The 2021 College Football Playoff is finally here with huge matchups between the Georgia Bulldogs and Michigan Wolverines, and Alabama Crimson Tide and Cincinnati Bearcats.
Which teams will advance? What are the best bets?
Our VSiN experts Adam Burke, Matt Youmans, Dave Tuley and Bruce Marshall are here with their breakdowns and best wagers on each semifinal.
Orange Bowl: No. 3 Georgia (-7.5, 43.5) vs. No. 2 Michigan
7:30 p.m. ET
Youmans: For three months, Georgia was propped up by the media as an invincible team with a dominant defense; in one game, that perception was exposed as phony. How will coach Kirby Smart and his team respond? The Bulldogs were allowing 6.9 points per game before their defense was blown up in a 41-24 loss to Alabama. Georgia still is getting plenty of respect in the betting market as a favorite of 7.5 to 8 points, mainly because there is some skepticism about the true strength of the Big Ten champs.
Is the long-awaited breakthrough for Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh the real deal? I have some doubts, and dog bettors are taking a leap of faith with Michigan, which physically punished Ohio State before blowing out an outclassed Iowa team 42-3 in the conference title game. Alabama dissected the Georgia defense by using quarterback Bryce Young’s mobility and his speed receivers who stretched the field. Young passed for 421 yards as the Crimson Tide rolled up 536 total yards against a defense that had been surrendering 230 per game. Michigan’s run-first offense is likely to run into more trouble at the line of scrimmage, and quarterback Cade McNamara does not have Young’s talent. The Wolverines need to find success with Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum on the ground to ease the pressure on McNamara.
A Michigan defense led by end Aidan Hutchinson must slow the Bulldogs’ running attack. Georgia’s obvious weakness all season has been its mediocre quarterback play, and Stetson Bennett did nothing to quiet those doubts against Alabama. With more than three weeks to regroup, the Bulldogs have time to get over the hangover, but the Wolverines are full of confidence and running hot. If Michigan can match Georgia’s strength on the offensive and defensive lines, the underdog should be in position to cover -- and possibly advance.
Pick: Michigan + 8
Burke: Outside of the most elite college football head coaches, I firmly believe that the coordinators are the guys that make a team tick. Maybe Jim Harbaugh has all of the sudden found a way to get the Wolverines to play up to their potential, but Josh Gattis and Mike MacDonald are the ones that deserve the credit for what has transpired in Ann Arbor this season.
The 34-year-old MacDonald, who actually started as a college coach at Georgia, spent seven seasons with the Baltimore Ravens and he has fostered a mean, relentless defense that ranks in the top 10 in yards per play allowed. It helps to have a stud like Aidan Hutchinson, but the future first-round pick blossomed this season under MacDonald’s tutelage.
Gattis, who coached on Nick Saban’s staff in 2018 as the co-OC and WR coach, has elevated this offense and McNamara to be a much more explosive unit. The run schemes are a lot more effective and the Wolverines had their first top-25 offense in yards per play since 2011.
Georgia’s defensive numbers are unquestionably elite. Alabama had a big performance in the SEC Championship Game, but other teams near Michigan in the yards per play department -- like Kentucky and Tennessee -- did very little against the Bulldogs. The Bulldogs offense was also a top-five unit in yards per play, but there aren’t a lot of believers in those numbers, mostly due to the weak defensive competition.
The gap between these two teams sure doesn’t seem like 7.5 points. Michigan has evolved so much with young hires at the coordinator positions and those are the guys orchestrating the game-plans for the Orange Bowl.
As much as it pains me to say this as a Buckeyes fan, Michigan with the points is a good play and the Wolverines are a very live ‘dog in terms of pulling off the upset.
Pick: Michigan + 7.5
Marshall: It didn’t take long for Georgia to go from being regarded as a powerhouse with a generational defense to simply another team playing second fiddle to Alabama after the Tide rolled in the SEC title game. But is that a fair conclusion? Many Bulldog fans don’t think so, suggesting, with some justification, perhaps, that the loss to Bama was not simply the Tide being Georgia’s kryptonite (after all, Smart has never beaten his former mentor Saban in four tries), but more a case of UGA already knowing it would be in the Final Four before kickoff in Atlanta, and simply lacking the desperation of the Tide, which believed it needed the win to keep title hopes alive. Playing for their playoff lives, the Tide was able to reverse an early 10-0 deficit (the fourth straight time Smart has blown a lead vs. Saban, by the way) and eventually pull clear. A Georgia defense that ranked tops nationally overall and in scoring (mere 6 ppg) was put on its heels by the Tide’s Young, who sewed up the Heisman with a lethal downfield passing game - the sort of threat the Wolverines don’t possess.
Indeed, the key matchup that Harbaugh needs to work is establishing his infantry, which punished Big Ten and modest non-conference opposition all season (including Ohio State, which was admittedly susceptible to the run) behind north-south slashers Haskins (1288 rushing yards) and Corum (939; dealt with a high ankle sprain late in season, but okay to go in Miami) had an astounding 32 TDs between them. To that, we say good luck against wrecking ball DT Jordan Davis and the punishing Bulldog defensive front that allowed only 2.6 ypc and three rush TDs all season, putting extra pressure on McNamara, who has had the benefit of a run diversion, as the Wolverines even posted modest success with their infantry vs. two of the tougher rush defenses (Wisconsin & Michigan State) they faced.
