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CFB Playoff Picks 2019: Peach Bowl & Fiesta Bowl

Peach Bowl: #1 (13-0) LSU Tigers vs. #4 (12-1) Oklahoma Sooners
Joe Burrow, LSU

Even though this is now their fourth appearance in the College Football Playoff, Oklahoma is still searching for their first win in the event. In order to do so, they have to find a way to get past the undefeated LSU Tigers, led by Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow. Burrow has put together one of the most efficient and surprising quarterback campaigns in recent memory. Not only is the former Ohio State transfer second nationally in yards (4,715) and first in touchdowns (48), he finished his regular season with a staggering 78% completion percentage. Burrow has also been responsible for the rise of the LSU offense in general, which includes budding superstars in the backfield and on the outside. True sophomore Ja'Marr Chase had a breakout 2019, going from relative unknown to the Biletnikoff Award winner. He's an absolute nightmare to stop for opposing defensive backs, but is not the only weapon that can hurt you. Reliable veteran Justin Jefferson still remains a healthy security blanket for Burrow, while fellow sophomore Terrace Marshall Jr. can create big plays, hauling in ten touchdown receptions on the season. Then, there is running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who gets lost in the commotion surrounding Burrow and the receivers, but is a very crucial component to this offense. Edwards-Helaire is questionable for this semifinal duel, but if he is able to go, he'll be a real problem for an Oklahoma defense that struggles to tackle. This is not the type of back that will go down with simply arm tackles. If he isn't able to play, LSU will instead turn to a pair of freshmen, Tyrion Davis-Price and John Emery. The two remain relatively untested, but they won't have to be leaned on too heavily in an offense predicated on the pass.
Is there any hope for this Oklahoma defense against Burrow and the Tigers? Granted, this is a group that has made serious strides under the leadership of new coordinator Alex Grinch, as their 24.5 points allowed per game is a massive improvement over the 2018 edition. They do a good job of limiting the run, thanks in large part to the play of rangy linebacker Kenneth Murray, but the secondary is frightfully inconsistent. There is not a shortage of talent, but this is still a group prone to allowing the big play, and Burrow is undoubtedly the best quarterback they've seen on the season. I expect Grinch to try and throw some new things at Burrow, but will it be enough to rattle the poised veteran? Burrow has also had the luxury of playing behind a really quality offensive line, which has allowed him all the time he needs to gash opposing defenses. The Sooners already struggle to get enough pressure on the quarterback, and they're in an even tougher spot now that defensive end Ronnie Perkins was suspended for the semifinal (along with a number of offensive contributors). Perkins was a Freshman All-American for OU last fall, and followed it up with a six-sack 2019. His absence is going to be felt more than most realize.
On the other side of the ball, the Sooners look different as well. Even with a proven star at quarterback in Jalen Hurts, the offense has had its ups-and-downs. It still remains a group that can score in a hurry, averaging over 42 PPG in 2019, but they haven't eclipsed 35 since the Iowa State game. There are a few reasons for this; Hurts has had turnover problems at times, while the Oklahoma O-Line has also shown some cracks. Hurts will still give the Sooners an advantage because he has played on this big stage numerous times, but the line play is concerning. It has been the most under-appreciated aspect of the OU success, but the exterior of the unit has questions. This is a physical, aggressive LSU defensive front they're facing, so it could really end up being a problem here. Another issue that could arise for Oklahoma is the lack of depth in the backfield. Kennedy Brooks has proven himself a workhorse, totaling 976 yards on the campaign. However, beyond Brooks the Sooners have issues. Trey Sermon has missed most of the season with injury, forcing former JUCO transfer Rhamondre Stevenson into a larger role. Now, Stevenson is out, as he was also suspended for this game. Sure, Brooks and Hurts will be able to lead this ground attack, but against a physical SEC defense you'd like some other running backs available who have some fresher legs. Could we see little-used T.J. Pledger or Marcus Major, both who haven't played in over a month? Lincoln Riley may have to dig deeper than he'd like to keep the offense humming.
The LSU Tiger defense isn't perfect, and they've had issues stopping the run all season. They've definitely missed linebacker Michael Divinity for the second half of the season. after he initially left the team for "personal reasons" then was ruled ineligible. That is a weakness OU will hope to exploit, but LSU makes up for it with a star-studded secondary. They have the Jim Thorpe Award winner in Grant Delpit, who appears to be the healthiest he has been in some time. They also have two terrific corners in Derek Stingley Jr. and Kristian Fulton. Stingley has been absolutely wonderful as a true freshman, and is a future Day One NFL Draft pick. I'm really interested to see him match up against Biletnikoff Award finalist CeeDee Lamb.
LSU isn't a perfect team by any standard, but their offense and Burrow gives them an obvious edge over the vast majority of the teams they face. Oklahoma does have the tools to keep up with them, but their question marks are too significant to ignore. If they were entering this Playoff on absolute fire, I might feel differently about my pick here. However, they've sort of limped to the finish line in 2019, and barely came away with a victory against a third-string QB in the Big 12 Championship. I'm going LSU here, in what should be a high-scoring affair.
LSU, 38 Oklahoma, 28

