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The most intriguing questions for the College Football Playoff and New Year’s Six bowl games

We’ve made it. Bowl season is underway, the holidays are in full swing and the College Football Playoff is here.

Here are the most intriguing questions for the playoff and New Year’s Six bowl games:

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Can Oklahoma score enough — and make enough plays on defense — to keep up with LSU?

Throughout LSU’s march to the playoff, as the Tigers handled each challenge with relative ease, one game sticks out like a sore thumb. LSU 58, Ole Miss 37.

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The Rebels never threatened to win that game — LSU went up 28-0 in the second quarter. But Ole Miss quarterback John Rhys Plumlee just kept running. And running. And running.

Plumlee rushed for 212 yards and four touchdowns, averaging 10.1 yards per attempt. Maybe the Tigers defense took the night off early, or perhaps didn’t bring the same level of intensity against an overmatched opponent. But whatever the excuse, the Rebels did whatever they wanted that night, recording 614 total yards, including 402 on the ground.

If these Tigers have one weakness, it’s their defense. On Saturday, they face the player perhaps best equipped to exploit it: Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts.

Hurts finished second in Heisman Trophy voting to LSU’s Joe Burrow after scoring 50 touchdowns (32 passing, 18 rushing), and was only the third FBS player to record at least 3,000 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards by the 11th game of the season. He has one of the nation’s best receivers at his disposal in CeeDee Lamb, who ranks third in the country with 14 touchdown catches.

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Ole Miss provided the blueprint for an upset, though the Rebels defense failed to hold up its end of the bargain. The Sooners defense might be able to, having improved from 89th in 2018 in SP+, a tempo- and opponent-adjusted measure of efficiency, to 36th this season.

Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence (16) warms up before a game against South Carolina on Saturday, Nov. 30, 2019, in Columbia, S.C.
Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence (16) warms up before a game against South Carolina on Saturday, Nov. 30, 2019, in Columbia, S.C. (SEAN RAYFORD/AP)

Has Clemson been the best team in the country all along?

If I told you before the season that the defending national champions would go undefeated, win their conference championship and defeat opponents by more than 35 points per game, you’d expect them to be the No. 1 seed. Clemson did just that, and they’re No. 3.

Huh?

It’s true, superstar Trevor Lawrence did struggle to start the season. But in his past six games, he’s thrown 16 touchdown passes, been intercepted zero times and completed 75.5% of his passes. Travis Etienne rushed for 1,500 yards and 17 touchdowns, and Tee Higgins, Justyn Ross and Amari Rodgers are perhaps the best receiving trio in the nation outside of Alabama.

And the defense that lost three first-round picks to the NFL draft? It allowed just 10.6 points per game, best in the country, averaged 2.85 sacks per game and recorded 17 interceptions.

So yeah, the Tigers are loaded.

Their opponent is no pushover, though. Ohio State had a legitimate claim to the top seed, with a dynamic offense led by Justin Fields and J.K. Dobbins and a fast, athletic defense headlined by top NFL prospect Chase Young. The Buckeyes might be the most complete team in the country, averaging 9.7 points per game more than what the average top-five team would produce, per SP+.

After playing a soft ACC schedule, we’ll finally get to see what Clemson looks like against another elite team.

Memphis director of athletics Laird Veatch, front left, presents Memphis football coach Ryan Silverfield, right, with a team jersey Dec. 13, 2019.
Memphis director of athletics Laird Veatch, front left, presents Memphis football coach Ryan Silverfield, right, with a team jersey Dec. 13, 2019. (Ariel Cobbert/AP)

Is Memphis here to stay?

The life of a Group of 5 team is a treacherous one. After going 12-1 and winning the American Athletic Conference title, Memphis watched coach Mike Norvell leave for Florida State. It was just the latest G5 coach to depart after a record-setting season. P.J. Fleck left Western Michigan for Minnesota. Scott Frost left UCF for Nebraska. The list goes on.

The Tigers acted quickly, hiring interim Ryan Silverfield as the full-time coach at a pivotal point in program history. Memphis has won eight or more games in each of the past six seasons, but the Cotton Bowl against Penn State will be its first major bowl game appearance. If Silverfield can add to what Norvell and Justin Fuente built, it won’t be its last.

Can Virginia QB Bryce Perkins cap his college career with an upset?

As a freshman, Perkins nearly saw a neck injury end his college career. He spent months in a brace, waiting for his chance to play again.

After transferring from Arizona State to Virginia, Perkins has taken the Cavaliers to a place they haven’t been since 2011: a New Year’s Six bowl game.

Virginia is a heavy underdog in the Orange Bowl, with Florida favored by more than 14 points. But after coming back from that devastating injury and leading the Cavs to their first win over Virginia Tech since 2003, Perkins is no stranger to defying the odds.

Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor (23) runs for a touchdown past Ohio State cornerback Shaun Wade (24) during the first half of the Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis on Dec. 7, 2019.
Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor (23) runs for a touchdown past Ohio State cornerback Shaun Wade (24) during the first half of the Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis on Dec. 7, 2019. (Michael Conroy/AP)

Who ends his college career with a bigger flourish: Oregon QB Justin Herbert or Wisconsin RB Jonathan Taylor?

It’s fitting that Taylor gets to end one of the best careers in college football history at the Granddaddy of Them All.

Taylor needs just 91 rushing yards to surpass 2,000 for the second straight season. He’s just the fourth player in FBS history with at least 5,000 rushing yards through his junior season, joining Herschel Walker, Ron Dayne and LaMichael James. In the Big Ten title game, he became the seventh player in FBS history to reach 6,000 rushing yards.

Herbert, meanwhile, has had a productive senior season, throwing 32 touchdown passes compared with just five interceptions and completing 66.7% of his passes. The 6-foot-6 prospect is a possible first-round NFL draft pick, and could rise even further up draft boards with a big Rose Bowl performance.

Who’s more ready to play: Georgia or Baylor?

The Sugar Bowl looks good on paper, but how motivated will these teams be?

Both came within a victory of possibly reaching the playoff, though falling short was much more disappointing for Georgia, which had national title aspirations before the season. Baylor, meanwhile, might be happy to be here after going from 1-11 to 7-6 to 11-2 under Matt Rhule, who signed an extension earlier this season that will keep him in Waco through 2027.

Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm has struggled to find consistency in an offense that lacks receiving talent and creativity, but he’s done enough to impress some NFL scouts who value his maturity and competitiveness if he chooses to forgo his senior season.

Fromm’s decision will be an interesting one for the SEC. Both LSU and Alabama will lose star quarterbacks Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa, respectively, to the NFL draft. If Fromm returns, the Dawgs might be the betting favorite to win the conference, and even the national title.

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