The offseason runs. The blood, sweat and tears. The acrobatic touchdowns and incredible interceptions. It was all leading up to this – the College Football Playoff. As great as some of the matchups are in both the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl semifinals though, they might not hold a candle to the games within a game — between players on either side of the ball.
Whether you’re a college football fan, a coach or an NFL scout, here are 10 of the best position vs. position battles of the bunch between offensive stars and their defensive counterparts on the other side:
1. Georgia LB Roquan Smith vs. Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield
When the sun shines on those glimmering San Gabriel Mountains and the Granddaddy of Them All kicks off on New Year’s Day, all eyes will be firmly on the Heisman Trophy winner and the game’s biggest personality in Mayfield. While the Sooners’ star will be the game’s best player when he steps between the lines of the Rose Bowl, the player tasked with stopping him — or at least slowing him down — will play the biggest role in determining the winner of the first semifinal. That will likely come down to the leader of the Bulldogs’ defense in Smith, who has been outstanding this season (113 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 10.5 TFL) and will need another heroic performance to contain Mayfield whether he’s scrambling outside the pocket or needs a little pressure put on him when he drops back.
2. Clemson QB Kelly Bryant vs. Alabama DB Minkah Fitzpatrick
The rubber match to end all college football rubber matches will take place down in New Orleans and while it might have a hard time living up to the first two editions, this one is plenty juicy. Fitzpatrick was about three yards away from Hunter Refrow when he caught the game-winner down in Tampa and you can bet the Thorpe and Bednarik Award winner will be looking for revenge when he sees the Tigers again. Bryant has exceeded expectations in taking over for Deshaun Watson, completing 67 percent of his passes while also rushing for more than 600 yards. He’ll face a stiff test in the Crimson Tide defensive back no matter if he’s dropping back to pass or scrambling for a first down.
3. Alabama DL Da’Shawn Hand vs. Clemson OL Mitch Hyatt
A former No. 1 overall recruit, Hand had just a tackle in last season’s national title game while rotating in on defense. His production will need to make a big jump if his team wants to win the rematch in the Sugar Bowl but it won’t be easy considering who will line up on the other side. Hyatt (right) has been a starter on each of these national title runs for Clemson and you can count the number of sacks he’s allowed over that entire span on just one hand.
4. Georgia OL Isaiah Wynn vs. Oklahoma DL Ogbonnia Okoronkwo
Wynn has seen his fair share of top-notch pass rushers over the course of the season in the SEC but he will have his hands full trying to keep quarterback Jake Fromm out of the grasp of Okoronkwo at the Rose Bowl. The Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year has been stellar as the edge rusher that makes the team go on that side of the ball with eight sacks and his 17.5 tackles for a loss were second in the conference this year. He’s a unique blend of speed and power coming at you and he’ll be the biggest test Wynn has faced yet on the big stage.
5. Alabama OL Jonah Williams and Matt Womack vs. Clemson DL Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant
Tigers defensive coordinator Brent Venables has built a monster on that side of the ball and it all starts up front with multiple NFL first-rounders along the defensive line. Ferrell had a breakout performance in last year’s national title run and Bryant is just as hard to handle after racking up 7.5 sacks this year to go along with his 14.5 tackles for a loss. Alabama’s offensive line hasn’t quite played to the level we’re used to seeing but that doesn’t mean that Williams and Womack aren’t up to the challenge against two of the nation’s best in the trenches.
6. Georgia RBs Nick Chubb and Sonny Michel vs. Oklahoma LBs Kenneth Murray, Emmanuel Beal and Caleb Kelly
Chubb and Michel stunned the college football world by coming back to Athens for another season and their reward is a trip to the Rose Bowl and a shot at the national title. The two form perhaps the best backfield in the sport and are the biggest reason why the Bulldogs are in the position they’re at out in Pasadena. If they want to play for the gold trophy just down the road in Atlanta however, they’ll need to find their way past the Sooners’ linebacking corps, which is young but quite talented.
7. Alabama OL Bradley Bozeman and Ross Pierschbacher vs. Clemson DL Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins
While the pass rushers on the outside of the Tigers’ defensive line are excellent, the team’s tackles on the inside might be the more talented group. Lawrence is one of the freakiest athletes in the sport at 6-foot-5 and 340 pounds while Wilkins has been productive from the moment he stepped on campus. Bozeman and Pierschbacher are two quality veterans but their work in the Sugar Bowl is very much cut out for them down in the trenches.
8. Clemson LBs Dorian O’Daniel and Tre Lamar vs. Alabama RBs Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough
Everybody knows that the Crimson Tide have a depth chart stacked with five-star running back after five-star running back. While most teams might be a little concerned with that fact, the Tigers probably won’t be given both the series history as of late and the fact that O’Daniel and Lamar are two of the best around at flying to the football and filling running lanes. Their task is a simple one in limiting the Alabama run game but it won’t be easy with the talent on the other side. Given how Scarbrough’s (right) season ended in the last meeting, you can bet he has a little extra motivation for when things kick off on New Year’s.
9. Georgia LB Reggie Carter vs. Oklahoma RB Rodney Anderson and FB Dimitri Flowers
Baker Mayfield may get all the headlines for the Sooners’ offense but they’re pretty good at running the football as well. Anderson averages seven yards a touch as a multi-purpose threat on the ground and in the passing game while Flowers is perhaps the most versatile fullback around and second on the team with eight touchdowns. Carter has seen plenty as a fifth-year senior on one of the nation’s best defenses but he’ll play an oversized role in this semifinal as the key to making OU a little more one-dimensional then the Sooners would like.
10. Clemson OL Tyrone Crowder and Justin Falcinelli vs. Alabama DL Da’Ron Payne
Ask any SEC coach and they’ll be able to tell you just what kind of a beast Payne is in the middle of the Tide defense. No matter if it’s power moves or using his quickness, the big defensive lineman is simply a load to handle and a key cog in just about everything the team does from the moment the ball is snapped. Moving him off of running lanes and keeping him out of the pocket will be a big challenge for a pair of All-ACC picks along the Tigers’ offensive line.
Best of the Rest:
*Alabama QB Jalen Hurts vs. Clemson LB Kendall Joseph
*Alabama DBs Ronnie Harrison, Anthony Averett and Levi Wallace vs. Clemson WRs Ray-Ray McCloud, Hunter Renfrow and Deon Cain
*Alabama WRs Calvin Ridley and Robert Foster vs. Clemson DBs Ryan Carter and Trayvon Mullen
*Alabama LBs Rashaan Evans and Mack Wilson vs. Clemson RBs Tavien Feaster and Travis Etienne
*Alabama DL Isaiah Buggs and Raekwon Davis vs. Clemson OL Sean Pollard
*Alabama P JK Scott vs. Clemson PR Ray-Ray McCloud
*Georgia LB Lorenzo Carter and DB Dominick Sanders vs. Oklahoma TE Mark Andrews
*Georgia DBs Deandre Baker, Aaron Davis and Malkom Parrish vs. Oklahoma WRs CeeDee Lamb, Marquise Brown and Jeff Badet
*Georgia DL Trenton Thompson and John Atkins vs. Oklahoma OL Orlando Brown, Ben Powers and Erick Wren
*Georgia DL Jonathan Ledbetter and David Marshall vs. Oklahoma OL Dru Samia and Bobby Evans
*Georgia QB Jake Fromm and WR Terry Godwin vs. Oklahoma DB Steven Parker
*Georgia OL Andrew Thomas vs. Oklahoma DL D.J. Ward
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.