College Football

Monday, January 15, 2018

Substance > Swagger

By: Joe Smeltzer
Photo creds to The Morning Call

In 60 minutes, the Jacksonville Jaguars unmasked everything wrong with the Pittsburgh Steelers over the past five years. Good god, there are a lot of angles I could take with this one.

I could talk about the Steelers defense, which allowed 38 points on a cold January afternoon to an offense that scored just 10 the week before in freaking Florida.

I could discuss the offense turning the simple task of converting a 4th-and-1 into open heart surgery.

I could ponder if defensive coordinator, Keith Butler and offensive coordinator, Tequila Cowboy, should or will keep their jobs. But what I'll discuss is that although we love our Steelers, the arrogance that this team showed over the past few months, from front to back, and not being able to back it up, makes it hard to have sympathy. 

Everyone in Pittsburgh was looking towards an AFC championship rematch with the Big Bad Patriots, which is understandable. The Steelers and Pats were the two best teams in the AFC, and arguably the NFL, in the regular season. But it was one thing for fans like myself and whoever is reading this blog to look ahead to a date Foxborough. For the Steelers' players, and even their head coach to look ahead, is a whole different animal.

As Mike Mitchell's comments and Le'veon Bell's tweet showed, at least some of the Steelers knew that they were going to the AFC championship. Because of this, they probably prepared for a game that didn't exist yet more than handling a Jacksonville team that although was inferior on paper, still beat these cocky bunch of Steelers by three touchdowns not too long ago. While no one outside of the locker room knows exactly how much this arrogance had to do with Pittsburgh crashing out, I don't think it's unfair to say that Bell and Mitchell weren't alone in focusing on Bill Belichick's team more than Doug Marrone's.

Mike Tomlin has received a lot of criticism over the past decade, some unwarranted, some understandable. Among many things that were exposed Sunday is one of the most justified criticisms of Tomlin and perhaps his most significant flaw as a head coach- not only has he not done a quality job keeping his players from making dumb comments, he has personally contributed to the problem. When Tomlin made it clear in an interview that aired before Sunday Night Football Nov. 26 that he felt the December meeting with New England wouldn't be the last time the two teams would meet this season, it should have been a red flag. But the Steelers were 8-2 at the time and won five of their last six regular season contests, so it's logical that all the success hid Tomlin's flaws. But come this past Sunday, there was no hiding, for Tomlin or anybody else, and in my opinion, it sums up so much about what the Steelers of the 2010s represent.

It's indisputable that this team has had a lot of success over the past four years. It's also undeniable that some players tend to act at best immature, at worst like showboating clowns. While I've never had too big a problem with any of the Steelers on-field celebrations, Facebook live fiascos etc., it's time for that image to change. While Sunday's loss wasn't the first playoff disappointment Pittsburgh has had in recent years, it was the most disheartening, and if there were ever a time for a wakeup call, it would be now.

Assuming that Ben Roethlisberger and Le'Veon Bell are back in 2018, the Steelers will be Super Bowl contenders. Pittsburgh has had championship talent for the past four years, especially the last two, and I don't expect that to be different in 2018. The Steelers embarrassment of depth-chart riches won't change anytime soon, but the way this team carries itself, and how their head coach seems to condone it, has to.

One could argue that a coaching overhaul isn't necessary. Obviously, Tomlin isn't going anywhere, and you could make a case for Butler and Haley keeping their jobs as well. But one thing that is indisputable is that the Steelers have a swagger that they have not earned. So cut the BS. No more fun and games. It's time to win a Super Bowl, and doing that would require preparing for games that exist.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

NFL Divisional Round Preview/Predictions


By: Joe Smeltzer 
The divisional round is here. Our group is down from five to four. This week in the NFL will show us who the final two will be. Let's get into it.
4:35
Falcons at Eagles
Line: ATL -2.5
Photo creds to Sporting News

Gauging Philly without Carson Wentz is hard. In the Eagles' three games since the superstar quarterback tore his ACL, they are 2-1 but haven't played a quality opponent in that time. That will change today.

