Alabama has a 44.8 percent chance of winning the national title, per S&P+ projections.
- S&P+ win probability vs. Washington: 71.2 percent
- Win probability vs. potential finalists: 69.4 percent vs. Clemson, 58.8 percent vs. Ohio State
The biggest reason Bama will win: The Crimson Tide are the best team in the country. That doesn’t guarantee anything in a playoff — just ask the 2007 New England Patriots or 2016 Golden State Warriors — but it certainly helps.
Alabama has the best defense in the CFP (No. 2 overall, per Def. S&P+), and despite rolling in with a freshman quarterback (Jalen Hurts), the Tide rank 16th in Off. S&P+ as well.
In the rare occasion that you can move the ball on the Bama defense, the offense picks up the slack. In its two roughest games, Bama gave up 73 combined points against Ole Miss and Arkansas, with partial help from return touchdowns; in turn, the Crimson Tide scored 97 (also with help from returns).
The biggest reason Bama won’t win: Negative plays. Last month, I wrote about Bama’s potential CFP opponents and who might match up the best. Most of the advantages other teams were going to be able to find were based around sacks and stuffs.
The Tide offense ranks 44th in Adj. Sack Rate and 86th in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line); they are talented enough on offense to catch back up to the chains at times, but that will be harder to do against elite defenses.
And while Bama has the best defense in the Playoff, all of them are good. Ohio State ranks third in Def. S&P+, Clemson sixth, Washington 10th. Washington isn’t particularly disruptive against the run, but the Huskies have one of the best pass rushes in the country.
Ohio State has a 29.1 percent chance.
- Win probability vs. Clemson: 61.2 percent
- Win probability vs. potential finalists: 63.2 percent vs. Washington, 41.2 percent vs. Alabama
The biggest reason Ohio State will win: Efficiency. It is the most important of the Five Factors, and the Buckeyes nail it. They are second in rushing success rate on offense and sixth in defense, and they are fantastic in short yardage situations on both sides of the ball.
The Buckeyes peck and poke at you, five yards at a time, with running back Mike Weber, quarterback J.T. Barrett, and do-everything Curtis Samuel. They move the chains and prevent you from doing the same.
That will win you a lot of games. It has won Urban Meyer 61 of his 66 games at Ohio State, in fact.
The biggest reason Ohio State won’t win: When the Buckeyes have to pass, they can’t do it particularly well. Ohio State ranks sixth in Standard Downs S&P+ but only 38th in Passing Downs S&P+; on passing downs, their 30 percent success rate ranks 74th in the country.
Against the three best defenses on the schedule (Wisconsin, Penn State, Michigan), Barrett completed a healthy 64 percent but averaged a sickly 10.5 yards per completion, with two interceptions and eight sacks. Both his line and his receiving corps are young and glitchy, and he has had neither the confidence nor the wherewithal to look downfield in downfield situations.
That could backfire, considering how good the CFP defenses are, both in terms of pass rush and pass defense. You always want to stay on schedule; Ohio State has to.
Clemson has a 14.3 percent chance.
- Win probability vs. Ohio State: 38.8 percent
- Win probability vs. potential finalists: 52.1 percent vs. Washington, 30.6 percent vs. Alabama
The biggest reason Clemson will win: The Tigers have the best quarterback in the CFP. All four teams have good QBs, but Deshaun Watson is still Deshaun Watson.
Despite a run game that came and went, Watson completed 68 percent of his passes and, during the first half of the Fiesta Bowl, will probably pass 4,000 passing yards for the season. He has a wonderfully efficient receiving corps, and he knows how to use it; only one of his top six targets has a catch rate below 67 percent or a success rate below 57 percent.
And while last year is far in the past, Watson was spectacular in last year’s CFP. He takes minimal sacks, and he makes the “scramble for seven yards on third-and-6” maneuver look effortless. He is a hell of a trump card.
The biggest reason Clemson won’t win: Watson will be asked to do a lot. Clemson’s run efficiency improved over the course of the season, but the Tigers’ path features one of the most efficient run defenses in the country (Ohio State’s, which allows some big plays but stuffs you more often than anybody else in the country) and one of the best overall run defenses (Alabama is first in Rushing S&P+, Washington seventh).
Like Watson, Wayne Gallman produced some of his most indelible moments in last year’s postseason. But this year, he’s averaged only 5.1 yards per carry with minimal big-play potential. Clemson ranks 126th in Rushing IsoPPP (which measures the magnitude of your big plays), 86th in power success rate, and 38th in stuff rate. This likely means a lot of second-and-10s.
Washington has an 11.8 percent chance.
- Win probability vs. Alabama: 28.8 percent
- Win probability vs. potential finalists: 47.9 percent vs. Clemson, 36.8 percent vs. Ohio State
The biggest reason UW will win: Balance. Chris Petersen is one of the best-regarded “He’d beat you with his guys, then beat you with your guys” coaches in the country, and he’s got maybe the best-balanced squad in the CFP.
While none of the semifinalists has a fatal weakness, UW is the only one to rank in the top 10 in both Off. S&P+ and Def. S&P+. They run well (fifth in rushing success rate), they throw well (Jake Browning: 8.5 yards per pass attempt, including sacks), they stop the run (seventh in Rushing S&P+), and they stop the pass (eighth in Passing S&P+, fifth in Adj. Sack Rate).
Giving Petersen a month to prepare for anyone, even Alabama, will make his squad dangerous, and he’s got the pieces to do whatever he feels gives him the best strategic chance to win.
The biggest reason UW won’t win: The Huskies have to play Alabama.
More specifically, they have to take on Alabama’s defensive front. The backfield of Browning and running backs Myles Gaskin and Lavon Coleman was mostly dominant — UW ranked third in Passing S&P+, and Gaskin/Coleman combined for 2,178 rushing yards (6.5 per carry) — but the moments of struggle were telling.
Against USC in Washington’s only loss, the Huskies’ line got overwhelmed. Gaskin and Coleman gained just 57 yards in 17 carries (3.4 per carry), and Browning took three sacks and threw two picks. He was 7-for-19 for 92 yards on standard downs against the Trojans, and while receiver John Ross had a big day (11 targets, eight catches, 154 yards), Browning was otherwise 9-for-25 on passes not intended for Ross. (And against Colorado’s awesome secondary, he was 9-for-24 overall.)
USC’s defensive front is awesome. Alabama’s is otherworldly.
Against elite defensive units, Washington’s offense struggled. There’s no shame in that, but to say the least, it’s a concern when going up against Nick Saban and the Tide.