College Football Playoff Semifinals Preview: Four Keys to Alabama vs. Ohio State and Oregon vs. Florida State

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Playoffs! Do you really need an introduction? College football fans have waited decades for this, and on January 1, we’ll finally get it: a bona fide bracket that will settle the national championship pairing on the field. Consider this your semifinal cram session. Then let’s play ball.

Sugar Bowl: Four Keys to No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Ohio State

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Alabama has held steady as a nine-point favorite for Thursday’s meeting in New Orleans, a huge spread for a game between two top-four teams at a neutral site, and one that probably has more to do with Alabama being Alabama, winner of three national championships since 2009, than with the actual distance between the Crimson Tide and the Buckeyes on the field. Besides the game Bama actually lost, a 23-17 decision at Ole Miss on October 4, the Tide have also had to sweat out down-to-the-wire wins over Arkansas (by one point) and LSU (in overtime), both of which they trailed in the fourth quarter; they also had to rally from a double-digit deficit in the second half against Auburn (see below). Alabama may deserve the no. 1 seed in lieu of an obvious juggernaut elsewhere, and being forged in the kiln of the SEC West may prove invaluable to its prospects after a few weeks’ rest. But this Tide team hasn’t exactly resembled the domineering hordes that paved over the competition en route to championships in 2011 and 2012 — at least, not yet.

Meanwhile, Ohio State is riding into the Superdome on the high of a 59-0 obliteration of Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game, OSU’s 11th consecutive victory and arguably the single most dominant performance of the season against an ostensibly quality opponent.1 Since August, the Buckeyes have lost two of the most dynamic quarterbacks in the nation, yet they played their best game with both of them watching from the sideline. A monthlong layoff can be a maddening imposition for a team hitting its stride, but if the outfit that takes the field on Thursday night is the same one that dominated in Indy, it’ll be ludicrous to think of the Buckeyes as underdogs.

1. Something Is Happening Here, But We Don’t Know What It Is, Do We, Mr. Jones? In any other scenario, a third-string quarterback facing a Nick Saban defense in his second career start would be a candidate for last rites. In Cardale Jones’s case, though, his first start — a 257-yard, three-touchdown ambush against Wisconsin — was such a revelation that no one is quite sure how to balance the scales. On the one hand, after watching redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett tear through the Big Ten schedule in similar (and similarly unexpected) fashion prior to suffering a season-ending ankle injury against Michigan, it hardly makes sense to dismiss Jones’s coming-out party in the same offense as a case of beginner’s luck, especially given Urban Meyer’s track record with quarterbacks. On the other, a precocious debut amid a very limited set of circumstances doesn’t qualify Jones for instant graduation into a master’s class, either.

One overlooked aspect that facilitated Jones’s success against the Badgers was the much more predictable success of Ohio State’s ground game, which carried most of the burden by racking up 301 yards rushing on 7.9 per carry against one of the stiffest defenses. That kind of production tends to provide the quarterback with an enviable cushion no matter who he is. Unfortunately for the Buckeyes, it will also be nigh impossible to replicate against Alabama’s typically adamantine front seven, which is once again best in the nation against the run in yards per game, yards per carry, and rushing touchdowns allowed. If that trend holds, we won’t have to wait very long to find out how far along Jones really is when the deck isn’t stacked in his favor.

2. Bucks Dig the Long Ball. Alabama’s deep threat, Amari Cooper, needs no introduction after leading the nation in receptions and finishing third in Heisman voting, the best finish by a wide receiver since Larry Fitzgerald came in second in 2003. Bomb for bomb, though, there was no more lethal downfield threat in college football this season than Cooper’s Ohio State counterpart, Devin Smith, whose entire game is devoted to going deep: On just 30 total receptions, Smith led the FBS in yards per catch (26.6) and ranked second in receptions that gained at least 30 yards (15), just ahead of Cooper (12) despite a fraction of the overall grabs. Smith may as well be majoring in the bomb. In fact, if you actually watched the Wisconsin massacre but ignored the reaction, you might have come away with the impression that Smith was the breakout star rather than Jones, whose success hinged in part on lobbing balls into his best receiver’s zip code and letting Smith do the rest.

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None of that has gone unnoticed by Alabama, which remains slightly unnerved by the barrage of big plays inflicted on its secondary in the Iron Bowl win over Auburn. (The Tigers’ resident deep-ball specialist, Sammie Coates, hauled in receptions covering 34, 40, 53, and 68 yards in that game, scoring twice in the process while consigning a pair of singed Bama cornerbacks, Eddie Jackson and Tony Brown, to the bench; Jackson, a starter, was so mortified by his performance that he felt compelled to issue an apology on Twitter.) Even Missouri, one of the most pedestrian aerial attacks in the conference, managed to connect on a handful of downfield strikes in the SEC championship game after quarterback Maty Mauk escaped the pocket. No one has gained much traction against the Crimson Tide on the ground, but the usually stout secondary has been ordinary at best by Saban standards, and figures to be targeted early and often on Thursday.