Atlanta is rolling, having won seven of its past nine games. A big reason for that is its defense, which has been excellent. Over the last nine contests, that unit has allowed just a little over 17 points per game, and that spells trouble for Philadelphia without its field general.

The Eagles have an excellent defense as well, so I'm expecting an old-school football game. In the end, what it will come down to is can Matt Ryan outplay Nick Foles? I think the answer is yes, and that's why Atlanta will move on to its second straight NFC title game.


8:15
Titans at Patriots
Line: NE -13.5
Photo creds to Ranker

As bad as we want it, New England isn't going to lose. Sorry.

Sunday 
1:05
Jags at Steelers
Line: PIT -7.0
Photo creds to SI.Com

Blake Bortles beating Ben Roethlisberger? It's happened before. But there's a slight difference between Week 5 and the playoffs. Pittsburgh remembers that 30-9 embarrassment, and you better believe Big Ben will be ready to avenge what was possibly the worst game of his career. I'm so confident in my Steelers getting a W that even if Antonio Brown can't go, I'd still ride with the Black and Gold. If AB can play and be effective, things might get ugly. Here we go. 

4:40 
Saints at Vikings 
Line: Min -5.0
Photo creds to Texas Monthly 

This game is a toss-up, but I'm going with Minnesota for two reasons. 

The first is that the Vikings are playing at home. In even matchups, I tend to favor the home team for obvious reasons. The second is that in my opinion, the Saints need to have more go right to win than the Vikings do. 

Minnesota has arguably the leagues best defense, along with an offense that has big-play capabilities with Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs as receivers. While New Orleans, as always, has a dominant attack, its defense is not as established as Minnesota's. Therefore, I think that the Vikings are more balanced. 

For the Saints to win, they need a big day from Drew Brees, and in my opinion, Case Keenum doesn't have as much pressure on him. So while I can see an upset, I just think the Vikings have too much going for them and will move one step closer to being the first team ever to play a Super Bowl in their home stadium. 


Monday, January 8, 2018

2018 National Championship Game: Three keys for Georgia/Alabama

By: Joe Smeltzer
Photo creds to SI.Com

It's national title time. Not a lot more needs to be said. Here are three things that both Alabama and Georgia can do to bring it all home tonight.




Georgia
Key offensive players: QB Jake Fromm, RB Nick Chubb
Key defensive players: LB Roquan Smith, LB Lorenzo Carter

Key #1: Don't fall behind early 
Yes, the Bulldogs fell 17 points behind against Oklahoma and came back. But don't expect that to happen again should Georgia start slow against Alabama.

Unlike the Sooners, the Tide have a dominant defense. That dominance was on display in the Sugar Bowl, when 'Bama held mighty Clemson to just two field goals. Another reason for the Tide's triumph was that they jumped on the Tigers early with ten first quarter points, and Clemson never recovered.

If Georgia doesn't come firing out of the gate, a similar result could be in the cards.

Key #2: Force a turnover or three 
Linebackers Lorenzo Carter (7) and Davin Bellamy (17) won't make life easy for Jalen Hurts and company (Photo creds to SB Nation)

Alabama doesn't turn the ball over often. In fact, only one team in the nation has lost the football less than the Tide. As good as Georgia's defense is, the Bulldogs ranked just fifth in the SEC in takeaways with 19.

Turning the Tide over won't be easy, especially through the air.  Of Alabama's nine turnovers on the season, only two have come via interception. To win a national championship, you must do something fantastic, and that thing might have to come in the form of Georgia forcing a Nick Saban coached team to make a big mistake.

