And then there were four.
This New Year's Eve, the College Football Playoff returns with an enticing pair of matchups: underdog #4 Cincinnati vs. SEC champion #1 Alabama followed by the resurgent #2 Michigan Wolverines going up against the formidable #3 Georgia Bulldogs.
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Statistics courtesy of Sports Reference CFB. Betting lines from Action Network.
Cotton Bowl: #4 Cincinnati Bearcats vs. #1 Alabama Crimson Tide (-13.5) - 3:30 PM, Dec. 31st, 2021
X-Factor: CB Coby Bryant, Cincinnati
Much has been made about the stellar play of Ahmad "Sauce" Gardner at cornerback for the Bearcats, and rightfully so. The projected first-round pick in the upcoming NFL Draft still has 5Etfw
Following John Metchie III's season-ending injury in the SEC Championship Game, the Tide are suddenly without one of their best offensive threats. While Jameson Williams is dynamic in his own right, a matchup with Gardner is difficult for even the most skilled of wide receivers. That puts extra pressure, and attention from Alabama, on Bryant. The senior will need to keep whoever he guards against - likely some combination of Slade Bolden, Traeshon Holden and Cameron Earle - in check to force 'Bama into a one-dimensional running attack. With Heisman winner Bryce Young throwing the ball, easier said than done.
Prediction: This game is about far more than just the scoreboard. Luke Fickell's Cincinnati squad is fighting for respect, while the Crimson Tide want to add to an unprecedented decade-long dynasty. The Bearcats will prove their worth and keep things close...but the talent in Tuscaloosa, as well as the savvy coaching of Nick Saban, gives 'Bama the edge in this one.
Cincinatti 21 - Alabama 30
Orange Bowl: #3 Georgia Bulldogs (-7.5) vs. #2 Michigan Wolverines - 7 PM, Dec. 31st, 2021
X-Factor: RB Hassan Haskins, Michigan
Georgia-Michigan is a fascinating comparison, primarily because of what both teams do well: running the ball, solid offensive line protection, and stout defensive play up front that can put pressure on opposing offenses. One of the biggest areas of contrast, and ultimately where this game will likely be won, is inside the red zone whenever Michigan has the ball. Georgia's defense, on top of giving up a minuscule 9.5 points per game, thrived in short yardage, leading the nation in red zone defense. Michigan, while not an offensive juggernaut, did a great job of capitalizing, finishing seventh in the nation in red zone offense and second in red zone rushing touchdowns.
Behind that powerful run game is senior Hassan Haskins, who has enjoyed a breakout year as UM's lead tailback. With a 20-touchdown season (4th best in FBS) under his belt, it's safe to say Michigan's offense goes as he and their offensive line go. Facing the Wolverines is a dominant Georgia defensive line led by Outland Award winner Jordan Davis. Davis and Georgia have surrendered an FBS-best 0.2 rushing touchdowns per game, while Haskins and Michigan average 3 rushing touchdowns per game (3rd in FBS). Simply put, this is a showdown between an immovable object and an unstoppable force.
Prediction: There are few matchups more even, on paper, in recent CFP memory than this one. The very real possibility of a grind-it-out slugfest means the winner will likely be whoever wins the turnover battle. Michigan's conservative play-calling and dominant edge rushing pair of Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo take a page from Will Anderson Jr. and disrupt Stetson Bennett and the Georgia offense en route to a semifinal upset.
Georgia 14 - Michigan 17
National Championship Game: #2 Michigan Wolverines vs. #1 Alabama Crimson Tide - 8 PM, Jan. 1oth, 2022
X-Factor: Alabama offensive line
Down one elite playmaker facing a talented defense, the emphasis for the Tide in a championship bout against Michigan would be on the offensive line. John Metchie III's speed is rare, even for Alabama prospects. That means more time in the pocket is needed for the other receivers on the roster to find space for Bryce Young. Evan Neal has been up to the challenge of facing the SEC's best edge rushers; he's given up just one sack all season, including none against Georgia in the SEC championship game.
The only issue is that the o-line as a whole has been somewhat unreliable this year, at least by Alabama's high standards. Uncertainly and reshuffling across the line has been a constant theme of this season, leading to poor play in crucial games during conference play. In the Iron Bowl against Auburn, Alabama surrendered seven sacks and eleven tackles for loss, pass protection so subpar that it almost single-handedly derailed the team in an eventual overtime victory. The unit is ranked at 67th in terms of sack rate according to Football Outsiders; Michigan's award-winning crew sits at second. Neal will need to play his best football of the season against Hutchinson, the most dominant edge rusher in college football, while the rest of the line holds the always-disruptive Ojabo in check.
Prediction: There is no scarier feeling than going against Nick Saban and Alabama in a big game. However, it's difficult to recall the last time the Crimson Tide didn't have superiority in the trenches on offense or defense. Young will continue to play well, but Michigan's offense can gobble up the time of possession by running the ball while Hutchinson forces a fumble late to give the Wolverines a national title.
Michigan 24 - Alabama 21