On New Year’s Eve, the parties can wait. Thanks for not inviting me, because I’d be rude and antisocial and decline. Because the only thing that matters to me is Alabama vs. Cincinnati, followed by Michigan vs. Georgia. The College Football Playoff is worthy of a party hat – and, depending on how my investments go, maybe a few sips of champagne.
Let’s do this…
No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Cincinnati
The Line: Alabama by 13.5 points.
The Over/Under: 57.5 points
I’m strongly disinclined to go with the predictable narrative here: Alabama has the best athletes, is the champion of the SEC, the strongest conference – so there’s your ballgame. Nothing else to say. Cincinnati? A nice story and an appealing underdog, and America loves the brave little guys when they go against the ginormous titans. And while Cincinnati deserves respect for the undefeated record and the road win at Notre Dame, they’re still a Group of 5 aberration that’s about to be smacked by reality.
Maybe. Possibly. And Alabama is 5-1 in these CFP semifinals, having won their five games by an average of 19.6 points. And Bama’s only loss was to a fellow behemoth – to Ohio State by seven points in 2015. Given the Crimson Tide’s history of blowouts on this stage, and Cincinnati’s problematic regular-season scuffles in wins over conference opponents Navy, Tulane and Tulsa, we know how this will end: Alabama advancing to the championship game to pursue a seventh national title with Nick Saban as coach.
Alabama comes in on a jetstream after taking mighty Georgia apart 17 points in the SEC championship game. Recency bias being what it is, we seem to have experienced memory loss after Alabama’s dominant showing against the Dawgs. Georgia was ranked No. 1 and was said to have an impenetrable defense. But Crimson Tide Bryce Young bombed that defense into the earth, clinched the Heisman Trophy, and lifted Alabama back into the No. 1 ranking.
The 41-24 thrashing made us forget a few things.
Alabama played in more one-score games this season (five) than it did in the previous three seasons combined (four.) The Tide lost by three at Texas A&M and were threatened in close wins over Florida (31-29), LSU (20-14), Arkansas (42-35), and Auburn (24-22.) Bama was about 90 seconds away from being toppled by Auburn, and found itself in a one-score game in the fourth quarter before pulling away from Tennessee.
Now, let me pose this question: I am an SEC honk, but are we really supposed to believe that Cincinnati is a bug that would have been stomped by Florida, LSU, Arkansas, Auburn or Tennessee? Of course not. The Bearacts would have beaten at least some of those teams.
Saban’s invasion of Georgia in the SEC game at Atlanta dramatically changed the perception of Alabama’s power, and we’ve gone back to assuming this is just another Saban-coached monster. That was true in the SEC championship, but it doesn’t necessarily square up to what we saw from Alabama when it played down to the level of the conference teams that nearly beat them.
Saban has somehow convinced his players that they – not Cincinnati – are the team being disrespected and disregarded. Yes, even though Alabama is King of the SEC and a two-touchdown favorite over the team from the middleweight American Athletic Conference? Yes, the Crimson Tide players seem to believe this.
“To me, I still feel like we’re the underdog in this game,” said Bama’s sophomore pass-rushing terror, Will Anderson. “I mean, you know, all year we have been disrespected. I’m pretty sure we’re still probably getting disrespected out there.”
Saban is a master psychologist, but this was an easier sell than we’d think. By its regal standards Alabama was haphazardly inconsistent this season. A young defense didn’t dominate up front in a way we’ve come to expect from Alabama, and the vulnerabilities of an inexperienced Tide secondary got exposed too often. The ineptitude of the Alabama offensive line was stunning at times.
No one – and I mean, no one – viewed Alabama as a threat to Georgia when Saban’s discombobulated team had only three points on the board with fewer than two minutes to play at Auburn. So Saban and the players have the necessary material, and stacks of it: Everyone doubted us. And everyone still doubts us (even if they really don’t.)
Here’s the deal: give credit to Alabama players for fighting to overcome opponents (except Texas A&M) that had them cornered. And Saban and his staff coached this team up, and the younger players got better. The sudden improvement paid off in the whomping of Georgia.
Still, the questions remain: was the win over Georgia the real Alabama, or just an example of a good team that played like a great team on one day? Was the 17-point win more of a reflection on Alabama’s imposing strength or Georgia’s weakness and collapse under pressure?
I don’t know for sure. But I also know that we tend to make Alabama’s problems much bigger than they are. The standards in Tuscaloosa are extremely high, and we exaggerate any sign of Crimson Tide instability. Bottom line: Alabama’s 12-1 record against the 16th toughest schedule in the nation (according to Sagarin) was more impressive than Cincinnati’s unbeaten record against the 77th most difficult schedule.
