The 2021 College Football Playoff is here, and the sport is ready to usher in a new calendar year with a bang. No. 1 Alabama and No. 4 Cincinnati will get the party started at the Cotton Bowl in Arlington, Texas, at 3:30 p.m. ET on Friday, while No. 2 Michigan and No. 3 Georgia will finish things up at the Orange Bowl in Miami with a 7:30 p.m. ET kickoff. The winners, of course, will face off in the national championship game on Monday, Jan. 10.
Who will prevail in the CFP semifinals? A trio of Sports Illustrated college football writers preview each game, complete with score predictions and their pick for game MVP.
Cotton Bowl: Cincinnati vs. Alabama
Pat Forde: Alabama 24, Cincinnati 13
Nick Saban has a history of not just beating, but dominating, opponents in the College Football Playoff semifinals. Since losing his first one in 2014, Saban’s average margin of victory in semis is 20.2 points. But don’t expect a blowout here, in a matchup of top-10 defenses.
Don’t let Power 5 and Group of 5 labels reduce this to an overly simple formula. This game doesn’t feel like a mismatch to me. Cincinnati has a veteran team that has won 23 of its last 24 games, with the only loss coming on a long field goal by Georgia at the end of last year’s Peach Bowl. The Bearcats will not be intimidated and will not beat themselves.
Their biggest issue will be how their offensive line holds up against Will Anderson Jr. & Co. That has the potential to get ugly. Fortunately for them, they have a mobile quarterback in Desmond Ridder, who could have most of the offensive game plan thrust upon his shoulders as both a runner and passer. He will have to make some plays off-script, as well as deliver the ball quickly when reads and routes are open.
Defensively, Cincinnati has quality players on all three levels and matches up well with Alabama. Cornerbacks Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner and Coby Bryant are future pros, and the Crimson Tide are down one of their top two receivers with the injury to John Metchie III. The one difference-maker is, of course, Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young, who revealed his full talents in shredding Georgia in the Southeastern Conference championship game. If Young plays at that level again, Bama won’t be stopped.
Also worth keeping in mind is that after years of issues at place kicker, Saban enjoys a significant advantage in that area against Luke Fickell and Cincinnati. Will Reichard has made 16 of 20 field goals this season and was perfect on placements in 2020. The Bearcats have tried three different kickers and made just seven of 17 field goals, missing their last four. Expect to see Cincinnati go for it on fourth down often if it gets into what would look like normal field goal range.
Forde’s pick for game MVP: Alabama LB Will Anderson Jr.
He’s the most disruptive force in the nation, with 32.5 tackles for loss on the season. Match him up against an offensive line that is functional but not great, and Anderson could have a huge day. Cincinnati will have to game plan away from Anderson, which is difficult because he can line up in a number of places. Devoting extra blockers to handling him is the only solution, and that won’t be a complete one.
Ross Dellenger: Alabama 30, Cincinnati 14
Is this not the ultimate David vs. Goliath clash? The Bearcats represent the little guys in the sport and are trying to become the first team from a non-power conference (or Notre Dame) to win it all since BYU in 1984.
The school claims 16 conference titles—two fewer than Alabama’s 18 claimed national championships. Just a few years ago, Cincinnati won eight combined games in two years (2016–17), and now here it is on the grandest stage in college football, a remarkable accomplishment that took some lucky breaks this year (three Power 5 champions had multiple losses).
This is old hat, of course, for Alabama. For the 11th time in 13 years, the Crimson Tide find themselves in position to win a national championship (they have won six of them). This matchup serves up the greatest dynasty in the sport’s history, led by maybe the greatest coach, against a program with little real champion pedigree and nowhere near the talent. In the last four signing classes, the Tide have signed 86 prospects rated four or five stars. Cincinnati has signed five.
That doesn’t mean the Bearcats have no shot. Alabama lived on the edge this season. In a way, it’s surprising coach Nick Saban’s crew is even here. It needed a stunning upset of Georgia in the SEC championship game. If the Tide play like they did in Atlanta, Cincinnati has no shot. If the Tide play like they did against Texas A&M, LSU and Auburn, the Bearcats can win.
Dellenger’s pick for game MVP: Alabama QB Bryce Young
The Heisman Trophy winner will test coach Luke Fickell’s secondary in a way that it hasn’t been tested this year.
