Four teams enter Saturday with hopes of winning the College Football Playoff National Championship, but only two teams will carry those hopes forward after the Goodyear Cotton Bowl and the Capital One Orange Bowl. Clemson and Notre Dame go head to head in Arlington, Texas, while Alabama and Oklahoma take the field in Miami.
With these two games garnering tremendous amounts of attention, there will be a substantial amount of betting action going on Saturday. After guiding you through the entirety of bowl season, “Stanford” Steve Coughlin, Chris Fallica, Will Harris and Phil Steele are here to offer insights and picks for both College Football Playoff Semifinal games.
All game times listed are Eastern. Lines from Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook, as of Wednesday afternoon.
Goodyear Cotton Bowl
Clemson Tigers (-13) vs. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Saturday, 4 p.m. (ESPN)
AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas
FPI line: Clemson -7.8
PickCenter consensus: 70 percent picking Notre Dame
Coughlin: All anyone wants to bring up when Notre Dame and the postseason get mentioned is how they got handled in the BCS title game in 2012 season against Alabama. What people fail to mention is how the Irish have played against good competition recently. They are obviously undefeated this year, and last year they beat LSU in their bowl game and lost a one-point game to eventual national runner-up Georgia.
Clemson returned a ton of talent on the defensive line this past season, and that group has not been shy about coming back for some unfinished business — meaning a national title. What I find interesting about this matchup is the advantage I see the Notre Dame wide receivers have with their size versus a secondary we saw get scorched by a South Carolina team a couple weeks ago. Notre Dame also has enough talent on defense, along with the smarts of defensive coordinator Clark Lea to slow down and confuse freshman QB Trevor Lawrence. I think the Irish shock the world and pull off the upset.
ATS pick: Notre Dame +13
Score: Notre Dame 31, Clemson 27
Fallica: I’ll admit it, I misread the line move here as the number has actually climbed despite the Irish being a popular underdog. Clemson is finally being priced like Alabama — and it should be. Since Lawrence came back from injury, the Tigers have won by 60, 34, 49, 61, 20, 29, 21 and 32. They won with dominating defense in a lower-scoring game away from home (27-7 at BC), won a high-scoring game when its defense wasn’t at its best (56-35 vs. South Carolina) and pretty much every dominant way in between.
I can totally understand the logic of anyone who is on Notre Dame — both teams have exactly two wins over teams currently ranked, Notre Dame is the best team Clemson has faced and the Irish have weapons on the outside that could give the Clemson secondary trouble. But I think the opposite is true when it comes to the Clemson wide receivers against Notre Dame’s secondary. The Irish have allowed just seven touchdowns and have 12 interceptions this season, but they faced some pretty anemic pass offenses — especially given the fact Eric Dungey was hurt very early in the Syracuse game.
If the Irish can hold up there, they will be in the game, but my guess is that Tee Higgins, Justyn Ross, Amari Rodgers, Hunter Renfrow and the rest of the wide receiving corps will manage a few big plays, especially when you still need to account for Travis Etienne. I think there’s still this perception that Clemson is a win with defense-type team, and while they certainly can go that route, the Tigers offensive prowess — and the reason why they went to Trevor Lawrence at QB — will be on display here. It’s not that I don’t respect Notre Dame — I think the Irish belong here — it’s just that I think Clemson is that good.
ATS pick: Clemson -13
Score: Clemson 41, Notre Dame 24
Steele: Notre Dame is the least talked about of the four playoff teams, but it is unbeaten and are a complete team. The Irish are solid at running the ball, Ian Book is hitting 70 percent of his passes and have my No. 15-rated offense. Notre Dame also has my No. 9-rated defense, which allowed just 3.7 yards per rush, and ranked at No. 4 in my pass defense ratings. Clemson rates higher on both sides of the ball, with my No. 4-rated offense and top-rated defense. Clemson has been to the College Football Playoff the past three years, and when not matched up against Alabama, won the other two semifinal games by scores of 31-0 and 37-17.
The Irish do have the edge on special teams. Clemson is the stronger team and should win, but the Irish faced the slightly tougher schedule and with no clear area of weakness, Notre Dame should be able to hang within the large number.
Lean: Notre Dame +13
Score: Clemson 28, Notre Dame 20
Harris: I’m very impressed with both of these teams’ mature mental approach to this clash, and that has me leaning toward projecting a competitive game. It should also be a contest controlled more by the defenses. Both sides have excellent, if inexperienced, quarterbacks, but both are philosophically run-first outfits that play to their defenses. Notre Dame especially relies more on efficiency than explosiveness offensively, and the Irish know that they have a better chance if they can keep this from becoming a shootout.
