Here we are! After a long wait and many exciting bowls, we finally arrive at the College Football Playoff. Georgia comes in as a heavy favorite, but the games aren’t played on paper. They play Ohio State, a team who didn’t even make their conference title game and unjustifiably backed in. Kindly see the USC section of my CFP picks post for my rant on that topic. In the other game, undefeated yet seemingly overrated Michigan takes on TCU, a team that no one seems to be giving a chance. Underestimate Max Duggan, Sonny Dykes, and the Horned Frogs at your own peril. The winners play in the National Championship Game on January 9th. I’ll stop talking now and let you go straight to my CFP semifinal takeaways (updated after each game; most recent first)!
Semifinal #2 at the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl: (1) Georgia 42, (4) Ohio State 41
We almost had an illegitimate team get through. An Ohio State team that sat on their backsides during conference championship week was projected to give Georgia trouble, and they certainly did. QB CJ Stroud must have seen what Bryce Young did earlier in the Sugar Bowl and tried to top him. He finished 23/34 for 348 yards and 4 TDs against the fearsome Georgia defense. Coach Ryan Day’s scheme made it easy, dialing up open targets with more than 5 yards of separation. OSU scored first after UGA missed an early FG (one of Jack Podlesney’s 2 misses on the day). WR Marvin Harrison Jr carved up the Bulldog secondary, catching 5 passes for 106 yards and 2 TDs, all in the first half. The two teams traded TDs, and then OSU added their third after a poor Stetson Bennett interception. However, Georgia quickly struck back with two unanswered TDs of their own. RB Kenny McIntosh (5/70; 5/56/1 receiving) was a key player, especially after TE Darnell Washington left with an ankle injury. OSU TE Cade Stover also left the game hurt and did not return.
Georgia took their first lead of the game on a field goal, but OSU took it right back with a late TD before halftime. The Buckeyes scored 10 quick points in the 3rd quarter, but they came at a cost. Stroud tried to throw a ball out of the back of the end zone but came up short, and Harrison made a play on it. He was hit hard by a defender and injured. Upon review, the targeting flag was (properly) picked up, but Harrison would not return. Stroud struggled a bit more after that, not scoring again in the quarter. WR Emeka Egbuka (8/112/1) picked up some of the slack, but it wasn’t enough to keep the offensive machine going. The Bulldogs cut the lead to 38-27 with an FG and then forced a 3 and out. However, the Buckeyes came out with an odd punting formation and ran a fake, picking up the first down. The play had been blown dead though, as Kirby Smart (or the Georgia booth) sniffed out the play, and Smart called timeout before the snap actually happened. Ohio State had to punt for real, and Bennett threw a 76-yard TD to Arian Smith (3/129/1) one play later after a defender fell down. Bennett missed a few throws in this one, but overall he played pretty well.
The Buckeyes burned 6 minutes of clock on an FG drive, with Stroud doing a lot of running. He ran often once Harrison exited. At 41-35, the game still had a one-score margin, and Bennett would get one chance with 2:43 on the clock. Bennett (23/34, 397 yards, 3 TDs, INT, rush TD) led a surgical drive, completing 5 of 6 passes for 72 yards. His final throw was a 10-yard TD pass to Adonai Mitchell, and the PAT gave the Bulldogs a 42-41 lead. They left 0:54 on the clock, and Stroud tried to make them pay. With more running, Stroud set up a 50-yard FG attempt, but K Noah Ruggles missed horribly, allowing UGA to escape. As with TCU, I’ll discuss Georgia’s outlook more after the championship game. Ohio State is likely to be a top-5 team once again because, like Michigan, they’ll still have supreme talent. Stroud will be picked in the top 5 in April, but the QB factory that is OSU will find a new star. Their receiving talent is the best in the nation, and they have some good defensive recruits coming in. Maybe next year they’ll earn their way into the CFP without stealing a spot from a more deserving team.
