Observer Roundtable 2020 College Football Preview: College Football Playoff picks
We have reached the final piece of our 2020 College Football preview. Assuming the regular season concludes without any major hitches — because there will most undoubtedly be at least some minor ones — four teams will be facing off on Jan.1 in the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl with the winners playing each other 10 days later at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami, Fl. Here are our picks.
In a wild and strange 2020 season, why wouldn’t I let my predictions get a little weird? I’m going with both Notre Dame and Clemson making it out of the ACC and into the Playoff. I think they probably split their two games — assuming they meet in the ACC championship — and both crack the field as one-loss squads. I don’t think the SEC has a second team beyond Alabama that will make the CFP, as I believe Georgia loses to the Tide in the regular season and in the SEC title game, leaving them with two losses and out of the picture. A one-loss team that doesn’t win their division (LSU comes to mind as a possibility) could make an argument, but I’m giving the two spots to the ACC, and just one to the SEC, as Nick Saban’s Tide will try and secure another national title. In the Big 12, give me the Texas Longhorns. I believe Sam Ehlinger is going to be the best quarterback in the conference and a Heisman finalist. He drops the Red River Rivalry to Oklahoma in the regular season, but the Longhorns will earn the victory in the rematch, boosting Texas into the CFP as a one-loss conference champion.
For the seeding, I predicted earlier that Notre Dame would win the ACC. I’m slightly wavering on that, simply because I’m more confident in Notre Dame beating Clemson at home, and so to do that and win the ACC would require beating Clemson twice. However, I will not renege the pick, so I’ll go with Alabama at No. 1 and Notre Dame at No. 2. Texas snares the No. 3 seed, while Clemson sneaks in the back door at No. 4.
At that point, it’s Alabama-Clemson part five, and I see the Tide claiming victory to move on to the national championship. In a battle of teams that everyone hates except for their own fanbases, Notre Dame trumps Texas in the two vs. three battle to advance to the national championship. However, the magic of the Irish runs out in their final game of the season. I think Notre Dame stays competitive, but the Tide are on a revenge tour this season, and they will win the national championship. Every single player recruited by Saban since 2008 has won a national championship with Alabama, but this will be his last chance to do so with his 2018 class, so expect the Tide to be extremely difficult to beat this year.
I probably gave away half of my projection here in predicting our non-New Years’ Six bowl games when I said North Carolina would get the ACC’s automatic bid to the Orange Bowl as the best team in that conference to not make the Playoff. With Notre Dame enduring their first conference stint in program history, I think they build on their 14-2 record against ACC teams over the last three seasons and roll through the regular season and on to the Playoff.
Along the way I think they pick up a loss in the conference championship to Clemson — who dealt them half of those ACC losses in 2018’s Cotton Bowl Classic — but I also believe they pick up a win at home over the Tigers in the regular season. Oklahoma has all the power in the Big 12 and the SEC will tear itself apart with a 10-game season, and I don’t think this is the year that the Playoff committee throws an AAC team into the fray that is the College Football Playoff. That opens the possibility for two one-loss teams in Notre Dame and Clemson getting into the Semifinals, and I would think it’s on the opposite ends of the bracket.
That leaves Alabama from the SEC and the Sooners out of the Big 12 rounding out the top-4 teams. I figure Bama will be No. 1 with a better strength of schedule than everyone else, and Clemson’s No. 2 with the more recent win over the Irish. That means Notre Dame is No. 4 taking on the Crimson Tide in a rematch of the 2012 national championship in the Sugar Bowl, while Clemson and Oklahoma head out west for a date in the Rose Bowl.
I think we can all agree that Oklahoma’s defense is nowhere near where it will need to be to take down Clemson, especially with an abbreviated offseason to work on it. On the other side, while I fully acknowledge Alabama has the talent edge over Notre Dame, I do think that, considering the beating Bama will take in the SEC and the fact that the Irish will have already dealt with a team on the Alabama level twice in Clemson, Brian Kelly manages to get over the the Tide and take Notre Dame to the national championship game.
