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FROM THE PRESS BOX: THOUGHTS ON COLLEGE FOOTBALL PLAYOFFS, AND THE NFL (2020-12-30)

I have a New Year’s Resolution for Valley Sports Report, and that’s to express more of my opinions on college and professional sports in 2021.

I’ll kick if off a little early, with a look at the college football playoffs and the NFL postseason.

I’ve said this a million times, but it’s been a while, so I’ll reiterate: It’s time to expand the college playoffs to at least 16 teams, preferably 32. Every other level of college football has an expanded playoff, there’s no reason Division I can’t do the same.

Teams can play an 11-game regular season, starting with the last weekend in August. The conference championship games can be played Thanksgiving weekend. Those not involved in the conference championship games would play a 12th regular-season game.

The brackets would be unveiled the Sunday after Thanksgiving, with games beginning on the first Saturday of December. The semifinals could be played on the first Saturday of January (or New Year’s Day if the timing works out), and the championship game could be played the following week.

The games could be played at the same sights as the current bowl games, which would create higher attendance, thus more revenue.

Considering the conferences run the Division I football playoffs, and not the NCAA, the fact there are only four teams in the current system is even more mystifying.

Do you think a match-up between No. 12 Coastal Carolina and No. 21 Oklahoma State in the opening round of the playoffs would draw a bigger crowd, and higher TV ratings than Coastal Carolina’s Cure Bowl match-up against Liberty? (That was a rhetorical question.)

So, what’s holding them back? It can’t be revenue. Any fool can see that one or two of the networks would offer billions of dollars to carry an NCAA football playoff.

I have no idea. When you figure it out, let me know.

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There seems to be very little suspense surrounding Friday’s match-ups in this year’s semifinals. Alabama is a 20-point favorite against Notre Dame, and Clemson is a 7-point favorite against Ohio State.

Notre Dame-haters are having a field day after the Irish’s loss to Clemson in the ACC Championship game.

It’s hard to argue, considering Notre Dame is 0-6 in the BCS-era postseason, including a 27-point loss (30-3) loss to Clemson in the semifinals on Jan. 1, 2019. Although it is worthy of mention that the Tigers beat Alabama by 28 points (44-16) in the championship game, outscoring them 30-3 over the final three quarters.

I expect Alabama to put a hurting on the Irish this year as well, but that doesn’t mean Notre Dame doesn’t belong in the game. It simply means Alabama, and Clemson for that matter, are on a different level.

Notre Dame holds a win over Clemson (albeit a short-handed Clemson team), while Texas A&M’s signature win was against a three-loss Florida team.

And unbeaten and 8th-ranked Cincinnati? They beat three ranked opponents (22-Army, 16-SMU, and 23-Tulsa), but their strength of schedule pales to that of Notre Dame’s. (The Irish faced the 23rd hardest schedule, compared to the Bobcats at 68th.)

As for Friday’s game, Notre Dame’s defense is very good, but Alabama has five potential first-round NFL draft selections on offense alone. The Tide can run the ball with Najee Harris, and can throw with Mac Jones at the helm, and AP Player of the Year Devonta Smith at wide receiver, as well as other weapons on the outside.

Notre Dame’s only chance is a ball-control offense that shortens the game, and keeps the ball away from ‘Bama. I don’t think they can pound the ball on this defense, and I don’t think QB Ian Book is good enough to put the Irish on his shoulders against this team.

I’ll take Alabama big … 42-14.

The second game should be a bit closer, but Clemson is a better all-around football team than Ohio State.

Trevor Lawrence was spectacular against Notre Dame, and he has weapons on the perimeter. And, running back Travis Etienne is the most overlooked player in the country.

The Tiger defense is the best of the four teams in the playoff, and should slow a potent Ohio State offense enough to allow them to pull away in the end.

Buckeye QB Josh Fields has struggled recently in wins over Indiana and Northwestern, and Clemson will be a much stiffer test than those defenses.

Ohio State’s offense could keep it close, but the defense gave up 35 points to Indiana. I’ll take Clemson … 42-24.

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Things can change quickly in the NFL.

Two weeks ago, Kansas City was the prohibitive favorite to win the AFC and the Super Bowl.

After two games of the Chiefs looking mortal, some are looking at the Bills and Ravens as legitimate contenders. I have to admit, both have a solid chance.

Buffalo has looked good on both sides of the ball, and QB Josh Allen is the most improved player in the NFL.