Key #3: Stop the run

Bo Scarbrough is one of three runners who Georgia needs to worry about (Photo creds to Saturday Down South)
Georgia allowed 242 rushing yards last week and won. Yeah, that won't fly tonight

Damon Harris, Jalen Hurts and Bo Scarbrough are all threats to do damage on the ground. The good news for Georgia is that the 'Bama running game was fairly quiet against Clemson, running for 141 yards. The bad news is that considering Alabama rushed for 101 fewer yards than Oklahoma last week and still won by 18, you could imagine what could go wrong if Georgia's run defense doesn't do its job.



Alabama 
Key offensive players: QB Jalen Hurts, RB Damon Harris
Key defensive players: LB Rashaan Evans, SS Minkah Fitzpatrick 
Key #1: Set the tone 
Last week, Alabama got out to an early lead and never looked back. If it can do the same in Atlanta tonight, it will be hard for Georgia to recover.

With the way Nick Saban teams play defense and run the ball, it's hard for the other team to come back from a deficit. So if the Tide get a lead of any more than seven points, the Bulldogs are in trouble.

Key #2: Run the football
As mentioned earlier, Georgia's run defense struggled last week. While I don't expect Hurts, Harris or Scarbrough to pull a Rodney Anderson and rush for over 200 yards, the three of them collectively could still do a lot of damage if Georgia isn't up to the task.

Alabama's bread and butter on offense is running the ball. If the Tide can do that effectively tonight, they'll have a good chance at winning another title for St. Nick.

Key #3: Dominate the front 
Da"Ron Payne is a force up front for the Tide (Photo creds to Gridiron Now)

Considering that Georgia had two backs rush for over 140 yards last week, it's fair to say that 'Bama's defense has a lot to handle.

As far as Jake Fromm has come at quarterback, the Bulldogs, like the Tide, get most of their work done on the ground. Alabama, as usual, has a dominant run defense, and it will present a much different tonight challenge than Oklahoma did in the Rose Bowl.

The winner of this game might just come down to who wins the battle up front. If Alabama can get the best of Georgia's o-line and force the Bulldogs to find different ways to get their backs involved, it could be the team that wins that battle, and thus, the national championship.




Final Prediction
It's Georgia's time. They are more complete team than Alabama is all around, have played better football than Alabama this year, especially in the second half, and unlike Alabama, the 'Dawgs haven't been here before.

Georgia has surprised everybody by getting to this point, and the Bulldogs have come this far not to close the deal. In the SEC's backyard, the better SEC team will prevail. Chubb and Michel will be too much to handle on offense, and the confidence of Jake Fromm will shine through. Defeinsivley, the Dawgs will make a big play somewhere along the line.

In my opinion, the 'Dawgs will slightly outplay 'Bama on both sides, and that will push Kirby Smart past his former boss.  Enjoy it, Georgia fans. It's been a long time coming

Georgia 24, Alabama 17

Saturday, January 6, 2018

NFL Wildcard Round Preview/Predictions

Graphic creds to Bradley W. Stewart
By Joe Smeltzer
The playoffs are here, and this is how the Smeltzer on Sports playoff picks will work. 

1. The seeding is done based on regular season standings 
2. Since there are five player, only Brad and David will be playing this week.
3. Because the same teams will be picked a lot, total points is are tie-breaker. So whoever's points are closer to the total in the actual game will get the win for that contest. 

Seems easy enough. Let's get into it. 


Saturday
4:20
Titans (9-7) at Chiefs (10-6)
Line: KC -8.5
Photo creds to SI.Com

Kansas City had an hot-and-cold regular season, and unfortunately for Tennessee, the Titans are catching the Chiefs on a hot streak. 

KC won it's last four regular season games, and last week, beat Denver despite quarterback Alex Smith and star receiver Tyreek Hill not playing. The Titans are an average football team, and unless Marcus Mariota plays like an early 2000s Mike Vick, I don't see how they upset the red-hot Chiefs in Arrowhead with Smith and Hill back in the fold. If receiver Albert Wilson plays anything like he did last Sunday, the KC offense will be even more to handle.



