The two most important games of the 2015 college football season kick off on Thursday night, with the top four teams in the nation playing in the second annual College Football Playoff.
In the Orange Bowl, it will be No. 1 Clemson (13-0) taking on No. 4 Oklahoma (11-1) at Sun Life Stadium in Miami. The Tigers’ undefeated season culminated with an ACC championship victory over North Carolina and its first berth in the CFP. Oklahoma got a bad loss to Texas out of the way before reeling off seven wins to end the season, including beating three ranked opponents en route to a Big 12 title.
The second half of this college football double header will be the Cotton Bowl between No. 2 Alabama (12-1) and No. 3 Michigan State (12-1). After an early loss to Ole Miss, the Crimson Tide rattled off 10 straight wins, including the SEC championship over Florida. Alabama seeks their fourth national title since 2009 while the Spartans look for their first since 1966. Michigan State revived their playoff hopes with a road win over Ohio State and won the Big Ten title over Iowa, earning a spot in the CFP.
Below are against the spread predictions for each game:
Orange Bowl: No. 4 Oklahoma (-4) vs. No. 1 Clemson
The Clemson defense has played well on defense, holding opponents to a 46-percent completion rate but will have trouble equaling that against Baker Mayfield. He may not have been invited to the Heisman ceremony in New York but Mayfield has had a stellar season. He threw for 3,389 yards and 35 touchdowns to just five interceptions with another 420 rushing yards and seven more scores. The 42 total touchdowns are one more than Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson, who lit up opponents with his wide range of skills.
Some would say that like Alabama, Oklahoma hasn’t played a quarterback as good as the one they will on Thursday in Watson. Because of that, Clemson will score points but the Sooner defense’s ability to contain big plays and turn over their opponent could balance things out. It’s Oklahoma’s tempo that could be something that gives the Tigers issues. A lack of depth mixed with a quick pace from an explosive Sooner offense could be the thing that gives Clemson their first loss and knocks them out of the playoff. The arsenal Oklahoma has at its disposal is multi-dimensional, beginning with Mayfield and onto Samaje Perine, who rushed for 1,291 yards and 15 touchdowns. Wide receiver Sterling Shepard routinely required the attention of multiple defenders, yet still managed 1,201 receiving yards, 11 scores and eight games of at least 80 yards.
This feels like a one-score game almost the entire way, with the team that makes that one big defensive play or has the ball last possibly coming out on top. I wouldn’t even be surprised to see it taken to overtime before the Sooners eventually pull it out.
Prediction ATS: Oklahoma to cover
Cotton Bowl: No. 2 Alabama (-9.5) vs. No. 3 Michigan State
The Crimson Tide has the closest thing to a professional defense in college football and dominated SEC offenses yet again and ranked No. 3 nationally in scoring defense (14.4 points) and No. 2 in yards allowed (258.2) while leading the nation in sacks (46). However, Connor Cook is a pro-style passer with the ability to move the Spartans down the field and is now fully healthy after several weeks off before the College Football Playoff. He also has a few major weapons like Aaron Burbridge, who caught 80 balls for 1,219 yards and seven scores. Alabama has not faced a quarterback as effective as Cook, but that goes both ways. The Crimson Tide defense are perhaps the most complete that the Spartans have gone up against.
The biggest reason Alabama wins by double-digits and covers the Cotton Bowl is running back Derrick Henry, who carried the ball 90 times for 460 yards and two touchdowns in the final two games of the season, including the SEC championship. Henry rushed for 1,986 yards and 23 touchdowns this season on his way to the Heisman Trophy and could be the workhorse again on Thursday night. The Spartans rush defense will only be the fifth-best unit the Tide have played this season and it’s hard to imagine them containing him for a large portion of the game. If Henry and the offense are able to move the ball with ease early in the game, the points they put up will force Cook and the Spartans into throwing the ball and becoming more one-dimensional.
This game should stay within a couple of scores the entire way with Michigan State keeping things close before Alabama scores near the end to put it away.
Prediction ATS: Alabama to cover