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College Football Playoffs — Keys to Friday’s Games on ESPN

A college football playoff field featuring Alabama and Georgia might not seem to be the most surprising one, but the reality is that the CFP participants are rather refreshing. Georgia has only appeared in the playoff once, and this is Michigan and Cincinnati’s first time to the party. The Bearcats, in fact, are the first team from a Group of 5 conference to crash the celebration normally reserved for Power 5 teams.

Each semifinal matchup also presents an intriguing clash, even if Cincinnati’s reward for earning its first invitation is a meeting with college football’s ruling monarch Alabama. Let’s dig into the keys to each game.

University of Michigan players celebrate their victory over Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship game.
University of Michigan players celebrate their victory over Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship game. Allen Kee/ESPN Images

No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide vs. No. 4 Cincinnati Bearcats

Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic — AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas

Clemson, Ohio State, and Oklahoma did not even advance to their respective conference championship games, eliminating three of four CFP mainstays. Alabama was looking rather wobbly in wins over LSU, Arkansas, and Auburn. In the last month of the season, there seemed to be a good chance we would have four not-so-familiar participants in this season’s playoff. Then the SEC championship game happened.

In a 41-24 trouncing against Georgia’s number one defense, Alabama quarterback Bryce Young racked up 461 total yards and earned the highest adjusted Quarterback Rating in a conference championship game during the playoff era. Lest people forget, December and January usually belong to the Crimson Tide. A matchup against Cincinnati might sound like just another bump in its winning road, but a deeper dive into the numbers suggests the contest could be more competitive than it appears at first blush.

While the Bearcats are the first Group of Five representatives since the CFP began eight years ago, they’re not in the CFP just to serve as a sacrifice at the altar of Alabama. Cincinnati is 44-6 in four seasons under head coach Luke Fickell. They’ve won back-to-back conference championships along the way and remain the FBS’s lone remaining undefeated squad after storming through the season with double-digit victories over Notre Dame in October and 21st-ranked Houston in December.

The Bearcats also feature the best cornerback tandem in the country in projected first-rounder Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner and Thorpe Award winner Coby Bryant (who will be wearing #8 in honor of the deceased guard). Against the Bearcats’ top-tier pass defense, teams are completing under 60% of passes, the second-best mark in the country, and no team has more forced turnovers than Cincinnati’s 33.

The Tide’s weakness on defense is its secondary and the Bearcats will trot out projected first-round pick Desmond Ridder under center. The quarterback leads all playoff signal-callers in air yards per attempt and adjusted completion percentage. Alabama’s defense, however, also features Will “The Terminator” Anderson, the Bronko Nagurski Award winner as the NCAA’s best defender. His 15.5 sacks, 69 QB pressures, and an FBS-record 32.5 tackles for loss all lead college football.

The game may come down to the Bearcats surviving the Tide’s first punch. Alabama has won its last five CFP semifinals by an average of 20.2 points per game, outscoring opponents 89-27 in the first half of those games. The Crimson Tide will likely roll out a tight first-quarter script for Bryce Young, attempting to force Cincinnati into high-risk football by jumping out to a big lead.

The teams will square off at 3:30 p.m. ET on Friday, December 31 on ESPN.

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No. 2 Michigan Wolverines vs. No. 3 Georgia Bulldogs

Capital One Orange Bowl — Hard Rock Stadium, Miami Gardens, Florida

Where ‘Bama and Cincy represent opposite ends of the spectrum, Michigan and Georgia appear like battle axes hewn from the same red hot fire. Enthusiasts of old-school grind and grit football should get plenty of bloody violence at the point of attack when the Wolverines meet the Bulldogs on Friday night.

Georgia’s defense is historic. In its flop in the SEC championship game, UGA allowed more points to Alabama than it had previously in any full month this season. The ‘Dawgs have allowed just 11 offensive touchdowns in 13 games. They gave up only four yards per play, good for first in the country. And per Football Outsiders, Georgia yields .63 net points per drive — the second-best defensive rating since the service began tracking that stat.

Michigan is certainly no slouch on the defensive side of the ball themselves. After repeated failures, head coach Jim Harbaugh led a coaching staff youth movement that included former Baltimore Ravens assistant defensive coach and first-time defensive coordinator, Mike Macdonald. The 34-year-old guided a unit that ranked fourth in the FBS in scoring defense and 11th in total defense. The Maize and Blue also upset Ohio State with a game plan that handcuffed Heisman finalist C.J. Stroud and his trio of elite receivers so well that the Buckeyes were never really even close to competing.

The Bulldogs won’t present nearly as difficult a task, but its offense is sneaky good. Under offensive coordinator Todd Monken, the Georgia offense has had successful games against top-tier defenses. No team other than Clemson has kept the ‘Dawgs out of the end zone. When he isn’t being questioned as the starting QB of the Bulldogs, Stetson Bennett IV has been reliable under center. With a clean pocket, Bennett IV’s 91.7 QBR is tied for second-best in the country — a rating higher than Alabama’s Bryce Young. A lot is still being asked of him, though, with Heisman finalist and potential No. 1 pick Aidan Hutchinson and projected first-round pick linebacker David Ojabo chasing him down all night.

The other side of the ball represents a rebound for Michigan as well. After nose-diving in 2020, Michigan offensive coordinator Josh Gattis has guided the Wolverines to a top-10 rushing attack in 2021. The game may come down to whether Michigan’s offensive line, this year’s Joe Moore Award winner for the nation’s best offensive line, can make enough of a dent against Georgia’s top-ranked scoring defense.

The Wolverines come in with all the confidence but have also lost three straight bowl games to SEC schools. If the Bulldogs want to win, they’ll have to regain the mojo they had before being embarrassed by the Tide.

Michigan and Georgia will kick off at 7:30 p.m. ET on Friday, December 31 on ESPN.

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