Experience usually matters a great deal in postseason play of any sport. While people love to point to Heisman-winners and the odd player here or there that experienced brilliant success as a freshman or redshirt freshman, it's very difficult to handle the rigors of a season well enough to be in the playoff hunt at the end of the year and then very difficult to navigate two games against teams gameplanning and gunning for you with all they're worth unless you've had meaningful experience.
For instance, the last 10 champions included the following quarterbacks:
|2005||Texas||Vince Young||Redshirt Junior|
|2007||LSU||Matt Flynn||Redshirt senior|
|2009||Alabama||Greg McElroy||Redshirt junior|
|2010||Auburn||Cam Newton||Redshirt junior|
|2011||Alabama||A.J. McCarron||Redshirt sophomore|
|2012||Alabama||A.J. McCarron||Redshirt junior|
|2013||Florida State||Jameis Winston||Redshirt freshman|
|2014||Ohio State||Cardale Jones||Redshirt sophomore|
You'll notice that 8/10 of this list were redshirted players and 8/10 of this list included players who were in at least their third year in the same offensive system. There were two exceptions to that rule, Cam Newton and Jameis Winston.
Newton was coached in a system similar to Malzahn's at Florida under Urban Meyer for two seasons, also he's a once in a generation freak of an athlete who has a career of physically dominating opponents at every level. Winston was coached by Jimbo Fisher, a QB guru in his own generation with a long list of success stories (including another QB on this list, Matt Flynn).
Jameis was also playing behind an OL of returning starters and throwing to experienced receivers such as Rashad Greene, Nick O'Leary, and Kelvin Benjamin. Neither exception do much to dispute the value of experience and development before winning a title as both had some portion of each in addition to being rare athletes.
I've been spending a great deal of though thinking through Bill Connelly's early season article on the relative importance of experience at QB, WR, and DB, which I've hypothesized is due to the fact that teams tend to utilize greater tactical complexity in utilizing or stopping the modern passing game.
With that in mind, how much meaningful experience are the four different playoff teams carrying into this competition and do any of them have particular strong points or soft spots that could be exploited?
The Clemson Tigers
The Tigers, ironically the sole undefeated squad, are one of the least experienced teams in the hunt.
The Tigers and the passing game
QB: Deshaun Watson
Watson is a true sophomore who started five games as a true freshman. He was, of course, the main cog of the entire offense with 3512 passing yards at 8.1 yards per attempt, 30 TDs, and 11 INTs before we mention his nearly 1k yards rushing and additional 11 rushing TDs.
Targets: Artavis Scott, Charon Peake, Deon Cain, and TE Jordan Leggett
Scott is also a true sophomore and the main weapon for the Tigers as a "pitch-option" type player in their spread-option schemes while Peake and Cain do more of the traditional WR work for them when they are throwing slants and quicks. Cain is a true freshman while Peake, the main target for slants, is a redshirt senior, which is why he's the most trusted target on pro-style passing concepts.
Leggett is immensely important to the Clemson offense as both a blocker and a target and is a true junior. Clemson will utilize him in their blocking schemes but also flex him out to catch passes in their quick game.
OL and protection?
The Clemson OL consists entirely of new starters in 2015 but 4/5 of the OL are guys who have been in the same program for three years or more. The other is true freshman and left tackle, Mitch Hyatt. They may be vulnerable to blitzing as a young group up front who lack experience with all manner of blitzes and development in the finer points of pass protection, which may matter more against the pass-rushers waiting for them in this tournament.
Stopping the pass
Clemson has only two returning starters in their secondary, lockdown corner Mackensie Alexander and strong safety Jayron Kearse, but everyone who plays a major role on their defense is in their third year with the program and with defensive coordinator Brent Venables. Their blitz package and the flexibility of Alexander are real game-changers.
Overall experience level
The Tigers are very experienced on the back end of their defense, which should help them against Oklahoma's passing attack and potentially later against the more physical Alabama and Michigan State crews. Their passing game, while it's been great this year, is not highly experienced and you wonder if that inexperience will show as they face Stoops/Dantonio/Saban-coached defenses that won't be awed and overwhelmed by their ability to spread opponents out and force them to handle Deshaun Watson in space.
If they do overwhelm those teams in that fashion it will probably just be an indicator that Watson is an immense and special talent.
The Oklahoma Sooners
The Sooners are actually quietly a very experienced team, in part because many of their key players such as Baker Mayfield may be new starters for OU but have been starters for other college football teams. They're in year one of the Air Raid but again, it's not a new system for their signal caller. They're at year three in their 3-4 defense and have finally found pieces to fit together to make the system work properly.
The Sooners and the passing game
QB: Baker Mayfield
As noted above, Mayfield started multiple games at Texas Tech in a similar system and then had a year practicing in a spread offense at OU before gaining an additional offseason with Lincoln Riley and his take on the Air Raid. Like Watson, he was a the straw that stirred the drink at Oklahoma with 3389 passing yards at 8.3 ypa, 35 TDs to only five INTs, and 582 rushing yards (removing sack yardage). His ability to make things happen with his legs either as a scrambler or buying time to find targets downfield without turning the ball over is perhaps one of the most dominant features of the offense.
Targets: Sterling Shepard, Durron Neal, Dede Westbrook, Joe Mixon, and Mark Andrews
The Oklahoma passing game can be mostly summed up as Baker Mayfield throwing to Sterling Shepard, who had 104 targets and 11.6 yards per target. The senior wideout is a very polished route runner who can play inside or outside, allowing OU to keep him involved and aiming for soft spots no matter who the opponent is...unless it's a team like Clemson who has a future NFL corner who can also line up inside or outside.
The other main targets are Neal and Westbrook, the former of whom is a senior and the latter of whom is a JUCO transfer who caught approximately six million passes the previous year playing at Blinn J.C. with current Aggie QB Jake Hubenak. Oklahoma is in quite good shape here.
OL and protection?
This was a weak spot at OU this year as only 2/5 of the current OL starters are third year players and both tackles are freshman (one a redshirt the other a true frosh). Part of the reason Baker Mayfield was able to show off his wheels so regularly is because he was frequently flushed out of the pocket. This could be something to watch for in the playoffs as OU faces new opponents with different pressure packages.
Stopping the pass
The Spartans are fairly complex on offense, and somewhat so on defense since they put so much emphasis on fine details, and are at their heart a developmental program that relies on experience and coaching to make up for the fact that they aren't usually recruiting the most sought-after talent in their region.
The Spartans and the passing game
Stopping the pass
The Tide tend to be a fairly development-heavy program as well, in part because they load up on so much talent every year that it's hard for freshmen to even have a prayer of cracking the depth chart unless they are exceptional. Their 2015 team is no exception, save for in the secondary where they are finally seeing a new generation break through.