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College Football Playoff Picks 2020: Rose Bowl & Sugar Bowl

DeVonta Smith, Alabama

 Rose Bowl (Jan. 1st)

Alabama Crimson Tide (11-0) vs. Notre Dame Fighting Irish (10-1)

Despite losing the ACC Championship Game by over three touchdowns to Clemson, Notre Dame remained in the four-team Playoff field. Their reward? Having to take on the top-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide, who have been absolutely dominant en route to an 11-0 record. What's so impressive about the Tide is their evolution under Nick Saban. Once a defensive-oriented team with a rather simplistic offense, Alabama has evolved into a fast-paced, aggressive team that is able to hurt opposing defenses in a wide variety of ways. Their success has allowed QB Mac Jones and receiver DeVonta Smith to both end up as Heisman Finalists, putting up record-setting numbers despite a shortened season. Smith in particular will be of major concern to this Notre Dame defense; he's dominated every single defense he's seen in 2020, and the Irish don't have a defensive back that can match up against him. They're going to have to bring extra coverage to help, which will leave them exposed in other areas. Of course, Alabama still has their power-run attack to lean back on if the passing game is struggling, with All-SEC tailback Najee Harris. Harris has been an absolute touchdown machine in 2020, and he's the perfect complement to the explosive passing game. Notre Dame does have a superb defensive front, led by Butkus Award winner Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, but they haven't seen a rush offense as physical as Alabama's so far in 2020. The ND defense also has other difficulties beyond just what Alabama can throw at you; coordinator Clark Lea has officially taken the Vanderbilt head coaching job, and while he'll still call plays in this one you have to believe his mind is partly in Nashville. In order to have any success against the Tide, you have to be absolutely locked in, and even though this is a Playoff game with high stakes, I'm not sure Lea is.

No matter what ND is able to throw at them defensively, Alabama will put up points. Can the Irish offense do the same? QB Ian Book has had a marvelous senior season, but he really struggled in the ACC Championship Game. Book's a mobile quarterback, which has given 'Bama issues in the past, but you always wonder whether he'll be able to make the throws this offense needs. The receiver corps is solid, but lacks the elite playmakers necessary to really open things up. Guys like Javon McKinley and Avery Davis have shown flashes, but just how prepared are they for this battle? It doesn't help that, per usual, the Tide are loaded with NFL talent in the secondary, namely Patrick Surtain Jr. and Malachi Moore. You would feel more confident about this Irish offense if their offensive line didn't also struggle the way it did in that Clemson loss. Long considered one of the best in the entire nation, the ND O-Line was torn apart by the Tigers, allowing Book to be sacked six times. To be fair, Clemson has some absolute freaks on their defensive line, but so does Alabama. If Notre Dame isn't able to give Book at least some time, there's absolutely no chance they come away with the upset. We will also have to monitor whether the ground game can get back on track after a poor showing against Clemson. Kyren Williams has had a breakout campaign for the Irish and this 'Bama defense has occasionally had difficulties containing the run. But, Williams isn't the type of back that will regularly break off big runs, more of a methodical runner than anything else. Simply put, you wonder if Notre Dame has the explosiveness to keep pace with Alabama, no matter what happens on the other side of the ball. This offense has put up great numbers, but it's a group that still lacks the big-play capability you need to take down the Crimson Tide. 

Motivation is never hard to come by in the College Football Playoff, but there may be even more pressure on the Irish than Alabama in this semifinal. Notre Dame has regularly been blown out in major bowl games since the 1990s, including the infamous 2012 BCS Championship Game when they were dismantled by 'Bama, 42-17. Head coach Brian Kelly seems to have learned some lessons from these losses and he's done a great job upping ND's recruiting and development. But even after a tremendous 10-1 season, they look a step below the true "elites" of college football. They also have the luxury of facing down an Alabama team that looks like it could be the best of the Saban era, although that's said nearly every single year in Tuscaloosca. It wouldn't take an absolute miracle for Notre Dame to pull off an upset, but it would take a lot of things going right and the Tide also having a little bit of an off-day. Again, that isn't completely impossible, but to pick against this current Alabama edition would be ludicrous. They are loaded at every single level, and also seem to match up really well against the Irish. Plus, they still have en edge on the sideline, even though Kelly deserves a ton of credit for his work in South Bend. Just one more thing to note: Alabama wide out Jaylen Waddle could still possibly return for the Playoff after missing most of the season with a broken ankle. Possibly the fastest player in college football, when Waddle is paired with Smith, there is nobody in the country that can stop this Alabama offense. It's still unclear his status entering this one, but Waddle's return would only confirm this game as a lock for the Tide.

