Strengths and Weaknesses of Each College Football Playoff Team

Morgan MoriartyFeatured Columnist IDecember 10, 2021

Strengths and Weaknesses of Each College Football Playoff Team

0 of 8

    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    The College Football Playoff will be here by the end of the month, and all four teams earned their spots in the tournament. In the Cotton Bowl, No. 1 Alabama will face No. 4 Cincinnati in the first semifinal on Dec. 31. In the Orange Bowl, No. 2 Michigan will take on No. 3 Georgia later that day.

    All four teams were chosen by the selection committee for a variety of reasons, including conference championships and overall quality of wins. But just like every team in the nation, the playoff entrants all have different strengths and weaknesses. Let's examine both for each squad.

Alabama's Strength: QB Bryce Young and the Tide Offense

1 of 8

    Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    Crimson Tide quarterback Bryce Young might have won the Heisman Trophy with his performance against Georgia in the SEC Championship Game last week. In the second quarter alone, Young threw for 248 yards, and accounted for three touchdowns (two passing and one rushing) to help put his team up 24-17. 

    On the day, he threw for 421 yards—270 more yards than UGA had allowed per game all season. He torched the best defense in the country and made it look easy. 

    The Georgia game aside, Young's on-field performance has been dominant. He's thrown for 4,322 yards and 43 touchdowns while tossing just four interceptions. He's rushed for another three scores too. While top receiver John Metchie III—who went down with an ACL tear in the SEC title game—is a big loss for Young, weapons abound.

    Jameson Williams, for example, is Alabama's second-leading receiver in terms of catches with 68. On the season, he has 1,445 yards and 15 touchdowns, and he's averaging 21.3 yards per reception. Bama should also see more production out of Slade Bolden, who had five receptions for 54 yards against Georgia. The same goes for tight end Jahleel Billingsley, who had 27 receiving yards against the Dawgs. 

    Alabama's run game should be led by Brian Robinson Jr., who despite suffering a hamstring injury against Auburn on Nov. 27, rushed for 55 yards on 16 carries against Georgia. With a few extra weeks rest, Robinson should be good to go against Cincinnati.

    If not, though, Trey Sanders can step in, as can Roydell Williams. Both guys have combined for 526 rushing yards and three touchdowns. 

    Bama's unit ranks fourth nationally in scoring offense, sixth in total offense and seventh in passing offense. It might not matter how good the opposing defense is—with Young at the helm, this offense can score on anyone.

Alabama's Weakness: Defending the Pass

2 of 8

    Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

    Alabama's defense doesn't give up a lot of points (20.2 per game), but what it does give up is yards in the air. The unit ranks 61st nationally—yes, you read that number right—in pass defense. 

    Bama allows 223.3 passing yards per game, including an average of seven yards per attempt. The secondary also has just 15 interceptions and has allowed 23 passing touchdowns (tied for 88th). 

    The issues were the most glaring against Arkansas on Nov. 20. The Tide won 42-35, but Razorbacks quarterback KJ Jefferson carved up the Bama secondary, throwing for 326 yards and three touchdowns while averaging 10.9 yards per throw. Arkansas receiver Treylon Burks caught two touchdown passes and finished with 179 yards on eight receptions, averaging 22.4 yards per catch.  

    Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban made in-season changes. After the Arkansas game, he switched Josh Jobe with true freshman Kool-Aid McKinstry at cornerback. McKinstry was flagged for pass interference twice against Georgia. 

    For Bama's secondary to improve in the playoff, it likely needs more big plays from safety Jordan Battle. Early in the fourth quarter, he picked off a Stetson Bennett pass and returned it 42 yards for a touchdown. 

    Alabama will have its hands full against Cincinnati and Bearcats quarterback Desmond Ridder. Cincy averages 247.8 yards in the air per game, and Ridder has tossed 30 touchdowns. 

Michigan's Strength: The Defensive Line

3 of 8

    Justin Casterline/Getty Images

    Michigan's defensive line has been one of the biggest reasons for the team's success, and defensive ends Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo have shone brightest. Hutchinson has accounted for 58 total tackles, 15.5 tackles for loss and 14 sacks. 

