The Modern Era College Football Tournament: Sweet 16
Via Getty Images. Pictured: Ed Reed
My 68-team tournament comprised of the greatest college football teams of the modern era (1980 onward) has been whittled down to the Sweet 16.
Two Cinderellas remain, the 12-seeded 2015 Ole Miss Rebels led by Chad “Swag” Kelly and the 10-seeded and self-proclaimed 2017 national champions, UCF.
All four No. 1 seeds (‘95 Nebraska, ‘01 Miami, ‘04 USC, ‘19 LSU) have easily advanced, but two are single-digit favorites in Sweet 16 and Miami has opened as just a 6-point favorite over the ‘96 Florida Gators.
Scroll down for a preview for some of the eight regional semifinals and if you’d like to see how we got here, head on over to my Twitter feed for game recaps, video highlights and stats.
(1) ’95 Nebraska vs. (12) ’15 Ole Miss
- Spread: Nebraska -20.5
- Total: 66.5
Before this tournament kicked off, the Huskers had won by an average of 38 points, holding opponents to just two TDs per game on average. They gave up 28 points to Arizona State back in 1995, but hung 77 on them. Yeesh.
Nebraska was made out to be a juggernaut and the Huskers have lived up to that hype, averaging 43 points per game thus far against just 17 from their opponents.
This Rebel team demonstrated a high ceiling back in 2015, knocking off five ranked opponents and the eventual national champion on the road in Tuscaloosa. They’ve carried that giant-slayer mentality, knocking off a pair of national champions (‘02 Ohio State, ‘98 Tennessee) thus far in this tournament.
I think the luck will run out against an elite Cornhusker offense that will control the tempo and the ground war. Nebraska could win this one going away. — Calabrese
(2) ’00 Oklahoma vs. (6) ’04 Utah
- Spread: Oklahoma -3.5
- Total: 54.5
Utah was the original BCS Buster, finishing undefeated in 2004. But the Utes were relegated to the Fiesta Bowl against 8-win Pitt with the college football landscape filled with undefeated teams such as Auburn and USC.
The Utes, led by second-year head coach Urban Meyer and quarterback Alex Smith, never trailed to a single team at halftime during 2004. Only Air Force can claim a small victory as the only team to lead Utah after the first quarter during the entire season.
Oklahoma opened the rankings for 2000 at No. 19 in the country as a young Bob Stoops entered Year 2. The collection of coaches on staff would go on to shape college football from Mark Stoops and Mark Mangino to Brent Venables.
The quarterback that led to a national title is now the Central Florida head coach, Josh Heupel. A 31-14 victory over No. 1 Nebraska lifted the Sooners to the top of the rankings through an undefeated season.
The 2000 Oklahoma roster had more challenges than the 2004 Utah squad. The Sooners won their final five games by an average margin of 7 points. Oklahoma need a 22-point fourth quarter to survive a trip to Kyle Field in a 4-point victory over Texas A&M.
Utah had a decent strength of schedule out of conference with Texas A&M, Arizona and North Carolina, but nothing compared to the Sooners run through a national championship.
Although Florida State had more total yards, three fumbles from the Seminoles allowed Oklahoma to win the national title without giving up a single offensive point.
The deciding factor in this game may be the coaches. Urban Meyer owns a 2-0 lifetime record against Bob Stoops. Meyer won the 2009 BCS title game over Stoops in the Orange Bowl.
In 2016, Ohio State came to Norman and won 45-24. The coaching advantage certainly lies on Utah’s side in this game, and I will back the Utes +3.5 in what could be an outright victory. — Collin Wilson
(1) ’19 LSU vs. (5) ’99 VT
- Spread: LSU -10
- Total: 65.5
The handicap on this game is if LSU’s defense could stop one of the greatest dual-threat quarterbacks of all-time in Michael Vick. From a defensive standpoint, the Tigers were the best defense in the nation when Grant Delpit was healthy and making tackles. The entire LSU defense struggled through half the season, allowing at least 30 points to Vanderbilt and Ole Miss.