That said, the Bearcats were under enormous pressure this season because the program carried the weight of the entire Group of 5, and one bad day would have killed their hopes of making it to the four-team playoff. Coach Luke Fickell kept his team calm, and Cincinnati got through it’s wobbly stage of the season to play aggressively and confidently while winning the last four games by an average of 17 points.
“The greatest lesson that we learned throughout the second two-thirds of our season is that we had to stop trying to prove people or live up to an expectation that they wanted us to be,” Fickell said this week. “They wanted us to win this way, and, ‘You’re favored by this so you got to do this. I think it took a toll on us.”
Fickell is a superb defensive coach, the Bearcats have two experienced, NFL-caliber cornerbacks, Alabama is missing the terrific wide receiver James Metchie, and Cincy’s Desmond Ridder is more talented than most of the quarterbacks faced by Alabama this season.
I’m tempted to go with the upset – at least in terms of the point spread – but I can’t quite get there. If that Alabama offensive line holds up against a strong Cincinnati pass rush, Young will make big plays, even against the talented corners in the Bearcat secondary, and no team has slowed St. Louisan Jameson Williams, the dangerous wide receiver with the fastest deep-threat speed in college football. Cincinnati will make every attempt to jam him at the line, but the Cats won’t be able to contain him all night. And Bama’s young receivers had some extra development time since the SEC game. They’ll get involved. Cincinnati will have to account for them.)
I’m also expecting more “boom” from the Alabama rushing game. And Cincinnati better keep an eye on Bryce Young; he’s been taking off on more and more runs, and he’s really a weapon when he runs. I’m thinking he’ll break away a few times. Young is set for his Joe Burrow moment.
The Pick: Alabama, and laying the 13.5. And I’m taking the over.
No. 2 Michigan vs No. 3 Georgia.
The Line: Georgia by 7.5 points.
The Over/Under: 45.5 points.
I love this matchup. These teams are so alike, I don’t know how one side gets away to open a sizable lead. And then there’s the style of play. Pick your cliche: it’ll be a mosh pit, a UFC cage, Wrestlemania, a street brawl. Both offenses can run the ball with beast-mode strength, and both coaches want to wear down the opposing defense with and then bust them up in the second half. Both teams are led by quarterbacks that are more of the game-facilitator types than superstar game–changers. (But I wouldn’t underestimate Michigan’s underrated Cade McNamara.)
Georgia’s defense was shredded by Alabama but deserves a mulligan. If anything this Dawg front seven will come roaring back after being embarrassed by Alabama. This group has immense pride, and I believe we’ll see the best of the Georgia defense. That will make Michigan’s assignment more difficult. I can’t wait to see if St. Louisan Hassan Hoskins – 1,288 yards rushing, 20 touchdowns on the ground – can power his way through the Georgia defensive front. That battleground may determine the outcome. But if Georgia has a true weakness, it’s the secondary. One question: will Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh attack it, or remain determined to win this affair on the ground? The Wolverines want to win it on the grass, but McNamara will have to burn Georgia through the air.
Now that we’ve given a vote of confidence to the Dawg defense … well, what about the Michigan defense? A scary pass rush – led by Heisman finalist Aidan Hutchinson and the disruptive David Ojabo – can ruin everything for Georgia and quarterback Stetson Bennett, who fell apart when Alabama got after him. Georgia coach Kirby Smart could turn to second quarterback J.T. Daniels if needed, and Daniels has more talent. But as I write this, Daniels’ game status is uncertain.
With a full house of players, Michigan has the better secondary in this game, and that’s important – especially if the Bulldogs can clog Michigan’s running lanes. But this is potentially huge: defensive back Daxton Hill – an All-Big Ten selection who can cover wide receivers and tight ends and patrol the run – isn’t in Miami and his availability is a mystery. If Hill is missing from the lineup, freshman Georgia tight end Brock Bowers could have a memorable day. With Hill, is it an injury, or Covid test? Harbaugh won’t say. But he hasn’t ruled out Hill.
I’d feel better about this pick if I knew Hill would play in this semifinal, but I don’t trust Georgia’s quarterback or its secondary and 7.5 points is too much to lay. If this spread would drop to 7 points, or even 6.5 (unlikely), I’d have to reconsider. But right now I’m taking the Wolverines and the 7.5. And I think the 45.5 total is a little low, so I’m inclined to take the under. But I won’t.
Enjoy the games!
Thanks for reading …
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