Key Matchups to Watch in This Year's College Football Playoff
From what I've watched of the college football playoff coverage, most of the talk revolved around one of three things: the distinguished head coaches, the Alabama defense, and Deshaun Watson. No one can argue with the appeal of any one of those, that's for sure.
As for the games themselves and the matchups in them, there's much more to it than the appeal of big names and a historic defense. It all comes down to offense versus defense (and special teams, of course) and player versus player.
So, with that in mind, which matchups -- both squad versus squad and mano a mano -- should we be watching to determine the outcomes of the two big final four contests?
Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl
#4 Washington Huskies vs. #1 Alabama Crimson Tide
While everyone has their eyes on Alabama's number-one ranked rush defense, they should be elsewhere: on the Washington Huskies' rush defense. It doesn't limit teams to the same effect as the Crimson Tide's front seven, but they have managed to hold opponents to 3.42 adjusted yards per rush (according to our metrics), which ranks 13th among all teams.
The rush defense will have the tough task of corralling Jalen Hurts, Damien Harris, and the rest of 'Bama's rushing attack. Hurts' ability to run from the quarterback spot in conjunction with the team's running back by committee has produced 5.76 adjusted rush yards per attempt this season, roughly 250 yards and 2 scores a game.
There's no doubt that the Huskies need to control the Crimson Tide rushing game. They should force the freshman Hurts to beat them with his arm and decision-making rather than his legs. Stuffing the run early, something the Huskies have done consistently so far this season, will be key to giving themselves a chance in this one.
And on the other side of the script, the most important matchup will be the Alabama pass defense versus the Washington passing attack, led by Jake Browning. As a sophomore, Browning has thrown for 3,280 yards and 42 touchdowns. He has just seven picks on the season and has converted over 63% of his pass attempts. His great play has given the Huskies the nation's fourth-most efficient passing offense.
Washington will need that type of efficiency against a pass defense ranked number five in our rankings, at 4.49 adjusted yards surrendered per attempt. The matchup within the matchup will be John Ross against the duo made up of cornerback Anthony Averett and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick.
Ross, at just 5'11" and 190 pounds, has NFL speed and talent, but the same could just as easily be said for Averett and Fitzpatrick, who total 15 pass defenses and 5 picks between them. Surely, the two will be working together to bracket the explosive Ross, who's racked up 76 catches, 1,122 yards and 17 touchdowns in his third season.
Who wins these matchups will certainly dictate game script -- who's ahead and who's behind -- but they could most certainly have a sizable impact on the outcome of the game.
PlayStation Fiesta Bowl
#3 Ohio State Buckeyes vs. #2 Clemson Tigers
It's almost eerie in a way, but after running through all the numbers, the same type of matchups will be a factor in other national semifinal as well. It's the Clemson Tigers' pass offense versus the Ohio State Buckeyes' pass defense, and it's the Buckeyes' rush offense versus the Tigers' rush defense.
First, let's get to the obvious. While there is plenty of NFL talent on display in this one, Deshaun Watson is the best college football player in this game. He will ultimately be the single biggest factor in whether or not Clemson comes out on top. With that being said, he and his passing offense have a battle in front of them. The Tigers' passing offense has averaged 8.57 adjusted pass yards per attempt on the season via the arm of Watson which has yielded nearly 4,000 yards and 37 touchdowns.
On the other side, the Buckeyes boast one of the nation's best defenses against the pass, allowing the lowest adjusted yards per attempt of any team, 3.56. Clemson has talent on the outside in Artavis Scott, Mike Williams, and tight end Jordan Leggett, but Ohio State possesses three stud cornerbacks with 26 pass defenses and seven interceptions. And as far as Leggett goes, he could have trouble getting in rhythm with star linebacker Raekwon McMillan manning the center of the field.
The Tigers will have to find some unique ways of getting their playmakers the ball in space if they hope to have success through the air. With Watson at quarterback, that's always key to a successful day for Coach Dabo Swinney and company.
Then there's the Buckeyes' rushing attack, which has earned 5.7 adjusted yards per carry for the ninth-best rank in the nation. Quarterback J.T. Barrett has run for 847 yards and 9 touchdowns while the killer combo of Mike Weber and Curtis Samuel have totaled 1,776 yards and 17 touchdowns via the ground game. They have enjoyed a lot of success in plus matchups, but they haven't faced a Clemson defense.
The Clemson rush defense, headed by leading tackler Ben Boulware, has allowed just 3.52 adjusted yards per rush this season. They rank in the top-15 in that metric and have allowed just 125 yards and a touchdown per game (approximately). As we know, this isn't really going to be won by a running back or linebacker, but the Buckeyes' offensive line or the Tigers' defensive line. Whoever gets the best push will likely get the edge in this battle.