In a year when so little has felt normal, I suppose we should be grateful to the College Football Playoff for providing some normalcy. We’ve reached the end of a college football season that has been unlike any other with games existing in a constant state of peril ready to be canceled at any time. Others have been scheduled with barely a week’s notice. There have been differences from conference to conference with some playing as many as 10 games and others as few as six or less due to cancellations.
But in the end, through all the twists and turns, we saw chalk prevail in the national championship. All four teams in this year’s College Football Playoff have been here before. Hell, No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Clemson seem to have their spots booked in advance every year. It’s the seventh year of the playoff’s existence, and both are making their sixth appearance. No. 3 Ohio State is making its fourth, and No. 4 Notre Dame is the greenhorn, appearing for the second time.
So, in a season of chalky chaos, will the chalk prevail in the playoff, or can chaos make an appearance? After all, only once has a top-ranked team won the entire thing. Let’s break down each of our semifinals with picks for the spread and total.
2020 Rose Bowl: (1) Alabama vs. (4) Notre Dame
Spread: A Rose Bowl … in Texas? Sure, why not? You know, the contrarian in me is dying to take Notre Dame and the points here because it feels like everybody in the world is on Alabama. Still, the problem is everybody’s on Alabama for a reason. It’s been the best team in the country all season long, and it’s hard to imagine things being any different in the CFP. I mean, we’re talking about a team with two Heisman Trophy finalists in quarterback Mac Jones and receiver DeVonta Smith, as well as a top-five finisher in running back Najee Harris. It’s no wonder this team scored 49.7 points per game.
What’s even more impressive about that average is that Alabama never failed to score fewer than 38 points in any game and that 38 came in the season-opener against Missouri. Once it got the carbon cleared out of its engine, Alabama’s offense scored at least 40 in its last 10 games, including six where it scored at least 50 (with two 63-point performances). While Notre Dame absolutely deserves to be in this playoff, it’s hard to imagine the Irish will be able to stop Alabama.
Defensively, the Fighting Irish rank ninth nationally in SP+, but I’m not sure that matters. Georgia ranks first, and Alabama put up 41 against it. Texas A&M ranks 20th, and Bama put 52 on it. On the flip side, Alabama’s “weakness” has been a defense that ranks seventh in SP+. A defense that has only been exploited by the passing attacks of Florida and Ole Miss. I don’t think this Notre Dame offense has the kind of playmakers in the passing game needed to stress this Alabama defense vertically. If the Irish aren’t likely to stop the Tide offense and aren’t likely to keep up with their offense, it’s hard to ask it to cover the spread. Even when it’s this large. Pick: Alabama -19.5
Total: Again, nobody has stopped the Alabama offense. The average Alabama game this season has featured 69.2 points. Now, that number is skewed a bit by those games against Ole Miss and Florida. If we remove them from the equation, Alabama games only featured an average of 61.3 points. That’s still a lot! Basically, what we’re asking here is that we assume Alabama is going to put up its typical 49 points per game. Will Notre Dame get to 17? I think it can. Just because I don’t think the Irish can score enough to keep up and cover the spread doesn’t mean I don’t think they will be unable to score at all. Pick: Over 65.5
2020 Sugar Bowl: (2) Clemson vs. (3) Ohio State
Spread: I feel like we’ve seen this before. Oh, right, we have. It was last year in an epic Fiesta Bowl. Clemson won that game 29-23, and as you read that sentence, you should know there’s an Ohio State fan reading it, too. They’re screaming about how the referees won that game for Clemson. Let them finish screaming before continuing to read.
We came into the 2020 season with Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State’s Justin Fields as your two Heisman favorites. We finish the season with only Lawrence as a Heisman finalist, and he’s not expected to win. Still, they’re two of the country’s premier players, and odds are the one who plays better in this game will be on the winning team. My gut tells me that’s going to be Lawrence because Fields has not performed well under pressure if you look at the numbers.
According to PFF, when pressured, Fields had a passer efficiency of only 79.8, which ranks 85th out of 108 qualified FBS quarterbacks. Fields completed only 12 of 32 passes when pressured, throwing for two touchdowns and three interceptions. You can be sure that Brent Venables and the Clemson defense know this and will look to get after him. If they’re successful in doing so, odds are the Ohio State offense will have trouble putting points on the board. Pick: Clemson -7.5
Total: It’s clear I’m expecting the Buckeyes offense to struggle, but that doesn’t mean I think the Tigers offense will run rampant, either. Ohio State has a strong pass rush as well and can get pressure on Lawrence. If Ohio State’s defense has a weakness, it’s definitely been allowing big plays in the passing game. The Buckeyes defense ranks 46th nationally in defensive pass efficiency. That’s not bad, but when we look at deep passes of 20 air yards or more, Ohio State’s defensive pass efficiency balloons to 227.4, ranking 112th nationally. That’s a problem! It might not be as big a problem as you think, though, because you might be surprised to learn that Lawrence isn’t Superman when it comes to vertical passing. His completion rate of 40.9% on passes of 20 air yards or more isn’t bad, but it’s not great, either, ranking 38th nationally.
Ultimately, when I break this game down in my mind, I feel like it only goes over this total when Ohio State wins. When Clemson wins, it’s either going to be a close, defensive struggle or Clemson’s going to smother the Ohio State offense and win by multiple touchdowns. I think this game plays out similarly to what we saw last year — though, hopefully, the officials aren’t a story — and that was a 29-23 game that finished well below the total here. Pick: Under 66.5