The College Football Playoff semifinals are set, and there will be two intriguing matchups on New Year’s Eve.
No. 1 Clemson will face No. 4 Oklahoma in what could be a high-flying shootout in the Orange Bowl at 4 p.m. ET. Then, No. 2 Alabama will square off with No. 3 Michigan State in what should be a rugged contest between two great defenses in the nightcap at 8 p.m. ET in the Cotton Bowl.
There are going to be some great storylines to dissect between now and Dec. 31. Here are the five best:
Deshaun Watson vs. Baker Mayfield
Watson was the No. 1 dual-threat quarterback in the nation coming out of high school in the Class of 2014. He’s lived up to the hype for Clemson and will likely be a Heisman Trophy finalist as a sophomore.
Mayfield was the No. 40 pro-style quarterback in 2013 and had offers from Washington State, Rice, Florida Atlantic and New Mexico. He walked on at Texas Tech, transferred to Oklahoma and is now also a possible Heisman finalist after his first year as a starter with the Sooners.
Mayfield is second in the country in passer rating; Watson is 11th and also third among quarterbacks in rushing yards.
Derrick Henry vs. Michigan State’s run defense
Henry needs 14 yards to become the first player in SEC history to rush for 2,000 yards. He leads the nation with 23 rushing touchdowns. He is the favorite to win the Heisman, and will do so unless Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey made enough of a late push with staggering numbers of his own.
Michigan State’s defense looked like an impostor earlier in the season. Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi left for Pittsburgh, and the Spartans were not a dominant defense anymore, particularly against the run. Strong performances against Ohio State and Iowa late in the season, however, suggest the Spartans have figured it out. Michigan State has allowed only 50 points in the past four games.
Connor Cook vs. the Alabama defense
A few national pundits have taken their shots at the lack of elite quarterbacks in the SEC, but that’s mostly a nonsense narrative. There are four quarterbacks in the SEC ranked in the top 35 in the country in passer rating, which is three more than the Big Ten has.
Cook checks in at No. 38, but he is considered one of the elite quarterbacks in the nation and a likely first-round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. For all of the “Alabama hasn’t faced a quarterback like Cook” talk there will be in the next few weeks, there should be just as much “Cook hasn’t faced a defense like Alabama.”
The Crimson Tide are No. 3 in scoring defense and No. 2 in total defense. Ohio State and Wisconsin were the best defenses in the Big Ten this season, but Cook didn’t face either of them. He was injured for the Ohio State game and Michigan State didn’t play Wisconsin.
Nick Saban vs. Michigan State
Saban coached the Spartans from 1995-99 before leaving for LSU. The defensive backs coach on those Michigan State teams was Mark Dantonio, who will now match wits with Saban. It will be the second straight game that Saban has faced a former assistant; Alabama beat former offensive coordinator Jim McElwain and Florida in the SEC Championship game.
Brent Venables vs. Bob Stoops and Lincoln Riley
Venables worked for Stoops at Oklahoma from 1999-2011. He was once the finalist for the Frank Broyles Award, given to the nation’s top assistant coach, while working for Stoops and he’s up for it again this year. He’s been working for Clemson for the past four seasons, and his reputation as one of the great defensive minds in the country remains very much intact.
Riley is a 32-year-old offensive coordinator who is also a Broyles Award finalist. He’s in his first year with Oklahoma and has helped the Sooners become one of the top offenses in the country. Watching Riley and Stoops go against Venables will be fascinating, provided Riley and/or Venables don’t leave for a head coaching job between now and then.