Clemson has a lot more in the way of playoff experience and a defensive front that’s probably the best unit on the field, even without Dexter Lawrence. Those edges will probably keep us from backing the Irish on the money line, but at this point double digits looks too steep in what should be a well-played, hotly contested physical affair on both sides of the ball. With the defenses leading the way and a collection of offensive skill players that’s fantastic but well short of the elite playmakers that will be on display in the other semifinal, I’ll lean to the under as well, as the points in a game that should see plenty of carries for bell cow tailbacks Travis Etienne and Dexter Williams
Lean(s): Notre Dame +13, under 55
Score: Clemson 27, Notre Dame 20
Alabama Crimson Tide (-14) vs. Oklahoma Sooners
Saturday, 8 p.m. (ESPN)
Hard Rock Stadium, Miami Gardens, Florida
FPI line: Alabama -8.4
PickCenter consensus: 56 percent picking Oklahoma
Fallica: There is a massive difference defensively between the two teams, and I’m not sure Oklahoma can overcome that gap to win the game. Alabama allows 1.11 points per drive — which is third in the country, behind Clemson and Mississippi State — but Oklahoma is 113th, allowing more than double that (2.65 points per drive). Offensively the teams are similar, as OU and Alabama are No. 1 and No. 2 in points per drive (3.89 and 3.58, respectively). So, similar offense, mismatch defensively — and we still don’t know about the status of Oklahoma WR Marquise Brown who, if you saw his reaction during the Big 12 championship game, had the look of someone who knew he suffered a relatively significant injury (hopefully I’m wrong).
Alabama has been a double-digit favorite twice in the College Football Playoff semifinals and won those games by 17 and 38. Yes, Oklahoma has a much better offense than either Washington or Michigan State. And yes, the Sooners beat the Tide in the Sugar Bowl after Bama was stunned in the Kick Six game, but you’re crazy if you think Kyler Murray winning the Heisman and the Oklahoma offensive line capturing the Joe Moore Award will not have an impact on Alabama’s emotional tone here. I’m sure Scott Cochran has reminded the defense of that every single day since Dec. 8. I normally don’t like laying big numbers, but I will here.
ATS pick: Alabama -14
Score: Alabama 49, Oklahoma 31
Steele: In 2013, Oklahoma was a 15-point underdog to Alabama in the Sugar Bowl but won outright 45-31, and the Sooners will be hoping for a similar outcome here. Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray leads an Oklahoma offense that averages a nation’s best 196 yards per game above what their opponents usually allow and their offensive line won the coveted Joe Moore Award. Alabama gains 155 yards per game above what their opponents typically allow, which is third-best in the country, and they were led most of the way by Heisman runner-up Tua Tagovailoa, the nation’s best set of running backs and an offensive line that was also a finalist for the Joe Moore Award.
The defenses are not even close, though, as Alabama has my No. 3-rated defense and holds foes to 131 yards per game below their season average while Oklahoma allows opponents to gain 31 yards more than they come in averaging, which is No. 98. Lincoln Riley is a top-notch coach but 0-1 in bowl games, while Nick Saban has six national titles. The Crimson Tide players should be motivated to show the Heisman voters (myself included) that we got the vote wrong and that Tua should have won it. Alabama might have matched Oklahoma statistically if Tua did not sit out almost all of their fourth quarters. Alabama has averaged just 15.6 points in the first half of their past five games, after averaging 38.8 points in the first half of their first eight games. Alabama might not punt in this game, which makes the Crimson Tide and the over both worth a look.
Lean: Alabama -14
Score: Alabama 52, Oklahoma 31
Harris: This total has come down a bit but is still rightfully high, given the matchup between the nation’s top two scoring offenses and top two Heisman finishers. That’s especially true given the lack of elite defense on the field. Oklahoma began the year without a single defender on any major preseason all-conference teams, and the Sooners’ defensive struggles are well documented, including a midseason change at the coordinator position. Alabama began the season replacing its top six defensive backs, and when Nick Saban remarked in the offseason, “We’re going to have to outscore some people this year,” this is the kind of game he was talking about.
The 2018 Tide are more vulnerable on defense than previous editions, and Lincoln Riley knows that gives his team a puncher’s chance. He’ll have to get some stops from his defense, though, and that seems unlikely from a unit that surrendered at least 40 points in four of its past five games and allowed several opponents season-best offensive production. It’s not hard to see Oklahoma needing more than five touchdowns to cover, and it will take some turnover luck to keep ‘Bama from hitting 50. I’ll lean toward the favorite and the over in a game that will probably look more like a typical Big 12 shootout than a SEC slugfest.
Lean(s): Alabama -14, over 77.5
Score: Alabama 52, Oklahoma 31