    He was also named a Heisman Trophy finalist, becoming the first defensive player since Ohio State's Chase Young in 2019 to make the trip to New York. He had a standout performance against the rival Buckeyes two weeks ago, posting three sacks. He set a single-season Wolverines sack record, breaking his father Chris Hutchinson's record of 11 in the game.

    According to Pro Football Focus, Hutchinson's 15 quarterback pressures against OSU were the most of any player against a Power Five offensive line this season. It was also the most the Bucks offensive line had allowed all year.

    While Ojabo doesn't quite have the name recognition that Hutchinson has, he's been getting after quarterbacks too. On the year, he has 11 sacks, including 35 total tackles and 12 tackles for loss. The rest of the line has performed well too. Nose tackle Mazi Smith has 35 total stops, four pass breakups and three quarterback hurries. Defensive tackle Christopher Hinton has 31 total tackles on the season, and Donovan Jeter has 22.

    In Michigan's semifinal against Georgia, the matchup between the Dawgs offensive line and this UM front will be imperative. UGA is sixth in the nation in sacks allowed, having given up just 11 all season.

Michigan's Weakness: The Passing Game

4 of 8

    AJ Mast/Associated Press

    Michigan's running game is another big strength, and it's led by Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum. The two backs are a big reason Michigan is ninth nationally in rushing offense, averaging 223.9 yards per game. 

    That's also a big reason Wolverine quarterback Cade McNamara doesn't have to throw much. In fact, he only averages 190 passing yards per game and has just 15 touchdowns through the air.

    So what happens if Michigan faces a defense that can slow its run game? Like, say, Georgia? The Wolverines might struggle a bit. 

    The one opponent that made Michigan do just that was Michigan State, which gave the Wolverines its only loss off the season on Oct. 30. Sparty's defense held both Haskins and Corum to under 60 yards rushing each—Haskins had just 59 yards and no touchdowns, Corum 45 with zero scores. 

    McNamara did finish the day with his best statistical outing of the season, throwing for 383 yards and two touchdowns and completing 63.6 percent of his passes.

    But late in the game, the QB couldn't connect with his receivers on a couple of potentially game-winning drives. After a late turnover on downs, Michigan got the ball back with 1:15 left and got to its 48-yard line, but McNamara threw an interception that sealed the Sparty victory. 

    Since that loss, Michigan has reclaimed its ground success.

    Make no mistake about it: McNamara has played great all year, and he's been an important factor in this playoff run. And he probably learned a lot from the MSU loss, which could help if he's forced to throw more than he usually does. But don't be surprised if Georgia uses Michigan State's game plan to see if it can get the same result. 

Georgia's Strength: The Defense*

5 of 8

    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    (*There is one part of the defense that's a weakness, which I'll get to later.)

    I know what you're thinking: Isn't this the same defense you just wrote about Alabama completely torching? Yes it is, but one bad game can't erase what Georgia has done all season. 

    Before the SEC Championship Game, the Dawgs were allowing just 6.9 points per outing, and the highest single-game number was 17 against Tennessee. Even with the 41-24 loss to Alabama, Georgia is first in scoring defense, second in total defense, third in rushing defense and first in opponent red-zone conversion percentage

    The unit's front seven is among the country's most talented. Nose tackle Jordan Davis, who has 28 total tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss, leads the defensive line, along with Devonte Wyatt. The senior has 34 total tackles, seven tackles for loss and 22 quarterback pressures, per the team's website

    At linebacker, Georgia is led by Nakobe Dean, Quay Walker and Channing Tindall. The trio has combined for 13.5 sacks. Georgia defensive ends Travon Walker and Tramel Walthour round out the front seven. Walker has 32 total tackles, along with 5.5 tackles for loss and four sacks. 

    The unit will look to rebound against Michigan after its worst outing of the season against Alabama.

