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Big Game Hunting: Here’s how the College Football Playoff semis will go down

Alabama or Cincinnati? Michigan or Georgia? The picks are in for those bowl games and nine others taking place before New Year’s Day.

2021 Big Ten Championship - Iowa v Michigan
Erick All and Hassan Haskins celebrate a Michigan touchdown in the Big Ten championship game.
Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

For months, Georgia looked every bit the part of the best college football team in the land. Really, it wasn’t even close. But then Alabama came along in the SEC championship game and did Alabama things. The Crimson Tide put the Bulldogs in their place in a 41-24 wipeout and made a lot of us feel foolish for expecting things to turn out any other way.

But let’s not talk about the potential Tide-Dogs rematch so many are anticipating on Jan. 10 in Indianapolis.

Let’s talk instead about the College Football Playoff semifinals: No. 1 Alabama (-13½) vs. No. 4 Cincinnati (2:30 p.m. Friday, ESPN) in the Cotton Bowl in Arlington, Texas, and No. 2 Michigan (+7.5) vs. No. 3 Georgia (6:30 p.m. Friday, ESPN) in the Orange Bowl in Miami Gardens, Florida.

Can we just be honest with one another here? The Bearcats showing up at AT&T Stadium for a playoff game against Alabama is kind of like your overalls-clad Cousin Earl staggering into the Union League Club for dinner with the Pritzkers.

Look, I’m not saying the Group of Five power didn’t earn its shot. What I’m saying is Cincy has no shot. The Bearcats are a heck of a team, but so were Florida State in 2014, Michigan State in 2015, Ohio State in 2017, Notre Dame in 2018 and Oklahoma in 2019. Those teams lost their semifinal games by an average of 34 points. Five other semifinalists have lost by at least 17 points. That’s 10 blowouts in 14 semifinal games in the playoff’s brief history. And most fans want this thing to expand? Hey, happy snoozefest when it happens.

2021 SEC Championship - Georgia v Alabama
Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Bearcats quarterback Desmond Ridder is experienced, smart and dependable, but he hasn’t seen a defense with athletes like Alabama’s in his life. The Tide’s Bryce Young, on the other hand, spun Georgia’s “D” full of NFLers like a top. There’s a talent gap between the QBs that exists similarly in most, if not all, position groups and up and down the teams’ rosters. We all know that, don’t we? Tide by — you guessed it — 34.

Much more evenly matched and compelling is Michigan against Georgia. Each team has essentially a caretaker QB, though Michigan’s Cade McNamara and Georgia’s Stetson Bennett have had moments of excellence. Each team has a superstar up front on defense, Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson a sack machine and Georgia’s Jordan Davis demanding extra attention from blockers on all run downs. And each team has been tough and clutch all season, with one bitter exception — Michigan gagging away a huge lead at Michigan State and Georgia falling apart against Alabama.

As is the case with every game, COVID-19 could be a hidden factor. Georgia’s JT Daniels, easily one of the most talented No. 2 QBs in the country, will be unavailable after testing positive. If anything happens to Bennett during this game, the Bulldogs will be in serious trouble. But it seems every team — in every sport — has concerns along those lines.

Can the Wolverines run with the Dogs on the edges and in the open field? That’s the question I keep coming back to. It sure wasn’t an issue against Ohio State, though. And the Dogs themselves were a step slow against Alabama. Holy khakis: Go Blue, 26-24.

OTHER BOWL GAMES

Liberty: Texas Tech (+9½) vs. Mississippi State (5:45 p.m. Tuesday, ESPN): Mike Leach coaches the Bulldogs against the school he claims still owes him millions. Watch his QB, Will Rogers, chuck at least 50 passes as the Red Raiders try but fail to keep up. Cowbell, 41-24.

Guaranteed Rate: Minnesota (-4½) vs. West Virginia (9:15 p.m. Tuesday, ESPN): The Gophers have played terrific football for two months, the exception being a strangely punchless performance against Illinois. Ask Purdue, Northwestern and Wisconsin how tough these dudes are up front. Row the Boat, 24-16.

Indiana v Maryland
Taulia Tagovailoa
Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images

Pinstripe: Virginia Tech (+3) vs. Maryland (1:15 p.m. Wednesday, ESPN): It’s Terps QB Taulia Tagovailoa’s time to shine against a fellow 6-6 team dealing with major transition in its coaching staff. Terps, 31-24 at Yankee Stadium.

Cheez-It: No. 19 Clemson (-1) vs. Iowa State (4:45 p.m. Wednesday, ESPN): The Tigers probably will take a run at the playoff next season, but they’ve been dealing with chemistry issues all season and now are down both coordinators. The Cyclones have underachieved, too. ISU by a kick.

Alamo: No. 14 Oregon (+4½) vs. No. 16 Oklahoma (8:15 p.m. Wednesday, ESPN): Coaches Mario Cristobal and Lincoln Riley are out of the picture, suggesting this one could go any number of ways. But, come on, Bob Stoops? Even if it’s for one game only, having an all-time great run the show has to mean something. Boomer, 34-26.

Music City: Tennessee (-4½) vs. Purdue (2 p.m. Thursday, ESPN): The Boilermakers are without their two best players, wideout David Bell and pass rusher George Karlaftis. That pretty much makes Purdue — how to put this? — Purdue. Rocky Top, 27-17.

Peach: No. 10 Michigan State (-2½) vs. No. 12 Pittsburgh (6 p.m. Thursday, ESPN): No running back Kenneth Walker Jr. for the Spartans? That’s a heck of a blow. But no quarterback Kenny Pickett for the Panthers? That’s an even bigger blow. Sparty by three in Atlanta.

Las Vegas: Wisconsin (-6½) vs. Arizona State (9:30 p.m. Thursday, ESPN): Both teams have been inconsistent and frustrating to watch this season, but Paul Chryst’s 6-1 bowl record with the Badgers is mighty impressive. U-Rah-Rah, 27-17.

Gator: No. 17 Wake Forest (-13) vs. Rutgers (10 a.m. Friday, ESPN): It’s nice of the Scarlet Knights to show up in Texas A&M’s stead, but they can’t hold the Aggies jocks — and they can’t hang with the Demon Deacons whatsoever. Deacs, 41-10.

Championship week: 4-4 straight-up, 3-5 against the spread.

Season to date: 89-41-1 straight-up, 69-60-2 against the spread.