And here it is folks. COVID-19 gives us two teams playing three times in the same season for the first time in the modern era. Irish and Tigers in Miami for the ’ship. The last time Notre Dame played in Miami and (according to my prediction) the last they played Clemson will not have been fortuitous for the Irish, but hope springs eternal, and so does the luck of the Irish. Give me Ian Book leading a go-ahead touchdown drive in the final minutes with Kyle Hamilton snagging a game-sealing interception on Trevor Lawrence — and maybe even making it a pick-6 for good measure.
It is a near certainty that the three major conference champions will be playing for the championship, and in two of those conferences, there’s not much intrigue. In the ACC, as much as I would like to echo Hayden’s prediction, there’s only one playoff-caliber team. Clemson will tear through ACC play and slot in as the No. 1 seed with another undefeated record. As for the Big 12, there shouldn’t be much competition there, either. Oklahoma quarterback Spencer Rattler has big shoes to fill, but he looks more than up for the job, and I have very little confidence in any other Big 12 team. I’ll take Oklahoma to lose a single game in the regular season, but still comfortably make the playoffs as the third seed.
The SEC is where the drama begins. It’s difficult to imagine a scenario where the SEC doesn’t send two teams to the playoffs, simply because of the sheer number of quality teams in the conference. I’ve picked Florida to win the SEC East all along, but the opt-out of Georgia quarterback Jamie Newman only makes that pick easier. Florida QB Kyle Trask will continue to improve, and he has an elite group of weapons and a great defense behind him. Georgia’s defense might be the best in the country, but I trust the Gators to get it done in the rivalry game and make it to the SEC championship with one loss.
The West is where it gets truly interesting. There could be as many as four teams in contention for the top spot, and there will be chaos. I’m projecting LSU to take a big step back this season without Joe Burrow, and finish third in the SEC West. Alabama will still be a very good team this year, even without a top-tier quarterback. Auburn plays a relatively easy schedule — other than having to travel to Death Valley to face LSU — until the Iron Bowl. Even though it’s at Alabama, Auburn will come up with a big play in the final seconds, reminiscent of the Kick Six, and stun Alabama to make it to the championship game. In that final, even though Bo Nix is one of the most underrated quarterbacks in the country, I’ll take Kyle Trask’s experience and the Gator’s defense to win a nail biter, slotting Florida in at the second seed and Auburn at fourth.
In the first semifinal, Auburn’s Cinderella run will come to an end. Their defense just won’t be able to slow down Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne. They’ll keep it close for a half, but Lawrence will take over in the second half as he so often does and Clemson wins by two scores. The other matchup should be much more exciting. Oklahoma’s offense is evenly matched with Florida’s defense. Trask will pick apart the Sooners’ defense, but Spencer Rattler will make some big plays of his own. It will come down to the final drive, where Rattler will make a key mistake, sending Florida to the championship.
Clemson against Florida will be a thrilling matchup. Even though Clemson will come in heavily favored, Florida will make some big plays on defense to keep themselves in the game. However, Trevor Lawrence will be one of the only quarterbacks in college football history to start three national championship games, and that experience can’t be discounted. Lawrence comes up clutch in the fourth quarter, and leads Clemson to a comeback win for their second title in two years.
With only three major Power Five conferences playing this year, one would expect the conference champion in each conference to be secured a bid and for there to be one wild card remaining. While there are quite a few possibilities for how this could play out, I anticipate the SEC getting two teams into the playoffs this year. Time and time again, the SEC has proven to be at the top of college football, and I don’t see why they shouldn’t get two teams in this year. I will take Florida and Alabama as my teams from the SEC.
