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NCAA College Football 2015-16 National Playoff Bowl Picks

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Fearless Rick's 2015-16 College Football National Playoffs Bowl Games

Rick Gagliano | December 31

All times Eastern

Orange Bowl, Oklahoma (-3 1/2, 65) vs. Clemson, Sun Life Stadium, Miami, FL, 4:00 pm ET, ESPN - To some of the upperclassmen on both teams, the opponent will look oddly familiar because it was just a year ago that these two teams met in the Russell Athletic Bowl on December 29, 2014.

The result of that game was Clemson 40, Oklahoma 6. In that game, Oklahoma QB Trevor Knight tossed three interceptions and the Sooners turned the ball over a total of five times.

Meanwhile, Clemson QB Cole Stout threw three TD passes and ran for another score. Oklahoma entered the game unranked, at 8-4; Clemson was ranked #17 and finished up with a 10-3 mark, including their bowl victory.

So, the question arises, is Oklahoma that much better than they were a year ago?

It's key, because arguably, Clemson is a much better team. They have a better quarterback. Deshaun Watson has completed 69.5% of this passes for 30 TDs and 11 interceptions. He's also rushed for 887 yards, second on the team behind Wayne Gallman. Watson speeds the ball around. He has seven different target with more than 20 catches, led by wideout Artavis Scott who hauled in 84 passes for 805 yards.

As for the Sooners, they are a very good defensive team, which is part of the reason they are 3 1/2 point favorites in this playoff game. They've allowed 20.8 points per game, and much of that was in the pass-happy Big 12, so they're used to playing teams that throw, throw and throw some more. The difficulty for the Sooners may be stopping the runs of Watson and Gallman. Oklahoma allowed almost 150 yards rushing per game, which isn't too much, but considering that many of the teams they played were behind the Sooners and throwing more often than running, their ability to stop a good ground game may be questionable.

Oklahoma is better offensively than last season. Baker Mayfield replaced Knight at QB and he's thrown for 35 touchdowns and a mere five interceptions. He can also run when necessary, gaining 420 yards, albeit on 131 carries (3.2 average).

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Mayfield's receiving corps is a little more select than Clemson's. Only four receivers accumulated 25 or more receptions, and one of them was Joe Mixon, who comes out of the backfield. Tiger defenders will likely put their clamps down on Sterling Shepard, who caught 79 balls for 1201 yards and is the main deep threat for the Sooners. In the backfield Samaje Perine will get most of the carries. He rolled to 1291 yards on 211 carries this season, a 6.1 yards per carry average.

Both teams throw the ball more than they run it, not unusual in the modern college game. Oklahoma was third nationally in scoring, their 549 points accounting for a whopping 45.8 yards per game. Again, this stat may be a bit exaggerated, if only for the fact that the Big 12 is not especially notable for defense.

Clemson was 16th in scoring, at 38.5 points per game, and the case can be made that they played a tougher schedule. Oklahoma's non-conference opponents were Akron, Tennessee and Tulsa. The Tigers did play patsies like Wofford and Appalachian State, but they also took on Notre Dame and South Carolina.

The way this game appears to be playing out is not an exact repeat of last season's Russell Athletic Bowl, but similar in outcome. Clemson should tear up the Sooners with a good mix of offense, while the Tiger defense will rise to the occasion and produce enough stops - and maybe a few turnovers - to put the offense in good scoring positions.

Oklahoma also has a spotty record in big games under hard coach Bob Stoops. Clemson has won their last three bowl games and, as the only unbeaten (13-0) team in Division 1-A, appears headed to a chance for its first national championship since 1981, when they also went undefeated.

Prediction: Tigers 38 Sooners 29

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Cotton Bowl, Michigan State vs. Alabama (-10, 46 1/2), AT&T Stadium, Arlington, TX, 8:00 pm ET, ESPN - Right off the bat, this line looks unbelievably large. In deference to the Crimson Tide, a perfectly suitable team to be in this game at this point of the season, Michigan State is surely no slouch and has shown incredible resolve throughout their 12-1 season.

