College Football Playoff: These Teams Are Headed to the Postseason

college football playoff Alabama quarterback Bryce Young (9)
Alabama quarterback Bryce Young (9)John Bazemore/AP / Shutterstock

This year’s dramatic college football season entered a new phase this weekend. Alabama won what was technically an upset victory over Georgia in the SEC Championship, Cincinnati became the first Group of Five team to ever claim a College Football Playoff spot, Michigan took another step in its leveling-up under Jim Harbaugh, and a bunch of other conference championship games helped shape the postseason to come.

 

 

Here’s a sampling of who came out of conference title games and Selection Sunday looking better than before, and who didn’t.

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Winner: Alabama (as always)

The Crimson Tide were 6.5-point underdogs in the SEC title game against Georgia, but they went ahead and won 41–24. The Bama defense confused Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett and intercepted him twice in the second half; safety Jordan Battle returned the latter pick for a touchdown (see above). Bennett couldn’t elevate the Dawgs, but the primary reason for the loss was that Heisman Trophy frontrunner Bryce Young broke apart a defense that had been impenetrable all year. Young and receiver Jameson Williams connected seven times for 184 yards and a pair of scores, and Bama managed an offensive explosion despite not appearing all that interested in (or successful at) running the ball.

Nick Saban, typically a curmudgeon about positive media coverage of his team (he calls it “rat poison”), thanked the media at his postgame press conference for providing “yummy” rat poison by doubting him. The No. 1 Tide will play in the Playoff for the seventh time in the event’s eight-year history.

Loser: Georgia fans’ confidence

The Dawgs aren’t finished. They had an unbeaten season and an air of invincibility shattered, but they’re still in the College Football Playoff and will face Michigan in an Orange Bowl semifinal on New Year’s Eve. But they’ve now lost seven in a row to Saban, and they’re winless against him since his first season on the job in 2007. Kirby Smart is 0–4 against his former boss, and it’s not at all clear that Georgia has a quarterback who can hang with Young and the high-flying Bama offense (should they meet again in the postseason). To do that, Georgia will have to beat a Wolverines team that has been dominant down the stretch. It’s not a lost cause, but it now feels like an uphill climb.

Winner: Cincinnati

The Bearcats got over an unofficial but previously unscalable hump to become the first team outside the Power Five conferences to make the four-team College Football Playoff. They had a brilliant season, which they finished by beating Houston in the AAC Championship to move to a 13–0 record. But Luke Fickell’s bunch still needed so many things to go right in order to claim the fourth and final Playoff seed. They needed to have a win against another elite team, Notre Dame, but the game was scheduled years in advance, when it wasn’t at all clear that Notre Dame would be such a competitive opponent. In addition to winning that game and every other, they needed a lot of things to fall into place around them, including Oklahoma State (more on the Cowboys in a moment) losing in the Big 12 Championship. And in all likelihood, UC needed to go unbeaten two years in a row—it also went undefeated in 2020’s regular season—to raise its profile enough to get the selection committee’s attention. It’s still not a level playing field, but the Bearcats were good enough to make themselves inevitable.

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Loser: Oklahoma State

The Pokes’ dream season ended in a nightmare. A week after beating rival Oklahoma in Bedlam, Oklahoma State was a Big 12 Championship win away from almost certainly sneaking into the College Football Playoff. That plan went up in smoke when Baylor stoned the OSU offense on four-straight goal line plays in the closing seconds of Saturday’s game. It culminated with OSU’s Dezmon Jackson racing for the left pylon and missing it by about one foot (see above).

Winner: Pitt

The Panthers capped off an out-of-nowhere rise by destroying Wake Forest in the ACC Championship by a score of 45–21. The Demon Deacons scored touchdowns on their first three drives and got exactly nothing the rest of the night, as Pitt intercepted Sam Hartman four times (returning one for a touchdown) and sacked him five times. That was plenty for Kenny Pickett, the fifth-year Pitt quarterback who was having an average-ish career before he went supernova in 2021—he’s now made himself a contender for both the Heisman and the No. 1 QB draft slot next April.

Pickett had 253 yards and a couple of touchdown passes, plus a long touchdown run that featured a physics-bending fake slide that somehow didn’t cause ligament damage (above). That play shouldn’t be legal—QB slides are designed to keep them from taking dangerous hits—but it’s fitting that Pickett’s incredible year ended with him getting away with it.

Winner: Michigan

Let’s wrap with the Wolverines, who obliterated Iowa 42–3 to win the Big Ten title. This has been a season of busting narratives for Michigan—that they couldn’t develop an exciting passing offense (they did), that they couldn’t beat Ohio State (they did), that they couldn’t win the Big Ten East (that was one in the same, it turned out), and that something would keep Jim Harbaugh’s team from reaching its goals. After all, something always did in each of his first six years on the job.

But if anyone was expecting a lapse against Iowa on Saturday, they were sorely disappointed. Michigan’s offensive line pulverized the Hawkeye defense much like it did to Ohio State a week earlier. The Michigan defense let Iowa move the ball across midfield several times but always stood up to prevent touchdowns, and Cade McNamara made enough plays at quarterback to supplement a dominant running game. The Wolverines will now play in the College Football Playoff for the first time ever, and they have a real chance to win it.

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