Semifinal #1 at the Vrbo Fiesta Bowl: (3) TCU 51, (2) Michigan 45
Overrated Michigan goes down! You wouldn’t have guessed it from the first play of the game though; RB Donovan Edwards immediately broke a 54-yard run, gashing the TCU defense. The offense bogged down from there and faced 4th and goal. Michigan called the Philly special, but TCU snuffed it out and dropped Colston Loveland for a loss. TCU quickly went 3 and out, but the defense stepped up again, with Bud Clark scoring a pick 6. The Horned Frogs ran a nice drive on their second possession, extending their lead to 14-0. After Michigan got on the board with a field goal, TCU QB Max Duggan threw a pick. His counterpart, JJ McCarthy, hit WR Roman Wilson (5/104/1) for a 50-yard catch that was initially ruled a TD. Review showed that he was down just short of the goal line despite the commentators’ protests (I personally thought Wilson was a bit closer than the spot, but he was definitely short. On the next play, Kalel Mullings fumbled at the goal line, causing Michigan to come up empty.
TCU’s offense had problems. Part of that was the strong play of the Michigan defense, but Duggan was also the worst player on the field for 2 quarters and change. He fared better in the second half, but he still completed less than half of his passes (14/29) for 225 yards, 2 TDs, and 2 INTs. His rushing contributions were important, as he tallied 57 yards and 2 TDs that way. That was particularly notable because star RB Kendre Miller, a TD machine, injured his ankle in the first half. He finished with 57 yards on just 8 carries. Emari Demercado filled in spectacularly, rushing 17 times for 150 yards and 1 TD. Following a 21-6 first half by TCU, Michigan came out firing in the second half. They scored a field goal, picked off Duggan for the second time, and scored a 34-yard TD with WR Ronnie Bell (6/135/1). As they’ve done all year though, the Horned Frogs provided a critical response with a drive of their own. WR Quentin Johnston (6/158/1) caught a 46-yard pass (friendly reminder that he’s my top WR in this year’s draft), and Demercado ran 5 straight times for the TD. Michigan’s McCarthy threw the ball better than he did most of the season (20/34, 343, 2 TDs), and he ran well as usual (10/52/1), but he made two critical mistakes; both were pick sixes.
After TCU’s score, McCarthy threw his 2nd pick 6, this time to LB Dee Winters. Winters had an amazing game, with 7 tackles (3 for loss), a PBU, and that INT TD. The 3rd quarter then became a shootout, with 3 straight TD drives. We were interrupted by a Demercado fumble (though I won’t be very hard on him because of how great he otherwise played), after which 2 more consecutive TDs were scored. A total of 44 points were scored in the third quarter, but the defenses decided to come back and play (a bit) in the 4th. TCU added a field goal to extend the lead to 51-38, but Michigan scored a TD with 3:18 to go. The Frogs only got 1 first down, and the Wolverines got the ball back with a minute on the clock. As I’ve said before, if your season depends on McCarthy throwing the ball, you’re in trouble. The Wolverines went 4 and out, with the final play extremely fitting. McCarthy botched the snap, and the team lost yardage trying to scoop it up. The officials looked into a cheap targeting penalty to try and bail them out but couldn’t make that call. There wasn’t anything remotely close to a foul on the play.
The team with the longest odds to win it all got 1 step closer. Sonny Dykes showed why he earned the AP Coach of the Year award in his first season at TCU. His Horned Frogs beat a highly favored team on a day when his Heisman finalist QB wasn’t anywhere near his best. To win the championship, the defense will have to play like they did in the first half, as their second half performance will not get the job done. The offense also won’t be able to count on two pick sixes to lift them up. However, the sign of a good team is that they can win when things aren’t going their way. That certainly described TCU in this game considering the Miller injury, the subpar passing game, and the fact that the officials seemed to be supporting Michigan. The Wolverines suffer another bitter semifinal exit, but there’s no reason for them to not be back here again next year. Their prime competition will be Ohio State as usual, who won’t have CJ Stroud next season. I’ll discuss the Frogs’ outlook more in my championship game post.