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College Football Playoff Semifinals: When to watch, what to know and our predictions

Derrick Henry of the Alabama Crimson Tide rushes

Derrick Henry of the Alabama Crimson Tide rushes past Zane Cruz of the Charleston Southern Buccaneers at Bryant-Denny Stadium on November 21, 2015 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Kevin C. Cox

Winter Madness returns Thursday as the College Football Playoff Semifinals take center stage.

Top seed Clemson faces No. 4 Oklahoma in the afternoon, followed by No. 2 Alabama against No. 3 Michigan State in the waning hours of 2015.

Here’s a look at each game, with predictions of the teams that will compete for the national championship on Jan. 11 at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona.


No. 1 Clemson vs. No. 4 Oklahoma

Capital One Orange Bowl at Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida (4 p.m. on ESPN)

Clemson’s top players: QB Deshaun Watson (69.5% completions, 3,512 yards, 30 TDs, 11 INTs, 163 carries, 887 yards, 11 TDs); TE Jordan Leggett (34 receptions, 442 yards, 7 TDs); RB Wayne Gallman (243 carries, 1,332 yards, 10 TDs); DE Shaq Lawson (9.5 sacks)

Oklahoma’s top players: QB Baker Mayfield (68.6% completions, 3,389 yards, 35 TDs, 5 INTs, 7 rushing TDs); RB Samaje Perine (211 carries, 1,291 yards, 15 TDs); WR Sterling Shepard (79 receptions, 1,201 yards, 11 TDs); LB Eric Striker (7.5 sacks)

Watson, the Davey O’Brien Award winner and a Heisman Trophy finalist, has shouldered the load for the 13-0 Tigers. However, he’ll have to win the Orange Bowl without receiver Deon Cain, who led the ACC champions with 17.1 yards per catch, after he was suspended Tuesday for violating team rules. That will put more pressure on Leggett, a John Mackey Award finalist, and top receiver Artavis Scott, who caught 84 passes this season but failed to surpass 1,000 yards. Scott is probable to play with a knee injury.

Mayfield, an O’Brien Award finalist, had the Big 12 champion Sooners rolling to close out their conference slate with three consecutive wins over ranked foes — capped by a 58-23 drubbing of then 11th-ranked rival Oklahoma State. That Oklahoma (11-1) also brings fresher legs into this matchup thanks to one extra week of rest has helped to make them the favorites with bettors. Mayfield’s ability to play mistake-free football should be the difference in a competitive, back-and-forth Orange Bowl as the Sooners advance and hand Clemson its first loss.

Pick: Oklahoma


No. 2 Alabama vs. No. 3 Michigan State

Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas (8 p.m. on ESPN)

Alabama’s top players: RB Derrick Henry (339 carries, 1,986 yards, 23 TDs); QB Jake Coker (65.7% completions, 2,489 yards, 17 TDs, 8 INTs); LB Reggie Ragland (90 tackles, 2 forced fumbles)

Michigan State’s top players: QB Connor Cook (56.9% completions, 2,921 yards, 24 TDs, 5 INTs); WR Aaron Burbridge (80 receptions, 1,219 yards, 7 TDs); RB L.J. Scott (140 carries, 691 yards, 11 TDs); RB Gerald Holmes (108 carries, 534 yards, 8 TDs)

Heisman Trophy winner Henry keeps the 12-1 Crimson Tide rumbling along. The junior averaged 180.3 yards per game in SEC play as Alabama wrapped up the conference championship. The Spartans (12-1), ninth-ranked against the run, boast the best run defense Alabama has faced since the season opener against Wisconsin, fourth-best against the run. Facing the Badgers that day, Henry torched them for 147 yards and three scores on just 13 carries.

However, one can’t neglect to mention that the top team against the run this season was, in fact, the Tide. That’s bad news for a the Big Ten champions, who scored 24 of their 50 offensive touchdowns this season on the ground. The three-headed backfield of Scott, Holmes and Madre London (114 carries, 489 yards, 3 TDs) will find running room scarce. If that happens, don’t expect Cook to be able to pick up the slack. This is Alabama’s game to lose.

Pick: Alabama


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