Two unexpected teams entered the weekend dreaming of their first national championship appearance in the College Football Playoff era. Two familiar teams emerged from the weekend booking their expected appearance in the national championship game.
The performance of SEC powerhouses Alabama and Georgia in their domination of Cincinnati and Michigan respectively was such that the debate to expand the Playoff from four teams has opened up again. Cincinnati had defied the odds to become the first non-Power 5 conference team, outside the Southeastern, Big Ten, Big 12, Atlantic Coast and Pacific-12, to reach the vaunted end of season decider. Michigan, meanwhile, tore up the preseason previews to reach a semi-final where many gave them a 50-50 chance of upsetting the long term No.1 this season, Georgia.
No.1 Alabama 27-6 No.4 Cincinnati
76,313 fans packed into Arlington's AT&T Stadium to see if Cincinnati, the Cinderella team of the College Football Playoff, could prise the glass slipper away from Alabama, the dominant college football force in recent seasons.
The Bearcats must have wished Alabama running back Brian Robinson was wearing glass slippers last Friday night. The 6'1", 225 lb running back, in his 53rd game for the Crimson Tide, ran for a career-high 204 yards, averaging an impressive 7.8 yards per carry. Alabama wore down Cincinnati early with their pounding running game, opening up play action opportunities for quarterback Bryce Young to throw. After star receiver Jameson Williams had dragged two defenders away to the back of the end zone, Young threw to the front, completing an 8-yard touchdown pass to Slade Bolden to give Alabama the lead. Not a good omen for Cincinnati. Alabama had won 47 of their last 48 games when taking the lead.
The Bearcats responded by driving the ball efficiently downfield to Alabama's red zone. Sensing their momentum growing, Nick Saban called a defensive timeout to stall Cincinnati and give Alabama a chance to regroup. The wily coach's tactic took the sting out of the Bearcats' attack and restricted them to a field goal.
Alabama's run attack punched their way through the Cincinnati defensive line, racking up 172 rushing yards in the first half. Robinson accounted for 134 of them. The underdogs, by contrast, could only muster 76 total yards of offense.
Alabama's defensive backs zeroed in on Desmond Ridder, reading his looks as he wound up to throw, knocking down three of his passes. Cincinnati's quarterback, exposed by a frail offensive line at this level, showed why he has admirers in NFL front offices. He rallied his troops between plays with a refusal to succumb to Alabama's voracious defense. A sidestep away from Christian Harris and Henry To'oTo'o with 54 seconds left put Cincinnati within range of a touchdown strike. Tide freshman Dallas Turner sacked Ridder, leaving the Bearcats with a 4th and 14 on their own 49-yard line and two seconds left on the clock. Running for his life to try and find some space to lauch the ball downfield, Ridder couldn't escape the clutches of the outstanding linebacker Will Anderson, whose sack ended the first half with an emphatic exclamation mark, with Alabama up 17-3.
Cincinnati's defense was holding up admirably against Bryce Young, harassing Alabama's quarterback throughout the first half. We had to wait for the second quarter to see Jameson Williams test the famed Cincinnati corners, Ahmad "Sauce" Gardner and Coby Bryant. Gardner tackled Williams for a 1-yard loss and Alabama thought twice about Young throwing down the sidelines. Offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien moved Williams infield into the absent John Metchie's third down specialist role, making some critical conversions. Heisman Trophy winner Young showed his class, ghosting past the onrushing Bearcat defenders, flipping the ball sideways to the inspired Robinson to move Alabama downfield.
Cincinnati's front five did a better job protecting Ridder early in the third quarter and a promising drive finished with an overthrow to Michael Young in the end zone, meaning the Bearcats had to settle for a 37-yard Cole Smith field goal to bring them within 11 points. Cincinnati defensive back picked off Bryce Young for the first turnover of the game and there was the briefest of senses that this game might change momentum.
Alabama's defense, who didn't concede a touchdown all game, hadn't read that script. They sent Cincinnati's defense off the field with another three and out series of downs. Their offense smothered the life out of the remainder of the game, a controlled nine-play 70-yard drive resulted in a Bryce Young touchdown pass to tight end Cameron Latu, opening up a 24-6 lead.
A 43-yard Will Reichard field goal for Alabama with just over six minutes left was the final scoring play, Cincinnati again turning the ball over on downs late in the quarter allowed Alabama to run the ball, and the clock out en route to record a sixth straight semi-final win.
