The penultimate weekend of this year’s college football season was a highly anticipated one, and it certainly did not disappoint.
Rivalry weekend left us with plenty of possible college football playoff scenarios to consider and set up this year’s conference championship Saturday to be one packed with meaningful games that would provide clarity about who the four playoff teams would be.
The day started with an exciting Big 12 Championship game between the Baylor Bears and Oklahoma State Cowboys. Oklahoma State entered the game ranked fifth in the college football playoff standings, only one spot out of the playoff and needing a win to keep their playoff hopes alive. But Baylor played spoiler, dominating early in the game and then holding on as the Cowboys’ comeback effort fell just short. Oklahoma State running back Dezmon Jackson was stopped just inches short of the goal line on the fourth and goal carry that decided the game.
Oklahoma State’s loss means no Big 12 representation in the playoff for the second consecutive season, possibly a glimpse into the conference’s future as it will lose Oklahoma, the only program which has ever made the playoff and Texas, the conference’s premier brand, to the SEC in the coming years.
The later slate of afternoon games featured the SEC championship between the top-ranked Georgia Bulldogs and the third-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide and the AAC championship game which the fourth-ranked Cincinnati Bearcats were playing in.
Georgia entered the SEC championship undefeated and with a historically great defense. Still, the same question remained: Could Georgia get it done on a postseason stage against Alabama? The Crimson Tide responded to that question and to those who had legitimate reasons to doubt them by scoring 41 points on the nation’s most elite defense—which had allowed less than that in their past five games combined—and winning in dominant fashion by 17 points.
It’s incredible to see an Alabama team which did not score a touchdown against Auburn until the last moments of the fourth quarter last week seem to figure out a way to play their best football when they most needed to and when they were least expected to, but at the same time, should we be surprised? This year’s SEC championship will have to be stored in our memories as another example of why you don’t bet against Nick Saban and his Alabama teams. The Tide entered the day projected to lose and possibly find themselves outside of the playoff. After 60 minutes of football, they left Atlanta as the top seed in the final playoff rankings.
Another loss to Alabama is certainly a disappointment for Georgia, but Kirby Smart’s team will have an opportunity to prove it was not a completely demoralizing and deflating defeat by winning their semi-final playoff game and setting themselves up for what would likely be a rematch with Alabama, this time in the National Championship.
After undefeated AAC Champion UCF was left out of the playoff in 2017, it was made clear that perfection would be the minimum requirement for a Group of Five school to make the playoff. To be sure they would avoid UCF’s fate, impressive, resume-boosting wins would also be needed.
Cincinnati’s defeat of 21st ranked Houston in the AAC championship game helped their resume in both of those categories. The Bearcats are now 13-0 on the season and have wins over Notre Dame, who will likely finish fifth in the final playoff rankings, and now over a top 25 opponent in their conference championship.
Cincinnati deserves a ton of credit for what they accomplished this season. Time and time again, we are reminded of how difficult it is to achieve perfection in sports, regardless of what conference or level the team plays at. It’s even harder to achieve perfection when it is a minimum requirement to be given an opportunity to accomplish the ultimate goal of winning a national championship. Yes, an SEC schedule is significantly more challenging than a schedule in the AAC, but major programs like Alabama or Georgia know that if they do lose a game, they will have an opportunity to redeem themselves with other wins. Cincinnati entered every game this season with their college football playoff hopes on the line. Thirteen times they put it all on the line, thirteen times they delivered. Good for the Bearcats, and good for college football to finally have a new group of conferences represented in the playoff.
Michigan has spent the playoff-era behind the shadow cast by Ohio State’s four playoff appearances and 2014 national championship. But when they handed the Buckeyes their second loss of the season and their playoff chances, the Wolverines set themselves up to end their streak as second fiddle in the Big Ten and earn their first playoff berth. They did just that on Saturday, winning the Big Ten conference championship in dominant fashion over Iowa, 42-3.
On Sunday, the College Football Playoff committee confirmed what Saturday’s results had made clear: This year’s playoff will feature two programs making their first playoff appearances, No. 2 Michigan and No. 4 Cincinnati, and two who have previously made the playoff, No. 1 Alabama and No. 3 Georgia.
That seeding sets up Michigan vs. Georgia in the Orange Bowl and Alabama against Cincinnati in the Cotton Bowl as the two semi-finals; both games will be played on New Year’s Eve.
An Alabama team fresh off of their best performance of the season is the toughest possible opponent for Cincinnati to make its playoff debut, but it was expected that the first Group of Five school to make the playoff would be seriously tested. Although the Tide will be without standout wide receiver John Metchie III, who suffered a torn ACL in the SEC championship game, their offense still presents the Cincinnati defense with by far their toughest task of the year. It is important to not understate just how good Georgia’s defense had been prior to the SEC championship. The Bulldogs’ defense has been called the best ever by some and the numbers certainly support such a claim. The 2001 University of Miami defense, which featured several future NFL hall of famers and is considered by many to be the best ever, allowed only 117 points in 12 games; Georgia’s defense allowed only 84 points in their 12 games prior to the SEC championship.
If the version of the Alabama offense that made Georgia’s historically great defense look mediocre shows up against Cincinnati—the version in which quarterback Bryce Young looks like the Heisman front-runner, wideout Jameson Williams is virtually uncontainable and the Tide’s offensive line plays well enough to allow the Young-Williams magic to unfold—the Bearcats will be in for a very long night.
Having a Group of Five program in the playoff is good for college football. Multiple playoffs with Power Five teams failing to be competitive as the fourth seed had left many reasonably calling for new teams to be given an opportunity in the playoff. Cincinnati has certainly earned that opportunity by doing the only thing they could do: win every game on their schedule. But the reality is that Alabama is on a level higher than Cincinnati or any team Cincinnati has played this year; expect a result that ultimately reflects that.
In the short history of the college football playoff, the two against three semifinal has been the more intriguing and entertaining of the two, and this year’s matchup between Georgia and Michigan is no exception. The teams will clash as their respective seasons trend in opposite directions. Georgia was the unanimous number one seed for most of the season until Alabama convincingly dethroned them, while Michigan was not even in the AP Top 25 to start the season and responded after their loss to Michigan State with four straight victories to keep their playoff hopes intact.
The game will feature some of the best defensive play in the country, as the aforementioned Georgia defense is pitted against the Wolverine defense led by defensive end Aidan Hutchinson, who is receiving first overall pick projections in the 2022 NFL Mock Drafts, and linebacker David Ojabo who is also projected to be picked in the first round of this year’s NFL Draft.
Offensively, quarterback Stetson Bennet and company will have to prove to be much more capable than they were against Alabama. Their defense had been so good all season long that the offense had never needed to score at a high level to stay in games. Michigan plays defense very well and also has an excellent rushing attack which features halfback Hassan Haskins, who has over 1,200 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns on the season. So it is fair to expect this game to be another one in which Georgia’s offense must hold their own and make winning plays, as Michigan will not concede easy scores defensively or be held to almost no offensive production.
Michigan has proven the more complete team, getting it done on both sides of the ball to win important games. Because of this, I expect them to edge out Georgia in a narrow victory to claim an opportunity to dethrone Alabama in the national championship.
Regardless of who wins the semi-final matchups, this year’s college football playoff is set to be an intriguing clash between old powers and new challengers, an improvement from the recent repetitive playoff matchups that failed to excite fans who did not have rooting interests.