Here we are! After a long wait and many exciting bowls, we finally arrive at the College Football Playoff. Michigan is our 1 seed, but could their easy schedule belie an overrated team? They face Alabama, the SEC champions who arrived via an improbable path.. As my CFP picks tell you, I didn’t have them in this field. Over in the other semifinal, another undefeated team comes in with the best QB among the 4. Can Washington’s advantage under center be countered by Texas’s CFP-best defense? The winners play in the National Championship Game on January 8th. I’ll stop talking now and let you go straight to my CFP semifinal takeaways! For all other bowl games, click here.
Semifinal #1 at the Rose Bowl Game Presented by Prudential: (1) Michigan 27, (4) Alabama 20 (OT)
First, a warning: neither one of these teams looked like national champions, particularly on offense. Starting on the very first play of the game, Michigan QB JJ McCarthy threw what was ruled an interception to Caleb Downs. However, the Wolverines were extremely lucky, as a review ruled that Downs had gone out of bounds without re-establishing himself prior to touching the ball. Regardless, they went three and out. Alabama’s first drive ended the same way but in much more jarring fashion. QB Jalen Milroe was sacked twice, as Alabama’s young line could not hold up against Michigan’s assault.
The Crimson Tide was bailed out on the punt, when Semaj Morgan muffed it and handed Alabama the ball at the Wolverines 44. Learning from their mistake, Alabama ran the ball 4 straight times on their second-chance drive, which ended with a 34-yard Jase McClellan TD. Michigan’s own offense got into gear with a tying TD, but then the teams treated us to 5 straight punts. On one of those punts, a Michigan player ran into P James Burnip, but it somehow went uncalled. As the Tide had a 4th and 4, even a running into the kicker foul would’ve extended the drive with a first down.
Michigan eventually led another long TD drive. They were aided by much confusion from the Alabama defense, which feels uncharacteristic for a Nick Saban team. McCarthy hit WR Tyler Morris for a 34-yard score on one of many busted coverages. This is where I tell you not to overreact to McCarthy’s stats. His 17/27 line for 221 yards and 3 TDs looks excellent, but it’s very misleading. He threw inaccurate passes several times, had that overturned INT, and really only picked up chunk gains when Alabama left someone wide open in the flat. This was McCarthy’s first game in 5 tries with over 150 passing yards.
After the TD, a bad rolled snap led to a botched PAT, keeping the score 13-7. Alabama snuck in a field goal before the half, staying within striking distance. Upon receiving the 3rd-quarter kickoff though, a promising drive was short-circuited by a recurring problem this year: awful snaps. C Seth McLaughlin has been doing this since week 2, and it’s amazing that Saban hasn’t gotten this fixed. He flung the ball low and wide twice in a row, leading to 3rd and 29. The two teams punted 4 consecutive times. That benefitted Alabama, as Burnip was superb. His 7 punts averaged 50.3 yards with great hangtime, consistently flipping the field.
That, along with a lack of pressure, enabled Alabama to mount a comeback and take the lead. The Wolverines notched 5 first-half sacks but just 1 in the second half. McClellan (14/87/2) was a major reason why, as his success on the ground stopped Michigan from blitzing. Up 17-13 and driving, Alabama faltered, as Milroe ran wildly and saw the ball punched out, losing a fumble. However, Michigan couldn’t capitalize, as a flea flicker failed miserably, and another bad snap ruined their FG attempt. Special teams favored Alabama greatly in this matchup.
A 12-men penalty on offense and a sack made Alabama attempt an FG on their next drive, but K Will Reichard connected from 52 yards, his second from 50+ this game. Needing a TD to tie, Michigan went on 4th and 2 at their own 33 despite possessing all 3 timeouts. Yet another Alabama bust allowed RB Blake Corum (19/83/1, 2/35/1 receiving) to catch a quick pass for 27 yards. The Wolverines got lucky once more, as a deflected pass somehow made its way to WR Roman Wilson at the Alabama 5. Wilson caught the ensuing TD pass to tie the game and force OT. That’s when Corum completely took over.
He ran two times, first for 8 yards and then for 17. The latter dash set Michigan’s career rushing TD record. With one last chance to force 2OT, Milroe was victimized by another low snap on 4th and goal at the 3, causing his QB draw to come up short. Honestly, FSU could’ve beaten both of these teams (they wouldn’t have had opt outs if they had made the CFP). Georgia definitely would have, as this Alabama team is not the one that beat them in the SEC title game. The defensive woes were the big surprise, but the offense let the Tide down as it has all year long. Michigan remains horribly overrated, and Washington can outscore them easily.