3. Get Touchdowns, Not Field Goals. The silver lining for Alabama’s defense against Auburn was its stellar performance in the red zone: On eight trips inside Bama’s 20-yard line, the Tigers managed just two touchdowns, settling for five field goals and a turnover on downs on the other six; altogether, Auburn conducted five drives that covered at least 60 yards apiece, but ultimately ended short of the end zone. That was the apogee of a season-long trend for the Tide, who forced more field goals in the red zone than any other defense in the nation; accordingly, they also tied for the national lead by preventing touchdowns on 62.5 percent of red-zone trips, a critical distinction in wins over Arkansas, LSU, and Mississippi State, as well as against Auburn.2 Even if Ohio State finds that big-play opportunities are available, those downfield heaves won’t amount to much if the result is three points instead of six.

4. Mano a Mano: Alabama OL Austin Shepherd vs. Ohio State DE Joey Bosa. Shepherd, a two-year starter at right tackle, has seen his fair share of first-rate pass-rushers in the SEC, still home to the most daunting concentration of raw speed off the edge. And Alabama’s line as a whole has been solid, if not as physically dominant as past Bama fronts, joining Oklahoma as the only O-lines nationally that ranked among the top 10 in both Adjusted Line Yards (a measure for run blocking) and Adjusted Sack Rate; Bama quarterback Blake Sims was the best-protected passer in the conference.

Against Bosa, though, Shepherd is planning to spend most of his night across from arguably the most complete, disruptive defensive lineman in the nation, a unanimous All-American who emerged this season — as a true sophomore, no less — as the heir apparent to J.J. Watt.3 As Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin put it on Monday, Bosa “is an issue”: At 6-foot-5, 278 pounds, he’s the rare three-down end capable of holding up against the run as effectively as he gets after the passer, and (along with senior defensive tackle Michael Bennett) he threatens to detonate a handful of plays in every game in both capacities. If Shepherd and his colossal counterpart on the left side, true freshman Cameron Robinson, can’t keep Sims as clean as they have for most of the year, the Buckeyes are more than capable of turning pressure into turnovers in short order.

Rose Bowl: Four Keys to No. 2 Oregon vs. No. 3 Florida State

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Florida State is no stranger to the Rose Bowl, site of its come-from-behind triumph over Auburn last January to claim the final BCS championship, and the insuperable winning streak the Seminoles carried into that contest remains intact a year later, at 29 games and counting. Otherwise, though, the setting feels very different: While the 2013 Noles arrived in Pasadena as the undisputed overlords of their season, the 2014 team is a substantial underdog, having narrowly survived a string of upset bids from fringe competition. It speaks volumes to the defending champs’ sloppiness this season that the preservation of their win streak wasn’t enough to earn them the top seed even with no other undefeated teams in the running, and it speaks volumes to their resiliency that they’re here nonetheless.

This time, Oregon is the team listening to the questions FSU faced last year about the lack of “adversity” it faced in the regular season, when it waylaid virtually everyone in its path. Only one of Oregon’s 12 wins this season (a 38-31 victory at Washington State on September 20) was decided by single digits, and the Ducks never trailed in the second half in the course of an eight-game winning streak to close the year. True, if it comes down to the wire in the fourth quarter, Florida State (like Auburn last year) will be the team that’s been there so often, it’s come to think of the clutch gene as a core aspect of its identity and success. But if Oregon has its way, the only “adversity” it will face in the fourth quarter will be the falling temperature after sundown.

1. Win in the Trenches. On Monday, I extolled the uncanny consistency of Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, who has met or exceeded lofty expectations in every game. But near-equal praise should go to the machine that is the Oregon ground game, which led the Pac-12 in rushing and produced a 1,000-yard rusher (this time, true freshman Royce Freeman) for the eighth year in a row. That’s a credit to the system, which still adheres to the same up-tempo, spread-to-run philosophy installed by Chip Kelly when he took over as offensive coordinator in 2007, and especially to the offensive line, a long-in-the-tooth group that managed to rank no. 1 nationally in Adjusted Line Yards despite a succession of injuries that sidelined two veteran starters (Tyler Johnstone and Andre Yruretagoyena) for all or most of the season and two others (Jake Fisher and Hroniss Grasu) for multiple games. With the exception of Johnstone, who tore his ACL in the preseason and hasn’t played at all, the O-line depth chart for Thursday is fully intact for the first time since September.

Even at full strength, the Ducks may not be in very good position athletically to deal with a blue-chip pass rush — we’ve seen previous Oregon fronts overwhelmed by superior talent — but while Florida State boasts a slew of next-level athletes, that hasn’t translated into pressure: FSU averaged fewer sacks per game than any other ACC defense and ranked 108th in Adjusted Sack Rate, worst in the conference except for Pitt. The wild card is sophomore safety Jalen Ramsey, a former five-star recruit who was deployed increasingly as a blitzer as the regular season wore on.

