College Football Playoff preview: Keys to Alabama-Cincinnati, Michigan-Georgia

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What to expect from Alabama-Cincinnati (1:31)

Kirk Herbstreit and Jesse Palmer break down Alabama's College Football Playoff game vs. Cincinnati. (1:31)

So much for a complete transformation in the College Football Playoff.

With CFP mainstays Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma not advancing to their respective conference championship games, and Alabama looking rather ordinary over the last month of the season, there seemed to be a good chance we would have four not-so-familiar participants in this season's playoff.

No. 1 Georgia had only appeared in the playoff once, No. 2 Michigan had never been before, and No. 4 Cincinnati was trying to become the first team from a Group of 5 conference to crash the big boys' party.

So as long as the Bulldogs took down defending national champion Alabama in Saturday night's SEC championship game, there was a chance none of the playoff's usual suspects would be around this year.

Yeah, right.

College football isn't about to crown a national champion without the Crimson Tide in the mix, and they'll be back in the playoff for the seventh time in eight years after a stunning 41-24 victory over the Bulldogs on Saturday night. After being an underdog for the first time in 93 games, Alabama is the favorite to win it again.

"I think what these guys really wanted to gain was more respect," Saban said Saturday night. "Not just the fact that they were underdogs, because I think we had a tremendous amount of respect for Georgia, their team, and what they accomplished. But you guys gave us a lot of really positive rat poison. The rat poison that you usually give us is usually fatal, but the rat poison that you put out there this week was yummy."

Here's a look at the CFP semifinals on New Year's Eve:

No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide vs. No. 4 Cincinnati Bearcats
College Football Playoff Semifinal at Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic
When: Friday, Dec. 31 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Where: AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas
How to watch: ESPN and ESPN App
Opening line from Caesars Sportsbook: Alabama (-13.5)

Just when the Crimson Tide looked rather ordinary in closer-than-expected victories over LSU, Arkansas and Auburn at the end of the regular season, they manhandled Georgia in Atlanta. The Tide will head into the playoff as the top seed and favorite to win their seventh national championship under coach Nick Saban, which would break his tie with legendary coach Paul "Bear" Bryant for most titles won at Alabama (Saban also won one at LSU in 2003, and his seven overall are the most in the sport's history).

The Bearcats were the only FBS team to finish the season unbeaten after taking down Houston 35-20 in Saturday's AAC championship game. They'll become the first team from a Group of 5 conference to appear in the playoff and will face the monumental task of trying to knock off the Crimson Tide.

Key player for Alabama: QB Bryce Young. If Young wasn't at the top of most Heisman Trophy ballots before the SEC championship game, he probably is now after dismantling Georgia's top-ranked defense. Young, a redshirt freshman, completed 26 of 44 passes for 421 yards with three touchdowns and ran for 40 yards with one more score against the Bulldogs. His passing total was the fourth highest against a No. 1-ranked team in the past 15 seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. His 461 yards of total offense was the most by any player in the SEC championship game. Young is poised and smooth, and he rarely makes mistakes.

Key player for Cincinnati: QB Desmond Ridder. He was named AAC Offensive Player of the Year in each of the last two seasons, and he is the Bearcats' all-time leader in passing touchdowns and the AAC leader in total yards and touchdown responsibility. He threw for 190 yards with three touchdowns on 11-for-17 passing against Houston. It was his fifth game this season with at least three passing touchdowns; he had six such games in his first three seasons at Cincinnati combined. In 13 games this year, Ridder has completed 65.9% of his passes for 3,190 yards with 30 touchdowns and eight picks. He never lost a home game at Cincinnati, going 26-0 at Nippert Stadium. ESPN's Todd McShay rates him as the fourth-best quarterback available for the 2022 NFL draft.

Matchup to watch: Alabama receivers vs. Cincinnati secondary, Ahmad "Sauce" Gardner. A junior from Detroit, Gardner is one of the best cover cornerbacks in the FBS, and he will have the unenviable task of trying to contain Alabama receiver Jameson Williams, who lit up Georgia's secondary in Atlanta. Williams had seven catches for 184 yards with two scores, with 58 yards coming after the catch. Going into the AAC title game, Gardner had allowed just 14 receptions on 32 targets in 12 games and had never allowed a touchdown in his career. His teammate, Coby Bryant, was one of three finalists for the Jim Thorpe Award, which is given to the best defensive back in the FBS.

X factor: Alabama's experience in the CFP. The Crimson Tide have appeared in all but one CFP in the last eight years, while Cincinnati is making its first appearance. Will the stage be too big for the Bearcats?

Cincinnati played well against Georgia in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl after the 2020 season, and the Bulldogs won 24-21 on Jack Podlesny's 53-yard field goal with three seconds to go. But the Bulldogs were missing a handful of starters because of opt-outs and injuries. Still, Ridder played well, throwing for 206 yards and two touchdowns, and tailback Jerome Ford nearly had 100 yards rushing.