8:15
Falcons (10-6) at Rams (11-5) 
Photo creds to CBS Sports

Atlanta's season has been one of unsatisfied hunger. From winning the NFC last season to sneaking into the playoffs in Week 17 this year, the Falcons haven't lived up to their potential yet. 

While Atlanta has underachieved, the Rams are possibly the NFL's biggest overachievers, so you could say this is a matchup of contrasting seasons. The Falcons are such an enigma that I see this game going one of two ways; either Atlanta wins by three, or loses by 17. I'm going to take the latter.

Matt Ryan has had trouble with turnovers this year, throwing 12 interceptions. My gut tells me that Wade Phillips' defense is going to exploit those struggles Saturday night. If Ryan throws two or more picks, the Rams will be sitting pretty. If Jared Goff and Todd Gurley have enough chances to make some magic, they'll take advantage, and I think Aaron Donald and the Rams defense will give the offense enough opportunities to do just that.

Bills (9-7) at Jags (10-6) 
Line: Jax -8.5
Cornerback Jalen Ramsey leads a Jags defense that can handle any offense in the league, especially Buffalo's. (photo creds to jaguars.com)

It sure would be something to see Buffalo get its first playoff win in 22 years, and I think there's an outside chance that it happens. 

Led by rookie Tre'Davious White, the Bills defense is talented enough to compete with anybody in the league, and Jacksonville isn't known for its offense. What gives the Jags the edge, however, is that their defense is possibly the best in the NFL, and I just can't see Buffalo's attack, which averages under 20 points per game, getting anything done against that unit unless LeSean McCoy goes bonkers.

I'm expecting a defensive battle that won't be decided until the fourth quarter. But Blake Bortles will make one or two more plays than Tyrod Taylor, and that will be the difference. 

4:40
Panthers (11-5) at Saints (11-5)
Line: NO -7.0
Photo creds to USA Today

They say its almost impossible to beat the same team three times in a year. I think that when one team is has shown themselves obviously better than the other, it's not just possible, but pretty likely as well. 

Not only did the Saints beat the Panthers in both regular season meetings, but they were also obviously the better team in those games. I don't see any reason to expect a much different result Sunday, especially with the game in New Orleans. Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara shredded the Panthers in the last meeting Dec. 3 and I expect them to be on their A-game Sunday. If Ingram and Kamara are factors, goodbye Carolina. 









Friday, January 5, 2018

Pittsburgh Sports 2017: 15 biggest moments

By Joe Smeltzer
Photo creds to avonnewsonline

2017 has come and gone. As with every sports city, a lot of things happened, both good and bad, over the past year. Pittsburgh was no exception. Here are, in the eyes of Joseph Arthur Smeltzer, the 15 biggest things, for better or worse, that happened in Pittsburgh sports in 2017. Let's get into it.
#15: 106-51
Tuesday, Jan. 24
Pitt head men's basketball coach Kevin Stalling hasn't had an easy time in the Steel City (Photo creds to Sporting News)


The score says it all. To get every prominent sports team in the city on this list, it made sense that Pitt basketball's entry would be something bad and what could be worse than that 106-51 drubbing to Louisville at the Peterson Events Center Jan. 24? Yikes.

#14: Hail to Pickett
Friday, Nov. 24
Photo creds to Asbury Park Press

We move from the worst of Pitt sports in 2017 to the best.

In what was otherwise a lost season for Pat Narduzzi, the last game gave Panthers fans hope that things might not be so bad in 2018. Led by two touchdowns rushing and one passing by freshman quarterback Kenny Pickett, Pitt stunned the second-ranked Miami Hurricanes, 24-14. What this triumph will mean long term remains to be seen, but regardless, Nov. 24 was a pretty good day for Panther fans.

#13: Clinching against the Dirty Birds (Again)
Sunday, Dec. 10
Photo creds to Steel Curtain Rising

Every football fan on the planet knew that the Steelers were going to win the AFC North in 2017. But the way they did it was still fantastic.