The Pick: Alabama, 38 Notre Dame, 20

Sugar Bowl (Jan. 1st)

Clemson Tigers (10-1) vs. Ohio State Buckeyes (6-0)

Clemson and Ohio State played in an instant classic a season ago in the College Football Playoff, with the Tigers coming out on top 29-23 in overtime. There may have been some controversial calls that may or may not have have helped swing the game in favor of the Tigers, but they still deserve credit for getting the job done. This season, both teams enter in slightly different situations. Clemson has still been terrific, with their only blemish an overtime loss to Notre Dame, and they enter as over a touchdown favorite in this game. Ohio State has played just six games in total and while they've managed to stay undefeated, they got all they could handle from Big Ten foes Indiana and Northwestern. Clemson's offensive core remains mostly in place from last year's team, with familiar faces Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne leading the way. Lawrence struggled early on in this matchup a season ago before figuring things out and playing really well down the stretch. He has clearly proven he isn't afraid of the big stage, and he'll have his opportunities in this game. While last season's Ohio State secondary was full of future NFL Draft selections, this group has really struggled. Aside from Shaun Wade, who was kicked out of last year's game due to targeting, it's an inexperienced group that will have a tough time containing the athletes Clemson can throw at you on the perimeter. The Tigers may not have Justyn Ross in 2020, but they still have several tremendous weapons, including Amari Rodgers, Frank Ladson, and E.J. Williams. Clemson also has a secret weapon in tight end Braden Galloway, an absolute matchup nightmare. He flashed in the Playoff last season, and has put together a productive 2020 campaign. If those guys don't hurt you enough, the ultra-reliable Travis Etienne is always ready. The Buckeyes do have a terrific rush defense, thanks in large part to a fantastic interior D-Line and an experienced linebacker corps, but Etienne is the type of athlete that you don't see very much in the Big Ten. 

Ohio State's offense has been an interesting case study over the course of their shortened 2020. Quarterback Justin Fields remains one of the most talented players in all of college football, but he's really struggled down the stretch and seems to be forcing things. He had a strong showing in this game a year ago before his OT interception that cost them the game, but how does he handle the recent cold streak? His ability to create plays with his legs adds an interesting element to this offense, but Clemson does a good job of keeping opposing quarterbacks in check. Head coach Ryan Day clearly loves to throw the ball, but it has actually been the ground game that has been more effective over the last couple weeks. Former Oklahoma transfer Trey Sermon was the primary reason the Buckeyes were able to outlast Northwestern in the Big Ten Championship Game, and he'll put pressure on the Clemson defensive front. Sermon's also an excellent pass-catcher out of the backfield, and Ohio State can keep him fresh by rotating in punishing tailback Master Teague. It's still somewhat unclear how good the Tigers are at defending against the run. Their numbers are fairly good and it's crucial that James Skalski is back playing healthy, but they didn't play very well against OSU in 2019 with an arguably more talented unit. Of course, defensive coordinator Brent Venables is a good guy to bet on, as he's regularly been the difference in huge games. With that being said, Day called a great game in this battle in 2019, and the chess match between the two is going to be a thrilling watch. The Buckeyes seem to have a clear advantage on the outside with their receiver group, particularly now that veteran Chris Olave has returned from COVID protocols. With that advantage, I am fairly curious to see how aggressive Day is going to be throwing the football even though the run game has been so effective as of late.

Only adding fuel to the fire, Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney has had a fun time poking at Ohio State over the last couple weeks. He's routinely criticized their shortened schedule, and even went so far as to rank Ohio State 11th in his own personal rankings that were released. Dabo has always been a guy that is going to speak his mind, but I wonder what type of effect that routine will have on the Buckeyes. Again, motivation is never an issue in these Playoff games, but Ohio State should really come out with a fury. It wasn't just the game they lost a season ago, but the way they lost it. There are several key cogs on this roster that came back with the sole intention of getting another shot at the Tigers. The thing is, Ohio State as a program has not had success against Clemson, going 0-4 against the Tigers in the historical meetings between the two. In addition, OSU is 0-3 in the past decade, which includes the 31-0 2016 Fiesta Bowl, which no Buckeye fan needs a reminder of. I truly do believe that Ohio State is one of the top four teams in the nation, and they are one of the few teams in the country with the talent to hang with Clemson for an entire sixty minutes. But, the fact of the matter is that we just haven't seen enough of this 2020 team for me to feel confident in picking them. Perhaps they will be able to hit their stride at the right time, but their recent performances inspire very little confidence, especially with the way Clemson is playing on the other side. It might end up being a boring pick, but I still lean Tigers to improve to 5-0 in the series between the two. They aren't the absolute buzzsaw they've been in year's past, but they're also a team without much clear weaknesses, and they've become very accustomed to this type of stage. Yet another Clemson-Alabama National Championship Game seems highly likely.

The Pick: Clemson, 31 Ohio State, 24

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