nearly a full yard per play more than their closest competitor.

Mayfield, with a 41 to 5 touchdown to interception ratio, is the only quarteback that has a completion percentage greater than 70% and his 203.76 passer rating is just shy of 19 points higher than the next best guy, despite losing his number one option, and fellow 2016 Heisman finalist, Dede Westbrook, to the NFL.

Westbrook’s departure has actually made Oklahoma more difficult to defend, given he greater dispersion of targets. Mayfield’s primary option, getting about 20% of targets, has actually been tight end Mark Andrews, a true receiver in a 6’5”, 254 pound frame, making him an absolute matchup nightmare. Wideouts Marquise Brown and CeeDee Lamb, both receiving over 15% of Mayfield’s looks, rank in the top 20 and 30, respectively, in yards per target.

Inarguably the best passing offense in college football, from an efficiency standpoint, Oklahoma may have the best rushing attack, as well. Neither of the top two ball carriers, Rodney Anderson and Trey Sermon, are particularly explosive, although Abdul Adams sure is. The pair are, moreso, undeniably reliable, keeping the Sooners on schedule with unrelenting consistency, behind one of the premier offensive lines in the sport.

Georgia’s defense is no joke, though, led by, arguably, the best defensive player in college football, Roquan Smith. He, quite literally, may be the best player Georgia has at every aspect of playing defense. He is, very likely, the best coverage linebacker in college football, and better than most defensive backs on his own team, with the exception of Deandre Baker. There’s no one in the same league as him as a playmaking run stopper. Even whilst being only very sparingly used as a pass rusher, he leads the team in sacks and his pressure rating is up their with college football’s elite. If there is a guy that can stay with Mark Andrews, make plays against the run, and keep an eye on Baker Mayfield, all at the same, it’s Roquan Smith.

The likely Butkus Award winner, aside, Georgia’s defense does not really have any significant holes. The defensisve line has not been overwhelmingly productive, but their job isn’t to pile up stats. That’s what Lorenzo Carter, who has finally lived up to his former 5-star billing, is for. The senior, after battling inconsistency for most of his career, has blossomed into one of the two or three most effective pass rushers in the SEC, alongside Davin Bellamy, a general stalwart in opposing backfields.

Baker, the aformentioned defensive back, has also taken great strides in 2017, standing out even amogst a loaded class of corners, in the SEC. There are some concerns about a lack of depth at the position, for Georgia, although the Bulldogs couldn’t ask for a better couple of safeties to help out.

J.R. Reed, after transferring in, earned the starting job in the fall, and has been revelatory. His versatility has been invaluable, showing an inherent playmaking ability against the run, while also recording two interceptions, and developing a reputation as one of the most sure tacklers in the conference. Dominick Sanders, meanwhile, after regressing a bit in 2016, looks to be back in 2015 form, and is as versatile, if not moreso, given his coverage ability, than Reed.

Georgia is very much a run first team, themselves. With a defense that good, the name of the game has been avoiding mistakes, dictating tempo, and beating teams into submission. From an efficacy standpoint, however, the passing game has been just as good -- elite -- when utilized. Freshman signal caller Jake Fromm has been more than dependable, when his number has been called, with the sixth highest passer rating in America. The passing game consistency has been a notch below the top tier, but, Javon Wims and Terry Godwin, both averagin double digit yards per target, can both stretch defenses over the top, or turn a more shallow route into an explosive gain, in the blink of an eye.

Still, Nick Chubb and company make the machine go. He is a beacon of consistency, and now sits second, all-time, on the SEC’s career rushing list. Plus, with all due respect to a number of talented backfields, no one goes deeper at running back than Georgia. From Sony Michel and breakout true freshman D’Andre Swift, even to Brian Herrien and Elijah Holyfield, there is no shortage of options for Jake Fromm to hand the ball to.

Even those standout rushers can only do so much on their own, however. Georgia lives and dies with what last year was a much maligned offensive line. To sum up the almost unfathomable steps forward that group has taken, in 2017, suffice it to say, Georgia has lived, and lived large, all but once, this season. Moreover, the one time they did not was against Auburn, the first time, and Oklahoma’s defensive front is not even in the same ballpark as Auburn’s.

In fact, Oklahoma’s defense is largely underwhelming. It hasn’t just been bad by the standard of a contender, but bad by any standards. The raw statististics have it as one of the more middling groups in the country, but most advanced metrics place it even closer to the bottom. That’s not to say there aren’t bright spots -- Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, for example -- but, by and large, Oklahoma has struggled mightily on that side of the ball.

Granted, the unit has played much better over the past four games or so, and may be clicking at the right time, but the full sample size is concerning, at best.

Georgia, in all three phases, given that it might have the best special teams in college football, is arguably the most well-rounded team in the playoff, and perhaps even the country. Then again, the objective of the game is to score more points than one’s opponent, and no one plays offense as well as the Sooners.

The disparate styles give this game an absolutely titillating air of unpredictability. Will either team be able to get stops? Can Georgia control the tempo of the game and limit Mayfield’s opportunities? Can Oklahoma force those couple of turnovers to run away from the ‘Dawgs?

This may well be the most fascinating College Football Playoff pairing, yet.

As a matter of fact, this might be the most intriguing College Football Playoff, yet, full stop.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP