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TOC College Football Playoff Preview

What to know for the 2 semifinals on January 1

2023 SEC Championship - Georgia v Alabama Photo by Perry McIntyre/ISI Photos/Getty Images

Happy last day of 2023, TOC Nation. I hope you all have your New Year’s resolutions in order... and I hope those resolutions include watching more football in 2024. And what a way to get started on that resolution than with a pair of very intriguing matchups on the first day of the year for the College Football Playoffs semifinals.

In the first game, The Rose Bowl (5 P.M.), we get SEC champion and perennial contender Alabama Crimson Tide going against Big Ten champion cheaters um.

And in the second game, The Sugar Bowl (8:45 P.M.), we get Big 12 champion and soon-to-be SEC member Texas Longhorns against Pac 12 champion and soon-to-be Big Ten member Washington Huskies.

I had the (mostly) good fortune of seeing all four of these teams in person this season in the only three games I attended. Unfortunately for me, in each of those three games the team I was cheering for came up on the losing end. But I am sure most of you know by now not to trust my game picks. All that said, these are all teams that I have seen play a few times this season and I think we are all in for a treat on New Year’s Day. I think both of these games should be very competitive, each one in its own unique way.

The Rose Bowl will give us a matchup of two teams that are tough in the trenches and, while both have respectable quarterbacks, are looking to establish the run game while also taking away their opponent’s ability to get yards on the ground; um finished 6th in the nation in defensive rushing YPG and Alabama came in at 32 (admittedly against a much tougher SEC schedule and without the benefit of knowing what plays the other team was running). In the late game, The Sugar Bowl, we will see two teams that are looking to air it out; Washington led the nation in pass YPG while Texas finished 18th.

Here now is a more in-depth look at all four of the semifinalists.

ROSE BOWL:

#4 Alabama Crimson Tide (12-1):

This was certainly not a typical season for the Crimson Tide, and it was a popular opinion early in the season that the juggernaut of Bama football was over, or at least was taking a year off. After missing the CFP for just the second time ever in 2022 and losing a Heisman winning quarterback who would become the #1 pick in last year’s draft, in addition to a wealth of other talent to the NFL, a rebuild felt in the works. Of course, at Alabama, we learned again, they don’t rebuild - they reload. Sure it took a while for the reload to click. After an opening demolition over Middle Tennessee, Alabama hosted co-playoff qualifier Texas in one of the marquee non-conference games of the season. It was a rematch of a game from 2022 in Austin which Alabama won. But in this game, Alabama was outclassed on the way to a 34-24 loss. And while Bama did have the lead briefly going into the fourth quarter, this game very much felt like it was controlled by Texas offensive and defensive lines throughout. QB Jalen Milroe was under pressure all day, which led to several off-target passes in addition to a pair of interceptions, as well as several forced scrambles which rarely went far. The biggest positive I saw for Alabama that day was the play of DB Terrion Arnold. Arnold seemed to be everywhere on defense, getting tackles, preventing completions, blanketing receivers, and just generally being a significant disruptor. I said that he was earning a paycheck that day; sure enough, he now is being mocked as a first rounder in many early mock drafts (along with a few of his teammates).

In the aftermath of their loss to Texas, Nick Saban benched Milroe for the next game, a low scoring victory at South Florida, before reinserting him into the starting role for the beginning of SEC play. From that point on, Milroe looked like a new player and the Bama that we have come to know emerged. They swept through their conference schedule, winning their division and getting a spot in the SEC championship game. In the three SEC games they played against a ranked opponent, they won each game by two touchdowns; interestingly, some of their non-ranked conference foes were able to keep their games to one-score games. And speaking of one-score games, that is what happened in the SEC championship when Alabama went up against two-time defending national champion Georgia. In that game, the Crimson Tide held the Bulldogs to 2.5 yards per carry for a total of 78 rushing yards. They also benefitted from a missed FG by Georgia late in the first half as well as a fumble by the Bulldogs in their own red zone which they converted into a field goal. Statistically, the two teams were very close in that contest, though Georgia’s stats were inflated thanks to two fourth quarter touchdown drives, each which commenced when they trailed by ten points.

On the season, Alabama averaged an impressive 35.1 PPG. That number only comes down to 32.6 when you only consider their SEC games, which is even more monumental of an achievement. Defensively, they surrended 18.4 PPPG and 20.6 against conference opponents. On top of that, they also stole the ball frequently, with 12 interceptions and 8 fumble recoveries. Terrion Arnold had 5 of those interceptions, while his more-recognized backfield partner, Kool-Aid McKinstry, usually just served to prevent passes from even going in his direction.