Incredibly, that takedown against Boston College was Florida State’s only official sack in its last four games. And although that number doesn’t quite capture the picture in full (Ramsey repeatedly harassed Miami’s Brad Kaaya, for example, without notching a sack), it certainly doesn’t bode well for the Seminoles’ prospects of forcing Mariota into a very un-Mariota-like mistake. A couple of early appearances from All-ACC end Mario Edwards Jr., owner of just three sacks in the regular season, would go a long way.

2. Engage the Afterburners. There were faster offenses than Oregon’s this season — Arizona, Bowling Green, and North Carolina all ran more plays in less time — but as always the Ducks paid no heed whatsoever to the clock, ranking 120th out of 128 teams in time of possession, and as always they needed precious little time to make good. Of their 92 scoring drives on the year, 38 took two minutes or less off the clock, and only four used up more than five minutes. Not surprisingly, three of the four most time-consuming possessions came with Oregon already leading comfortably in the fourth quarter, suggesting that the leisurely pace in those instances was only a matter of decorum. Meanwhile, on nine different occasions the Ducks scored at least three touchdowns in a span of 10 minutes or less.

Florida State has made a habit of erasing substantial deficits in short bursts itself, but in this case it doesn’t have the luxury of ramping up to speed at its own pace: Once Oregon hits the gas on Mariota’s watch, it has never been caught from behind.

3. Maintain the Late Shift. The most important development for Florida State was the gradual ascension of freshman tailback Dalvin Cook, whose rise to the top of the depth chart traversed a series of fits and starts over the second half of the season that culminated in a 144-yard effort against Florida and a 177-yard outing against Georgia Tech. Not coincidentally, Cook’s emergence followed a November shakeup on the offensive line that sent All-American left tackle Cameron Erving to center, the weakest point on the line over the first half of the season, and replaced him outside with 330-pound freshman Roderick Johnson.4 The results don’t exactly jump off the stat sheet in an obvious, before/after sense, but there’s no doubt the Noles feel better about their running game after watching Cook go for 489 yards on 6.4 per carry over the last four games.

By the same token, Oregon has to feel pretty good about where its much-maligned defense is right now, after thoroughly trashing Arizona’s offense in the Pac-12 championship game, where it forced six consecutive three-and-outs to close the first half and held the Wildcats to a new low for total offense (224 yards) in the Rich Rodriguez era. The Ducks’ top 11 tacklers are in their third, fourth, or fifth years with the program, and against FBS opponents this year, the Oregon defense ranked third in the Pac-12 in scoring defense, sixth in total D, and fifth in yards per play. For the first time in a long time, the Ducks can realistically expect the defense to pick up some of the slack if the offense isn’t firing on all cylinders.

4. Mano a Mano: Oregon CB Troy Hill vs. Florida State WR Rashad Greene. Defensive momentum notwithstanding, the Ducks haven’t taken the field in three years without their other consensus All-American, senior cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, who became the most recent and relevant addition to the team’s casualty list earlier this month when he suffered a serious knee injury in practice. In his place, Oregon will turn to another senior, the far less decorated Hill, to shadow FSU’s best receiver, but otherwise plans to stick to the script schematically regardless of the personnel. Hill is no stopgap, having started 12 of 13 games this season and picked up a second-team All-Pac-12 nod from league coaches. He led the conference with 17 passes defended, including a game-clinching interception at Utah.

Still, to some extent that number is a reflection of the high volume of passes that came in Hill’s direction in an effort to avoid Ekpre-Olomu, and Greene is no run-of-the-mill assignment: He’s a precise, savvy route-runner with more career receiving yards to his credit (3,771) than all but one other active FBS player (East Carolina’s Justin Hardy). The good news for Oregon’s secondary is that there’s a yawning gap between Greene and the Seminoles’ second tier of wideouts, Travis Rudolph, Jesus Wilson, and Ermon Lane, whose combined powers were still less potent than Greene’s output on his own. But between Greene and All-American tight end Nick O’Leary, what incentive does Jameis Winston have to look anywhere else? One way or another, the American viewing audience is about to become very well acquainted with Hill.

Filed Under: College Football Playoff, College Football, 2014 College Football Playoff, College Football Playoff Semifinals, Sugar Bowl, Rose Bowl, Alabama Crimson Tide, Ohio State Buckeyes, Oregon Ducks, Florida State Seminoles, Nick Saban, Lane Kiffin, Urban Meyer, Mark Helfrich, Jimbo Fisher, SEC, Big Ten, Pac-12, ACC, Blake Sims, Cardale Jones, Joey Bosa, Marcus Mariota, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Royce Freeman, Jameis Winston, Nick O'Leary, Football, NCAA, NCAAF, Matt Hinton

Matt Hinton is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ MattRHinton