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Our Guide To The College Football Playoff Semifinals

For just the second time in seven seasons, the College Football Playoff includes three teams that didn’t qualify the previous season. Given that four1 programs at the Football Bowl Subdivision level account for 66 percent of all-time bids, this year’s playoff offers a palate cleanser for fans desperate for new blood. That half of the new representation comes from the winningest college football team of all time needn’t diminish the novelty of the moment.

So how will the semifinals shake out? Let’s break down the matchups.

Tale of the tape: No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Cincinnati

Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic, 3:30 p.m. Eastern Dec. 31

Alabama Category Cincinnati
12-1 Record 13-0
88.8 Total efficiency 83.8
1 Strength of record rank 4
Bryce Young Starting QB Desmond Ridder
88.9 Starting QB QBR 75.4
2 Starting QB QBR rank 25
Pass offense Biggest EPA strength Pass defense
Rush offense Biggest EPA weakness Pass offense
71% 538 forecast to make national title game 29%

EPA strengths and weaknesses relate to each team’s highest- and lowest-ranked unit according to EPA per game, among pass offense, rush offense, pass defense and rush defense.

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

By its mere inclusion in the playoff, Cincinnati’s 2021 season will be remembered as a historic one. It took eight years for a Group of Five team to be admitted to college football’s most exclusive party. And only by being the last remaining undefeated FBS team did the Bearcats, who were notably left out of last year’s playoff, punch a ticket.

Marginalizing Cincy as the happy-go-lucky challenger is both inaccurate and disrespectful. The Bearcats have gone 44-6 over the past four seasons under coach Luke Fickell. They have won back-to-back conference championships, and in October, they downed Notre Dame by double digits in South Bend.

As a reward, the greenest participant will square off against the most experienced when Cincinnati takes on the dynastic Alabama Crimson Tide in the Cotton Bowl in Arlington, Texas. Alabama has outscored opponents by a combined 2,750 points since the first year of the playoff. The Tide recently appeared as an underdog for the first time in 93 games; that will not be the case on New Year’s Eve.

Led by the first Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback in program history, the Alabama offense has overcome stretches of inconsistent play. Bryce Young’s most recent outing was a career-best performance against the nation’s top defense, in which he accumulated 461 yards of total offense and the highest adjusted Quarterback Rating (QBR) of any QB in a conference championship game in the playoff era. Young figures to have narrow windows to work with as he stares down arguably the best cornerback tandem in the country in Thorpe Award winner Coby Bryant and projected first-rounder Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner. The Bearcats’ top-tier pass defense has posted the sixth-lowest adjusted defensive QBR (29.2) and allowed the second-lowest adjusted completion percentage (59.1). No team in the country has forced more turnovers than the Bearcats (33).

An eight-sack performance in their win over Houston in the American Athletic Conference championship game offers more hope for the Bearcats, who will need to pressure the QB against the Tide. Unfortunately for Cincinnati, Alabama’s offensive line, which has been suspect throughout the season, rounded into form against Georgia.2 

On the other side of the ball patrols Will “The Terminator” Anderson, who is considered by many to be the nation’s preeminent defender. Though he wasn’t a finalist for the Heisman, Anderson somehow finished with the third-most first-place votes, and he won the Bronko Nagurski Award as the NCAA’s best defender. He has a nation-leading 15.5 sacks and 69 pressures and an FBS-record 32.5 tackles for loss. “He did things you couldn’t really be ready for,” Arkansas offensive tackle Dalton Wagner said of Anderson.

Cincinnati enters as the lesser team on both sides of the ball, but they do have a projected first-round pick in QB Desmond Ridder, who leads all playoff signal-callers in air yards per attempt (9.97) and adjusted completion percentage (74.4 percent). 

A Cincinnati win in the Cotton Bowl might not tear the proverbial doors off a room that has long excluded teams like it from national title conversations, but it would disrupt the sport’s status quo in ways few outcomes can.

Tale of the tape: No. 2 Michigan vs. No. 3 Georgia

Capital One Orange Bowl, 7:30 p.m. Eastern Dec. 31

Michigan Category Georgia
12-1 Record 12-1
86.3 Total efficiency 95.3
2 Strength of record rank 3
Cade McNamara Starting QB Stetson Bennett
77.3 Starting QB QBR 86.8
20 Starting QB QBR rank 4
Rush offense Biggest EPA strength Pass defense
Pass offense Biggest EPA weakness Rush offense
38% 538 forecast to make national title game 62%

EPA strengths and weaknesses relate to each team’s highest- and lowest-ranked unit according to EPA per game, among pass offense, rush offense, pass defense and rush defense.

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

The Orange Bowl will be a celebration for former linemen and admirers of line-of-scrimmage violence. 

Under Broyles Award-winning offensive coordinator Josh Gattis, the Wolverines have adopted ground-game tendencies not seen in Ann Arbor since dual-threat QB Denard Robinson was tasked with essentially everything in 2011. The team’s run rate is nearly 20 percentage points higher than last season, and much of the game goes through stellar running back Hassan Haskins, who has taken the ball up the middle more than any Power Five running back this season.

Ground-and-pound has been fruitful for the maize and blue. Michigan has scored 39 rushing touchdowns — Haskins had five in the team’s win over Ohio State — and leads all playoff teams in expected points added per rush (0.14).

That strategy may be difficult to execute against Georgia’s fearsome defense led by Bednarik and Outland awards winner Jordan Davis and Butkus Award winner Nakobe Dean. The Bulldogs allow only a half yard rushing before contact — best in the nation — and have missed fewer tackles than any major-conference team. Ball carriers have scored against the Georgia defense only three times all season.

Before the Bulldogs lost to the Tide in an SEC title game blowout, nothing had really worked against the Georgia defense, which ranks second in the nation in defensive success rate and produced all-time marks in a variety of metrics.

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, his 91.7 QBR is tied for second-best in the country — a rating higher than Young’s. But a clean pocket may be hard to come by: Bennett will have his hands full with Heisman finalist and potential No. 1 pick Aidan Hutchinson staring him down all night.

No one has had a good read on Michigan, which started the season unranked for the first time since 2015 and has covered the spread a nation-leading 11 times this season. The Wolverines are a whopping plus-137.5 points against the spread, by far the highest total in the nation and the seventh-highest cover margin through 13 games of any team during the playoff era.


A playoff field featuring Alabama and Georgia might not be the most surprising result, but the reality that arguably the least egalitarian sport features new faces in 2021 is a cause for celebration. Consider that when FiveThirtyEight rolled out its forecast for the first time this season, on Sept. 28, Michigan and Cincinnati each had less than 20 percent odds of qualifying. If chaos is the sought-after experience for fans of college athletics, the College Football Playoff has been dissatisfying spectators for nearly a decade. The 2021 season, then, has offered a mildly refreshing crop of participants that could disrupt the sport when it matters most. 

Check out our latest college football predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma.

  2. It was the first time all season that the 3.4-sack-averaging Bulldogs failed to record a sack.

Josh Planos is a writer based in Omaha. He has contributed to The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post.

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