With royalty vs. risers, CFP semifinals have perfect symmetry

DALLAS -- The symmetry of the College Football Playoff looks as if it were drawn with an architect's hand. On both sides of the four-team bracket, a member of the sport's royalty will face a historical upstart for the right to play for the national championship.

In the opener at the Capital One Orange Bowl (4 p.m. ET, ESPN), No. 4 Oklahoma, winner of seven national championships since the advent of the wire service polls in 1936, plays No. 1 Clemson, which won its only title in 1981. The Sooners, by seed the last team into the playoff, are favored to beat the last undefeated team in the FBS by four points.

In the second semifinal at the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic (8 p.m., ESPN), No. 2 Alabama, which has won 10 national titles in the modern era, plays No. 3 Michigan State, which won a national championship in 1952 and shared one with the Crimson Tide in 1965. Alabama is a 10-point favorite, which puts the Spartans in the underdog role in which they thrive.

Of course, symmetry depends on your vantage point. The pedigrees in each game may be different, but the styles are the same. The Tigers and the Sooners are explosive on offense, thanks to their quarterbacks, Deshaun Watson and Baker Mayfield, respectively.

"They're both great creators with the ball in their hand," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said Wednesday, which explains why Watson and Mayfield finished 3-4 in the Heisman Trophy vote. Both teams have playmaking quarterbacks and punishing defenses. Oklahoma played better at the back end of the season than Clemson did, but how much of that momentum erodes over an idle month of December?

At AT&T Stadium, Alabama and Michigan State, cut from the same bolt of chain mail, will run into each other for three-and-a-half hours on New Year's Eve. Tide junior tailback Derrick Henry has gained 25 pounds since Alabama repeated as SEC champion. That would be the weight of the Heisman Trophy he won, his reward for running hard and fast and falling forward when he finished.

Physical play is the Spartans' preferred mode; the game will hinge on the recuperative power of senior quarterback Connor Cook, who hasn't played healthy since early November. That means the Michigan State offensive line, which didn't play healthy until early November, cannot waver against the depth of the Tide defensive line. Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio praised the linebackers, which includes All-American Reggie Ragland.

"The linebackers stay clean," Dantonio said, using coachspeak for unblocked. "Downhill players, thumpers, big thumpers, great athletes as well."

Tide head coach Nick Saban is two victories away from joining Bear Bryant as the only coaches to win five national championships. That means that all 12 victories and a second consecutive SEC championship did was put him in the same position he was in a year ago, when the Tide lost a semifinal to the eventual national champion, Ohio State.

"I felt like our team did not play the way you would like for them to play," Saban said Wednesday. "And I think they felt the same way, very disappointed. And I think that probably was one of the catalysts for this year's team sort of having something to prove."

So Alabama, on anyone's short list of the best programs in the sport, feels it has doubters. Oklahoma, 8-5 last season, has played the whole season that way. Clemson, the top-ranked underdog, and Michigan State, perennially in the shadow of Michigan and Ohio State, harbor the same hunger. Unfortunately, someone must be favored.

At least Year 2 of the Playoff is an overwhelming favorite. The leather no longer squeaks and the blisters have healed. It feels comfortable. Some coaches and administrators are concerned that the bowl season in general has been diminished by the attention paid to the playoff, perhaps fueled by early-onset nostalgia. However, no one has expressed a whiff of regret at the demise of the BCS.

Swinney, asked about how young coaches get started in the game, waxed philosophically with advice that any or all of the four teams playing Thursday would do well to follow.

"What I try to teach is you're not entitled to anything," Swinney said. "If you want something, go get it. But your actions have to align with what you want. There's no shortcut, you've just got to go to work and then you've got to be good at whatever it is that you're doing. If you're the last [graduate assistant] on the ladder there, man, be the best last GA in college football. Just bloom where you're planted."

That applies to cotton bolls and orange blossoms, to a coach like Bob Stoops of Oklahoma, now tied with Kirk Ferentz for the longest tenure of any FBS coach (17 seasons) and a coach like Saban, who kept uprooting himself until he found a home in Tuscaloosa. And it applies to a coach like Dantonio, who has bloomed in East Lansing even as the college football sun is only just beginning to shine on the Spartans.

When the New Year rings in, that sun will be much brighter on two of these campuses.