College football appears to have made it. It survived. It has reached the annual four-team playoff despite hundreds of cancellations, leagues starting at different times and players opting out of this truncated season.
The sport takes center stage this week with the seventh College Football Playoff, pitting No. 1 Alabama against No. 4 Notre Dame in Arlington, Texas and No. 2 Clemson meeting No. 3 Ohio State in a rematch of last year’s memorable semifinal in New Orleans.
There will be a different feel to the playoff this year — everything about 2020 is of course different — with limited crowds and press availability being conducted virtually. But a season that began with so much uncertainty has at least reached its apex.
These are the top storylines to watch in the playoff that kicks off Friday:
Can anyone stop Alabama?
The Crimson Tide enters the playoff a heavy favorite to win their fifth title in the past decade. The offense is a flat-out juggernaut, with two Heisman Trophy finalists in quarterback Mac Jones and wide receiver DeVonta Smith, ridiculous playmakers across the board and a stout offensive line. The unit averaged 49.7 points per game against 11 SEC opponents, torching top-15 defenses like Texas A&M and Georgia. Holding this collection of talent under 40 would be an accomplishment. Nobody has been able to do it yet.
Trevor Lawrence’s goodbye
All indications are this will be Trevor Lawrence’s college swan song, his last chance at a second national championship.
Considered the best quarterback prospect since Andrew Luck, the junior will be making his third trip to the playoff. As a freshman, he led Clemson to the title with a 44-16 whipping of Alabama. Last year, he was on the short end in the title game, falling to LSU in what remains his only loss as a collegian in 35 starts. Now he’s back and looks primed to go out on a high note, producing 29 touchdowns and a career-best 69.2 completion percentage in a nine-game season that was shortened due to a positive test for the virus.
l It was just over a week ago when Notre Dame was ranked second and considered a realistic title contender. Then came the second Clemson game. Now after that 34-10 pummeling in the ACC Championship game, the Irish are a heavy long shot to win their first playoff game, a whopping 19-point underdog against Alabama.
Ordinarily, coach Brian Kelly would’ve had a lot of time to rebuild his team’s confidence. He’ll have fewer than two weeks now. That is the biggest challenge of the week for Notre Dame. It will field plenty of questions on its underdog status, and how poorly it has performed in previous games on this stage, such as the 42-14 BCS Championship game shellacking to Alabama in 2013 and the 30-3 loss to Clemson in the 2018 playoff semifinals.
This Notre Dame team is different than those editions. It is more balanced, deeper and better up front. Based on the law of averages, it is bound to play better than it did in the loss to Clemson, which needed the game and was the far more desperate team. Kelly has to make his players believe an upset is possible.
Ohio State disrespect
Nobody will have more motivation than Ohio State. The Buckeyes have waited a full calendar year for another shot at Clemson after the heartbreaking 29-23 loss in the Fiesta Bowl a year ago, a game that included two questionable, game-turning calls that went the Tigers’ way after they trailed 16-0 early. Furthermore, there has been a lot of talk that Ohio State doesn’t belong in the playoff, since it only played six games. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney added fuel to this emerging rivalry by ranking the Buckeyes 11th on his Amway Coaches Poll ballot. Buckeyes coach Ryan Day may mention that a few hundred times this week.
Usually there is an injury or two worth following in the week leading up to the playoff semifinals. This year, there will be a COVID-19 watch. The virus can impact the result of these games, which is why the teams won’t be arriving in their respective cities until Wednesday. Ohio State was 22 players short in the Big Ten Championship game, but is expected to get back top receiver Chris Olave and linebacker Baron Browning.
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