Once the Army-Navy game is over, it’s officially bowl time. Since 2014, the advent of bowl season really means “playoff time.” Buckeye fans are disappointed this year, of course. But the Rose Bowl is something to look forward to. And the playoffs? They are too.
Shortly after Ohio State lost by a touchdown to Oregon, I wrote a column assessing the Bucks’ playoff chances. At that time, I thought that they were pretty good. I warned that if Georgia and Alabama met in the SEC championship game, and both emerged from that game with no more than one loss, they’d both be in the playoffs. Two spots taken. I argued that I didn’t think that it would happen because I predicted that Bama would lose to Texas A&M and to Auburn. Half right. And if that Auburn guy had gone to the ground instead of letting himself get pulled out of bounds to stop the clock, Bryce Young and the Tide offense probably wouldn’t have had time to drive the field and tie the game in regulation. I was close. But not close enough; they’re both in, just as I feared.
I also predicted that Cincinnati would hold up and finish the season undefeated and, thus, earn the first non-Power Five bid in the short playoff history. And the other team? Never would have dreamed it. I had the Buckeyes as the other team. And they would have been had they won in Ann Arbor.
I’m done with predictions. So, I’m not going to speculate about semifinal games and the championship. I’ll watch them, of course, and I have my favorites. But I will offer some thoughts about the four teams.
No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide
Bama is the team out of these four that is most like Ohio State. It’s built for offense. It’s built for speed. What Bama did to Georgia with its passing game and the big plays for touchdowns is what I thought that the Buckeyes would do to Michigan. The Tide had trouble running against UGA, but it didn’t matter because they prefer the pass anyway. Like the Bucks, Bama has a Heisman finalist quarterback and elite receivers. Hell, their best one even played for Ohio State last year.
Bama also had games where they gave up points (Florida scored 29, Arkansas put up 35, and A&M won with 41 points) and games where the offensive line struggled (LSU and Auburn, in particular). Auburn ate them up until the final drive. But there’s some Bama magic, and here they are: the #1 team, heavily favored against #4 Cincinnati.
No. 2 Michigan Wolverines
It’s hard for me to admit it, but these Wolverines are pretty good. They looked good against the Buckeyes, but I thought that maybe they were just especially jacked for the game, had the big crowd behind them, and had better coaching. Then they decimated Iowa in the Big Ten championship game. Not that Iowa’s that great. But 42-3 is no fluke.
It will be interesting to see how Michigan does in the spotlight. They’ve not been in the playoffs previously. They’ve not played this quality of non-conference competition. Are they still hungry? Or are they satisfied with what they’ve accomplished so far? In either case, they’ll find Georgia to be much like themselves. Tough line play on both sides of the ball. Strong running game (and running defense). Adequate passing attack to complement the run. Cade McNamara will be the key. If he can maintain his poise and his accuracy, the Wolverines have a good shot at advancing to the championship game because Georgia . . . (see next paragraph).
No. 3 Georgia Bulldogs
I live in Savannah. Oh, there’s local interest in Savannah State football (go Tigers!), some minor interest in nearby Georgia Southern, and some less than minor interest in Georgia Tech. But, really, Savannah’s a Bulldog town. All fall, the city’s been decorated with Georgia flags and Dawg paraphernalia. This was the year. Get to the SEC championship, beat Bama (finally), and win it all.
Since becoming Head Coach, Kirby Smart has made the Bulldogs a contender with his recruiting and his defense. This year he’d win it. I admit that I even jumped on the bandwagon. Like many others, I longed to see the Georgia defense take on C.J. Stroud and his offense. Even when that matchup was off the table, I was sure that Georgia would beat Alabama – especially after so many Tide struggles throughout the year. And, after Auburn, I thought that the UGA defensive front would feast on Young. And they did – for about seven minutes. Unfortunately, it’s a 60-minute game.
So now the Bulldogs have to regroup. They’re not what they thought that they were. Are they hoping to beat Michigan for another shot at the Tide – or are they afraid of another humiliation, another bitter disappointment? To beat the Wolverines, the Dawgs will have to put Bama out of their minds. They’ll have to deny that there’s any kind of hex at work here. But frankly, I don’t know if they’ll be able to. Georgia will have superior personnel to Michigan. We all know, however, that that advantage isn’t always enough.
No. 4 Cincinnati Bearcats
I’m sure that many folks regard the Bearcats as a clear outrider, a sentimental favorite, a Cinderella, a flag-carrier for the Group of Five conferences that always get left out. I’ve seen them play quite a few times this year. They’re for real. Not only is Cincinnati the only unbeaten team, they’re also (along with Georgia, clearly) the team that been most dominant throughout the season.
The argument against the Bearcats (and other teams from the non-Power Five conferences) is “no competition.” SMU and Houston were good all year. And the mid-September win against Indiana in Bloomington was thought at the time to say something about the Bearcats. Then there’s the October 2 game in South Bend: Cincy 24, Notre Dame 13. The only loss for the Irish all season. They’re now ranked at #5, just behind the Bearcats (and just ahead of the Buckeyes). Does any of the other playoff teams have as impressive a road win?
Cincinnati should have little pressure on them. They’re happy to be there. Successful to be there. For Alabama, success is a national championship. Period. There’s a huge talent gap here, so it will be really tough for the Bearcats to prevail. Luke Fickell will have his team ready. And they’re experienced, and confident, and have nothing to lose. They may not win, but the 13.5- point spread looks high to me.
Yes, I’d sure like to be watching Cincinnati and Georgia play for the national championship.