Headlined by the usual suspects
The 2018-19 College Football Playoff has arrived, and it’s headlined by the usual suspects.
Alabama’s quest for a a third consecutive national championship begins with a matchup against No. 4 Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl.
The second showdown on deck for December 29 pits No. 2 Clemson against CFP-debuting Notre Dame. The Tigers are heavily favored to advance and face Alabama in a National Championship duel.
Read on for a look at the 10 most important players from all these elite teams in the competition for college football’s ultimate prize.
Mack Wilson, linebacker, Alabama
Wilson is a savvy linebacker with sideline-to-sideline speed and uncanny instincts. So, just the latest exceptional player of his ilk from Tuscaloosa.
There’s so much talent on Alabama’s defense, but Wilson is the heart and soul of it. Even though Oklahoma runs a system heavily reliant on spread concepts, Murray often makes checks at the line of scrimmage.
It’s critical that Wilson match wits with Murray before the snap. Otherwise a whole lot of blown coverages could happen.
Sooners star Kyler Murray is as dangerous as any quarterback in the open field. Wilson will not only have to drop in coverage, but also spy Murray to keep him from devastating the Crimson Tide with his legs.
Dexter Lawrence, defensive lineman, Clemson
The massive 340-pounder rivals Williams as the best interior lineman. Lawrence isn’t as versatile or explosively athletic, but his stout run defense at the 1-technique and ability to collapse the pocket helps the rest of the Tigers’ loaded defensive line cause disruption.
Lawrence’s athleticism for his size really pops out and will help knock Book off his spot, which figures to hinder his characteristic pinpoint accuracy.
Notre Dame running back Dexter Williams has a knack for producing big plays, such as a 97-yard touchdown jaunt at Virginia Tech earlier this year. Lawrence can cause lots of negative plays and force the Irish offense to become one-dimensional.
Julian Love, cornerback, Notre Dame
As the top pure cover corner in the CFP, Love has a massive role in determining whether the Fighting Irish advance to the grand finale.
The probable first-round NFL draft pick is the anchor of the secondary. His thick frame (5-foot-11, 193 pounds) allows him to play physically. He’s extremely competitive at the catch point and is more than willing to stick his nose in and defend the run.
Love will have his hands full playing on the boundary versus Clemson. He’ll be tasked with covering 6-foot-4 target Tee Higgins often, as well as dangerous freshman Justyn Ross, who averages 20.6 yards per catch.
Clelin Ferrell, defensive end, Clemson
A first-team All-American last year, Ferrell could’ve easily been playing on Sundays by now. Instead he’s still with the Tigers and is the playoffs’ premier pass-rusher.
Ferrell will give Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book a lot to think about as he screams in off the edge. It helps to have such a strong supporting cast on the front four, yet Ferrell can produce no matter who’s lined up alongside him.
The redshirt junior has an advanced arsenal of moves, which helps him defend the run well too. Ferrell has 17.5 tackles for loss overall, with 10.5 among them being sacks.
Quinnen Williams, defensive lineman, Alabama
He’s arguably the best pure interior defensive lineman in college football. It’s difficult to stand out among the Tide’s loaded front seven, yet Williams does it with ease and regularity.
Williams’ 18 tackles for loss and eight sacks highlight production and a skill set that brings to mind someone like Aaron Donald.
The way Williams can close on opposing ball-carriers is quite breathtaking. He’s so quick off the ball with an explosive first step that he can often be in the backfield before the play has a chance to properly develop.
Those minus plays will be vital in keeping Oklahoma’s dynamic offense at bay in the Orange Bowl.
Travis Etienne, running back, Clemson
Etienne has a healthy 8.3 yards per carry for 1,463 yards and 21 touchdowns, so he’s plenty fresh enough and will be ready for the challenge of Notre Dame’s front seven in the CFP semifinal.
Clemson’s game plan shouldn’t revolve around true freshman Trevor Lawrence throwing the football. It should stick with what it does best: play stout defense and pound the rock. Then as the box is stacked, Lawrence should be able to find favorable matchups.
If Etienne can find running room, it’ll open up the passing attack for Lawrence, whose talent is limitless. Lawrence’s inexperience and inconsistency is worrisome, though, especially on this big of a stage.
CeeDee Lamb, receiver, Oklahoma
In the aftermath of Marquise Brown’s foot injury from the Big 12 title game — which renders his playing status questionable — Lamb is the No. 1 option in the Sooners’ receiving corps.
Lamb filled that role versus Texas, piling up six catches, 167 yards and a score. He averages 18.4 yards per catch, but is not quite the home-run threat Brown is.
It helps to have Kyler Murray slinging the rock and having the wherewithal to exploit mismatches anywhere on the gridiron. That said, Murray will lean on Lamb in critical down-and-distance situations. Lamb must come through against Alabama’s stout secondary for Oklahoma to advance.
Ian Book, quarterback, Notre Dame
Even the most slippery of signal-callers would have trouble evading Clemson’s terrifying front four. Book is mobile but not a supreme athlete, and thus must get rid of the ball quickly, efficiently and accurately without turning it over.
Book has completed 70.4 percent of his passes in 2018. He’s demonstrated he can do all those things. However, he didn’t look great against USC in the regular-season closer, and the Tigers are a far stiffer test.
If Notre Dame is meant to earn respect and even have a shot to win in the semifinals, Book must have the game of his life.
Tua Tagovailoa, quarterback, Alabama
His health will largely determine whether Alabama wins a third straight national title — or even makes it past the showdown with Oklahoma.
Tagovailoa isn’t as mobile at least for the time being, which is part of what makes him so difficult to defend. At least he’ll face a porous defense, armed with a receiving corps that has one man wide open almost every play.
No one benefits more from the lengthy layoff before the semifinals than Tagovailoa. The signal-caller’s toughness and ability to perform in the clutch works in Alabama’s favor as well.
But if Jalen Hurts is thrust into duty, don’t expect a third straight championship crown for the Tide.
Kyler Murray, quarterback, Oklahoma
If Murray isn’t at the controls of Oklahoma’s offense, the Sooners don’t sniff the playoffs.
Murray is as compelling a dual-threat stud as there’s been in recent memory. He’s responsible for 51 touchdowns — 40 passing and 11 rushing — and deserves the Heisman Trophy.
Alabama could’ve still gone undefeated without Tagovailoa under center. The team has won before without spectacular quarterback play. Murray must play near-perfect for the Sooners to have a chance — particularly against the Tide.
With Tagovailoa hobbled of late and the Tide’s prior struggles against playmaking quarterbacks, don’t be surprised if Oklahoma shocks the reigning champions, keyed by an epic Murray performance.