Baltimore’s offense can pound the ball on you, and Lamar Jackson may be the most dangerous dual-threat QB in the league.

Quarterbacks win games in the NFL, and KC’s Patrick Mahomes — even at his tender age of 25 — is the most proven commodity in the AFC. Both Allen and Jackson are moving up the food chain among their NFL peers, but until they prove they can beat the Chiefs — in KC no less — the smart money is with the defending champs.

The NFC appears to be wide open.

I think the Saints may be the best all-around team, but the Packers will have home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, and Aaron Rodgers is playing as well as he ever has.

Home-field advantage during the pandemic isn’t what it use to be in terms of fan support, but the weather in Green Bay in January could prove to be a big advantage for the Packers against the likes of New Orleans, Tampa Bay or Seattle.

If I were a betting man, I’d take the Chiefs and Packers in the Super Bowl, with a Saints-Bills match-up as my fall back.

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I got a little ahead of myself talking about the playoffs when not all the playoff berths have been settled.

Only the Chiefs, Bills, and Steelers have clinched in the AFC.

I like the Titans (with a win at Houston) Ravens (with a win over Cincinnati) and Colts (with a win over Jacksonville) to clinch on Sunday, while the Dolphins will lose at Buffalo, but advance to the playoffs with Cleveland’s loss to Pittsburgh.

In the NFC, the Packers, Saints, Seahawks, and Buccaneers have clinched playoff spots.

I like the Eagles to knock off the Redskins, and Dallas to win the NFC East with a win over the Giants, and an Eagles win over the Redskins.

I also like the Cardinals to beat the Rams, who will still make the playoffs despite the loss when Green Bay beats the Bears.

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•  My preseason Super Bowl pick was a Pittsburgh-Seattle match-up, but both teams have taken a step or two back in the last month, and I don’t think either team in an elite team right now.

The Steelers’ come-from-behind win over the Colts Sunday proves they are still dangerous, but I don’t know if their defense at this point can contain the Chiefs, Ravens, or Bills.

As for the Seahawks, as long as Russell Wilson is healthy at QB, they have a chance and are dangerous.

•  Watch out for the Titans in the AFC. Derrick Henry is an absolute beast in the backfield, and Ryan Tannehill is a dangerous dual-threat QB, with equally dangerous targets on the outside in A.J. Brown and Cory Davis, and under-rated tight end in Jonnu Smith.

•  My NFL Coach of the Year pick is Miami’s Brian Flores. The Dolphins, at 10-5, are definitely a year ahead of schedule, and Flores is a big reason. He has superbly handled the QB transition from veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick to rookie Tua Tagovailoa, and has quickly forged a defense that is one of the best in the NFL.

Buffalo’s Sean McDermott would be my runner-up.

•  The Bills and Dolphins at the top of the AFC East is not likely to be a one-year phenomenon either. Buffalo is young and talented, as is Miami, which also has three picks in the top 35 in the 2021 NFL draft.

•  There were four rookies (Tagovailoa, Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert, and Jalen Hurts) starting at QB this season, and there are as many as six more (Lawrence, Jones, Ohio State’s Justin Fields, BYU’s Zach Wilson, North Dakota State’s Trey Lance, and Florida’s Kyle Trask) projected to go in the first round of the NFL Draft in 2021.

That may seem like a lot, but there are several organizations (Jacksonville, New England, and Washington to name a few) searching for franchise quarterbacks, and there are also several teams with QBs closing in on retirement — most notably Ben Rothlisberger, Tom Brady, Phillip Rivers, and Drew Brees.

• If Alex Smith, he of the gruesome leg injury in 2018 and 17 resulting surgeries, can return from a calf injury and lead the Redskins to a win over the Eagles, and into the playoffs, it would have to be the feel-good sports story of 2020. Hell, even if they lose Sunday night, Smith’s story is a remarkable one.

•  Speaking of the NFC East,  why do I get the sneaking suspicion the Cowboys, at 7-9, are going to win the NFL East.

•  The most disappointing team in the NFL in 2020? Cowboys? Vikings? Patriots? Raiders? I’ll take the Raiders.

•  The most surprising team of 2020? The only team with a shot to make the playoffs that surprises me is the Bears. Head coach Matt Nagy has taken some criticism for his handling of the QB situation in Chicago, but overall he’s done a pretty good job.

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