By Chris Altruda
Everyone loves a good sequel, except maybe college football fans rooting for someone other than Clemson and Alabama.
The Tigers and the Crimson Tide, the Crimson Tide and the Tigers. They are now forever linked after four straight years of reaching the College Football Playoff and facing each other, with three of those clashes deciding the national champion. Dabo Swinney and Clemson are now a bona fide national program after waxing Alabama 44-16 for its second title in three years and handing Nick Saban the worst loss of his tenure in Tuscaloosa.
But can anyone stop these two behemoths from meeting once more to lift the CFP Trophy? Both return Heisman Trophy-worthy quarterbacks, star power at the skill positions and quality depth throughout their rosters. Clemson, a slight favorite to repeat according to the FanDuel sportsbook thanks to Clemson’s Odds at +170, has the benefit of a weaker conference in the ACC, while Alabama Odds at +230 peg them to remain the cream of the crop in the always rugged SEC.
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The good news is the CFP requires four teams for the playoff, which means there are at least two teams who will get their crack at taking down these Goliaths. Which teams occupy those two spots if Alabama and Clemson do not falter, though, is the mystery.
Clemson, which went 15-0 last year, returns Heisman frontrunner Trevor Lawrence at quarterback and Travis Etienne at running back. The former stepped into the starting role after four games and threw for 3,280 yards and 30 touchdowns with only four interceptions. Lawrence shredded both Notre Dame and Alabama in the playoffs, finishing with 674 passing yards and six TDs with no interceptions. Etienne rushed for 1,658 yards and 24 touchdowns for the Tigers, averaging a gaudy 8.1 yards per carry and finishing seventh in Heisman voting.
Alabama counters with a standout quarterback of its own in Tua Tagovailoa, the 2018 Heisman runner-up who threw for 3,966 yards and 43 TDs with a mere six interceptions. He has a stud wide receiver in Jerry Jeudy, who hauled in 68 catches for 1,315 yards and 14 touchdowns in a breakout sophomore season. On the defensive side, an improved pass rush is expected to help a secondary that struggled in the title game.
Notre Dame (+5000) did well to get to the College Football Playoff, arriving there 12-0 before being outclassed by Clemson. The Fighting Irish, who averaged 37.2 points last season, are primed for another big offensive output behind quarterback Ian Bush and an offensive line that returns four starters. Book, who took over the starting job midway through last season, threw for 2,628 yards and 19 TDs. His favorite target could wind up being tight end Chase Claypool, who had 50 receptions for 639 yards and four scores in 2018, and Chris Finke is a quality slot receiver.
Oklahoma (+1500) offers the most intriguing sub-plot to the Clemson-Alabama dynamic as former Tide quarterback Jalen Hurts transferred to Norman in the offseason to lead the Big 12 powerhouse. The Sooners, who have produced the last two Heisman Trophy winners and No. 1 NFL draft picks in Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray, will look to Hurts to continue the elite-level production in Lincoln Riley’s offense. Hurts threw for 5,626 yards and 48 TDs in his three seasons in Alabama and is a dual threat after rushing for over 850 yards in his two seasons as a full-time starter.
The most likely sleeper candidates to crash the CFP usually reside in the SEC, and this season is no different as Georgia (+1400) and Florida (+4000) fit the bill. The Bulldogs, who lost to Alabama in the 2018 title game and the SEC championship last season, are led by junior quarterback Jake Fromm, who threw for 30 touchdowns last year. Florida, which had its first 10-win season since 2015, looks for signal-caller Feleipe Franks to continue progressing as the Gators try to build on their Peach Bowl win over Michigan.
And speaking of the Wolverines (+1900), it may be now or never for Jim Harbaugh’s team as they have been tipped as the favorites to end Ohio State’s reign atop the Big Ten. Michigan has a new offensive coordinator in Josh Gattis, and the belief is Shea Patterson will thrive in his spread offense and produce bigger numbers after throwing for 2,600 yards and 22 TDs in a pro-style system.