Once defensive coordinator Dave Arranda emphasized tackling and technique, LSU would make its storied run to the national championship. Having Joe Burrow does not hurt the Tigers chances of covering in this matchup.
In a regular season game at West Virginia, the Hokies were carved up late in the game by quarterback Brad Lewis. Mark Bulger was out of the game with injury as the Mountaineers drove the field and took the late lead on Virginia Tech. Fast forward to the 2:46 mark to see a Hokies defense that Joe Burrow would have had a career day against.
A team with athleticism at the edge rusher or outside linebacker position can limit Michael Vick to being just a passer. The LSU 2019 defense was capable of just that, making the Hokies night difficult with the addition of two shutdown corners.
While Jalen Hurts may not prove to be Vick, the Tigers had no issues with dual threat quarterbacks. Special teams would have been a non-factor for Virginia Tech, as Joe Burrow would steam roll a secondary that allowed West Virginia and Florida State to do the same in 1999. Take the under and swallow the LSU points. — Collin Wilson
(2) ’05 Texas vs. (3) ’18 Clemson
- Spread: Texas -4
- Total: 70
Could there be a bigger dream game? The Texas Longhorns’ run to the national title started off ranked No. 2 in the country to USC, only to beat the Trojans in the championship game. Texas was led by Vince Young and Jamaal Charles on offense, considered unstoppable in 2005.
Another unstoppable force throughout time was the 2018 Clemson defense. The collection of Dexter Lawrence, Christian Wilkins and Clelin Ferrell on the defensive line was the equivalent of a wrecking ball in the 2018 season.
On the flip side of the ball, true freshman Trevor Lawrence would have been able to get downfield with Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross against the Longhorns defense. Although Texas beat UL Lafayette, Baylor and Colorado by a combined 192-6, Clemson would not have had issues getting points on the board. USC quarterback Matt Lienart threw for 365 yards with a QB rating of 152.4.
Lawrence arguably had better weapons, while the Longhorns proved all of 2005 they are not afraid of a shootout.
My money would have been on the over in this game, even at 70. Texas could score instant points against anyone on its schedule, including No. 1 USC.
The issue is the Longhorns rank against the rush, 44th in the country in yards per attempt. Clemson RB Travis Etienne would have been the x-factor in this game with plenty of explosive touchdown runs.
With Texas not being the most efficient at field goals and ranking outside the top 100 in extra point conversions, there is a window for Clemson to win this game by less than a field goal. — Collin Wilson
(1) ’01 Miami vs. (4) ’96 Florida
- Spread: Miami -6
- Total: 55.5
The Hurricanes held eight of their 12 opponents under 10 points back in 2001. Equally impressive is the fact that 38 players went on to be drafted, including 11 in the 2002 draft. Seventeen would be taken in the first round, including six top-10 picks in the next four drafts. The first-, second-, and third-string RBs (Clinton Portis, Willis McGahee, Frank Gore) all went on to start in the NFL.
The Florida Gators can’t match the sheer talent top to bottom, but they do have the better offense in this matchup. They trot out the ‘96 Heisman Trophy winner at QB, Fred Taylor at running back, and three future NFL wide receivers (Jacquez Green, Ike Hilliard, Reidel Anthony).
Because of Miami’s pro-style offense, preferred pace of play and the fact that they nearly lost to BC and Va Tech on the road, I’ll take the points and hope for a backdoor cover. — Calabrese
(2) ’94 Penn St vs. (10) ’17 UCF
- Spread: Penn State -6.5
- Total: 68.5
(1) ’04 USC vs. (4) ’97 Mich.
- Spread: USC -9
- Total: 47
(2) ’91 Wash vs. (3) ’10 Auburn
- Spread: Washington -5.5
- Total: 50.5