Winners and Losers of the College Football Playoff Semifinals
The 2021 College Football Playoff kicked off Friday, featuring No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Cincinnati in the Cotton Bowl and No. 2 Michigan vs. No. 3 Georgia in the Orange Bowl.
The Crimson Tide dominated the Bearcats from the start and headed to the locker room with a 17-3 lead at halftime of the early game.
Alabama didn't exactly slow down in the second half. The Tide's defense held Cincy to just one field goal in the third quarter, and Bryce Young and the offense scored a touchdown early in the fourth to help take a 24-6 lead. Bama added a field goal to win 27-6 and earn its sixth national title game appearance since the playoff began in 2014.
In the Orange Bowl semifinal featuring Georgia and Michigan, this game also wasn't close from the start. The Dawgs jumped out to a 27-3 lead at halftime, and added another touchdown in the fourth quarter while keeping the Wolverines off the board until a late fourth quarter touchdown. Georgia won 34-11, and will once again get a rematch against Alabama in the national championship.
Let's run through the winners and losers of Friday's action.
Winner: Brian Robinson Jr. and Alabama's Run Game
As good as Crimson Tide quarterback Bryce Young was in the SEC Championship Game against Georgia, Bama didn't have to rely on its passing game much against Cincinnati.
The Tide set the tone with a dominant run game on their opening drive. In fact, the Tide ran the ball 10 times on their 11-play scoring drive, which was capped off with an eight-yard touchdown pass from Young to Slade Bolden.
The 10 rushing attempts on the first drive was vintage Nick Saban football and were the most attempts on an opening drive for the Tide since 2008, when they ran 10 times against Arkansas State, per ESPN Stats & Info.
Tide running back Brian Robinson Jr. had his best outing of the season, running for 134 yards in the first half alone. He finished the day with a season-high 204 yards, averaged 7.8 per carry and set an Alabama bowl-game record. It was also the third-most rushing yards in a CFP playoff game, per ESPN's Sean McDonough on the broadcast. The fact that he'd been dealing with a leg injury toward the end of the regular season made his big day all the more impressive.
The performance was certainly jarring to the Cincinnati defense, which had only given up 137.5 rushing yards per game before Friday. In the first half, the Tide had 172 rushing yards. In total, Cincinnati finished with just 218 yards of offense to Alabama's 482.
Loser: Cincinnati Bearcats
Look, there has to be a loser, and unfortunately for Cincinnati, dropping a semifinal playoff game puts you here. The Bearcats were dominated from start to finish and struggled to score points off any momentum they got in the game.
Still, let's not forget that this was a historic season for the Bearcats. Head coach Luke Fickell, in just his fifth year as Cincy's head coach, led the team to its first 13-win campaign in school history.
Speaking of history, although this game certainly wasn't the ending to the Cinderella story Bearcat fans were hoping for, this was a huge moment for Cincy to be in the semifinals at all. For the first time, the Group of Five had a school representing it thanks to the season the Bearcats put together, which included an American Athletic Conference championship.
That's a huge recruiting boost for the Bearcats and their head coach.
Speaking of Fickell, his name was floated as a potential candidate for the numerous big-time head coaching jobs that opened in 2021. But for now, Fickell is staying put, and this semifinal appearance might be just the start of an impressive run.
Regardless of Friday's result, the Bearcats can hold their heads high after such an incredible season.
Winner: Alabama's Defense
Although Cincinnati came into this game ranked ninth nationally in scoring offense, averaging 39.2 points per game, Alabama shut down the Bearcats offense with ease. To say that the Tide completely dominated Cincinnati's offense might be an understatement. They held the Bearcats to just three points in the first half and 76 total yards to Bama's 302.
Bama's defense did a good job both stopping the run and the pass. Bearcats running back Jerome Ford finished with just 77 yards on 15 carries. On Cincy's first three drives, Bama averaged one batted Desmond Ridder pass per drive. It batted another Ridder pass with 3:53 left in the third quarter, too. Ridder finished his day with just 144 yards on 17 completions.
Although the Bearcats had two great drives to open each half that ended deep inside Bama territory, Cincy had to settle for field goals on both to kill any hopes of a comeback. Even when the Bearcats picked off Bryce Young with 4:54 left in the third quarter, all Cincy could manage on the ensuing drive was a three-and-out on a drive that went for minus-16 yards.