The concern of some on the Georgia side is that Smart has talked about giving snaps at QB to USC transfer JT Daniels, who has battled injuries but lost the job to the functional Bennett early in the season, though other SEC insiders are indicating Smart is going to stick with who brought ‘em here in Bennett. With an escape dimension, Bennett has been a pretty good option for Smart, and his mobility would figure to come in handy vs. Michigan’s tackle-machine DE and Heisman finalist Hutchinson, whose 14 sacks alongside LB David Ojabo’s 11 sacks present NFL-level talent for Bennett (or Daniels) to solve. The Bulldog offense (39 PPG), however, has plenty of balance (33 TD passes between the QBs, while the infantry gained nearly 200 ypg), and was probably a bit overlooked because the defense has been so dominant. The defining matchup in Miami, however, comes when the Wolverines have the ball, and if they can’t run like normal, Georgia will have Michigan right where it wants it on Friday.
Pick: Georgia -7.5
Cotton Bowl: No. 4 Cincinnati vs. No. 1 Alabama (-13.5, 59)
3:30 p.m. ET
Burke: History has already been made by the Bearcats: They are the first Group of 5 team to make the College Football Playoff. Will they perform well enough to give hope to other programs in the future or serve as an “I told you so” example for the College Football Playoff Committee?
There is a difference of 71 spots in strength of schedule for Cincinnati and Alabama per Jeff Sagarin. The Crimson Tide played the seventh-ranked schedule, while the Bearcats played the 78th. Cincinnati played only one top-30 team by Sagarin, which is the win over Notre Dame that gave the Bearcats a strong enough profile to be a playoff team.
Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young will face a very stingy defense here and one that undoubtedly has NFL-level talent, particularly in the secondary. He’ll have to do so without top target John Metchie III, who tore his ACL against Georgia. The Crimson Tide running game wasn’t as potent as we’ve seen the last several years with 4.1 yards per carry, but Brian Robinson Jr. will be healthy for this one.
The Alabama offense was in the top 10 in yards per play throughout the season, but the performance against Georgia was what really opened up a lot of eyes. It was the coming-out party for Jameson Williams, who will now draw a lot more attention without Metchie. Williams had a big year, but performed at his highest level when the lights were the brightest.
So did Alabama, at least to a degree. The Tide are a Tank Bigsby slide inbounds away from not being in this game. They are two goal-line stands against LSU away from not being in this game. That performance against Georgia might be the most impressive one of the season, though you could make a strong case for Michigan against Ohio State.
Cincinnati doesn’t really have data points of meaning for most people. The Bearcats won in South Bend, but are short on signature wins otherwise. Houston did beat Auburn in the Birmingham Bowl, but it was a bad game and a really bad showing for Dana Holgorsen, so even the AAC Championship Game win can be picked apart.
All of Cincinnati’s stats are impressive. They’re a top-five offense and defense in yards per play, one of the top teams in turnover margin and + 301 in point differential for the season. The question is how they stack up against the most talented, most accomplished program of the last decade.
Can Cincinnati hold up in the trenches? Can the defensive backs, who shut down AAC receivers, do the same to SEC talents? Can Desmond Ridder continue his high level of play against far and away the best defense he has seen this season? Can the Bearcats, who had 37 sacks during the regular season, disrupt an Alabama team that allowed 35, which ranks tied for 105th in the nation? Can the Bearcats protect Ridder against a Tide defense that had 46 sacks?
Cincinnati was 7-of-17 on field goals during the regular season. That means touchdowns are imperative and the play-calling will have to be aggressive to reflect that. The Bearcats are a great story and they deserve to be in this game. It just looks like they are outgunned and with minimal margin for error. Alabama has only turned the ball over 10 times to this point. How many breaks can Cincinnati reasonably expect?
The Bearcats might be that good, but I’ll pay to see it.
Pick: Alabama -13.5
Tuley: We’ve heard all the arguments against Cincinnati in this CFP semifinal game and all the back-handed compliments that make it seem like the Bearcats should just be “happy to be there” and roll over for the Tide. Fickell has done a great job with the Cincinnati program, BUT he’s going against one of the best college football coaches of all time in Saban, who is especially tough to beat with extra time to prepare. Cincinnati is undefeated, BUT Alabama would be undefeated, too, against an American Athletic Conference schedule. Cincinnati’s stats are similar to Alabama, BUT again the Bearcats did it against lesser mortals while Alabama compiled its stats in the SEC.
But, when trying to determine if Cincinnati can keep up with Alabama, I keep thinking back to Cincinnati’s 24-21 loss to Georgia (yes, of the SEC) back on Jan. 1. The Bearcats actually led 21-10 heading to the fourth quarter and should have won but the Bulldogs rallied for the victory on a 53-yard field goal with :03 left. Ridder, who threw for 206 yards and 2 TDs in that game, came back for his senior season and exactly this chance, and RB Jerome Ford ran for 97 yards and a TD while the defense certainly didn’t look outmanned. SEC apologists will say the game didn’t mean anything to Georgia, but I still say it showed Cincinnati could play with the big boys.
We would love an upset, but more of our money will be on Cincinnati to stay within two touchdowns.
Pick: Cincinnati + 13.5