Contributing to this roundtable were co-managers Chris Novak and Robert O’Neill, as well as editor Tom Stephenson and staff writers Jonathan Waldrop, Brandon Cain, Greg Benfield and Jess Leslie.
So, let’s start with Alabama-Clemson. Who’s the one player in this matchup that you think provides the biggest impact?
Jonathan: Rashaan Evans. He’s the quickest LB for the Tide, one who can rush the edge in nickel and dime or play midfield in their base 3-4. Minkah’s the team MVP, but I think Rashaan is going to have 10 or more tackles Monday night.
Chris: Give me Kelly Bryant. We know how good Deshaun Watson was in the last two matchups against ‘Bama, so Bryant has some big shoes to fill. He doesn’t have to be Deshaun to necessarily defeat Alabama, but he’ll definitely have to play up to snuff. Alabama’s run D will probably give Etienne and Feaster some trouble, even with how their LB depth has been torched. I think if Clemson wins, it will largely be due to the play of Bryant.
Tom: This has to be Jalen Hurts, right? Clemson was able to render Alabama’s offense one-dimensional in last year’s meeting, and Hurts having a better performance will go a long way here.
Robert: I think it’s Hunter Renfrow. He had a huge game last year for the Tigers and was all over the place. He’s also going to have a battle all night long with Minkah Fitzpatrick that the media hasn’t been able to get enough of this week.
Brandon: Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick is clearly the best defensive back in the country, but Clemson has its own star safety in Tanner Muse. The sophomore leads the Tigers with five passes defended, and has one fumble recovery, which he returned for a touchdown. He’ll be tested by Jalen Hurts with passes to Calvin Ridley and others, but if he steps up to task it could be a major key to a Clemson victory.
Jess: Call me crazy, but I’m going to say Irv Smith, Jr. He’s Bama’s 6’4” tight end who weighs a solid 246 lbs. He got better as the season progressed and physically reminds me a little of OJ Howard. You guys remember what OJ did against Clemson? In both games combined Howard racked up 314 receiving yards and three touchdowns. Alabama can’t beat Clemson if Jalen Hurts isn’t given reliable, short-yard passing plays. Tight ends are typically good at those, so if Brian Daboll and I think alike, Monday night will be the Irv Smith, Jr. show.
Who has a bigger game? The Alabama backs (Harris, Scarbrough) or the Clemson backs (Etienne, Feaster)?
Jonathan: Strangely enough, I think Bama’s backs have the bigger game. Statistically, rush defense is Clemson’s weakest aspect (if you can call 12th in the FBS weak) and if Brian Daboll learned any lessons from the Iron Bowl, maybe feeding your top 2 backs more than 12 carries combined is the proper way to go. Plus, Saban loves to hit elite pass rushing defensive lines with a steady dose of “three yards and a cloud of dust.” I think they do it and succeed.
Chris: Thinking the Alabama backs do, but I don’t think by much. Both run defenses are among the elite in the country. Just think Scarbrough and Harris will be a touch better than Etienne and Feaster.
Robert: It’s hard for me to pick against the Alabama backs, because they’re so good at knowing their roles and rotating out and staying fresh.
Brandon: Alabama’s running back duo will have a bigger game statistically, but Clemson’s pair will have a bigger impact on the game. Etienne and Feaster will open up the passing game and be an option out of the backfield to diversify the Tigers’ offense.
Greg: Like Brandon said, the Bama backs will ground and pound, causing them to look better on paper at the end of the day, but it will be Clemson’s RB’s that will bust the game open with big plays, causing them to play a bigger role in the outcome of the game.
Jess: The Alabama backs will have better game. I don’t say that because I think Alabama’s offensive line is better or Clemson’s defense is not as good. Neither is true. I say that because I think Clemson’s backs will get fewer touches. Also, Damien Harris is really, really good.
Jonathan: Call me crazy, but I think the Tide makes a statement. #RTR.
Chris: Clemson wins the rubber match. We’ll call it 24-20.
Robert: Alabama. And they’ll face Georgia in the National Championship.
Greg: Clemson. 31-27
Jess: If Clemson follows the blueprint that Auburn gifted them back in November, Clemson will win and they’ll look like the better team for all 60 minutes.
Now, let’s go out west to Pasadena. How do you think Baker Mayfield fares against the UGA defense?
Jonathan: It’s Kirby Smart’s defense, right? Mayfield’s going to put up some yards on UGA. They’ll buckle down in the red zone, but Mayfield’s going to frustrate the hell out of the Georgia defense all night long.
Chris: It will be interesting, definitely. Beyond OSU, Georgia will be the best defense that Baker plays all season (until the National Championship, if they get there). Mayfield is obviously fantastic at throwing the pigskin, but he’ll be tested in Pasadena. That much is certain. An elite QB like him will probably succeed. Will he carve them up? I don’t think so.
Robert: It’s interesting. Georgia is the best defense Mayfield has seen this year, but Mayfield is the best quarterback Georgia has seen. So what’s going to happen? It’s hard to say. Both sides will likely have their share of good and bad plays, but I don’t think he’s going to single handedly destroy the Bulldogs.
Brandon: Like Jonathan noted, Mayfield will find some success against Georgia’s defense in the opening field. But when the going gets tough Roquan Smith and company will step up. The Bulldogs defense will bend, but they won’t break as Mayfield won’t have any plays of more than 40 yards.
Greg: Mayfield will make big plays for the Sooners like any Heisman winner ought to, but he won’t shred the Bulldog defense like it’s just another Big 12 team. Georgia will come up big in the red zone, which is going to be the big difference maker in this game.
Jess: Players like Mayfield find a way. Yes, Georgia will be (by far) the best defense Mayfield has season this season, but it’s not like Mayfield hasn’t balled out against good SEC defenses in the past. If Georgia’s defense can’t get off the field on third down, Mayfield will have a day.
Will Oklahoma be able to neutralize Georgia’s stable of backs?
Chris: It’s a tall task to stop Nick Chubb. A taller one to stop Chubb and Sony Michel. When you combine them with Elijah Holyfield and D’Andre Swift? Look, it’s incredibly hard. OU has some talent on defense, but I’d expect UGA to run all over em.
Robert: Highly unlikely.
Brandon: Absolutely not.
Greg: No way the Sooner defense can contain Chubb, Michel, Swift and company for four quarters.
Jonathan: Call me crazy, but I think UGA makes a statement. #GoDawgs
Chris: ‘Dawgs 31, Sooners 23
Robert: Georgia. And they’ll face Alabama in the National Championship.
Brandon: Georgia. Give me a Cats vs. Dawgs title game.
Greg: High-scoring game. 42-31 Dawgs. UGA vs. Clemson for the Natty.