While the Spartans may have just squeaked into the top four and qualified for the national championship playoffs with a final drive to defeat the Iowa Hawkeyes and a last-second gaffe by Michigan handing them possibly the most incredible victory of the college football season, the did, in fact, play all sixty minutes of both of those games, never giving in or giving up.

Let's not forget that the Spartans also ended the longest winning streak in college football when they took down the Buckeyes at Ohio State, 17-14, and their only loss was by one point, 39-38, at Nebraska. Other than Clemson, the Spartans are the closest thing to an undefeated team in the country.

Michigan state has also won four straight bowl games, defeating Georgia then TCU, Stanford and, last season, Baylor, 42-41, in the Cotton Bowl.

Making the Spartans a 10-point underdog against anybody is lunacy of the highest level and only owes to the mystique of the Crimson Tide and their head coach Nick Saban.

Admittedly, Alabama has a stellar record in bowl games (34-24-3) over decades of experience and 15 national championships, including three under Saban (2009, 2011, 2012).

What may have led the oddsmakers to plant the Tide as heavy favorites was likely a combination of factors, chief among them being that they come out of the SEC, which has minted numerous title teams over the years and especially of recent vintage.

Additionally, the Crimson Tide boasts the best defense of any of the playoff teams. They ranked third nationally in points allowed (14.4), which is saying something considering the quality of play in the SEC. By contrast, the Spartans were 19th in scoring defense, allowing an average of 20.5 points per outing.

Alabama also sports the current holder of the Heisman Trophy, Derrick Henry, who will almost without a doubt surpass 2000 yards in this game. He's currently at 1986, on 339 carries, a 5.9 yards per carry average. Handing Henry the ball will be QB Jake Coker, who has been steady, if unspectacular, hitting on 65.7% of his passes for 17 TDs and 8 picks.

Coker's main targets are Calvin Ridley and ArDarius Stewart who together combined for 129 catches and almost 1500 yards. The passing game is not Alabama's strength, but pass defense isn't exactly a strong suit of the Spartans, either. A key stat in this contest is Michigan States resolve against the run. They allowed only 113.1 rushing yards per game this season, seventh nationally. Ahead of them - indeed, ahead of every other team - was Alabama, which allowed only 74 yards per game on the ground.

If the Spartans aren't able to move the ball running, it could be the same for the Tide, and in that case, Michigan State has an edge, because their quarterback, Connor Cook, has been cool under pressure and is not careless with the ball, throwing for 24 TD passes and just five picks. Cook's completion percentage of 56.9 may be low, but the pass defenses in the Big Ten were pretty formidable this season.

Cook's main target is Aaron Burbridge, who caught 80 passes for a cool 1219 yards, an impressive 15.2 yards per catch average.

In the backfield, Michigan State has a three-headed attack, consisting of LJ Scott (691 yards), Gerald Holmes (534) and Madre London (489). R.J. Shelton, the Spartan version of the H-back, may be the X-factor here. Shelton carried 24 times for 127 yards and caught 41 passes for 484 yards.

In the end, this will be largely a battle of wits, defense and field position. Saban and Spartan head coach Martk Dantonio will have their teams well-schooled and yardage will be tough to come by. Michigan State has every chance to win this game, and could pull off one of the better upsets of the season. Even if Alabama does win, it isn't likely to be by more than a touchdown.

Prediction: Spartans 24 Crimson Tide 20

Winners advance to National Championship game, January 11, 2016

All times Eastern

Copyright 2015, 2016, Rick Gagliano, Downtown Magazine. All rights reserved. Downtown Magazine is located in the Uinted States of America and is not affiliated with the National Football League or the NCAA. For more information, contact us here. Use of this site is for entertainment purposes only.



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