Semifinal #2 at the Allstate Sugar Bowl: (2) Washington 37, (3) Texas 31
Both semifinal games were real nail-biters! From the start, it looked like the two best teams were playing in this matchup. Washington QB Michael Penix Jr kicked things off with immediate fireworks, hitting WR Ja’Lynn Polk (5/122/1) for a perfectly thrown 77-yard bomb. RB Dillon Johnson ran in for a 2-yard TD on the next play, and we were off and running. Texas responded with a 75-yard march of their own, with RB Jaydon Blue scoring from 5 yards out. After Johnson scored again to make the score 14-7, Texas punted. However, returner Germie Bernard muffed it, and the Longhorns recovered.
Texas only needed 22 yards to tie the game, and they did just that. DT Byron Murphy lined up at fullback and plunged in from a yard out. I bring him up not just because I love big man TDs but because he had a great defensive game. Aside from a few scrambles from Penix, the Washington run game was mostly shut down. On the drive following Texas’ TD, Penix hit WR1 Rome Odunze for a 52-yard strike. The deep ball was really working for the Huskies, and Odunze (6/125) set the school’s single-season receiving yards record. The bomb was not a TD though, and on 4th and 1, Murphy stuffed Johnson (21/49).
A bit later, facing another 4th and 1, this time at their own 33, Washington rolled the dice and called a run up the middle. This time, Johnson converted behind the Joe Moore award-winning offensive line. Later in the drive, Penix threw a pass that barely squeaked by a defender, was tipped, and then finally caught by Polk for a 29-yard TD. The Longhorns had 1:15 left and wouldn’t waste it, driving 72 yards in 10 plays. The drive featured our only 3rd down conversion of the half by either team, and RB CJ Baxter scored from 3 yards away to tie the game at 21.
Receiving the second-half kickoff, Washington picked up right where they left off, with the 3rd WR in their great trio (Jalen McMillan) catching a 19-yard TD. Texas’ counter didn’t even last one play, as Baxter lost a fumble immediately. The defense held this time, and Washington only got a field goal. The Longhorns went into a funk though, and this half, the defense stood strong. After a punt, the Huskies added another FG, but this time Blue fumbled. The Texas defense forced another punt. Finally, the offense returned to form, and QB Quinn Ewers (24/43, 318 yards, TD) found WR Adonai Mitchell for a TD.
Mitchell (4/32/1) had been quiet prior to that score, but he seems to score in every CFP game (apparently that is an actual stat, as he scored in every prior appearance with Georgia before transferring to Texas). The Huskies changed their pace and took 4 minutes on their subsequent drive, which added another field goal. Leading 37-28 with under 3 minutes ago, a 2-possession lead looked safe. Texas moved quickly but stalled in the red zone. Needing 2 scores regardless, they opted for a 25-yard FG. Their onside kick failed, but they had their timeouts, and Washington went 3 and out, giving the Longhorns one last shot.
Ewers hit WR Jordan Whittington (4/70) for a massive 41-yard pass and then found Blue for another 16-yard strike. Texas found themselves at the Washington 12 with 15 seconds but no timeouts. They planned to run up and spike the ball, but Huskies CB Jabbar Muhammad was injured, which forced Washington to spend a timeout. Following the break, Ewers oddly threw a short pass to Blue, but he wisely ran out of bounds. Ewers barely dodged a sack on 2nd down and threw the ball away with 1 second left. With their last gasp, Texas tried a lob pass to Mitchell, hoping for a miracle. With perfect timing, CB Elijah Jackson swatted it away, ending the Longhorns’ hopes.
Each offense should be proud. Ewers played well, even using his legs more than normal (8/54). Penix (29/38, 430 yards, 2 TDs, 31 rushing yards) was superb, showing us why he deserved the Heisman more than LSU’s Jayden Daniels (though I can make a strong argument for Oregon’s Bo Nix). Texas’ RBs carried the offense for much of the day, with Baxter (9/64/1, 39 rec. yards) and Blue (9/59/1, 45 rec. yards) doing great work despite their lost fumbles. TE Ja’Tavion Sanders (6/75) led all Texas pass catchers, coming alive in the second half. I can’t really award the defenses, but Washington’s in particular got stops when needed.
This season was HC Steve Sarkisian‘s best among his 3 years as the Longhorns’ head coach. His team won the Big XII in its last year as a member and barely came up short in the CFP. A win over his former boss at Alabama was especially sweet. It sounds like Ewers is leading toward a return, and Baxter is a true freshman, so this team is set up for a smooth transition to the SEC. Washington’s foray into the Big 10 will have to wait one more week. Their defense needs to tighten the screws, but I don’t think Michigan can score with Kalen DeBoer‘s crew. Both undefeated teams made it through, but I think this is the real #1.