Led by Big Ben, Pittsburgh scored ten points in the last three-and-a-half minutes, with a Boswell field goal putting the Black and Gold in front with 42 seconds left.


TJ Watt sacked Joe Flacco on the ensuing possession to seal the game and the North. The Ravens still had a shot at the playoffs, but that, uh, didn't end up working out either.

#12: Jay-Hay spoils/makes history
Wednesday, August 23
Photo creds to Yahoo Sports

August 23 seemed like a dull night in Pittsburgh. The Pirates were virtually out of the playoff race, and beginning to play out the string, while the Dodgers had the NL West well in hand. What transpired, however, was something that had never happened in the history of PNC Park.

Dodgers starter Rich Hill took a perfect game into the ninth inning and a no-hitter into the 10th. The problem was that his offense couldn't score a run. Leading off the 10th, Josh Harrison made sure that LA would pay for not scoring, hitting a walk-off homer over the left field wall. The Pirates were no-hit for nine innings and ended up winning the game. Not a lot went right for the Bucs in 2017, but this was pretty freaking cool.

#11: Owning the Chiefs
Sunday, Jan. 15/Sunday, Oct. 15
Photo creds to SI.Com

Whether it be in the middle of January or the middle of October, a lot went right for the Steelers at Arrowhead Stadium in 2017.

It started January 15, when 170 rushing yards from Le'Veon Bell and six Chris Boswell field goals led Pittsburgh to an 18-16 win in the AFC divisional round. Seven months later, the Steelers were just 3-2 and coming off an embarrassing loss to Jacksonville, while the Chiefs were the last unbeaten team remaining in the NFL.

Once again, Pittsburgh rained on KC's parade, beating the KC, 19-13. The game served as a turning point for both teams. Pittsburgh went 9-1 the rest of the way, while KC went 5-5 and almost missed out on the postseason.



#10: Big AL and nobody else 
Sunday, Sept. 24
Photo creds to USA Today

In Week 3 of the NFL season, football was hardly the big story. Instead, Donald Trump and taking a knee took center stage. In the midst of all of this non-sports related chaos, Mike Tomlin decided to focus solely on the game ahead and decided not to have his team go out for the National Anthem. Apparently, one Steeler didn't get the memo.

Offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva, known for his military service, walked out of the tunnel with none of his teammates around him. Although photos revealed that the rest of the Steelers weren't far behind Big Al, the perception was that Villanueva was all alone in honoring the flag.

It didn't have an impact on the Steelers season win/loss wise, but Villanueva's decision was one of the bigger stories in all of sports in 2017, not just in Pittsburgh.

#9: Not-so-super Starling
Tuesday, Apr. 18
Photo creds to Pittsburgh-Post Gazette

One minute, the Pirates were completing a three-game sweep of the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. The next, their star left fielder was suspended for 80 games, and the 2017 season never recovered from this point forward. Although it's unlikely that the Bucs would have made an impact in the national league regardless of Marte's status, this was the first in a long line of events that helped turn this year into a lost cause.

#8: "Surviving the Ground" 
Sunday, Sept. 17
Was it a catch (Photo creds to CBS Sports)


Time will tell how significant Jesse James' catch that wasn't will end up being. To say the play itself was disputable would be an understatement. What's indisputable, however, is that it was one of the biggest stories in Pittsburgh sports in 2017 and, depending on what happens in the first month of 2018, could be discussed a lot over the next several months.


#7: Brady beats Ben (Again)
Sunday, Jan. 22
Photo creds to Battle Red Blog

Tom Brady is the best of all time. He proved it again in the 2017 AFC title game. It's possible that these two teams could be meeting again shortly. We can only hope that the result will be different. 

#6: Taillon strikes out cancer
Monday, Jun. 12
Photo creds to USA Today

2017 wasn't kind to the Pirates. People will say whatever they want about the organization, but you'd be hard-pressed to find anybody who isn't a straight up troll that has a negative word about starting pitcher Jameson Taillon.