Of course, though, the trajectory of Alabama’s season is the story of the remarkable improvement from the quarterback position. Jalen Milroe, after being benched in week 3, has been playing championship football. He has only had four interceptions since the Texas loss, and he tossed 18 TD passes for a season total of 23. In addition to his 2,718 yards passing, he has also carried it for 468 yards, good enough for third on the team. Running backs Jase McClellan and Roydell Williams paced the team with 803 and 561 yards, respectively. Milroe’s biggest weakness is probably pocket awareness; in seven games this year, he was sacked at least four times. But he will make up for those mishaps with his big play ability as he has shown time and again that he can hit the deep pass and run for a big gain. And he clearly is not afraid of playing under pressure. Maybe the most iconic play of the college football season was his pass on 4th and goal from the 31 with 32 seconds left in the Auburn game; anything short of 31 yards would have ended Bama’s season. Instead, Milroe stood calmly in the pocket and waited for a target to get single coverage going into the corner of the endzone before placing a perfect pass into his receiver’s mitts. He can deliver in the biggest of moments.

Here’s hoping he does it again in the semifinals.

#1 um (13-0*)

These next paragraphs will be the most miserable ones I ever write for TOC.

Appearing in their third consecutive playoff, um has really established their identity this year. They lead the nation in defense, giving up a stingy 9.5 points per game, and are second in terms of yards allowed, giving a hair under 240 yards per game. On the other side of the ball, they are very balanced; they averaged 162 rushing yards and 219 passing yards each game. Their senior running back, Blake Corum, exceeded 1,000 yards on the season and got into the endzone 24 times. And under center, J.J. McCarthy has evolved from a Wildcat-style quarterback into a sound possession passer who has shown some great touch on the deep ball this season. In 13 games, he only threw four interceptions against his 19 touchdowns. This is a team that can hurt you in many ways.

On defense, the biggest star may be defensive back Mike Sainristil, who led the team with five interceptions. Up front, um has a trio of ends who have found their way to the opposing quarterback for sacks with regularity - Jaylen Harrell, Josaiah Stewart, and Derrick Moore. As a team, they had 33 sacks on the season. As a unit, they created 24 turnovers. Again, there is talent at all levels here.

The big knock against this team, aside from the cheating scandals (yes, that was pluralized), was their questionable strength of schedule. After playing three Group of Five teams in the non-conference portion of their schedule, they then got to play a Big Ten slate in a noticeably down year for the conference. They did not play a ranked team until mid-November when they traveled to Penn State and had their lowest scoring output of the season. They outlasted Ohio State at home in the finale, beating a version of the Buckeyes that did not feel as fearsome as recent editions. And lastly, they got Iowa in the Big Ten Championship, a matchup that was perhaps the easiest of all of this season’s conference championship games.

Lastly, and most importantly, {u¢|< um.

O’s Prediction: Alabama 30-24

Poll

Who will win the Rose Bowl?

This poll is closed

  • 45%
    Roll Tide!
    (35 votes)
  • 54%
    future win forfeiters
    (42 votes)
77 votes total Vote Now

SUGAR BOWL:

#2 Washington Huskies (13-0):

I am going to start this section with a little subjectivity and repeat something I said in my article a few weeks back trying to predict the playoff lineup. I do feel Washington should have earned the #1 seed from the committee. They had an undefeated season in a significantly tougher conference than the team that ultimately got placed on the top line, a slate that included defeating a highly ranked Oregon Ducks squad twice, and they even had the dignity of playing a Power 5 team in their non-conference games (not knowing what MSU would devolve into this season). While they did not have some of the blowouts that other conference champions did in their Pac-12 run, they were going up against some of the best offenses in the nation each week. The only thing the 1-seed would have changed would have been game location; I would have preferred Washington to stay on the west coast and for the other semifinal to be played just down the road from Alabama.

On to some objective measures, Washington finished the season ranked tenth nationally in yards per game, driving for 469 a contest. This comes on the strength of their tops-in-the nation 343.8 passing yards per game. Quarterback Michael Penix Jr. was every bit the Heisman candidate that the preseason hype said he would be, and he clearly outperformed defending Heisman winner and conference foe, Caleb Williams, on his way to finishing 2nd in the voting.