The Bearcats came into this one averaging 428.9 yards per game and finished the night with just 218 yards and four three-and-outs. Alabama's defense has looked vulnerable at times throughout the regular season, but what the unit has done the last two games against Georgia (two takeaways) and Cincinnati means this unit is peaking at just the right time.
Loser: Michigan's First-Ever Playoff Appearance
2021 was a historic year for Michigan. The Wolverines defeated Ohio State for the first time in 10 years and went on to beat Iowa for its first Big Ten title since 2004. The 12-1 season was the first 12-win season for the Wolverines since 1997, the last time Michigan won the national championship. On Friday night, Michigan played in its first playoff appearance.
Unfortunately for the Wolverines, the Orange Bowl against Georgia was about as worst-case scenario as you could have asked for in a football game. The Dawgs completely manhandled Michigan on both sides of the ball from start to finish. What Georgia did on defense obviously stands out.
Take a look at how Michigan's drives ended up on the night:
- Turnover on downs
- Field goal
- Turnover on downs
- Turnover on downs
How badly Michigan lost to Georgia was certainly surprising, especially with how complete the Wolverines looked throughout the season.
Nonetheless, there are certainly positives that can be taken away from the season. 2021 proved that what Jim Harbaugh has been building on can work, but hopefully, for Wolverines fans, this year can be the start of more seasons like it to come and not just an outlier.
Winner: Georgia's Defense
After its defense got torched against Alabama in the SEC Championship Game, many questioned if Georgia's defense was as dominant as it seemed all season long.
But the Dawgs put to rest any doubts about how good its defense was by absolutely stifling a Michigan offense that came into the game averaging 37.7 points per game and holding it to a season-low 11 points and just 328 total yards.
In the first half, the Dawgs' defense held the Wolverines to just 101 total yards, including 29 rushing yards and five first downs.
Wolverine running back Hassan Haskins had just 13 yards and averaged 2.6 yards per carry in the first half. In fact, in the first 30 minutes of the game, Michigan's running backs combined for just seven carries and a total of 21 yards, per Kirk Herbstreit on the ESPN broadcast. Haskins couldn't get things going in the second half, too, ultimately finishing with just 39 yards on nine carries.
Michigan figured to be in trouble if it had to rely on its passing game. In most of their games all season, the Wolverines have run the ball successfully to generate offense. But not only was Michigan unable to run the ball, Georgia's defense got after quarterback Cade McNamara before he could make anything happen.
McNamara's offensive line had serious trouble protecting him, as he was sacked twice in the first half and finished the night with just 131 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions. While freshman J.J. McCarthy took over for McNamara and had a little more success throwing the ball, his touchdown pass came when the game was all but over.
For a defense that was considered one of the most dominant of all time, the unit lived up to the hype. Unfortunately for Michigan's offense, the recipe for success it used all season was no match.
Loser: Anyone Who Doubted Georgia After Losing to Alabama
Folks, we are in for a treat for next Monday's national championship game between Alabama and Georgia. Although the Dawgs' dominance was called into question during the 2021 SECCG, Georgia regained control with its dominant victory over Michigan. Georgia looked like the Dawgs team we had watched manhandle teams all season long.
Now, Georgia gets yet another chance to do what it hasn't managed to do since Nick Saban's very first season in Tuscaloosa in 2007—defeat Alabama. Since 2008, Georgia is 0-7 against Alabama, including an unforgettable loss to the Tide in the 2018 national championship game. As much success as Dawgs head coach Kirby Smart has had in Athens, not winning a national championship is one of the few knocks against him thus far.
All season long until the SEC Championship, this 2021 Georgia season felt different than year's past, just because of how dominant it performed week in and week out. Winning it all feels like destiny for this Georgia team, but Alabama is still standing in its way.
For now, Las Vegas has Georgia as a slight 2.5-point favorite in an early line for the national title game. Will Alabama win its eighth straight over Georgia, or will Smart finally knock off his former boss, Nick Saban? We'll just have to wait and see how it will all play out. This rematch should be a fun one.