Richard Johnson: Alabama 38, Cincinnati 20
At the end of the day, this game will come down to matchups. And can Cincinnati really match up with what the Tide bring to the table? In the trenches, Cincinnati has a chance to hang on defense, but outside of Ahmad "Sauce" Gardner, Bama presents issues for the rest of the Bearcats' secondary—particularly one that is interested in playing man-heavy defense. Cincy's own offense doesn't have the firepower to keep up in a track meet.
Johnson’s pick for game MVP: Bryce Young
With a startling ability to scramble and extend plays, Young will dazzle on broken plays and make it clear that there will be no Heisman hangover.
Orange Bowl: Michigan vs. Georgia
Forde: Georgia 21, Michigan 17
The pregame rhetoric has centered on the collision of Michigan’s award-winning offensive line against Georgia’s massive and physical defensive front seven. The Wolverines are 10th nationally in rushing offense, and the Bulldogs are second nationally in rushing defense. This figures to be a toughman contest at the point of attack.
“It’s going to be a train wreck inside,” said Michigan offensive coordinator Josh Gattis.
“Michigan plays football,” Georgia defensive coordinator Dan Lanning said. "They run hard-mouth, smashmouth football plays. They demand some physicality up front, which I know we're excited to see.” The Bulldogs are excited to see it because the only team to beat them—and to significantly dent that defense—did it through the air. Alabama quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young was sensational throwing the ball and eluding pressure.
Cade McNamara, while a very good quarterback, is not Bryce Young. If Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum can’t get the running game going against a brick wall defense, expect the Wolverines to need some Plan B offensive options, finding some big plays in the passing game and via misdirection or gadget schemes. That isn’t out of the question; Michigan leads the nation in plays of 50 yards or longer (17), but Georgia has given up just a single run of 30 or more yards all season. The best way to hurt the Dawgs has been through super high-tempo offense, which isn’t in the Wolverines’ wheelhouse.
For Georgia, the offensive burden falls on quarterback Stetson Bennett, who has been doubted since the minute he arrived at the school as a walk-on in 2017. Bennett has to keep his wits about him and avoid major errors while under duress from Michigan rush ends Aidan Hutchinson (the Heisman runner-up) and David Ojabo. The Bulldogs have a quality offensive line and may be able to create some creases on the ground for a deep stable of running backs.
Put it all together and this figures to be a defense-dominated game—not a lot of points or explosive plays. Field position will matter. Turnovers will be key. And Georgia will be just a bit better in the end.
Forde’s pick for game MVP: Georgia LB Nakobe Dean
Dean is fast and physical and can make plays all over the field. He can pressure quarterbacks with blitzes, or he can cover backs, tight ends and receivers. On a defense full of future pros, Dean might be the biggest impact player.
Dellenger: Michigan 20, Georgia 17
Two historic college football powers with iconic brands, massive fan followings and rich traditions meet in a playoff semifinal. What more could we ask for? Intensifying the excitement is the pedigree of these teams: power-running, physical squads that possess nasty defenses and old-school approaches.
That sound you heard is our mouths watering.
Coach Kirby Smart has amassed one of the best defenses college football has ever seen. The Bulldogs allow 9.5 points a game, first in the nation by nearly a touchdown. They’ve allowed three rushing touchdowns this season and less than 90 yards rushing a game. The Wolverines thrive on the ground (223 yards a game and 39 TDs).
Both defenses are top 13 in yards per game and top four in points per game. We’re turning back the clock with this one. Don’t expect quick scores and longball touchdowns. Every yard is a grind, every first down a win. Just what’d you expect from a 1990s battle between SEC and Big Ten powers.
As an aside, the matchup pits the newfound Alliance against college football’s most feared league. Prepare yourself for a nasty, sometimes ugly and fun affair.
Dellenger’s pick for game MVP: Michigan DL Aidan Hutchinson
This man is an unblockable force up front, already having amassed 14 sacks through 13 games.
Johnson: Georgia 31, Michigan 20
The problem with Michigan isn’t that it doesn't belong, it's that its strength plays directly into the hands of how the Dawgs play defense—especially against the run. Neither starting QB really has the ability to make this a pass-happy showcase, but with George Pickens likely to play a key role, UGA does have a vertical element to its offense against a defense that relies heavily on pass rushers to win. If the Dawgs can block it up, there are big plays for the taking.
Johnson’s pick for game MVP: Georgia WR George Pickens
A somewhat miraculous recovery from a knee injury makes Pickens a feel-good story if he is able to play well on this stage.