Alabama did the impossible by shredding a vaunted Georgia defense en route to an SEC Championship victory and the No. 1 seed in the College Football Playoff. The Crimson Tide will square off against the first Group of Five representative in the CFP era in the undefeated Cincinnati Bearcats. Georgia, meanwhile, dropped to the No. 3 spot and will go up against Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan Wolverines, who are making their playoff debut after blowing out the Iowa Hawkeyes, 42-3, in the Big Ten Championship game.
The 2021 college football playing field was as level as it's been in several years, but Georgia looked like a different animal and the clear-cut favorite to win the national championship. Yet, the Bulldogs’ 17-point loss to Alabama on Saturday showed they are vulnerable just like everyone else.
As Ole Miss head coach Lane Kiffin once said, “Get your popcorn ready” — this CFP is going to be a memorable one. Let’s dive into what we saw happen with each of the four teams during championship weekend and preview the two matchups.
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NO. 1 ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE vs. NO. 4 CINCINNATI BEARCATS
Friday, Dec. 31 | ESPN
Cotton Bowl: AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas
“That rat poison you put out there this week was yummy.” — Alabama head coach Nick Saban to the media after defeating Georgia as 6.5-point underdogs
Alabama played close to perfect against college football’s No. 1 defense. The pass-protection woes that plagued the offense all year long — including in Week 13’s 4OT Iron Bowl win — weren’t a significant issue. Quarterback Bryce Young wasn’t sacked once, and the Crimson Tide offensive line was responsible for only five pressures allowed on 50 dropbacks. And even when Young was under duress, he still made plays. He took all three of his scramble runs for gains of 10 or more yards and posted a 78.3 passing grade against the Dawgs’ blitzes, taking them in stride.
Young also completed 10-of-17 passes for 283 yards and three touchdowns on attempts of 10 or more yards downfield. Prior to the contest, Georgia’s defense allowed only two touchdown passes on throws over 10 yards downfield across 12 regular-season games. And both of those came in the fourth quarter of blowouts. Young earned a PFF grade above 80.0 for the game to bring his season-long mark to 92.7, which is on pace to be the highest grade from a non-draft-eligible quarterback in the PFF College era.
Most EPA per pass vs Georgia's D in 2021 (no garbage time)
South Carolina: -0.17
— Anthony Treash (@PFF_Anthony) December 5, 2021
Young made high-level throw after high-level throw against Georgia. It also helps to have a wide receiver like Biletnikoff finalist Jameson Williams:
This is high level and detailed stuff from Jameson Williams. Slight jab step off the line to open up the hips of the CB then sinks his hips at the top of the stutter and go then flashes his hands late on the catch. pic.twitter.com/Gd4E6SRHte
— Jordan Reid (@Jordan_Reid) December 4, 2021
Now the question is, should we expect this same kind of Alabama team in the College Football Playoff?
This was undoubtedly the best performance from the Crimson Tide’s offensive line all year long in terms of limiting pressure. There were a few instances of a free rusher getting in Young’s face, but that wasn’t enough to make a dent in the outcome. It was an outstanding performance from the entire offense, including the coaching staff. Regardless of whether Alabama continues to shine the playoff, one thing is for certain: Young is perhaps the best processor at the quarterback position in college football. Cincinnati’s pass rush is going to need to get after him quickly to prevent Alabama from running up the score.
The Bearcats’ defense could do so if the Tide’s pass protection regresses to its regular-season mean. Cincinnati sacked Houston quarterback Clayton Tune eight times in its 35-20 win in the AAC Championship game. The Bearcats generated a 61% pressure rate for the game, which was over 20 percentage points higher than any other team for the week. Most of those sacks came via blitzes, but the four-man rush still got home at an extraordinary rate. The coverage on the backend with outside cornerback Sauce Gardner leading the way was once again great. The man-to-man defense mixed with the pressure eliminated explosive pass plays for the Cougars, who completed only one pass over 20 yards downfield for the game.
The performance of Cincinnati’s defense against the Crimson Tide offense is key, but so is Bearcats quarterback Desmond Ridder. He earned an 80.9 passing grade against Houston while completing three deep balls for 90 yards and two touchdowns despite attempting just 17 passes. Ridder is the second-highest-graded passer in the country since Week 10 thanks to that deep-ball prowess. He has completed 17-of-33 passes over 20 yards downfield for 554 yards and eight touchdowns in that span.
NO. 2 MICHIGAN WOLVERINES vs. NO. 3 GEORGIA BULLDOGS
Friday, Dec. 31 | ESPN
Orange Bowl: Hard Rock Stadium, Miami, FL
Georgia’s pass rush was largely ineffective against Alabama on Saturday. No player in the front-seven earned a pass-rush grade above 70.0 in the SEC Championship game. In the regular season, six players eclipsed that mark. Pair that with poor coverage on the backend from the defensive backfield, and you have yourself a bad performance from the pass defense. Georgia earned a 47.1 coverage grade for the game, its lowest mark of the season by nearly 20 points.
We must, however, remember this defense led the country in nearly every defensive metric across the campaign. The unit held opposing offenses to negative EPA per play in all 12 regular-season games before surrendering 0.32 EPA per play to Alabama this past weekend. It was an all-time low performance for the Bulldogs and an all-time high performance for the Tide. But as is the case for Alabama, positive regression should be expected for Georgia.
The bigger concern for the Bulldogs entering the College Football Playoff is at quarterback, especially if the team falls behind. Stetson Bennett enjoyed a lot of success in the regular season thanks to heavy personnel play-action concepts. He led the Bulldogs to an efficient passing offense, but on few true dropbacks. When Georgia fell behind Alabama, Bennett and the offensive line had to start winning in the true dropback passing game. Neither executed in that regard. Bennett found himself under pressure on 15 dropbacks for the game, and 12 of those were without play action, screens or RPOs. On those plays, Bennett completed only one pass for 11 yards with an interception.
The good news for Georgia is that Michigan quarterback Cade McNamara isn’t in the same stratosphere as Alabama’s Bryce Young. The Wolverines do have their fair share of tricks up their sleeve, as evidenced by running back Donovan Edwards’ 75-yard touchdown pass and a late-game flea-flicker from McNamara against Iowa, but their passing attack isn’t nearly as potent on a throw-for-throw basis.
Michigan’s run game, which generated more than two times the EPA per carry than any other Power Five rushing attack this week, is among the best in the country, but Georgia’s run defense, which held Alabama to a 26% successful run rate, is also among the best.
If the Bulldogs happen to fall behind, Michigan’s defense won’t make it easy on their passing offense. Star edge defender Aidan Hutchinson earned a career-high 93.5 PFF grade against Iowa in the Big Ten Championship game. When the Hawkeyes weren’t scheming away from him with rollouts to the other side, cut blocks, chips or double teams, he was typically winning like this:
ladies and gentlemen, Aidan Hutchinson: pic.twitter.com/I2t7g7O9vV
— Anthony Treash (@PFF_Anthony) December 5, 2021
Hutchinson is already in the midst of the most valuable season from an edge defender in the PFF College era, according to PFF Wins Above Average. Michigan’s defense is the second-highest-graded group in the Power Five this year, behind only Georgia.
This will likely be a low-scoring, defensive affair, and the 43.5-point total via DraftKings Sportsbook backs that up.