When Taillon found out he had testicular cancer in early May, he fought back, and five weeks later, was back on the mound at PNC Park, getting a win over the Colorado Rockies. 

Taillon is an example of how sports can teach us lessons in perseverance that can relate to anybody, regardless of their level of interest. The Pirates weren't champions in 2017, but Jameson Taillon was. 

#5: "Shalieve"
Monday, Dec. 4
Photo creds to Choiz

When the Steelers lost arguably the best player on their defense to a possibly career-ending back injury on a Monday night in Cincinnati, it was a matter that went far beyond the gridiron. 

The organization recognized this and knew that the effect the injury had on Shazier's football career paled in comparison to what it could mean for his everyday life. 

Seeing Shazier at Heinz Field, cheering on his teammates despite the circumstances, as well as players from other teams such as the Browns using touchdowns as prayers for number 50, has been inspiring. The prayers will continue to roll in, and Shazier will, thankfully, have plenty of support in his fight. 

#4: Adding to Washington's misery 
Wednesday, May 10
Photo creds to SI.Com

When the Penguins face the Capitals in the postseason, the team that was superior for the first 82 games doesn't usually win. 

That held true in 2016 when Nick Bonino sent the Pens to the Eastern Conference Finals, and it stayed so the next year when Marc-Andre Fleury stood tall in what would be his last standout performance in a Penguins uniform in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Presidents' Trophy winners. 

Fleury stood tall, pitching a shutout. Bryan Rust and Patrick Hornqvist made sure "flower" wouldn't see his heroics go to waste, and for the third time in eight years, the Penguins crushed Washington's dreams. Awesome. 

#3: Farewell Mr. Dan
Thursday, April 13
Two men who helped change the history of Pittsburgh Sports (Photo creds to 247sports)

Pittsburgh lost one of its most iconic figures ever April 13, when former Steelers owner Dan Rooney passed away. 

While Rooney's father, Art, founded the Steelers, Dan was the one who made them what they are today, starting with hiring Chuck Noll as head coach in 1969. It was through his hiring decisions with scouting and coaching that Pittsburgh was able to draft the talent they needed to win four Super Bowls in six years. 

The NFL lost one of its good guys in 2017 and "Mr. Dan" will never be forgotten. 



#2: The unsung hero has his moment 
Thursday, May 25

For almost a decade, former Penguins winger Chris Kunitz flew under-the-radar. He was dependable and spent a lot of time on Sidney Crosby's line, but always seemed to be overshadowed by guys like Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel. But in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, in what would end up being one of his last games as a Penguin, Kunitz finally had his signature moment. 

At 5:09 of the second overtime period in a 2-2 game, Kunitz took a pass from Sidney Crosby and rocketed a perfect shot past Senators goalie Craig Anderson for his second goal of the game, and his most important in Black and Gold. It sent the Pens to the Stanley Cup Finals for the second year in a row, and for Kunitz, was a moment years in the making. 

#1: Back-2-Back 
Sunday, June 11
Photo creds to CBS News

What else could have been number one? What the Penguins have done over the past two years is extraordinary, and for anybody who has followed this team, I don't think I need to explain why that is. I'll just let the cups do the talking. 




Monday, January 1, 2018

Clemson-Alabama III: Three keys to victory for both teams

By: Joe Smeltzer 
Hello, all. It's playoff time, and for the third year in a row, the Clemson Tigers are pitted against the Alabama Crimson Tide. Only this time, it's for a trip to the national title game, not for the whole jugular. It's almost Sugar Bowl time. Here are three things that both the Tigers and Tide can do to advance to the national title game for the third year in a row.
Clemson
Key #1: Dominate the line
At 6 ft. 4 and 300 pounds, defensive tackle Christian Wilkins is a monster. (Photo creds to Hartford Courant)

The most impressive aspect of Clemson's football team is its defensive line. Celin Ferrell, Dexter Lawerence and Christian Wilkins all could be first-round NFL draft picks when that time comes, and all three of them, along with defensive end Austin Bryant, have dominated opposing offenses all season.

