Four Teams, Four Players: Previewing the Semifinals

LightningDragon · March 14, 2024


By: Cole Mantell (@lightningdragon)

After four exciting Quarterfinal games, just four teams remain. We’ve got four very different teams competing to be the last one standing. Both the Gator Bowl and Rose Bowl tonight decide which teams will compete on Monday for the Season 19 CFSL National Championship. Three teams have many recent experiences in the final four. One is an expansion team looking to return to the big game. Just like the Quarterfinals, we’ll preview each Semifinal by highlighting one underrated contributor for each team. We’ll choose different players this time than in the Quarterfinals as well.

Rose Bowl – 6:30 PM CST – #15 USC vs #11 Florida

What a season for the USC Trojans. They entered the playoffs as the #15 seed, having to be voted in by the public. At 3-5, they were one of just two teams (the other being Georgia) to make the playoffs with a record under .500. They had to beat not only two highly ranked teams to get here but two conference foes whom they’d already played in the regular season. After losing 50-31 to Illinois in the regular season, the Trojans upset the Fighting Illini 34-29 in Round 1. After losing a close game 37-34 to the Penn State Nittany Lions in Week 2, the Trojans again upset their conference foes in a 42-36 win Tuesday night. Since returning to the league, USC is again the team breaking brackets and predictions alike. And they’ll face a fellow renegade team for the Rose Bowl.

It became clear early in the season this would be a special season for the Gators. In addition to numerous seniors on the team looking for one last ride, longtime AD Justyn Veneklasen announced he would be stepping down at the season’s end. Veneklasen has led the Gators to success, including previous appearances in the Semifinals.

However, the Gators are looking to not only extend their season but get Veneklasen his first National Championship as AD in his final game. So far, so good. In a run with many similarities to their opponents, the Gators first beat Florida State in Round 1. They won 38-27, avenging a Week 7 49-31 loss in the regular season. Their Quarterfinal matchup on Monday was against maybe the best defense in the CFSL this season in Texas. The Gators won 51-35, representing another sterling offensive performance for the team that wins when their offense runs at full steam.

Now we get a Rose Bowl full of former underdogs. USC is technically the away team but will play to a friendly crowd in Pasadena against a team from across the country. This will be the 4th meeting between the two teams, and the first meeting in Southern California since Season 6. USC leads this series 2-1 all-time, including a 62-50 win earlier this season in Gainesville. Both of these two teams can throw the ball, which leads their players to watch for the matchup. 

USC WR Jamarcus Simpson III got both feet down in the endzone to secure the touchdown catch.

For USC, WR Jamarcus Simpson III is a freshman who has been a star for the Trojans in their return to the CFSL. Simpson leads the Trojans with 8 receiving touchdowns this season, and figures to be a huge part of their offense moving forward. While he only has had over 100 receiving yards once in his last six games, he also has had 5 touchdowns in that span. That includes a two-touchdown performance in the upset over Illinois. Keep an eye on Simpson, even if he doesn’t go over 100 yards against Florida.

Florida CB Jett Pickens broke in front of the receiver to make the interception.

For Florida, I’d highlight one of their receivers too, but the problem is you already know most of their stars. Guys like Chen, Hall, and Washington are all too easy a pick for this article. Instead, Florida will have to rely on their defense to keep USC under 50 points in the rematch. Senior CB Jett Pickens has been the underrated piece to help do that for the Gators this season. Pickens started his career on Eastern Michigan, before playing his sophomore season at Oklahoma. He’s spent the last two seasons playing for Florida. While he played for some stacked secondaries and never was an interception compiler, he has 14 career interceptions. That includes 3 this season, tied for the Florida team lead. His 59 tackles are also the most he’s had in a season since he was a freshman. Pickens might not be a flashy player, but he’ll be stapled to USC’s top guys all night. If he can keep them covered, Florida will win the Rose Bowl.

Gator Bowl – 8:30 PM CST – #4 Kentucky vs #1 Miami

If the Rose Bowl is pitting two teams who are underdogs who’ve upset the competition, the Gator Bowl will be the matchup pitting two familiar playoff foes fighting to continue their dominance at the top of the CFSL. This will be the first meeting between the Hurricanes and Wildcats since last season’s National Championship. Kentucky won that game 37-26 to win their second National Championship in three seasons. This will be the 7th meeting between the two teams. Kentucky leads the series all-time 6-1. Kentucky has won both times the two teams have met in the playoffs, so far.

Kentucky returns to this Semifinal as the slight underdog, a position they have not been used to in recent seasons. However, do not mistake that status as a reason to sleep on this team. AD Devan Davis defeated his old protege and current LSU AD Derek Hawkins 38-35 in Round 1. The Wildcats then held off a challenge from Michigan and won their Semifinal 33-24 on Monday. This Kentucky team has a habit of close wins. Six of their previous eight games have been decided by 10 points or less. Kentucky has gone 5-1 in those games.

Miami meanwhile has left no doubt as the presumptive favorite, especially with Illinois’ upset loss in Round 1. The only remaining undefeated team in the CFSL, new AD George Yost is almost certain to appear on ballots for AD of the Year. Unlike Kentucky, Miami has generally beat their opponents by more than 10 points (sometimes much more). However, they also do have some experience in close games this season as well, including a 49-42 win on Tuesday over rival Notre Dame to get here. They also beat Georgia 55-22 in Round 1. The Hurricanes are searching for their first National Championship since Season 9, and this is their best team since then and their best chance in a long time to take the crown. Their ACC Championship this season already is their first conference crown since Season 10.

Kentucky HB Cole Marks brought in the catch and took it for six.

For Kentucky, this game likely will be about time of possession for the Wildcats. They must prevent Miami’s explosive offense from getting the ball too much or there will be trouble. Lemandon Lloyd was maybe my best of the eight Quarterfinal picks in terms of predicting big performances from underrated guys. I’m hoping for that luck to continue here, and I’m going to go with HB Cole Marks as a guy to watch for Kentucky in the Gator Bowl. Marks might not have the pure yardage stats as other halfbacks, but he’ll need to have a big game to keep the ball out of the hands of the Hurricane offense. Marks is the second freshman featured on this list, and it is noteworthy that all four teams in the Semifinals have relied on big contributions from various freshmen to get here.

Miami DE Bubba Wadsworth got into the backfield for the sack on Del Toro.

Miami needs to also get to the Quarterback and generate pressure in this Gator Bowl. Just like Kentucky needs to control the time of possession battle, Miami will need to do the opposite and make sure Sam Dobbins has plenty of chances to go downfield early. For the Hurricanes, I’m going with DE Bubba Wadsworth, our third freshman to watch as well. No one is going to confuse Wadsworth with the legendary names of defensive ends who’ve set CFSL sack records in Miami over the last few seasons. But Wadsworth leads the Hurricanes with 8 sacks this season and has been a key contributor even without the pure numerical stats to the defense. While he has yet to generate more than 4 tackles in a game this season (yet), Wadsworth has an eye-popping 48% of his tackles behind the line of scrimmage for TFLs so far. That includes sacks, which make up more than ⅓ of his tackles. If Wadsworth is tackling a lot, that means he’s getting tackles behind the line of scrimmage for Miami, and that’ll be key to their victory.


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