Typically when Nick Saban has a “down” year at Alabama, he bounces back in a big way. Although the Tide face four teams in the top 15 throughout the course of the regular season, I like the Tide to go undefeated in the regular season. With LSU losing so much talent, the Tide will reclaim the SEC West. Out east, I really like Florida. I see the Gators losing early in the year in College Station to the Aggies, but after that I like the Gators to beat Georgia and run the table in the regular season to win the East. In the SEC championship game, I expect the Gators to ride their hot streak and upset Alabama to solidify their spot in the playoffs. The Gators end up with the No. 1 seed and Alabama sits at number two.
The other conference that could feasibly have two teams would be the ACC in my mind. However, I don’t think that will happen because of how things play out in the SEC. I have to pick the Clemson Tigers to get the spot in the playoffs from the ACC. Although the Tigers will lose to Notre Dame on a cold, windy November evening in South Bend, they will win the rest of their games and avenge their loss to the Irish in the ACC Championship. With only one loss, the Tigers will be a clear lock for the playoffs and Notre Dame will be left out after Florida’s stunning upset of Alabama. Because of their poor strength of schedule, however, the Tigers end up in the No. 4 spot and face Florida in the Sugar Bowl.
As for the Big 12, I think that it is Oklahoma’s to lose. There are a lot of question marks for the Sooners, but I am confident Lincoln Riley will get their offense going. The Sooners face challenges from Texas and Oklahoma State, but ultimately prevail to make the playoffs and earn the number three seed to face off against Alabama in the Rose Bowl.
For the title game this year, I expect it to be another matchup between Alabama and Clemson. Although Florida had their moment to shine against Alabama, Clemson will thrash the Gators in the Sugar Bowl by over two touchdowns. Meanwhile out in Pasadena, Oklahoma will fall in the playoffs yet again by a large margin. The title game will be another classic, but I expect Clemson to finish on top this time. Trevor Lawrence will manufacture a late fourth-quarter drive and end his college football career on top with a national title for the Tigers.
After an undefeated run in the ACC, the Clemson Tigers will secure the first seed in the bracket. Trevor Lawrence has shown through his #WeWantToPlay initiative that he is hungry to cap off his college career with another national championship. I expect him to have his best season yet including a career-best 40 touchdowns and a Heisman Trophy victory. The Tigers will have a tough test with the Florida Gators at the fourth seed. The SEC east has been severely weakened by Jamie Newman’s opt-out, so I foresee Florida making it in with only one loss to Alabama in the conference title game. Kyle Trask and company will put up a respectable effort, but, in the end, Clemson’s roster is just too talented. I expect the game to be close, but Lawrence will have another amazing performance leading Clemson to the final.
Narrowly missing out on the top spot, Alabama will occupy the second seed. The SEC schedule is extremely difficult, so I would not be surprised if the Tide dropped a game to a solid team like Auburn or Texas A&M. However, Nick Saban has won six national championships and eight SEC titles for a reason. Alabama will mostly roll through their schedule and face third-seeded Texas. The nation will be overcome with boisterous Longhorn fans proclaiming that Texas is indeed finally back after a career-defining year from Sam Ehlinger. I believe that we will consistently see Ehlinger performing at the same high level as his performance in last season’s LSU game, and NFL teams will be jumping at the chance to draft him in 2021. While Texas will look impressive against Big 12 opponents, Alabama is a completely different beast. The Tide will silence the Longhorn faithful with a dominating victory as the Tide’s defense stifles Ehlinger for the first time in the season.
The CFP title game will feature Clemson and Alabama for the fifth time since 2016. Both programs are tied with a 2-2 record against each other in the championship, but Clemson’s superstars on the offensive end will allow the Tigers to break the deadlock. Mac Jones is a solid quarterback for the Tide, but Trevor Lawrence exceeds him in almost every metric. Despite the fact that Tee Higgins left for the NFL, Clemson still has plenty of skilled receivers to pick up the slack, and, while the offensive line is young, they are extremely talented. Alabama’s defense will slow the Tigers down, but I do not expect the Tide to outscore Lawrence, who will end his college career on a high note with another title.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.