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CFB Playoff Picks 2018-2019: Cotton Bowl & Orange Bowl

Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic
(#2) Clemson Tigers vs. (#3) Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Trevor Lawrence, Clemson
If you love physical, hard-nosed football built on defense, look no further than this year's Cotton Bowl, which pits second-ranked Clemson against another undefeated, Notre Dame. These two teams have had very similar paths to a Playoff berth; replacing quarterbacks early on in the season, surviving a number of serious upset bids and even facing four common opponents on the year.
The Tigers do feature a more proven track record over the last few seasons, as this marks their fourth straight trip to the Playoff. Head coach Dabo Swinney has been here before and won, and this Clemson squad certainly has the tools to do just that once again. On offense, true freshman Trevor Lawrence has lived up to the hype, tossing for 2,606 yards and 24 touchdowns while playing with a maturity and confidence well beyond his years. He leads an extremely balanced group that can hit you from nearly everywhere. Speedy sophomore Travis Etienne broke into the Heisman conversation this season after notching 21 touchdowns, and he is the type of game-breaker needed to open things up against a physical Irish defensive front. On the outside, Lawrence is aided by rapidly improving Tee Higgins, another true freshman in Justyn Ross and the ever-reliable Hunter Renfrow, who has been crucial in a number of Tiger Playoff runs. The most crucial aspect of this game for Lawrence will be protecting the football. Considering his immense youth, its pretty crazy Lawrence has thrown just four interceptions, but he hasn't faced much defenses with the speed and power of Notre Dame's unit. If Notre Dame is able to get the youngster off-balance, there chances of winning go up in a huge way.
On the other side of the ball, Clemson was hit out-of-the-blue by suspensions to star defensive linemen Dexter Lawrence due to a failed drug test. Losing Lawrence, who eats up space in the heart of the D-Line, will hurt the Tigers, but veteran Albert Huggins should be able to come in and still provide plenty of support.
Notre Dame doesn't quite have the explosive weapons that Clemson has offensively, but they move the ball in a more methodical, deliberate manner. Ian Book took over the reigns of quarterback after just a few games for the veteran Brandon Wimbush, and Book has played well. Much like Lawrence, he has proven he can distribute the ball out and make some really impressive throws, while also limiting his turnovers. There are a number of other offensive weapons that contribute to a group that averages 33.6 points per game. Dexter Williams hasn't been 100 percent for a big chunk of the year, but the elusive running back still totaled 941 yards on the year while averaging 6.6 yards per carry. Versatile RB-WR Jafar Armstrong will also get touches out of the backfield, while Clemson will have to find a way to contain wide outs Miles Boykin and Chase Claypool. Both are match-up nightmares for opposing defenses, particularly Boykin, who has proven he has superb chemistry with Book.
However, the key for both teams in this game probably won't end up being at the offensive skill positions. They're going to center around the war in the trenches, where a number of future NFL players will be battling it out. Despite the fact they lose Lawrence, Clemson can still rotate in some astounding talent in their front seven, including Clelin Ferrell, Christian Wilkins, Austin Bryant and youngster Xavier Thomas. Wilkins is an important player to watch not just because of what he can do defensively, but in the other creative ways Swinney and company might use him (he caught a fake punt pass in the 2015 Orange Bowl that completely changed the momentum).
For Notre Dame, it will be interesting to see how their offensive line is able to handle this group of future NFL defenders. The line has played very well for most of the year, even without Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey, who were first-round NFL Draft selections this past spring. Yet, they haven't faced a pass rush with the talent Clemson possesses, and Clemson DC Brent Venables is well-known for his interesting and unique blitzes he can draw up.
The same could be said for Clemson, as their O-Line must face down a Notre Dame front seven that clobbered Michigan to begin the season and is loaded with playmakers. It may not be dotted with quite as much big-name stars, but interior linemen Jerry Tillery had seven sacks on the year, and edge rusher Khalid Kareem can cause plenty of chaos. Notre Dame's defense is also stronger on the back-end, with guys like linebacker Te'Von Coney making tackles from sideline to sideline and a veteran defensive backfield.
This game probably isn't going to have the offensive fireworks we will see later in the day with Alabama-Oklahoma, but it should be a superb semifinal. Both of these teams exemplify what it takes to win in today's college football: balanced offenses, strength on both lines and smart, efficient quarterbacks leading the charge. I like this Notre Dame a lot more than I feel like most do, because they have the experience factor and a roster makeup necessary to take down a powerhouse like Alabama. With that being said, I'm picking Clemson to come out on top in a very competitive showdown in Arlington. They just have too much strength on their defensive front and too much weapons offensively for the Irish to keep up with for sixty minutes. In fact, with their blend of size and speed on both sides of the ball and a coaching staff that knows how to win the big games, Clemson is my pick to win it all when its all said and done in two weeks (much like they were in the preseason).
Clemson, 27 Notre Dame, 20

