Does Washington really have a chance?
That’s on the minds of fans everywhere, as the third edition of the College Football Playoff draws near. On New Year’s Eve, Washington will take on defending champion Alabama in the Peach Bowl while Ohio State and Clemson face each other in the Fiesta Bowl to determine who’ll play for the 2016 national championship.
On paper and in betting parlors, the Alabama-Washington game appears to be a mismatch, as the Tide are favored by 14 points. Other than one close encounter with Ole Miss early in the season, Alabama has scarcely been challenged in breezing to a 13-0 record and the SEC title. It routed Rose Bowl-bound USC by 46 points in the season opener.
This is in fact only the second undefeated squad in Nick Saban’s 21-year career as a college football head coach (the other was the 2009 Alabama team that won the national title). And it’s probably his finest, despite starting a true freshman at quarterback and having to replace a Heisman Trophy-winning running back.
Washington, on the other hand, is new at this. The last time the Huskies were national title contenders, neither the BCS nor the playoff existed. Under the legendary Don James, Washington was a beast in the old Pac-10 and won a share of the national championship in 1991. But since then, the Huskies have not been relevant until the arrival of Chris Petersen three years ago.
(James, coincidentally, launched Saban’s coaching career by hiring him as a grad assistant on his Kent State staff after the young defensive back finished his playing career, all the way back in 1973.)
Petersen, who oversaw the rise of Boise State as a pesky upstart in a non-Power 5 conference, is building another powerhouse but this time with much more talent at his disposal. The Huskies won their first Pac-12/10 title since 2000 with a stout defense and a well-balanced offense. But do they have enough to slow Alabama to have a chance, in a hostile environment in Atlanta that’ll be like a home game for the Crimson Tide?
Not with the Huskies missing their two best linebackers – Azeem Victor and Joe Mathis – both lost for the season because of injuries. And not with quarterback Jake Browning having a late-season slump, a disastrous script against an Alabama defense that might be among the most opportunistic in college football history.
Prediction: Alabama 38, Washington 14
The other playoff matchup should be much more entertaining. It’ll be the second time in four seasons with Ohio State facing Clemson in a postseason game, as the Tigers won the Orange Bowl, 40-35 after the 2013 season. It’s also a matchup between two teams that advanced to the national title games in the first two years of the CFP, with Ohio State winning the championship in 2014 and Clemson narrowly losing to Alabama last year.
And by the way, there’s also this bit of history: Clemson was the last team Woody Hayes faced as a coach. On Dec. 29, 1978, the legendary Ohio State coach ended his career ignominiously when he punched Clemson linebacker Charlie Bauman on the sideline after Bauman’s interception sealed a 17-15 Gator Bowl victory for the Tigers.
Chances are, Urban Meyer won’t be punching anyone in this game, win or lose, as he’ll be busy devising ways to slow down Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson, who nearly singlehandedly defeated Alabama in last year’s national title game.
But this year’s Clemson team isn’t as good as the 2015 edition, as it’s lost significant amount of talent on defense. And it had to scrape by several games – especially against Louisville, Florida State and North Carolina State – just to get into the playoff.
It’s the same case for the Buckeyes, who lost the likes of Ezekiel Elliott and Joey Bosa from last year’s team – it’s still a mystery how that team lost to Michigan State and didn’t make the playoff. Ohio State again failed to win the Big Ten this year, but nevertheless made the playoff thanks to a controversial double-overtime victory over Michigan.
This edition of the Buckeyes will have trouble containing Watson and the high-octane Clemson offense. If it cannot create turnovers to help out an offense that sputtered late in the season, Ohio State will end up 0-3 all-time against Clemson in bowl games.
Prediction: Clemson 34, Ohio State 24