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The top teams in the College Football Playoff are also some of the most inexperienced

With the exception of Washington, the playoff field is made up of some of the youngest rosters in college football.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Ohio State Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

“It really does go against what I guess you’d call conventional coaching wisdom. But I would also say, OK, who are those two seniors and who are your juniors? I like those juniors I have in the middle of my defense. And I really like that junior I have under center leading my offense in J.T. Barrett.”

-Urban Meyer, via Ryan McGee, ESPN

Several months ago, before the start of the 2016 college football season, the current playoff picture seemed a longshot--not because any doubted the strength of Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State collectively, but because individually, they represented some of the youngest and least experienced schools in the Power 5. All three entered September with the least experienced rosters in their respective conferences. Worse still, Phil Steele’s extensive, five-part experience rating system placed Clemson 101st, Alabama 116th and Ohio State 128th out of 128 FBS programs. Washington remains the single playoff team that returned a significant portion of its squad this season, with 80 percent of its roster having earned varsity letters previously.

For Ohio State and Clemson, much of the teams’ success comes down to the quarterback position. While J.T. Barrett provides the irreplaceable on-field leadership for the young Ohio State team, Deshaun Watson has done the same for Clemson. Of course, Watson also had running back Wayne Gallman and wide receiver Mike Williams--both juniors--at his disposal on offense.

For Alabama, head coach Nick Saban has relied on “the Process,” which requires attention to detail bordering on perfection--even for the consistently-ranked four and five star recruits coming to Tuscaloosa in each successive recruiting class. The Tide made it to the playoff behind a freshman quarterback in Jalen Hurts, a star player from Houston. While Hurts had the size, strength and speed deserving of a four-star recruit, he was, more importantly, a fit for Alabama’s system, which is why the team has been so successful around him, even as a freshman.

Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State all have that in common: the ability to recruit players who are not only tops in their position groups, but also fit into their respective systems, and that means a shorter time from arriving on campus to making an impact on games.

“I always want to be out there and help the team as best I can. It obviously wasn’t a good situation missing the first two kicks, but I was ready to put us into overtime...I’m good. I’m past that. I was a little upset for the next day or two, then came in and was ready to get to work and ready for the next game.”

-Ohio State kicker Tyler Durbin, via Bill Landis, Cleveland.com

For a player who had never competitively played in a football game before, Ohio State kicker Tyler Durbin was pleasantly surprising for most of the regular season, hitting an inordinate number of field goals and extra points for a former soccer player. That is, until the Michigan game when everything seemed to fall apart for the senior from Virginia. The former walk on missed two crucial field goals that could have won the game for Ohio State. The first miss occurred during Ohio State’s efficient 10-play, 72-yard opening drive on a 37 yard attempt for Durbin. The second came in the fourth quarter on a 21-yard attempt that would have tied the game at 17-all with seven minutes left in the fourth.

Previously, Durbin had been perfect on field goals under 40 yards. Actually, he had been perfect on the entire season from field goal range besides a blocked attempt versus Penn State. And for good measure, he was 60-for-62 on extra point attempts heading into the Michigan game. While it would have been folly to expect that Durbin--who is in just his second season playing football--would have ice in his veins and be able to put the game away at these critical moments, his performance throughout the rest of the season provided quite a bit of confidence in the kicker. He was a perfect 3-for-3 on field goals against Wisconsin on a night when the offense couldn’t seem to get going. Two weeks prior to Michigan, he had hit a career-long 45-yard field goal against Maryland.

And while he may be criticized for the two early misses, Durbin did nail the final, 23-yard field goal to send Ohio State to overtime against Michigan. In retrospect, Durbin acknowledged that his technique--specifically the position of his plant foot--was to blame for the misses, not nerves or anxiety over the first botched attempt. In other words, it is something that can be fixed prior to Ohio State’s matchup with Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl.

“When I arrived at Miami, Ed was a really young, talented player who learned how to prepare. Malik was in the same jumping-off spot.”

-Ohio State Buckeyes co-defensive coordinator Greg Schiano, via Ben Axelrod, Land of 10

Ohio State redshirt sophomore safety Malik Hooker has more than proven himself as one of the best defensive backs in college football this season. With six interceptions--three of which were returned for touchdowns--alongside 67 tackles, Hooker was named a unanimous all-American at his position, despite having very little playing time in his freshman season and entering this year as a relative unknown. His stats, including his 181 return yards from his picks, are best in the nation.

Still, co-defensive coordinator Greg Schiano recognized similarities between Hooker and another esteemed safety, even before Hooker made it to fall practice. In winter conditioning and spring practice, Hooker’s skillset in many ways resembled that of former Miami Hurricanes and Baltimore Ravens great Ed Reed. In Schiano’s first season as defensive coordinator with the Hurricanes, he saw Reed develop into the player who would go on to become a nine-time Pro Bowler with the Ravens. In his time at Miami, Reed returned four of his 21 career picks for touchdowns. Of his 64 interceptions as a pro, Reed took seven back to the end zone. The ability to not only pick the ball off, but to gain positive yardage, is what distinguishes players like Reed and Hooker.

And while Hooker certainly seems to have been endowed with an eye for the ball, along with a great amount of speed and control--attributes that have even caused Urban Meyer to consider using Hooker on offense--his greatest strength, in Schiano’s eye, is his preparation. His emergence has largely been about his diligence in getting ready to face the next opponent, something that will only continue to make him better as he continues to play.

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