Capital One Orange Bowl
(#4) Oklahoma Sooners vs. (#1) Alabama Crimson Tide

Jerry Jeudy, Alabama
Between the two of them, Alabama and Oklahoma averaged roughly 109 points per game, 1,104 yards per game, had the top two Heisman finalists and nine All-Americans in 2018. Needless to say, points are going to come fast and furious in this semifinal duel between two of the sport's blue blood programs.
Alabama looked essentially invincible throughout the entirety of the 2018 regular season, but a come from behind victory over Georgia in the SEC Championship indicated this team did have some weaknesses. Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa is still as dominant as they come, and could be in store for a big day against a porous Oklahoma defense. Tagovailoa was not 100 percent in the SEC Championship, but says he is ready to go in this game. He'll be joined by offensive stars everywhere you look on this Alabama roster, with a deep stable of backs and the Biletnikoff Award winner, Jerry Jeudy. Damien Harris, Najee Harris and Josh Jacobs are a three-headed monster in the backfield that rotate regularly, keeping each one very fresh for sixty minutes. Thats a distinct advantage, particularly facing a defense almost sure to be on the field a lot. They all operate behind a strong offensive line, with All-Americans and future NFL starters Jonah Williams and Ross Pierschbacher leading the way. This offense is not the conservative, run-heavy unit it once was in the early years of Nick Saban. It has evolved into quite the big-play threat, with burners everywhere that can take it to the house each time they touch the ball.
Oklahoma will be able to counter with an offense that is no slouch either. Head coach Lincoln Riley has asserted himself as one of the top offensive minds in the sport, simply replacing one Heisman winner (Baker Mayfield) with another one in Kyler Murray. Murray has a rocket arm and truly eye-popping speed, and he is going to get out of the pocket and show it often in this game. Murray may be even better than his predecessor at creating plays when they break down, something that seemed impossible with what Baker did at times a season ago. The Sooners certainly miss running back Rodney Anderson, who played terrific in last year's Playoff, but they can still hit very hard with their ground game. Freshman Kennedy Brooks didn't receive much attention prior to this season but managed to rush for over 1,000 yards, while sophomore added 928 yards and 12 touchdowns. Oklahoma also doesn't lack for playmakers at receiver, where they have flaming fast Marquise "Hollywood" Brown and reliable CeeDee Lamb. While Alabama's secondary has played well for most of the season, Brown and Lamb are different types of challenges. Brown may be the fastest player on the field in this one, even quicker than Alabama's Jeudy or Jaylen Waddle.
Yet, while both offenses have proven they can score, the two defenses have been trending in completely different directions all season long. Alabama has not shown any issues with the number of NFL defections they suffered last spring, seemingly growing stronger every single week. Their defensive line is stocked with some absolute monsters, namely Quinnen Williams, who plays like a seasoned NFL veteran and is almost sure to go high off the boards this next spring. Behind that line is a group of linebackers who have been here before and know what they need to do, along with a secondary that has some impressive young talent. Safety Deionte Thompson was an All-American this past season, while true freshman Patrick Surtain Jr. has stepped up for the absence of injured corner Trevon Diggs.
The same can't be said for Oklahoma's defense, which has been their Achilles Heel for a number of years now. This year's group has really struggled to make tackles in space and has let up too many big plays, resulting in the country's 124th total defense. Coordinator Mike Stoops was fired halfway through the season and gave way to Ruffin McNeil, but that hasn't made a huge difference. They still gave up 56 in a close victory over West Virginia, and this defense is still the same group that allowed 40 points to Kansas, the most the Jayhawks have managed in a conference game since 2010. The defense has been bailed out all season long by Murray and this incredible offense, but that won't work the same way against a team like Alabama. How is a poor tackling team supposed to contain a physical, explosive offense? How is a defense that gives up too many big plays supposed to contain a collection of Tide receivers that can score every time they touch the ball?
This game won't lack for points and fireworks, but it won't end up being the competitive game the Cotton Bowl should end up being. Alabama just has too much to expect Oklahoma to keep up, even if their defense saw miraculous improvement over the past three weeks. Kyler Murray should be able to keep Oklahoma at least somewhat close, but even that could be in question. Something to remember: while Murray has certainly been superb he has also operated behind a great O-Line and has barely been hit this season. He is going to be hit hard and often by a physical SEC defense, and will he be able to pull off his usual magic after? Oklahoma might just have enough to keep things close, but I don't see much chance the Tide falter here.
Alabama, 49 Oklahoma, 34

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