The 2021 College Football Playoff semifinals are the highlight of New Year’s Eve.
No. 1 Alabama meets No. 4 Cincinnati in the Cotton Bowl Classic at 3:30 p.m. ET. The Crimson Tide are overwhelming 14-point favorites in this matchup. Our entire six-person panel is rolling with Alabama, but does anyone have the Bearcats covering the spread?
No. 2 Michigan meets No. 3 Georgia in the Orange Bowl at 7:30 p.m. ET. The Bulldogs are touchdown-favorites in what should be a fun matchup with Big Ten-SEC heat. Do the Wolverines have enough muscle to push the Bulldogs around?
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The winners advance to the CFP championship game on Jan. 10 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
SN’s staff makes their picks for the College Football Playoff semifinals:
Alabama vs. Cincinnati predictions
Bill Bender: Alabama 40, Cincinnati 20
The Bearcats will come ready, but it’s about surviving the first punch. Alabama has won its last five CFP semifinals by an average of 20.2 points per game, and they have outscored those opponents 89-27 in the first half. Even with offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien (COVID-19) out for the last week, the Crimson Tide should have a tight script for that first quarter. Alabama will get ahead early, and that will pressure quarterback Desmond Ridder into some high-risk decisions in the second half. Bryce Young finishes with three total TDs, and the Crimson Tide put in a TD late to cover that two-TD spread. The Crimson Tide is back in the CFP championship for the sixth time in eight seasons.
SN PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Alabama’s Bryce Young
Bill Trocchi: Alabama 28, Cincinnati 20
Which Alabama are we getting? The one that piled up three whole points in the first 59 minutes against an Auburn defense that ranks No. 33 in the nation in scoring defense? Or the one that lit up No. 1 Georgia for 41 points in the SEC championship game? John Metchie’s injury will be a factor, because Cincinnati can take away Alabama’s No. 1 receiver in Jameson Williams by adding a safety to one of their All-American corners. That leaves some inexperienced options for Young. But the Tide will still be able to generate enough offense to stay in front of the Bearcats. Alabama linebacker Will Anderson Jr. tends to disrupt any offense he sees, though the Bearcats offense is No. 6 nationally in yards per play. Cincinnati keeps it close, but Alabama’s advantage at quarterback proves to be the difference.
BENDER: Betting trends ahead of Alabama-Cincinnati
Zac Al-Khateeb: Alabama 42, Cincinnati 28
Cincinnati is deserving of this stage, featuring playmakers at several positions, especially Ridder and running back Jerome Ford. They also have two All-American corners in Ahmad Gardner and Coby Bryant to challenge Young and Williams. But are the Bearcats able to upset the defending national champions? If Alabama plays the way it did against Georgia in the SEC championship game, then no one is. But it’s up to Nick Saban to make sure his team — 13.5-point favorites — rejects the rat poison it so readily consumed in its last game.
TROCCHI: Why aren’t more fans embracing underdog Cincinnati?
Mike DeCourcy: Alabama 27, Cincinnati 17
The biggest concern the Bearcats have in this game is whether their middling offensive line can hold up against Alabama’s front. The Tide’s total of 42 sacks this season is imposing, and they allowed only 81.4 rushing yards per game. Cincinnati’s read option game will not move easily against this force, and it will not move at all if the line can’t keep Alabama’s defenders out of the backfield.
There are many who expect a blowout, including the folks in charge of setting the line, and that certainly can’t be ruled out given the history of this event’s semifinal rounds. Blowouts are what happens more than 70 percent of the time. If one chooses to consider a 10-point margin to be a “blowout” in order to bolster a Twitter argument against Cincinnati’s legitimacy, so be it. I expect the game to be more competitive than not.
SN COACH OF THE YEAR: Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell
Vinnie Iyer: Alabama 42, Cincinnati 38
The college football Power 5 cabal wants Alabama to win big to restore “order” to their perfectly flawed system. They don’t want NFL-like parity to make their sport more national and push it toward the 21st century, despite the fact the Bearcats, playing in the disrespectfully titled Group of 5, which sounds like Chicago Seven or Gang of Four on purpose, have their share of NFL-like talent, starting with a veteran quarterback in Ridder.
Young won the Heisman as the second-best player on his team, and he’s the difference-maker here as Anderson and the Bama defense realize a team not in the SEC can occasionally play a high level of offense. Saban is great, but Luke Fickell is pretty darn good even though he’s not leaving for Notre Dame. Cincy is a little motivated to make an unnecessary statement despite a dominant season, while Bama admittedly looks a little ahead to a Georgia rematch that actually won’t happen.