If the Clemson front four wrecks tonight, life won't be good for Jalen Hurts and Alabama's offense. But if the Tide can hold their own up front, it would neutralize a dominant aspect of what makes the Tigers so dangerous.


Key #2: Kelly Bryant is ready
Photo creds to Sporting News

Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant knows how to handle pressure. Bryant took over for one of the greatest players in ACC history in DeShaun Watson and filled those shoes well leading the Tigers to this point. But Bryant has never played in a game of this magnitude.

This is the biggest matchup in college football so far and could be even more intriguing than the national championship game. Hurts has started two playoff games before. Bryant has never started one. For Clemson's offense to move the ball, Bryant must be able to handle the pressure. I think he's up for it, but we shall see.

Key #3: Convert on third down (aka find Hunter Renfrow)
Photo creds to Elite Daily

Clemson's offense has had plenty of success on third down this season, ranking eighth in the nation in conversions. A big part of that success has been senior wideout Hunter Renfrow, who although is capable of making big plays, is known primarily as a possession receiver.

Keeping the offense on the field is a huge key in any big matchup like this, and Clemson will be in plenty of third down situations against a solid Alabama defense. Bryant will need to keep his cool in these moments and go to what works, which is throwing to Hunter Renfrow.

Alabama
Key #1: O-Line steps up 
Jonah Williams is ready for a battle (Photo creds to Gridiron Now)

The 'Bama offensive line will face its most daunting task of the season tonight. Center Bradly Bozeman and left tackle Jonah Williams both anchor an O-line that is capable of holding its own. If the Tide's big boys can keep Wilkins, Bryant and Ferrel out of its backfield as often as possible, 'Bama's chances of moving on to the national title game for the third straight season will be significantly enhanced.

Key #2: Hurts takes over
Photo creds to SI.Com

Jalen Hurts has been here before. Last season, he nearly led the Tide to the promised land as a true freshman. But there's a bit of a different feeling in the air this time around.

Alabama isn't what it was a year ago. In 2016, the Tide were number one with a bullet and expected by many to roll to a national title. This year, there is debate over if they should be in the playoffs at all.

Since Alabama's quarterback doesn't have a much talent around him as usual, more is expected of him. If 'Bama is to win this game, Hurts must make a big play. He is capable of doing that with either his arms or legs and maybe he'll have to use both. Whatever the case is, 'Bama's field general must lead his troops if a return to the national title game is possible.

Key #3: Spread the ball around 
Photo creds to Saturday Down South

Alabama's leading receiver, Calvin Ridley, has 896 yards on the season. Next on that list is Jerry Judy, with just 244 yards. So to say that Hurts' options downfield are limited is an understatement.

Relying on Ridley and nobody else won't cut it in the Sugar Bowl. Someway, somehow, Hurts must spread the ball around the field. If he can't do that, Alabama is in trouble. As good as Ridley is, he is just one man, and it's hard to envision knocking off a team like Clemson with only one receiver getting the job done.

Prediction
I will go to my grave defending the decision to put Alabama in the playoffs ahead of Ohio State. One loss is less than two, of course. But I'm riding with the Tigers tonight.

Clemson is the best team in college football. Both its offense and defense can be equally dominating, and I don't see the Tide keeping up with that balance. Clemson's D-line will overpower Alabama, and the offense will score enough to accommodate it. Unlike the past two national title games, I think this Sugar Bowl will be anticlimactic.

Clemson 28, Alabama 17

Oklahoma-Georgia: 3 keys for both teams

It's college football playoff time. For those who are familiar with this blog, the format of this article will be a little different. It will be like the "three keys" previews that I write for Steelers and Penn State games, only with keys for both teams instead of just one. Starting with the first of two semifinals, here a three things that both the Georiga Bulldogs and Oklahoma Sooners can do to advance to the national championship game.