On the other end of his passes, Penix had one of the best WR rooms in the nation. Rome Odunze is the biggest star here and will be a first round pick in April’s draft most likely. His 1,428 yards were third in the nation and his 13 touchdowns had him tied for sixth (first place had 15). Odunze is a do-it-all receiver. He can be a possession receiver as his QB’s most trusted target and he can also be a deep threat. This past season, he had one game with less than five receptions, one game without a catch of at least 20 yards, and averaged at least 12 yards per reception in every game.

He was not the only capable receiver, though. After Odunze, the Huskies also have Ja’Lynn Polk in the 1,000 yard club, reaching that figure on the dot. He also contributed with 8 touchdowns, and he too had a catch of at least 20 yards in all but one game; he even had a 92-yarder at Stanford, their longest play of the season. Three other players had at least 30 receptions and 300 yards on the season - Jalen McMillan, Germie Bernard and TE Jack Westover. That trio contributed nine more touchdowns to Washington’s tally.

Their run game is no slouch, though, while most of the attention goes to the passing game. Here, the Huskies had their third player in the 1,000 yard club as Dillon Johnson went for 1,113 yards on a 5.5 YPC average, and he crossed the goal line 14 times on the season. His numbers could have been even better if it were not for a slow start to the season; he did not have his first 100-yard game until their fifth game. But he had at least 80 in each of the last six, three of which were over 100 and one of which was a 250-yard performance.

On defense, this is not an intimidating team statistically. They gave up 397 yards per game and were scored on 40 times throughout the campaign. 16 interceptions and five fumble recoveries did help stop some of the bleeding, but overall there is a necessity for the offense to perform as well as it does.

Bralen Trice is the top dog on the defensive line, leading that unit in tackles and sacks. The strength of the defense is probably the linebackers who have been solid in not letting ball carriers evade them while also making enough splash plays - interceptions, sacks, passes deflected - to help the offense maintain its leads in games. Overall, though, this is a team that does not generate much pressure on opposing QBs, lowlighted by a Pac-12 worst 19 sacks for the year, and will give you time to strike.

#3 Texas Longhorns (12-1):

Texas won the Big 12 in their final year in that conference and had a number of significant wins on the season. None, of course, were bigger than their week 2 victory at future conference foe Alabama, which was probably the second-biggest victory for any team all season (I am putting Bama’s win over Georgia at #1) in terms of its significance in the playoff conversation. In addition to that win, the Longhorns also defeated then-ranked Kansas and Kansas State, and then they had their 49-21 beat-down of Oklahoma State in the conference championship. Their lone loss was to Oklahoma, a game they surrendered the deciding touchdown with 15 seconds remaining to fall 34-30.

Texas just edged their semifinal opponent in total offense this year, finishing ninth nationally with 475.9 yards per game. Their attack is a little more balanced than the Huskies, with the Longhorns rushing for 189.1 and passing for 286.8 each game. Jonathan Brooks is their bellcow runner; he carried the ball for 1,139 yards this year on a 6.1 YPC average, and also tallied ten scores. As a team, they averaged 4.9 YPC and had 26 rushing TDs including a handful from their quarterback, Quinn Ewers.

Speaking of Quinn, the second-year starter improved his stats in all categories from his freshman season. His completion percentage rose to 70% on his way to 3,161 yards and 21 TDs against only 6 picks. Like Alabama’s Milroe, Ewers does take a high number of sacks, getting taken down 25 times this year. No 1,000 yard receivers for Texas, but Xavier Worthy came closest at 969 yards. Adonai Mitchell chipped in 813 yards and led the team with 10 TDs.

If this game comes down to kicking, Texas could have the edge. Bert Auburn led the country in making 28 field goals including two from beyond 50 yards. He was also perfect on extra points.

Not facing some of the high-flying offenses found in some of the other Power 5 conferences (that sounds strange to say about the Big 12), Texas defense had an impressive 17.5 PPG allowed (13th in the nation) and a respectable 321.7 yards per game given up. This is another team whose defense is led by its linebacker crew where three of their four leading tacklers are found. Jaylen Ford leads them all with 91 tackles and fellow LB Anthony Hill Jr. comes next with 63 and also five sacks. On the back end, Jerrin Thompson and Terrance Brooks had 7 and 6 passes deflected, respectively, with each snagging three interceptions. Thompson returned one of his picks to the endzone.

My worry for Texas in their semifinal is how they will hold up against an offensive juggernaut the type of which they have not encountered this season.

O’s Prediction: Washington 38-27

Poll

Who will win the Sugar Bowl?

This poll is closed

  • 76%
    Say Who? Say What?
    (40 votes)
  • 23%
    Hook ‘Em Horns!
    (12 votes)
52 votes total Vote Now