College Football Semi Final – 2018 Orange Bowl
Notre Dame Fighting Irish +13 vs Clemson Tigers
(Saturday 4 p.m. ET)
A pair of stingy defenses will be on display in the first national semifinal game, with Clemson and Notre Dame each ranked in the top 10 for scoring defense this season. And both offenses are averaging more than 35 points per game under their present quarterback. Oddsmakers made Clemson a double-digit favorite, but I’m expecting a much closer affair.
Notre Dame (+13) became a different team when Ian Book took the helm in Week 4. Brian Kelly went 12-0 during the 2012 regular season with Everett Golson at QB and had coached many a journeyman in South Bend before Book replaced the incumbent starter. The strong-armed quarterback catapulted Kelly to 2018 Coach of the Year honors, passing for more than 260 yards in every game as he averaged 306.9 yards per contest and threw multiple TDs in the last seven.
The Irish have been battle-tested, winning five games by a TD or less, and I love how Book brings it during clutch time, completing 83.3% of his throws in the fourth quarter. He’s a dangerous runner as well and the ground game is led by RB Dexter Williams, who enjoyed an excellent season after missing the first four games due to suspension, averaging 6.6 yards per carry.
Notre Dame scored 37.2 points per games over the last nine weeks behind a deep and talented offense line, who will need to play well against a Clemson defense that led the nation by allowing only 2.4 rushing yards per attempt. The Irish don’t five up many sacks (1.6 per game) and I expect them to score enough points to be competitive in the national semifinal.
Clemson failed to cover double-digit spreads against the three best teams on their schedule (South Carolina, Syracuse and Texas A&M), narrowly escaping Syracuse and Texas A&M by less than a touchdown, and Notre Dame represents a much more difficult challenge due to their offensive balance.
Defense is Notre Dame’s calling card. The Irish throttled Michigan in the season-opener and didn’t allow any opponent to score more than 27 points this season, ranking 10th nationally by allowing only 17.3 points per game. The Irish are big and fast up front and feature an outstanding secondary.
Clemson will bring it offensively, with QB Trevor Lawrence and RB Travis Etienne heading a high-powered attack that has won its last eight games by at least 20 points, but the Tigers also feasted upon a soft schedule. With the nation’s ninth-ranked run offense, averaging 259.8 yards per game, Clemson will be more than comfortable trying to grind out a close win if necessary.
The nation’s second-ranked defense sustained a major loss when All-American defensive lineman Dexter Lawrence was suspended recently due a drug positive.
Clemson remains a deserving favorite, but this line is way too high given Notre Dame’s quarterback play and formidable offensive and defensive lines. Give me the Irish and the points!
College Football Playoff Semi Final – 2018 Cotton Bowl Classic
Oklahoma Sooners +14 vs Alabama Crimson Tide
(Saturday 8 p.m. ET)
The second national semifinal game features the two highest-scoring offenses in college football, with Oklahoma averaging 49.5 points per game and Alabama 47.9. But similarities end there as only one team plays defense.
Alabama (-14) enters with a 4-0 ATS record in national semifinal games, thrice covering double-digit margins, and will make it five straight this year. Nick Saban the best in the business when given time to prepare, with Alabama gaining 281 rushing yards on a highly-ranked LSU run defense earlier this season following a bye, and he’ll devise schemes to slow down an Oklahoma offense that puts up 577.9 yards per game.
Don’t expect Oklahoma to run the ball effectively and Citadel’s option attack is the only offense that gave the Tide trouble this year. Alabama surrendered only 14.8 points per game behind a terrific pass rush (3.23 sacks per game) and talented secondary (14 interceptions including four TDs), allowing only 178.4 passing yards per contest.
Oklahoma’s star WR Marquise Brown (75 receptions, 1,318 yards and 10 TDs) sustained a foot injury against Texas in the Big 12 Championship game and his status is questionable. With 243 passing yards against West Virginia two games back, Brown’s absence would be felt despite a deep Sooner receiving corps.
Crimson Tide may not be able to keep Oklahoma out of the end zone completely, but I will take the “over” on Alabama’s team total as they score at least 50 points for the ninth game this season.
Tua Tagovailoa expected back at full strength and Tide recorded a 33.1-point margin of victory behind the dynamic passer, the best of the Saban era in Tuscaloosa. Tua threw 37 TDs passes with only four interceptions, posting the second-best passer efficiency rating in the nation this season, and Alabama has only 13 turnovers the entire year.
Oklahoma fields perhaps their weakest defense ever. Sooners surrendered 32.4 points per game (96th-ranked) and every team with a decent QB was able to shred their secondary. Good quarterbacks enjoyed an absolute field day, with Will Grier throwing for 539 yards last month, and that’s big trouble against Tua.
It wasn’t much better against run-heavy teams as Army and Kansas each recorded more than 300 rushing yards.
Alabama loves to get off to fast starts, dominating the first quarter of most games, and will be able to keep the beleaguered Sooners defense off balance throughout the first half. Oklahoma won’t be able to match points as Alabama draws away to a dominant win, lay the points with the Tide!