College Football Playoff: Back to Back?

Making the Case for Why Each of Last Year’s College Football Playoff Participants Will and Won’t Return This Year

It’s no secret that the hardest thing to do in sports is defend a title. Teams not only have to worry about the heightened challenge of getting everyone’s best shot, but they have the added internal struggle of fighting complacency. While this task is daunting for any sport, it is amplified in the college football world. One hiccup could derail a season and be the difference between a New Year’s Six Bowl and a College Football Playoff appearance. Each of last year’s participants have a chance to return to the College Football Playoff, but there are also huge road blocks for each team. (Obviously, coaching is going to be a major factor in each teams’ return to the Playoff, so let’s focus on players and schedules here.)

Oklahoma Sooners

Why they will return

The Sooners bring back 14 starters. Quarterback Baker Mayfield and running backs Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon should fuel the juggernaut Sooners offense for another year. Oklahoma also has the benefit of being in a conference that is mostly in a rebuilding phase. The two teams that were the biggest challengers to OU winning The Big XII last year, TCU and Baylor, are having to replace impact players on both sides of the ball. The biggest test on the Sooners schedule is at home and against an Ohio State team lost most of its players to the NFL Draft and graduation. The Sooners also have the luxury of not playing in a conference championship game. That means one less game to play and one less opportunity to lose or suffer a major injury.

Why they won’t

Oklahoma lost one of its biggest playmakers, wide receiver Sterling Shepard, to the Draft. Shepard helped make the Sooners passing game dynamic and was also a weapon as a returner. The Sooners also must deal with a ridiculous out of conference schedule. Even though Ohio State has a lot of talent to replace, the Buckeyes still return one of the nation’s most dynamic dual-threat quarterbacks in J.T. Barrett. Before the Sooners can even begin to worry about Ohio State, they must travel to Houston to take on a Cougars team that might be in the heart of the Playoff discussion come December. Oklahoma also faces the issue of not playing in a conference championship game. Although it means one less game to worry about, it also means that Oklahoma’s resume will potentially have one less top 25 win.

Michigan State Spartans

Why they will return

Michigan State has a very forgiving schedule this year. The Spartans have their biggest conference games at home. Ohio State, Michigan, and Wisconsin all having to travel to East Lansing this year bodes well for the Green and White. The Spartans also return six starters to a defense that finished ranked 26th in total defense a year ago. Although the Spartans are losing one of the most decorated quarterbacks in school history in Connor Cook, last year’s backup, Tyler O’Connor gained some valuable experience leading Michigan State to an upset road victory against Ohio State. Michigan State also brings back key playmakers at the running back and wide receiver positions which will help a relatively inexperienced quarterback adjust to his new role.

Why they won’t

The Spartans lost a lot of talent on both sides of the ball to graduation and the NFL Draft. The biggest losses were Cook, who led the team to 34 wins in three years, and defensive end Shilique Calhoun, who was nearly unblockable last year. Another reason the Spartans could be sitting at home this New Year’s Eve has to do with how they won two of their biggest games last year. Michigan State beat rivals Michigan and Ohio State by a combined seven points. The spectacular fashion in which the games were won will definitely serve as added motivation for the Buckeyes and Wolverines making those rivalry games even tougher. Finally, while their conference schedule sets up nicely, the Spartans do have a tough early road game against rival Notre Dame that could derail the Spartans campaign before it ever really starts.

Clemson Tigers

Why they will return

Two words: Deshaun Watson. Sure you can talk about bringing back Wayne Gallman, Hunter Renfrow, and Artavis Scott on offense and Carlos Watkins and Ben Boulware defensively, but the Tigers discussion begins and ends with the quarterback position. Watson carried the Tigers to a 14-1 record last year. He is one of the reasons “Clemsoning” is no longer a thing. He led an attack that put up 40 points on an Alabama defensive unit that was among the nation’s leaders in scoring and total defense. His combination of speed, arm strength, and accuracy gives defensive coordinators nightmares. He takes care of the ball and provides the locker room leadership that coaches dream about. Watson finished third in Heisman voting and he is one of the favorites to win it this year. With a player of his caliber under center, its hard to imagine any game where the Tigers won’t have a chance to win. He’s just that good.

Why they won’t

Unfortunately for the Tigers, Deshaun Watson doesn’t play defense. Clemson likes to score and score quickly, and that will leave a young unit on the field a lot. If they aren’t able to pull together stops, it will be a long year in Death Valley. Clemson also opens the year on the road against an Auburn team who is desperate to make some noise nationally.  Clemson then has to face a pesky Georgia Tech team in Atlanta before its big showdown against Florida State. That game is in Tallahassee and features a Seminoles squad that returns 18 starters including of the most dangerous running backs in the nation.

Alabama Crimson Tide

Why they will return

The defending champion Tide brings back most of its opportunistic secondary along with a defensive line that got plenty of reps last year. Offensively, Calvin Ridley and O.J. Howard look to repeat the stellar season they had catching passes last year. While Bama has the tall order of replacing Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry, the word in Tuscaloosa is that this man-child, Bo Scarbrough, could be even better than Henry was. The quarterback position is a question mark once again, but when is it not? Whoever Nick Saban and Lane Kiffin decide to go with won’t be asked to do much. All the new starter will need to do is hand the ball off and make smart throws. Alabama also benefits from opening the year with one of its big name blowouts. USC is replacing its quarterback and is still suffering from depth issues from its scholarship reductions. The Tide should have no problem rolling the Trojans and building confidence for its younger players in the process.

Why they won’t

Bama lost its anchor on offense in center Ryan Kelly. The Tide might also be losing tackle Cam Robinson due to legal issues. The center and left tackle positions are the most important on the offensive line. A new quarterback, having to worry about communication with a new center and whether or not his blindside is taken care of, is destined for failure. Replacing Henry is also a momentous task and the hype surrounding Bo Scarbrough could be just that, hype. On the other side of the ball, even though most of the defensive line got significant playing time last year, it was only situational. Players like Tim Williams and  Ryan Anderson will have to prove that they are more than just pass rushers. This year’s schedule is also brutal for the Tide. Bama has to play Ole Miss, Arkansas, Tennessee, and LSU on the road and the Iron Bowl against Auburn is almost never easy. Florida is the only school to win the SEC in three consecutive years and there are a lot of questions for the Tide to answer if it wants to do the same.


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