Georgia's Weakness: The Secondary

6 of 8

    Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

    See, there was a reason I put that asterisk on that last headline. If the opposing offensive line can give its quarterback enough time to throw, Georgia has trouble. 

    While the defense wasn't tested by a true high-flying passing attack during the regular season, we've gotten a few glimpses of the unit's vulnerability in coverage downfield. Tennessee—which put up the most points against the Dawgs all year before Alabama—threw for 332 yards, averaging 6.9 yards per pass. 

    And against Alabama, Georgia's secondary issues were glaring. Young averaged 9.6 yards per throw and set SEC championship records with 421 passing yards and 461 yards of total offense. Georgia's defense prided itself on getting after the quarterback all season, posting 41 sacks. The Bulldogs sacked Young zero times. 

    Head coach Kirby Smart said despite UGA's different defensive looks, it wasn't enough to stop the Tide's passing attack. 

    "They hit us several times man to man. They hit us several times in the zone. I think you've got to affect their quarterback," Smart told reporters after the game. "You've got to get to him and finish, and he's so good at avoiding rush that he buys time with his mobility to make plays downfield. Give him a lot of credit. He did a tremendous job."

    The Dawgs have just 12 interceptions. The good news for Georgia against Michigan is run-heavy. As mentioned, whether McNamara can pick apart Georgia's secondary if he needs to air it out will be a turning point.

Cincinnati's Strength: Desmond Ridder and the Bearcats' Offense

7 of 8

    Jeff Dean/Associated Press

    While Cincinnati's defense has looked great all season and is tied for fourth in the nation in scoring defense, allowing 16.1 points per game, the unit hasn't seen a quarterback as talented as Young. 

    That's why the Bearcats' biggest strength will be quarterback Desmond Ridder and his supporting cast. Ridder has had his best season yet, throwing for 3,190 yards, 30 touchdowns and just eight interceptions. He's rushed for fewer yards than he has in any other year—getting just 361 on 100 carries—but that's likely because of his increased comfort level in the passing game. 

    Given Alabama's struggles with defending the pass, Ridder might be able to find leading receivers Alec Pierce, Tyler Scott and Tre Tucker downfield for chunk plays—all three of Ridder's favorite targets average at least 12.5 yards per reception.

    In the run game, Alabama's defense will face former Crimson Tide back Jerome Ford, who transferred after the 2019 season. He ranks 18th nationally in yards per game, averaging 103.6. The 2018 4-star recruit averages 6.22 yards per carry, as well.  

    Capitalizing on scoring opportunities will be crucial against the Tide. Before championship Saturday, Cincy was tied for the fewest yards gained per point scored this season, with 11.0 yards for every point scored, per Athlon Sports. That makes it the most efficient unit among the four playoff offenses. 

    The Bearcats score touchdowns on 68.9 of their trips to the red zone, too, and likely need to keep that pace to have a shot against the Tide. 

Cincinnati's Weakness: Lack of Playoff Experience

8 of 8

    Jeff Dean/Associated Press

    Please do not get me wrong here—I have been rooting hard all year long for Cincinnati to make it into the playoff. The Bearcats should have been ranked much higher last season after finishing the year undefeated, and Cincy further proved that by sticking with Georgia for all four quarters in the Peach Bowl. Although Cincy lost on a last-second Georgia field goal, it proved it could hang with anyone. 

    Almost a year later, the Bearcats are the first Group of Five team to earn a bid. That's a huge accomplishment and likely puts even more pressure on Cincy to prove it had every right to make it to college football's biggest stage.

    Not to mention the fact that it has to do that against Saban's Crimson Tide, who just torched the best team in the country. 

    Speaking of Saban, the head coach has an impressive track record in first-round matchups in the playoff. Aside from the 2014 Sugar Bowl loss to Ohio State, the Tide have won each of the five other semifinal games they've been in. The fact that Saban has weeks to prepare is a huge advantage for Alabama. 

    Can Cincy overcome the odds and shock the college football world once again?


    Statistics via Sports Reference and CFB Stats unless otherwise noted. Recruit ratings via 247Sports