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Which playoff team has the most valuable experience?

How much experience do the four different playoff teams have in executing today's complex passing game tactics and how will it stack up against the the best competition in the nation?

Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

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
2006 Florida Chris Leak Senior
2007 LSU Matt Flynn Redshirt senior
2008 Florida Tim Tebow Junior
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

Only 2/5 of the Sooner DBs in their nickel package are players who are in their third year in the program but all three of the youngsters (corner Jordan Thomas, safety Steven Parker, and nickel Will Johnson) played close to starter snaps in 2014 for Oklahoma or at a JUCO program (Johnson).

When the Sooners are in their base 3-4 the situation is improved with the removal of sophomore Will Johnson and the insertion of senior Devante Bond.

Overall experience level

The Sooners are definitely experienced enough in the Air Raid to be a major challenge for their opponents and if teams are unable to handle the Mayfield-to-Shepard connection they'll be in serious trouble. Defensively they are somewhat young on the back end but arguably have more experience contesting precision passing attacks than the other teams in the tournament thanks to the fact that their young players were blooded early in their careers by a league known for passing efficiency.

The Michigan State Spartans

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

The only pieces to the Spartan offensive puzzle that aren't highly experienced playing high level football are their running backs and left guard, everyone else is a veteran.

QB: Connor Cook

Cook could have been drafted to the NFL if he'd come out last year and is now competing as a redshirt senior and three year starter. Cook is responsible for most of the explosiveness of what's an otherwise fairly plodding attack and his ability to navigate passing downs is the main reason for hope in Lansing this year. In 2015 he threw for 2921 yards at 7.4 ypa with 24 TDs and five INTs.

Targets: Aaron Burbridge, Macgarrett Kings Jr, RJ Shelton, and TE Josiah Price

Much like Oklahoma with Shepard, the Spartan passing game can mostly be summed up as Cook finding senior wideout Aaron Burbridge, a returning starter who had 138 targets and 8.8 yards per target this season. The Spartans also get a fair amount of milage out of moving TE Josiah Price around to get match-ups and they prefer to use empty formations to convert third and anything too long for them to run for it.

If an opponent can keep Burbridge under wraps there's not much else going for the Spartans but they are experienced at playing off his talent and using a wide variety of schemes to create leverage for him and for Cook's laser throws to exploit. R.J. Shelton is basically a flex RB they move around to constrain the running game.

OL and protection?

Keeping Cook upright shouldn't be a major concern for the Spartans both because they tend to make use of big formations and max protection/play-action schemes on standard downs and also because their OL has a ton of returning starters who've been in the program for a long time.

Stopping the pass

The secondary the Spartans settled on at the end of the year is 3/4 comprised of third year players with Montae Nicholson, a true sophomore, the exception. This isn't the no-fly zone but it is an experienced and veteran group with redshirted upperclassmen at every other position. Of course, the Spartans also excel at applying pressure to help themselves out on the back end.

Overall experience level

The Spartans score higher here than most teams, indeed experience and understanding how to be in position to win games is more their calling card than having extraordinary talent. They've won a ton of close games this season, though sometimes improbably, and their experience and plodding efficiency is a big reason for that success. If they aren't overwhelmed by Alabama's talent they probably hold the experience edge against most every other team in the playoffs.

The Alabama Crimson Tide

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.

The Tide and the passing game

Saban ain't really about that west coast life and while they've emphasized the passing game somewhat more it's been with RPOs that protect the run game and deep shots meant to target the team's best players.

QB: Jacob Coker

Coker is an interesting story as a redshirt senior who failed to beat out other raw players at his position at two different programs until he was the only remotely experienced option available to an Alabama team who's head coach hates putting young players on the field at QB.

He's had a lot of coaching from Jimbo Fisher and Lane Kiffin but for all that development, Alabama doesn't tend to put a lot on his shoulders, preferring instead to rely on Derrick Henry (which sets up a fascinating battle with Michigan State). Coker threw 338 passes this year for 2489 yards at 6.6 yards per attempt with 17 TDs and eight INTs. He was a modestly effective scrambler who was willing to get what he could rather than make a mistake.

Targets: Calvin Ridley, ArDarius Stewart, Kenyan Drake, Richard Mullaney, and TE O.J. Howard

Kiffin was pretty good about getting both outside receivers involved with Ridley and Stewart getting 105 and 88 targets respectively with Ridley turning that into 893 yards at 8.5 yard per target and Stewart going for 600 yards at only 6.8 yards per target. This is not really an explosive passing game unless opponents key in hard on Henry and aren't capable of matching up in space, particularly against Kenyan Drake (a flex RB) and Ridley.

There's a real lack of experience here since Ridley is a true freshman, Stewart is a redshirt sophomore in his first year as a starter, Mullaney is a senior transfer from another program, and Howard is possibly the best of the bunch but he's only seen 39 targets on the year as their RPOs tend to feature him more as a blocker than a receiver.

OL and protection?

This is a more experienced group with 3/5 of the unit consisting of guys who have been in the program for three years or more and one of the less experienced players is sophomore left tackle Cameron Robinson, one of the best players on the whole team. Kiffin doesn't ask a lot of this group in terms of protecting Coker but they are not a weak link in the formula.

Stopping the pass

The Tide are designed to win football games in the trenches by running the ball down your throats and making sure you can't even come close to doing the same to them. Their evolution in the spread era has been to embrace a "spread to run" philosophy on offense and to make sure their defense is equipped with coverages and schemes that allow them to continue to stop the run without getting gashed by the passing game.

Their accumulation of highly rated corners is finally paying off with a secondary who's nickel alignment is 3/5 comprised of third year players while the two exceptions are a true and redshirt freshman (Minkah Fitzpatrick and Marlon Humphrey). They are particularly experienced at safety with returning starter Geno Smith and rangy, converted cornerback Eddie Jackson anchoring things while three year starter and senior Cyrus Jones mans a corner position. The Tide also have a defense that can really rush the passer for the first time in a few years thanks to DT Jonathan Allen and OLB Tim Williams.

Overall experience level

For Alabama these playoffs are going to be about whether or not they can impose their will on games and make it about the run game rather than who can throw it around most efficiently. If they can establish comfortable leads and lean on their run game and pass rush that will probably mean yet another ring for Saban.

If it comes down to who can run two minute offense and do the most with late game possessions? History says look for a team with more experience. All other things equal that could mean Dantonio's Spartans really are a team who makes their own destiny.