Just as the buzz and disorder of rivalry week began to subside, college football’s championship week produced some of the most uncertainty we’ve ever seen in the playoff era. Each of the first two power-conference title games of the week — in the Pac-12 and Big 12 — were won by underdogs, extinguishing the playoff dreams of the USC Trojans1 and putting the TCU Horned Frogs’ hopes in doubt as well. While things calmed down Saturday night with the Georgia Bulldogs, Michigan Wolverines and Clemson Tigers each comfortably winning the remaining power-conference championships by at least 20 points apiece, our forecast model did not envy the task at hand for the College Football Playoff selection committee. Here were the odds as of Sunday morning — a true mess after the clear-cut top two of Georgia and Michigan:
|Ohio State||Big Ten||—||5||6||3||39%|
|Kansas St.||Big 12||✓||10||3||11||35%|
Ultimately, TCU and Ohio State did secure the other two tickets to the sport’s most exclusive club.2 That narrow 3-point overtime loss for the Horned Frogs, against a Kansas State team they had previously beaten by double digits, wasn’t enough to eliminate them — which no doubt exorcized some of the lingering demons in Fort Worth after an unjust playoff exclusion in 2014. And the electric Buckeyes managed to add themselves to the club of one-loss teams that made the playoff despite not participating in a conference title game (a feat they also accomplished in 2016). In the nine-season history of the playoff, only six times has a one-loss team qualified without a conference title. Two of them came this season: TCU and Ohio State.
As expected, not everyone is thrilled with the outcome. Clemson and Alabama, the two teams with the most all-time playoff appearances, are on the outside looking in, marking the first time in the playoff era that neither made the cut. Not that Bama coach Nick Saban didn’t pull out all the stops with his lobbying efforts on Saturday night — but unfortunately for Saban, when the committee ranked Ohio State fifth (above Alabama) in Week 14, it positioned an insurmountable obstacle in the way of the dynastic Tide.
So with the field locked, let’s look ahead to the semifinal matchups.
No. 1 Georgia vs. No. 4 Ohio State
Line: Georgia by 6.5 (Caesars)
FiveThirtyEight favorite: Georgia (59 percent)
For fans piqued by contrast and collision, one couldn’t do much better than pitting the nation’s best offense against the nation’s best defense.
After a relatively down performance during rivalry week — in which it still managed to accumulate nearly 500 yards of total offense against a top-10 defense — the Buckeyes return for the toughest test imaginable.
Georgia’s defense is a unit that plays with a ferocity that is reminiscent of brass knuckles. The Bulldogs had a record five defensive players selected in the first round of the 2022 NFL draft but managed to reload with a nation-leading unit headlined by Jalen Carter, who most recently went viral for hoisting a quarterback with frightening ease. In four games against top-20 offenses,3 Georgia compiled 13 sacks, allowed just seven offensive touchdowns and won by at least two touchdowns in each.
As is often the case under coach Kirby Smart, the Georgia defense excels at stopping the run. There have been only eight instances of a team holding opponents under 80 yards rushing per game over a season in the playoff era. Georgia is in the midst of its fourth such performance. Ohio State’s run game has been inconsistent, which is permissible when the team’s passing attack sets the standard. Quarterback C.J. Stroud has thrown for 3,330 yards, 37 touchdowns and six interceptions. And if this Georgia team has a flaw, it’s pass defense,4 which LSU exposed last weekend. Backup QB Garrett Nussmeier threw for 294 yards in the second half of the SEC championship game, the most passing yards allowed by the Bulldogs all season.
On the other side of the ball, Georgia’s offense is guided by QB Stetson Bennett IV, who will see in Ohio State the second-toughest defense he has played all season. Bennett has played only two top-20 defenses this season (Mississippi State and LSU), but capably handled both challenges. Ohio State has corrected many of the fissures that kept the team out of the playoff in 2021, but took a significant step back in its most recent game against Michigan, in which the Wolverines had 250-plus yards both on the ground and through the air.
No. 2 Michigan vs No. 3 TCU
Line: Michigan by 9.0 (Caesars)
FiveThirtyEight favorite: Michigan (66 percent)
The winningest program in the history of college football still managed to make some history in 2022. Behind a nation-leading average margin of victory (26.7 points), the Wolverines have flattened opponents to reach 13-0 for the first time. Just as he did when he coached Stanford, Jim Harbaugh has built his alma mater into a conference bully behind dominant line play and a punishing ground attack, which is led this season by Heisman candidate running back Blake Corum.5 In quarterback J.J. McCarthy, an athletic sophomore who has played exceptionally well in the second half of the season, Harbaugh has a standout who, he said, reminds him of … himself.
“We weren’t really shooting for that national championship last year,” McCarthy said recently. “It was to beat Ohio State, win a Big Ten championship, but this year, we’re shooting for it, and we’re going to go get it.”
To have a chance at a 12th national championship, Michigan will have to tame TCU, college football’s cardiac kids. The Horned Frogs have five second-half comebacks and one of the highest-scoring offenses in the country (40.3 points per game). Quarterback Max Duggan began the season on the bench and will end up in New York at the Heisman ceremony. His go-to receiver, Quentin Johnston, could be the best prospect in his class.
The Horned Frogs feature a top-30 defense, but will have their hands full against Donovan Edwards, who is on a tear with 401 yards and three touchdowns in the past two games since Corum went down with an injury.
Check out our latest college football predictions.