Matt Lutovsky: Alabama 45, Cincinnati 17
It’s unoriginal to pick an Alabama blowout here, but one of these games seemingly always is, and this fits the profile. We know Alabama can dominate on both sides of the ball, and for all the good things Cincinnati has done this year, it’s yet to do them against an offense or defense as good as Alabama’s. The talent disparity will eventually show itself and Alabama will pull away, with Saban showing no mercy.
Michigan vs. Georgia predictions
Bill Bender: Georgia 29, Michigan 21
Michigan has a top-10 rushing attack, and it comes down to whether that offensive line can get a push up front against Georgia’s top-ranked scoring defense. On the flip side, Michigan needs to generate a consistent pass rush on Stetson Bennett, especially on third downs. Michigan has lost three straight bowl games against SEC schools, but this is a different team playing with a ton of confidence. It won’t surprise us if the Wolverines lead at half, but the Bulldogs will make the right adjustments in the second half. Bennett hits Brock Bowers for a pair of TDs, and Georgia holds on with a last-minute stop.
Bill Trocchi: Georgia 24, Michigan 17
For folks worried about the flaws Alabama exposed in Georgia’s defense during the SEC championship game, Michigan simply doesn’t profile like Alabama. The Tide rank No. 79 in rushing offense and No. 7 in passing, and they passed all over Georgia for 421 yards. Michigan, however, is built like a lot of teams Georgia has dominated this season. The Wolverines stand No. 10 in rushing offense and No. 67 in passing. That is similar to Arkansas (12, 73), Kentucky (23, 72), Florida (22, 47) and Tennessee (19, 56). Georgia held those four run-first teams to an average of 9.3 points per game. The Bulldogs aren’t exactly going to light up the Wolverines on the other side of the ball, but they will have enough to set up a rematch with Alabama in the national championship game.
BENDER: Betting trends ahead of Georgia-Michigan
Zac Al-Khateeb: Georgia 27, Michigan 24
The Orange Bowl matchup between Georgia and Michigan features two similarly built teams, both of whose primary strength is defense. They rank first and fourth, respectively, in scoring defense by giving up 9.5 points and 16.1 points per game. This game will be determined by the battle of the trenches. How will Georgia’s vaunted front seven, led by the likes of Jordan Davis and Nakobe Dean, handle Michigan’s Joe Moore Award-winning line? If they can keep Michigan quarterback Cade McNamara uncomfortable, then Bennett should be able to make enough plays on the other side of the ball to lead a narrow victory.
Mike DeCourcy: Michigan 20, Georgia 18
Let’s be totally honest here: The Wolverines have broken better offenses than the one they’re about to face. Their game against Ohio State was all about ensuring that Heisman finalist C.J. Stroud and his trio of elite receivers were unable to control the game, and Michigan pulled that off beautifully.
The biggest question for the Wolverines is how many points they’ll have to score to win, and whether they can get there against Georgia’s terrific defense. Georgia played poorly against Alabama both strategically and situationally, and that did beg the question of how much of the Bulldogs’ overwhelming regular season was the product of their terrific roster, and how much was the product of the SEC East – aside from the member residing in Athens, Ga., and, to a lesser extend, the one in Lexington, Ky. – falling over a competitive cliff.
Michigan found a way to generate 21 points against a Penn State defense that ranked No. 7 in scoring D. It won’t be easy to get there in this one, but the Wolverines will find a way.
Vinnie Iyer: Michigan 20, Georgia 17
Jim Harbaugh reminded everyone he’s an elite coach in finally solving Ohio State and the rest of the Big Ten East, which is the equivalent of also being the best team in an overrated conference that isn’t as overrated as the SEC. As neither team has a real quarterback of note, going against the grain of modern passing-based American football, this should be a grinding defensive-minded game with a lot of Zamir White and Hassan Haskins running for fewer than 3.3 yards per carry. Harbaugh’s team is allegedly named after everyone’s favorite X-Man, and their style is older than Logan himself. Kirby Smart is rather “intelligent” in scheming defense, but he’s not “brilliant” in big-game coaching. Just like that episode of “Saved the Bell” where he played himself and the 1995 AFC championship game against the Colts, Harbs turns in a tour de force to to curb the natty enthusiasm of Kirbs.
Matt Lutovsky: Georgia 24, Michigan 23
Michigan is riding high, and Georgia will have something to prove after getting beat down by ‘Bama, but this matchup could go a variety of ways. Like so many games, it might come down to turnovers. If one team gets a couple early, it could turn into a blowout. If both teams are careful with the ball, it should play pretty even. Georgia has a slight edge in overall talent, and that will ultimately be the difference.