Fiesta Bowl: #2 (13-0) Ohio State Buckeyes vs. #3 (13-0) Clemson Tigers
Isaiah Simmons, Clemson

Two balanced, dominant teams collide in this year's Fiesta Bowl. Ohio State is eager for vengeance as well, as their last meeting with Clemson was in the 2016 Playoff, a game they lost 31-0. The Buckeyes are skilled on both sides of the ball, but they wouldn't be 13-0 without the play of QB Justin Fields and tailback J.K. Dobbins. Fields has played efficient football while compiling over 3,000 yards of total offense and 50 touchdowns. He is a proven dual threat with a big arm who can really extend plays. The only similar QB Clemson has really seen like him this year is probably Virginia's Bryce Perkins, and Fields is a much better passer. With that being said, Fields did take a scary shot in the Michigan game, and it still isn't clear whether he is 100 percent in the knee. I don't think the knee will be a game-changer in this game, but it could be notable. Meanwhile, Dobbins was somehow not a Heisman finalist, despite finishing with 1,829 yards and 22 total touchdowns. He's a real nightmare for opposing defenses, because he can throw you and around you. Clemson's rush defense has been rock-solid all year, but much like Fields, Dobbins is a different breed than anything they've seen in the ACC. On the perimeter, the Tigers are going to have to find a way to contain a host of playmakers, namely Chris Olave and K.J. Hill. Olave is particularly versatile, and seems to play his best in the biggest moments.
Despite losing a host of talent to the NFL (including three defensive linemen in the first round), Clemson has done what they do every single year under coordinator Brent Venables: reload. In fact, statistically they are even better on defense than the 2018 edition, averaging just 3.96 yards per play this year, which is down 0.23 yards. They don't have quite as formidable of a pass rush, but this defensive group is more balanced top-to-bottom. The real star of the unit is linebacker Isaiah Simmons, who really does it all. The soon-to-be high Draft selection has six sacks, two interceptions and 93 total tackles on the season. He is aided by a number of other veterans in the linebacker corps, as well as a very strong secondary. This back seven has experience playing in big games and won't be intimidated by either the bright lights, or all the weapons the Buckeyes can throw at you.
Most of the Clemson Tiger offense that dropped 44 on Alabama in last year's National Championship returned for 2019, which has helped them average over 46 points per game on the year. Quarterback Trevor Lawrence had a slow start to his sophomore season, but is playing terrific football down the stretch. He hasn't thrown an interception since mid-October, playing with a lot of confidence and smarts. This is a guy that certainly has no problems playing on the biggest stages in the sport, as his play in last year's Playoff indicated. This is a really tough Ohio State defense he may be facing, but Lawrence should still be able to open things up. He also has the luxury of being joined by a wonderful supporting cast that includes back Travis Etienne and a potent trio of receivers. Etienne hasn't always been completely healthy in 2019, but still rushed for 1,500 yards and 17 touchdowns. He is an absolute speed demon that just needs one crease to reach the end zone, so the Buckeyes are going to have to tackle well, and tackle in space. The trio of receivers includes Tee Higgins, Justyn Ross and Amari Rodges. Higgins is the real go-to guy, while Ross was the breakout star in last year's National Championship. Then there is Rodgers, who doesn't get much attention but is really crucial to this offense and recovered miraculously quick from a torn ACL suffered in spring practice. All of this offensive talent is aided by a steady O-Line that has down a superb job keeping Lawrence upright all year long.
Obviously Ohio State wouldn't be 13-0 without the contributions of Fields and Dobbins on offense, but the real reason for their improved play in 2019 has been the defense. This was a real Achilles Heel for the group for most of last fall, but this unit has played with an improved energy and discipline all season long. Of course, it also helps when you have the most dominant defender in college football in defensive end Chase Young. Young missed two games on the year but still led FBS football with 16.5 sacks while facing double and triple teams. Clemson might have a solid offensive line, but even they're going to have a tough time blocking Young. In the back-end, the Buckeyes have really taken leaps, and a big thanks has to go to corner Jeffrey Okudah, a Thorpe Award finalist. Okudah has consistently covered opposing team's best receivers, but he can't defend this entire trio. Other Buckeye defenders are going to have to step up in the secondary, including Damon Arnette and Shaun Wade. Both of those guys are proven veterans, so I think they'll be ready for the challenge.
These are two of the most well-rounded, best-coached teams we've seen in college football in recent memory. It really is hard to pick one of them, and a coin flip might have to decide who will take on LSU in the National Championship. However, I lean going with the Clemson Tigers in Glendale. Most of this roster was here last year for the National Title, so they know the Playoff and how to take home the ultimate crown. They also have a coach who I trust a little bit more in Dabo Swinney (and Venables). That isn't a knock against Ryan Day, who has proven his coaching prowess this year, but more of Swinney's greatness. In fact, I trust Dabo and this team so much, they are my pre-Playoff pick to hoist the National Title for the second straight season, and third time in four seasons.
Clemson, 34 Ohio State, 30

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