Oklahoma
Key #1: Have Baker ready to go
Photo creds to NY Daily News

The biggest storyline going into the Rose Bowl is the health of the 2017 Heisman trophy winner.

Baker Mayfield has been battling a cold this week, and while that may not seem like the intense thing in the world, Mayfield needs to be at his best for the Sooners to have a shot. If Mayfield isn't on his A game New Year's day, OU is done, and anything that could affect that is worth talking about, even if it is as simple as feeling a little under the weather.

Key #2: Stop the run
Running backs Nick Chub (#27) and Sony Michel (#1) will be a lot for the OU defense to handle (Photo creds to Sporting News)

Anybody who has watched Georgia play this year knows that the Bulldogs are built mainly on two things- defense, and running the football. Nick Chubb, Sony Michel and DeAndre Swift are all electric runners capable of breaking off a big play at any moment, and the more the Bulldogs run the football, the less time Baker Mayfield and the Sooner offense to work its magic

While Jake Fromm has done an admirable job as a freshman quarterback, the Bulldogs doesn't identify as a passing team. So, if Fromm has to beat Oklahoma with his arm,  the Bulldogs are worse off than they would be with the three-headed monster getting it done with their legs.

Key #3: Don't play at Georgia's pace 
Mayfield gets most of the attention, but running back Ronny Anderson is no slouch either (Photo creds to SI)

If OU wins this game, it will probably be because of the offense. If Georgia wins, the defense will have a lot to do with it. So, if the Rose Bowl becomes a shootout rather than a slugfest, the Sooners will have the advantage. Oklahoma must play its style of football better than Georgia plays its style.

If the Sooners score- and score a lot- I'm not sure the Bulldogs will be able to keep up. But if Mayfield makes a mistake or two or if the Bulldogs execute long, methodical drives to keep the ball away from number six, life could be rough for boomer in Pasadena.

Georgia
Key #1: Keep the ball away from Mayfield 
Photo creds to SI.Com

As mentioned in Oklahoma's keys, time of possession will be a significant factor in this game. For Georgia, the less we see of Mayfield on the field, the better. The Bulldogs must be able to control the pace of the game to keep up with Oklahoma. Otherwise, Baker can burn them quite a bit.


Key #2: Force a turnover or three
Linebackers Lorenzo Carter (#7) and Davin Bellamy (#17) could make things interesting by forcing a takeaway (Photo creds to SB Nation)

Aside from chewing up the clock on offense, another way for Georgia to keep Oklahoma from perfecting its style of football is to take the ball away from them.

Turnovers change game and Mayfield (5 INT's) doesn't make a lot of mistakes. If the Bulldogs can get a takeaway, particularly early on, that could go a long way in deciding the outcome. If Oklahoma doesn't turn it over at least once, however, I like their chances. But considering the strength of Georgia's unit, I don't see the Sooners playing a mistake-free game offensively.


Key #3: Fromm comes up big
Photo creds to WSB Radio

My gut tells me that if Georgia wins, quarterback Jake Fromm will play a major role I don't know when.

I don't know how. But I have a feeling  at some point, Fromm will make a big play. The freshman has done well this year, but I don't think he's had a signature moment yet in his young career. Maybe New Year's Day will see that happen.

Final prediction
I can never trust a Big 12 team to win a national championship. To me, the fact that no team from that conference has won the whole thing since 2006 isn't a coincidence. The reason the Big 12 isn't as successful with championships as other power five conferences is that Big 12 teams don't play defense.

While slowing down the Sooner offense won't be an easy task, I think that if Georgia's vaunted D can hold it under 30 points, the Bulldogs will win the football game. I have faith Fromm, Michel, Chubb and the rest of the boys to hold OU just enough to move one step closer to college footballs biggest prize.



UGA 38, OU 28