The World-Herald's Sam McKewon crunches the numbers and picks winners for the College Football Playoff semifinals.
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No. 1 LSU (13-0) vs. No. 4 Oklahoma (12-1)
WHEN LSU HAS THE BALL
Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow pulls the trigger for the Tigers and, wow, has he been special this season. He’s completing 77.9% of his passes for 10.7 yards per pop, and there aren’t a ton of cheapo pitch passes in the mix, either. Burrow has been that accurate. His pocket presence is terrific, and his receivers, led by Ja’Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson, consistently get open, including against some pretty stingy defenses. LSU has a terrific offensive line and a shifty, physical back in Clyde Edwards-Helaire to form one of the best offenses, well, ever. Oklahoma’s 2008 offense, which featured Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford and averaged 51.1 points per game, is a good comparison. The 2019 OU defense would have struggled to stop the ’08 OU attack and it’ll struggle to slow down 2019 LSU. But it is improved over the 2018 Sooner defense, which was awful. New Oklahoma defensive coordinator Alex Grinch committed to improving the unit, and it is giving up nine fewer points per game from last year. The best player in the front seven, Ronnie Perkins, is suspended for the game. Freshman Jalen Redmond is an above-average pass rusher while the back end, paced by linebacker Kenneth Murray, is no longer hide-your-eyes terrible. Still, it’s hard to see Oklahoma’s defense managing LSU’s brand of offense very well for very long. The Sooners had 11 takeaways all season. How many third downs will LSU be in?
WHEN OKLAHOMA HAS THE BALL
Few teams rely more on their quarterback than Oklahoma does Jalen Hurts. He carried the ball an average of 17 times per game, and in OU’s two big wins over Baylor, that number jumped to 25 per game. In other words, he’s Tim Tebow in terms of usage rate and completely dependable physically. Running back Kennedy Brooks has emerged in the wake of Trey Sirmon’s injury, and receiver CeeDee Lamb (20.83 yards per catch, 14 touchdowns) is crucial to OU’s passing success. Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley is a smart, creative play designer/playcaller who knows how to protect his defense with a ball-control offense. LSU’s defense, meanwhile, has been exposed to a lot of drives this season because of the Tigers’ near-unstoppable offense. So the numbers, especially in road wins over Texas (45-38) and Alabama (46-41), weren’t spectacular. But LSU has 16 interceptions this season — freshman Derek Stingley has six — and 20 total takeaways. Further, the run defense — 3.61 yards per carry allowed — has been solid all season. For Oklahoma to win Saturday, it’ll have to run the ball. And stuffing the run is something the Tigers know how to do well.
Both teams have excellent freshman kickers — Cade York for LSU, Gabe Brkic for Oklahoma — who can make field goals inside the 40. LSU has the better return units — including two punt return touchdowns — while OU is a little bit better in coverage. Worth watching: LSU kickoff specialist Avery Atkins can kick touchbacks at will. The Tigers led the nation with 96 of them, so if LSU wants to play keep away late in a game, it can.
THE BIG QUESTION
Will Oklahoma change its pace and acknowledge it’s the lesser team? Maybe that’s a harsh way to put it, but last year, OU figured it could be itself and try and outscore Alabama. After slow playing its first drive in the 2018 College Football Playoff, the Sooners cranked up the pace and ended up in a 28-0 hole. Oklahoma has to accept it is a big underdog Saturday, play slugball accordingly and hope to reduce LSU’s number of offensive possessions. Even if OU has success early — and it might — it can’t get ahead of itself. Oklahoma is 0-3 in CFP games. There isn’t any reason to feel good about another 10-point loss.
Minus-7: OU’s turnover margin, which doesn’t bode well for this game. The Sooners’ 11 takeaways this season rank 121st nationally — unforgivably low. The 18 giveaways weren’t pretty, either. Hurts accounted for more than his share.
Six: Games played by OU that were decided by seven points or fewer in 2019. The Sooners lost to Kansas State 48-41 and won the other five. The previous year, Oklahoma was 4-1 in such games. LSU represents a big step up in competition from the middling Big 12.
73: Passing plays of 30 yards or more for LSU’s offense. That leads the nation and speaks to the talent of Burrow and his receivers to connect on deep routes and keep plays going after the catch. The line keeps Burrow upright, too. Burrow is good against pressure — he knows where the weaknesses are in a defense when the pressure comes — and he’s good against coverage. He’s smart and hard to beat.
Of its four CFP games, Oklahoma probably stands the least chance of winning this one. LSU has every advantage. Better quarterback — though not by much — better skill players, better defense. The Tigers are two-touchdown favorites for a reason and should roll. OU’s best chance is to play this game in the 20s, run the ball 45 to 50 times and steal a win late. Can it happen? Sure. Ohio State did it in 2002 against Miami. Florida did it in 2008 against Oklahoma. But such upsets don’t happen often and won’t happen Saturday. LSU’s Peach Bowl trip is just peachy.
