The College Football Playoff has decided to interrupt your New Year’s Eve this year. When the organizers of the new four-team event sketched it out in the mid-2010s, they decided that college football could own Dec. 31 much like it already owned Jan. 1. It turns out most people don’t like New Year’s Eve Playoff games, however, so the organizers altered the schedule: The semifinal bowl games fall on Dec. 31 only in years when the last night of the year is a Friday or Saturday.
2021 is one of those years, so prepare for Jim Harbaugh to join you at your NYE party this weekend. No. 4 Cincinnati and No. 1 Alabama play in the Cotton Bowl semifinal in Arlington, TX at 3:30 p.m. (EST), and No. 3 Georgia plays No. 2 Michigan in the Orange Bowl semi in Miami at 7:30 p.m. (EST). Both games will air on ESPN.
So what’s on tap? Below are the key storylines that will likely shape the semifinal games and the national championship game, which is slated for Jan. 10 in Indianapolis. Time to ring in 2022 with some football.
College Football Playoff Preview
1. Will COVID-19 throw a wrench into the Playoff?
Rising COVID cases have upended both professional and college sports this month. Several college teams have had to pull out of their bowl games, and teams across the NFL, NBA, and NHL have seen outbreaks as well.
Several key contributors for the four Playoff teams could be missing this weekend, and larger outbreaks could spell trouble. The Playoff’s organizers have stated that if a team can’t field enough players, it’ll forfeit its semifinal (no rescheduling) and the other team will advance.
Even so, a full-on forfeiture is unlikely. Bowl games are allowed to implement their own testing standards, and the Playoff bowls have chosen to let schools follow their own COVID protocols. In addition, vaccinated players (who make up the vast majority of the teams’ rosters) should be able to play without having to test for the virus right before the game.
Fans will be back, too: Unlike last year, all of the games will take place in full-capacity stadiums.
2. Can Cincinnati’s defense hold up against Alabama?
WHAT CAN’T SAUCE GARDNER DO#CFB
— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) December 4, 2021
The first Group of Five team to ever play in the College Football Playoff has made it here thanks to a simple formula: a pretty good offense, a QB who doesn’t make big mistakes, and an absolutely dominant defense. The Bearcats have allowed just 16.4 points per game over the last two seasons—fewer than anyone except Georgia. They have elite talent at every level, but two standouts are edge rusher Myjai Sanders and cornerback Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner, who have both been brilliant this season. Their head coach, Luke Fickell, is regarded as one of college football’s sharpest defensive planners.
The Bearcats are carrying the banner for every non-power school that has been locked out of the national championship hunt because it wasn’t a big enough brand. That’s a lot of pressure, but it pales in comparison to what Alabama’s offense will throw at them. Nick Saban’s war machine will be the most potent attack the Bearcats have ever faced, and it’s impossible to know how Cincy will do—again, we’ve never seen a dominant Group of Five team actually get a shot at an offense like Alabama’s on a stage like this.
I don’t know what’ll happen, but I do think Cincy will put up a fight. Gardner is talented enough to guard star receiver Jameson Williams (especially with the Tide’s other top wideout, John Metchie, not playing), and Sanders and company can put some pressure on the notoriously hard-to-bother Bryce Young. I don’t expect a Cincinnati win, but I believe the Bearcats will cover a two-touchdown point spread.
3. Can Georgia win with Stetson Bennett IV at quarterback?
Georgia's offense is starting to cook. pic.twitter.com/8xziPviTLj
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) October 16, 2021
Bennett, a once-upon-a-time walk-on, has been one of the best stories in college football this season. After playing more than anyone expected in 2020, he seized the starting job in September and has held onto it through a mix of his own superior play and injuries to the other (more highly recruited) players in the Dawgs’ QB room.
Overall, Bennett has delivered; he’s fourth in ESPN’s QBR and second in yards per dropback among FBS passers, and he’s added some value as a runner, too. Georgia’s dominant offensive line and defense have usually made it easy for him, but he’s played well enough to keep former five-star JT Daniels (who started in Week 1 and has had injury problems for most of his career) on the bench.
Coach Kirby Smart has confirmed that Bennett will start. Whether he’s really the guy to deliver Georgia its first title since 1980 remains an open question, though. In an SEC Championship loss to Alabama, he threw two interceptions, which raised his total to five picks in his two career starts against the Tide. It was the first competitive game he played in all season, and he was out of sorts in the second half. Bennett might be good enough to put Georgia on his back, and Georgia’s defense might be good enough for the team to get past Michigan without requiring many big throws. But Bennett might also have to play the best game of his career.
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