The field is set and full of familiar faces. Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State have all won at least one National Championship in the College Football Playoff era and Notre Dame played in the Cotton Bowl semifinal two years ago. As with everything else in the past 12 months, there are some unique hurdles that needed to be cleared in order to get here. The Louisiana Superdome will be nearly empty for this year’s Sugar Bowl and the Rose Bowl semifinal will be played on turf in Arlington, Texas, rather than the iconic grass in Pasadena.
Welcome to 2020.
All four of the teams in the playoff are loaded with NFL talent and national award finalists, so the games provide dozens of matchups to focus on. Whether you are an NFL draft enthusiast looking for your new favorite prospect or just a college football fan interested in crowning a National Champion, this year’s CFP is full of storylines to watch. Here are some of the key matchups to keep an eye on as the games are played:
No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Notre Dame Rose Bowl
Arlington, Texas l Friday Jan. 1, 4 p.m. ET
Alabama WR DeVonta Smith vs. Notre Dame CB Clarence Lewis
DeVonta Smith is a problem, to put it plainly. Recently named AP Player of the Year and the favorite to win the Heisman Trophy, Notre Dame is almost assuredly going to be double-teaming him throughout the game. If Notre Dame has any shot of containing him, it will come from freshman CB Clarence Lewis taking on a large portion of the responsibility.
Lewis has stepped into a larger role as the season has progressed due to injuries to upperclassmen. He has shown serious growth toward the end of the season, even being named ACC Defensive Back of the Week for his performance against Syracuse in the regular-season finale. He’ll face his toughest test yet in Smith, who is averaging 137 yards and over 1 touchdown per game.
Alabama RB Najee Harris vs.
Notre Dame LB Jeremiah Oswusu-Koramoah
Najee Harris has been a contributor to the Alabama offense for the past several years, but he has proven to be an electric playmaker this year as the lead back. Harris has the most rushing touchdowns in the country (24), the most total touchdowns scored (27) and is third in rushing yards (1,262). These stats have made Harris a finalist for the Doak Walker Award and the next big draft prospect coming out of Bama’s backfield, but he’ll be staring down an impressive opposing linebacker in this game against Notre Dame.
Jeremiah Oswusu-Koramoah is Notre Dame’s do-it-all defender and arguably the best player on their roster. The senior has already won the Butkus Award this year and is a finalist for both the Nagurski Award and Bednarik Award, so he won’t be flying under the radar as Alabama prepares to attack this defense. Oswusu-Koramoah is an extremely athletic linebacker who can run sideline-to-sideline, but Alabama will look to see if he is physical enough in the box to shed blocks and take on Harris, who has 15 pounds on Oswusu-Koramoah based on their listed weights.
No. 2 Clemson vs. No. 3 Ohio State
New Orleans l Friday, Jan. 1
Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence vs. Ohio State QB Justin Fields
While these two don’t face each other in the traditional sense of being on the field at the same time, all eyes will be on these passers as they both fight for the title of best draft-eligible quarterback. Fields had gained some momentum before the start of the season as perhaps having a chance to pass Lawrence as the top NFL QB prospect, but his shortened Big Ten schedule and some late-season struggles have seen other quarterbacks – guys like Zach Wilson and Mac Jones – creep into the mix. This will be fields’ chance to state his case.
Lawrence came away with the win in their matchup at last year’s FIesta Bowl, but Fields looked the part of an elite draft prospect as he threw for 320 yards with a 65% completion rate. This matchup will continue to be talked about leading up to the draft and Fields can make Jacksonville’s draft decision that much tougher if he lights up the Tiger defense.
Clemson WR Amari Rodgers vs. Ohio State CB Shaun Wade
Shaun Wade was a major contributor to the 2019 Buckeyes defense, and now he has a chance to make up for a memorable moment he’d like to forget: Wade was ejected from last year’s Fiesta Bowl for a hit on Trevor Lawrence that drew a targeting penalty. The penalty could not have come at a worse time, as the Buckeyes were up 16-0. Momentum flipped after the penalty.
Wade’s career at Ohio State can't be overshadowed by one penalty, though, as he was named the 2020 Big Ten Defensive Back of the year and a first-team AP All-American. For all the success he has had this year, he is going to have his hands full with Clemson’s leading receiver.
Amari Rodgers had not been featured as the No. 1 receiver in years past as the Clemson offense has been loaded for the past several years, but he leads his team in every major statistical category this season. Rodgers will have to make a big impact in this game to ensure that his Tigers repeat the results of the last meeting between these teams.