LSU 42, Oklahoma 28
No. 2 Ohio State (13-0) vs. No. 3 Clemson (13-0)
WHEN CLEMSON HAS THE BALL
Start with the receivers. Yes, them: 6-foot-4, 215-pound Tee Higgins and 6-4, 205-pound Justyn Ross. Start with them, because when all else fails for Clemson, it has two giant, talented, NFL-ready receivers deployed to each side of the field. Not one. Two. They combined for 19 catches for 435 yards and five touchdowns in last year’s College Football Playoff games, and, because of a rag doll schedule, their true impact isn’t measured until the biggest games. Ohio State can counter with some really good corners — including one of the nation’s best in Jeffrey Okudah — but it won’t stop quarterback Trevor Lawrence from throwing it deep to Higgins and Ross. Clemson’s offense is good all over — Lawrence is a strong-armed thrower and Travis Etienne (1,500 rushing yards, 8.24 yards per carry) is a home run hitter of a back — but Higgins and Ross? They’re who defenses can’t stop. And if they do, two more giant receivers — freshmen Frank Ladson and Joe Ngata — will make plays. Ohio State’s run defense is nasty and swarming, paced by linebackers Malik Harrison and Tuf Borland. Ohio State mixes its coverages and could bait Lawrence into a pick while defensive end Chase Young, a Heisman finalist and Bednarik Award winner, can crash the pocket and create a strip sack with the swipe of a paw. Ohio State’s defense is the real deal — motivated and sound — but Clemson’s skill talent has no equal. It’ll reveal itself, too. The Buckeyes can slow down the Tigers, but they won’t stop them entirely.
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WHEN OHIO STATE HAS THE BALL
Justin Fields was a revelation in 2019. Yes, he, too, has great players around him — including running back JK Dobbins and a nice arsenal of receivers, led by silky smooth Chris Olave — but Fields showed a lot of poise and canniness in his play. He’s really nice in the red zone — 24 of his 49 passes went for touchdowns — and he’s willing to buy time with his legs to throw. OSU was so dominant all season that Fields was rarely pressed into tough spots, but he’s been coached well. His offensive line, led by center Josh Meyers, was tough all season. The Buckeyes ran the ball downhill — zone and power — for much of the year, not having to rely on Fields in the read option. It’s one heck of an offense. Clemson had the nation’s top scoring defense, and while the poor schedule played a part, the Tigers didn’t give up 10.6 points per game by accident. Clemson’s six leading tacklers, including Butkus Award winner Isaiah Simmons, were upperclassmen, and the young defensive line, anchored by freshman Tyler Davis, held its own.
Slight edge to Ohio State, which has one of the nation’s best punters — Drue Chrisman — and elite coverage units. Clemson’s kickoff return unit — whether it’s Etienne or Ngata — is poised for a big play, but the Tigers have missed eight field goals this season. In a tight game, it’s a concern.
THE BIG QUESTION
Will Ohio State be the same team it has been all season? The Buckeyes, based on on-field performance, were as good as any college football team this century. No kidding. The No. 1 scoring offense, the No. 2 scoring defense, No. 1 in scoring margin, top 10 in turnover margin, first in sacks. But Clemson is Clemson, winners of two national titles in five years, destroyer of Ohio State in 2013 and 2016. Dabo Swinney’s been there, done that, and he still knows how to put the chip on his team’s shoulder despite it being favored to win the game. The Buckeyes seem up to the moment, but it is a big stage, and Clemson is more familiar with it.
28: Straight wins for Clemson, dating to a loss in the 2018 College Football Playoff semifinal. The Tigers may play in the weakest Power Five conference, but they aren’t weak. And no team wins 28 straight without being pretty fierce.
59: Ohio State touchdowns in the red zone, tops in the nation, leading No. 2 LSU by nine. The Buckeyes are lights out once they get inside an opponent’s 20-yard line. Fields is the key, but Clemson’s defense, which has allowed 10 red zone scores this year, will be tough, too.
212: Combined rushing plays, between Ohio State and Clemson, that went for more than 10 yards this season. That bears out to more than eight such plays per game — for both teams — so don’t be stunned if Dobbins or Etienne are running loose Saturday.
In many years, this could be the national title game, and both teams probably beat the winner of the other semifinal, too. So this game could be the de facto national title game. Clemson’s on-field résumé — the many mediocre teams it has beaten, sometimes in middling fashion — has little to do with what the Tigers are capable of when it matters. Ultimately, a game between two superpowers probably boils down to the little things — efficiency, execution, turnovers — and what happens in the red zone. Flip a coin on this one. This should be a tight contest.
Ohio State 34, Clemson 31