1. Seven great units, with one obvious exception
Three of the top seven offenses, plus another good one.
Three of the top eight defenses, plus, well ...
Oklahoma is an obvious outlier among elite teams. The Sooners’ defense was as bad as the caricature for much of the season, but as you see, their first-place offense was nearly six adjusted points per game better than second-place Alabama’s. That offers you some leeway.
2. Can Oklahoma force an Alabama shootout?
Oklahoma’s offense can score on anyone’s defense. But the Sooners will have to figure out how to disrupt something when Alabama’s got the ball.
The Sooners don’t have an altogether awful run defense. But the 2018 Tide really only care about running if they have a big lead or can’t pass — they’re 107th in standard-downs run rate (how often they run on first downs, second-and-longs, and third/fourth-and-shorts) and 97th in passing-downs run rate — and you can pass on Oklahoma.
The Sooners have to hope Tua Tagovailoa’s late-season dalliance with mortality wasn’t just because of injuries. He’s been dealing with a few nagging leg issues, and his incomprehensible 238.8 passer rating before November 1 (70 percent completion rate, no interceptions) was a merely good 163.2 afterward (65 percent completion rate, four interceptions).
OU has to bait a rested Tagovailoa into mistakes, and while the Sooner pass rush showed some late promise (six sacks against WVU and Texas), it probably doesn’t have the juice to get that done.
However, OU’s going to score points. Those aren’t always guaranteed for Alabama opponents, as LSU and Mississippi State can attest.
Even though a majority of the Tide’s defensive glitches came earlier in the season, Kyler Murray won the Heisman for a reason. He’s unbelievable, and his receiving corps is deep enough to find weaknesses even in Alabama.
More importantly, OU’s run game might be the most underrated in FBS. Running the ball is almost never the way to beat Bama, but while the Sooners will be made or broken by Murray’s play-making ability, their ground game has been a great way of stealing yards and staying in manageable downs and distances.
The emergence of freshman Kennedy Brooks (last four games: 546 yards, 7.7 per carry) and tight end Grant Calcaterra (four touchdown receptions in the last three games) meant Murray didn’t have to lean as heavily on “Hollywood” Brown and CeeDee Lamb. If there’s a matchup advantage, Murray will find it.
3. The Irish can limit Clemson, but can they break loose themselves?
Clemson holds most of the advantages, but the most important could lean in Notre Dame’s favor: big-play prevention.
Trevor Lawrence hasn’t really looked much like a freshman quarterback this season, but in the biggest game of his life, Notre Dame could force him to play steady ball. The Irish gave up only 12 gains of 30-plus yards all season and rank in the top five of most of my advanced explosiveness categories.
Mind you, Clemson’s offense is plenty explosive. Backs Travis Etienne, Lyn-J Dixon, and Adam Choice have combined to average a staggering 8.4 yards per carry, and the receiving corps is overloaded with downfield weapons. But if the Irish can force Lawrence to simply make a lot of plays and remain patient, the moment might catch up to him at some point.
Of course, forcing a freshman QB to make plays only really matters if you don’t get trampled in the trenches. Clemson holds a marginal advantage in the ground game on offense and a massive one on defense (though a suspension for Clemson DL Dexter Lawrence would change things at least somewhat).
A full-strength Tigers defense would hold that advantage on everyone, and while the Irish ground game ticked up when Dexter Williams (941 yards, 6.6 per carry, in eight games) returned from suspension, Williams is all-or-nothing.
Williams’ efficiency levels aren’t any higher than those of backup Notre Dame RBs Tony Jones Jr. and Jafar Armstrong, and his gaudy per-carry averages are bolstered by nine runs of 20-plus yards, including a 97-yarder. His average drops by 0.6 yards per carry if you remove that one jaunt. Maybe he can rip off a 97-yarder against Clemson, but that seems like a difficult thing to count on.
Notre Dame’s biggest strength: it isn’t bad at anything. Even that shaky No. 74 ranking in Rushing S&P+ on offense improves if you look only at the games with Williams on the field.
But against Clemson, you’re going to have to do something great. The most likely path to victory is one of big-play prevention and red zone stops. But you’re going to have to score, too.
4. If special teams matter, that’s probably good for the underdogs.
Both Alabama (for what feels like the 10th year in a row) and Clemson have been beset by shaky place-kicking.
Bama’s Joseph Bulovas is three of four on field goals over 40 yards, but he’s missed three kicks under 40 and ranks No. 99 in the country in PAT percentage, missing five.
Clemson’s Greg Huegel has suffered glitches, though he also improved — after missing three of his first eight attempts, he made four of his last five.
The key: neither has had to rely on kickers. Bulovas and Huegel have only been asked to attempt 25 combined field goals, less than that of 10 full teams. Clutch, high-leverage kicks haven’t really been a thing, so we don’t know how they’ll fare.
5. The numbers can only predict so much.
You don’t get to this stage by experiencing dramatic ups and downs, but OU was the most volatile team of the bunch, piecing together eight performances in the 80th percentile or higher but also four at 70 percent or lower in their last five games.
The Sooner defense ... hoo boy, has it been bad, averaging a percentile performance of 12 in that five-game stretch. The offense had to approach perfection for OU to reach the CFP. Needless to say, we probably know OU’s fatal flaw.
We know the spreads (Alabama -14 or so, Clemson -13.5), and we know the S&P+ projections (Alabama by 7.5, Clemson by 7.3).
Both Vegas and S&P+, however, have struggled to keep up with Bama and Clemson, pretty consistently projecting games closer than they turn out to be. Factoring in how each team tends to perform against projections, we get something in the neighborhood of Alabama by about 16 and Clemson by about 14. Let’s see if an underdog can overcome even bigger odds than the projections suggest.