After a controversial and highly debated selection process, the College Football Playoff is finally upon as we soon turn the calendar to 2018.
The One-Loss Alabama Crimson Tide enter the playoff looking to prove they were worthy of the final College Football Playoff spot as they take on top-ranked Clemson in the Sugar Bowl Jan. 1 at 8:30 p.m. on ESPN.
The first semifinal features Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield and the No. 2 Oklahoma Sooners’ explosive offense against the SEC champion and third-ranked Georgia Bulldogs in the Rose Bowl at 5 p.m. on ESPN.
All four playoff participants are filled with NFL caliber talent at the skill positions and in the trenches.
Here are five key matchups to look for in the fourth iteration of the College Football Playoff.
1) Baker Mayfield vs. UGA Secondary
Amongst all the headlines, Baker Mayfield stands tall above the rest. The Heisman winner cemented his legacy all season in Norman, Okla., as a competitor and a winner.
Mayfield astoundingly threw for 4,340 yards and 41 touchdowns compared to just five interceptions in 2017.
Mayfield has sliced and diced quality defenses like Ohio State and TCU (twice) en route to a legendary campaign for the Sooners.
Georgia’s secondary has to find a way to contain receivers Marquise Brown and Mykel Jones and their array of creative routes that utilize their blazing speed.
Look for Georgia to play a lot of nickel coverage with multiple DBs to try and slow down Oklahoma’s passing attack, but the problem with the Sooners is their balanced offensive attack can strike on the ground too.
Freshman Trey Sermon has emerged as one of the most explosive tailbacks in the country, averaging 6.0 yards per carry in his first season in Norman, Okla.
2) UGA Tailbacks vs. Oklahoma Front-7
The strongest part of Georgia’s offense is its powerful running game led by stalwarts Nick Chubb and Sony Michel.
A gruesome knee injury left Chubb wondering if he would ever return to the field, but he’s battled back in his final season at Georgia to rush for 1,175 yards this season for the SEC champion Bulldogs.
Chubb’s backfield mate Michel needs just 52 more yards to give Georgia its first 1,000-yard rushing duo in school history.
The Bulldogs are even scarier looking ahead to the future with freshman tailback Deandre Swift and his lightning speed serving as UGA’s third option on the ground.
SWIFT INDEED pic.twitter.com/Faw9APj4pf
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) December 3, 2017
Oklahoma gave up 144.2 yards per game on the ground, which ranked sixth in the 10-team Big 12.
The battle in between the trenches is always important, but if Georgia can run the ball effectively it can keep the Heisman winner on the sideline and wear down a speedy Oklahoma defense.
3) Calvin Ridley vs. Clemson Secondary
In part three of the Clemson-Alabama rivalry, we’re going to see perhaps the weakest version of Alabama’s offense since their mini-series began in January 2016.
Sophomore quarterback Jalen Hurts has struggled when asked to be more than a game manager and the explosive plays have been lacking from the Alabama skill players in big games.
Junior receiver Calvin Ridley has been the Crimson Tide’s most consistent deep threat, averaging more than 16 yards per catch on the season.
It’s imperative the Clemson secondary keep contain on Ridley and force Hurts to go through his progressions when he drops back to pass.
The Clemson defensive front — led by NFL draft darlings Christian Watkins and Clelin Ferrell — has to do its part in pressuring Hurts and forcing him to get the ball out quicker than he would like.
Ridley smiled when reporters brought up a Clemson secondary which is far less physical than a year ago.
“We just gotta see what we got out there,” Ridley chuckled. “But (their secondary) is still really good.”
4) Alabama Tailbacks vs. Clemson D-Line
There’s no surprise that Alabama can run the football with power and ferocity. It’s been a staple of Nick Saban’s offense since he got to Tuscaloosa, Ala., in 2007.
Alabama tailbacks Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough have combined for more than 1, 400 yards and 19 touchdowns on the ground.
The thunder and lightning duo are what most people believe to be Clemson’s biggest problem on the defensive side of the ball.
Clemson loves to rush the passer, sacking 2016 Heisman winner Lamar Jackson five times in a 47-21 early-season rout of the Louisville Cardinals.
But it remains to be seen if Clemson’s edge rushers can maintain their gaps and contain the bruising Scarbrough and the elusive Harris out of the backfield.
Look for Alabama to try to establish the run early to slow down the Clemson pass rush, allowing for Hurts and the Crimson Tide to flourish through the air for some big plays down the field.
5) Jalen Hurts vs. Kelly Bryant
Junior quarterback Kelly Bryant spent the first two seasons of his college career behind one of the biggest talents in college football history.
After Deshaun Watson defeated Alabama in the final seconds of the 2016-17 national championship game, Bryant knew it would be his time to shine as Watson headed off to the NFL.
The South Carolina native has not disappointed, throwing for 2,678 yards and completing 67.4 percent of his passes in his junior campaign.
The Tigers have been nearly flawless since stumbling Oct. 13 on the road against Syracuse when Bryant went down with a concussion.
Bryant and Hurts obviously will not square off one-on-one at any point Monday, but the two quarterbacks have a similar build and similar game.
They both are strong, physical, and can run outside of the pocket in big situations. Bryant rushed for 11 touchdowns this season while Hurts rushed for eight.
Whichever signal caller can create plays with their legs could disrupt the opposing defensive coordinator’s game plan and cause chaos in the second national semifinal.