No. 2 Michigan Wolverines vs. No. 3 Georgia Bulldogs
College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Capital One Orange Bowl
When: Friday, Dec. 31 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Where: Hard Rock Stadium, Miami Gardens, Florida
How to watch: ESPN and ESPN App
Opening line from Caesars Sportsbook: Georgia (-7.5)

Georgia was the most dominant team this season until it was flattened by its nemesis, Alabama. The Bulldogs didn't have a ton of meat on their regular-season schedule, so were they really the best team in the FBS or just that much better than the mediocre teams they played? Was the SEC championship game simply a bad night, or were they exposed as a vastly overrated team?

We'll have to wait three more weeks to find out, when the Bulldogs take the field again against the Wolverines. Michigan has been one of the biggest surprises of the season, and its effort has even restored Jim Harbaugh's reputation as one of the better coaches in the country. After blowing up his staff and taking a pay cut, Harbaugh guided the Wolverines to a Big Ten championship and their first victory over rival Ohio State in a decade. It is Michigan's first 12-win season since 1997 and first conference title since 2004.

The Bulldogs and Wolverines are very much alike in terms of style, although Georgia takes more downfield shots in the passing game. Both teams rely on stingy defenses and the running game to control the clock. What is remarkable is that Michigan started playing football in 1879 and Georgia started 13 years later -- but they've only met one time on the field. The Bulldogs won 15-7 at the Big House in 1965, which was Vince Dooley's second season.

Key player for Michigan: RB Hassan Haskins. The Wolverines led the Big Ten in rushing, and Haskins, a senior from St. Louis, is a big reason why. He had 100 yards or more in six of his team's first 12 games this season, including 169 with five touchdowns against Ohio State, 156 against Penn State and 168 against Indiana. The Bulldogs went into the SEC championship ranked third in the FBS in run defense, allowing only 78.9 yards per game. They surrendered 115 to the Crimson Tide but just 4.4 yards per carry. The Wolverines don't ask quarterback Cade McNamara to do too much in the passing game, so Haskins is going to have to churn out yards on first and second downs to keep the chains moving. With two more rushing touchdowns against Iowa in the Big Ten title game, giving him 20 for the year, Haskins broke a 55-year-old single-season record.

Key player for Georgia: TE Brock Bowers. With star George Pickens going down in the spring with a torn ACL, and myriad other wideouts battling injuries throughout the regular season, Bowers had been the one steady force in the passing game. A freshman from Napa Valley, California, Bowers set a UGA single-season record for tight ends with 11 touchdown catches. At 6-foot-4, 230 pounds, Bowers is a nightmare matchup for opposing defenses with his speed and route running. He had 10 catches for 139 yards with one score against Alabama, setting a record for receptions by a tight end in an SEC championship game.

Matchup to watch: Georgia offensive line vs. Michigan defensive line. The Bulldogs went into the SEC championship game ranked among the country's best in sacks allowed with only eight in the first 12 games. But Georgia surrendered three to the Crimson Tide, and the Bulldogs didn't get much push in the running game, averaging just 3.6 yards per carry. Michigan end Aidan Hutchinson has been a one-man wrecking crew for the Wolverines in 2021, setting a single-season record with 14 sacks. Michigan had 33 sacks and 66 tackles for loss going into Saturday's Big Ten championship game against Iowa. McShay rates Hutchinson as the No. 5 prospect overall and the No. 2 defensive end, behind Oregon's Kayvon Thibodeaux, for the 2022 NFL draft.

X factor: Georgia QB Stetson Bennett. Bennett, a former walk-on, had been good for most of the regular season, avoiding mistakes and taking care of the football. But he had two interceptions against the Crimson Tide, including Jordan Battle's pick-six that gave the Tide a three-touchdown lead early in the fourth quarter. And the Bulldogs couldn't take advantage of red zone chances until it was too late.

It wasn't all bad for Bennett. He completed 29 of 48 passes for 340 yards with three scores, but the mistakes were glaring. However, don't look for Smart and his staff to go back to former starter JT Daniels. The onetime USC transfer has attempted only 33 passes since his last start, a 40-13 victory against South Carolina on Sept. 18. That's considerable rust to knock off this late in the season, and with so much at stake, they're more than likely going to keep their wagon hitched to Bennett.

"We have a decision to make every week at every position, but I have the utmost confidence in Stetson Bennett," Smart said. "I think he did some really nice things [Saturday night]. We go and reevaluate everything all the time, but he played well. It's a tough environment we put him in defensively, and we have to be able to run the ball and have a little bit of semblance of balance. I felt like there were times [Saturday night] where we were getting into a scoring contest because our defense didn't get stops, and you don't want to have to do that."