College Football Playoff Offers Its Strongest Semifinals Yet


Critics of the College Football Playoff system, now in its sixth year, often lament its made-for-TV artificiality, its subjective selection process and the role it has played in widening the gap between the sport’s haves and its have-nots.

In reply, proponents of the system need only point to this weekend.

The four best teams in college football will meet Saturday in the most appealing semifinals since the three-game playoff format debuted after the 2014 season. The only tough decisions the selection committee had to make this year were how to seed this a group that includes four of the nation’s top offenses, three undefeated teams, two previous playoff champions, and all four of the Heisman Trophy finalists.

How these particular teams got to this point is pretty easy to decode: They are led by four of the sport’s most talented quarterbacks. The best, undeniably, is Louisiana State’s Joe Burrow, who guided the Tigers to the top ranking and won the Heisman Trophy by a record-breaking margin. The other quarterbacks in the semifinals are Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts, the Heisman runner-up; Ohio State’s dual-threat Justin Fields, who has thrown 40 touchdowns and only one interception this season; and Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, who as a freshman led the Tigers to a win over Alabama in the national title game last season.

Here’s a closer look at the two matchups on Saturday:

4 p.m. Eastern, ESPN

By finishing the regular season undefeated and dismantling fourth-ranked Georgia in the Southeastern Conference title game, Louisiana State deserved its top billing in this season’s playoffs. Its reward? A rematch of the title game for the 2003 season, during the Bowl Championship Series era.

No need to dwell on that one. The Heisman winner playing in that game, Oklahoma quarterback Jason White, finished with 102 yards passing against L.S.U.’s No. 1-ranked defense as the Tigers took a 21-14 win.

This year, Burrow averaged 362.7 yards per game while throwing a national-best 48 touchdowns and completing a higher percentage of his passes, 77.9, than any other quarterback in N.C.A.A. history. Accommodating Burrow’s talent, Tigers Coach Ed Orgeron transformed the offense into the most feared unit entering Saturday’s games.

Can it be stopped? Hard to envision. Oklahoma improved its defense this season, but the Sooners will be without their starting safety, Delarrin Turner-Yell, who broke a collarbone during a practice this month, and their best pass rusher, Ronnie Perkins, who was suspended for undisclosed reasons.

Oklahoma’s best chance might be in a shootout. Hurts is most dangerous when he is able to run with the ball, but the Tigers’ defense also appears to be peaking at the right time. After surrendering 37 points to an Ole Miss team on Nov. 16, L.S.U.’s defense finished the regular season by allowing only 169 yards to Texas A&M and keeping Georgia out of the end zone until the fourth quarter. Oklahoma will have a tough time avoiding an 0-4 record in the playoff.

Call it the “disrespect us” bowl.

Although the Buckeyes are considered by many to be the country’s most complete team, ranking first nationally in scoring (48.7 points per game) and second in total defense (247.6 yards per game), they were leapfrogged by L.S.U. in the final playoff rankings and are 2-point underdogs in this matchup in Phoenix.

Make no mistake, Ohio State has a cannot-take-your-eyes-off-him playmaker on each side of the ball. Fields, who has been battling a minor knee injury, threw for at least two touchdowns in every game and was third in the Heisman vote. And defensive end Chase Young, a game-altering force, finished fourth in the Heisman balloting. Of his 44 tackles this season, 21 were for a loss, including 16.5 sacks and six forced fumbles.

Running back J.K. Dobbins finished sixth in the Heisman voting after gaining 1,829 rushing yards and scoring 20 touchdowns behind a talented offensive line group known, affectionately, we think, as a bunch of “angry dancing bears.”

Clemson has certainly benefited from a relatively soft Atlantic Coast Conference schedule, but don’t ask Coach Dabo Swinney about that. He has been screaming to anybody who will listen that the Tigers have been overlooked all season. Incredibly, he might have a point.

They are the reigning national champions and winners of 28 consecutive games. And despite the departure of a lot of last year’s defensive talent to the N.F.L. draft, Brent Venables, the defensive coordinator, got a younger group to finish first in the nation in total defense and scoring defense, with 23 players collecting at least one tackle for a loss.

While the Tigers haven’t faced a one-two punch like Fields and Dobbins, and Lawrence has been a bit up-and-down this season, he has been known to shine in big games. Ask Alabama.



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