No fairy tale ending to Cincinnati's historic year, but they will have more opportunities to go to the Ball. The glass slipper didn't quite fit this season. Alabama gets to try theirs on again against Georgia for another national championship.
No.3 Georgia 34-11 No.2 Michigan
Hard Rock Stadium in Miami was the setting for an intriguing second CFP Semi-Final. Michigan, having so convincingly rid themselves of the question whether they could finally overcome Ohio State and win the Big Ten, came up against a Georgia team under the same scrutiny following a humbling SEC championship loss to Alabama.
Georgia's answer was delivered fairly emphatically in the first quarter. The Bulldogs' first two drives resulted in touchdowns. Blake Bowers, the outstanding freshman tight end, caught three passes on Georgia's opening drive, the final catch resulting in an 8-yard opening touchdown, his 12th of a breakout first year. Georgia's defense stopped the Wolverines. Their overwhelming play gives the offense a great starting platform and Georgia took advantage. Running back James Cook, playing in his home town of Miami, was inspired and allowed offensive coordinator Todd Monken to mix up the play, short throws out wide for Stetson Bennett and power runs up the middle from Cook and Zamir White.
Running back Kenny McIntosh rolled out right and passed to Adonai Mitchell for an 18-yard touchdown that put Georgia 14-0 up in the first quarter and seemed to knock the stuffing out of Michigan.
Three subsequent plays showed the versatility and dominance of the Georgia defence. The first play saw the coverage of the Bulldogs' secondary which gave Michigan quarterback Cade McNamara no options to throw to. Their swarming defense sacked him on second down and the third down play saw the impressive linebacker Nakobe Dean tackle Georgia back Blake Corum in the backfield and force Michigan to punt.
The second quarter opened with a 43-yard Jack Podlesny field goal which extended Georgia's lead to 17-0. A 43-yard Cade McNamara pass to Roman Wilson put Michigan in the red zone but Nakobe Dean's sack dropped the Wolverines back 8 yards. Michigan settled for a 36-yard Jake Moody field goal to put them on the board. The Wolverines' largest deficit of the season had previously been four points, so they were facing an uphill battle,
Stetson Bennett, much maligned this season in some quarters, was thriving in the protection he was receiving from his offensive line. The heralded Michigan pass rush of Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo, was stopped in its tracks. Michigan didn't record a single sack and gave up 518 yards of total offense. Bennett completed 21 of 31 passes for 310 yards and three touchdowns and seemed reborn after a frustrating run out against Alabama. Georgia's quarterback was brimming with confidence, launching a 53-yard pass down the sidelines on third down to James Cook, a drive ending with a 28-yard Podlesny field goal.
Georgia's defense held up Michigan's dual running threat of Corum and Hassan Haskins and Bennett unleashed a 57-yard touchdown pass to Jermaine Burton. A nightmare of a first half for Michigan concluded with an interception for Georgia with 1:28 left in the half. Georgia, 27-3 up, were dominant and had an opportunity to kill the game off. Head coach Kirby Smart led his team off the field at the half, screaming at his quarterback Bennett for running the clock down and not going for the jugular.
Michigan started the second half brightly, Erick All making two crucial catches to keep the drive going, with Hassan Haskins running the ball well. A wayward McNamara throw was picked off by cornerback Derion Kendrick for his second interception of the game, snuffing out a promising drive for Michigan. McNamara was pulled for J.J. McCarthy, having passed for just 106 yards.
Three consecutive Michigan possessions resulted in turnovers and a 39-yard touchdown pass from Bennett to Cook put Georgia out of sight at 34-3. Michigan's offense rallied with the freshman quarterback McCarthy at the help, his ability to scramble helped mix up the Wolverine's attacking options. A 35-yard touchdown pass to Andrel Anthony and two-point conversion salvaged some pride for Michigan but it was too little, too late and Georgia move on to a revenge match against SEC foes Alabama in the title game.
Michigan's memorable season drew to a close. Coach Jim Harbaugh, interviewed by ESPN after the game said: "This is the start. In Michigan history, it is one of the best teams ever."
Linked with a possible move to the NFL and the Las Vegas Raiders in recent days, you wonder if he will remain in Ann Arbor to help write their next chapter.