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College Football Playoff Picks 2021-22: Cotton Bowl, Orange Bowl


Bryce Young, Alabama

Cotton Bowl (3:30 PM ET, December 31st)

1 Alabama Crimson Tide vs. 4 Cincinnati Bearcats

After nearly a decade of the experiment that is the College Football Playoff, it finally happened. The first Group of Five team, the Cincinnati Bearcats, gained entry into the exclusive four-team field. Their reward? A date with the mighty Alabama Crimson Tide, who have splattered the sport for a decade-and-a-half now. It will be an uphill battle for the Bearcats, but Luke Fickell's team will be prepared and awfully motivated to slay the sport's "Goliath."

I've said all season long that this is not the Alabama offense of 2020. However, it's still a group loaded with playmakers and after a brief COVID scare, play-caller Bill O'Brien is back to run the show. Under center is the 2021 Heisman Trophy winner, Bryce Young, who has consistently put up huge numbers despite a supporting cast that has not been very Alabama-esque. The amazing thing about Young is not simply his ability to make things happen and keep plays alive; he's an incredible decision-maker for his age and has never been scared of the moment, despite being a first-year starter. Young will face potentially his toughest test of the entire season in the Cincinnati secondary, which includes future NFL defensive backs Ahmad Gardner and Coby Bryant. How he responds could be the turning point of the game, but either way, he needs more from his receiver corps. In my mind, former Ohio State transfer Jameson Williams was the best wide out in college football this fall, not the eventual Biletnikoff winner Jordan Addison. Williams has played an outsized role in this offense the entire year, but has had to take on even more with John Metchie sidelined with a torn ACL. Names like Slade Bolden and Cameron Latu have played a decent supporting role but the pass-catchers Cincinnati is likely the most worried about? The youngsters, such as JoJo Earle, Ja'Corey Brooks, an Traeshon Holden. 'Bama fans have also clamored all season for Agiye Hall, who had a huge spring game but hasn't seen the field much in the regular season. As for the ground game, Alabama is not as deep at running back as they've been in the past, but Brian Robinson Jr. has proven to be a capable workhorse. He faces off against a Cincinnati defensive front that doesn't have the stars like the secondary, but is tough and disciplined. You have to be curious to see how the Bearcat front looks like against Alabama. Fickell-coached teams are always physical at the line of scrimmage and the Tide O-Line has been disappointing in 2021. In close games like this that have a chance to be low-scoring, the chess match in the trenches takes on extra relevance.

Cincinnati's offense is not a very explosive group, but they're still an effective unit. There's several reasons for the production; for one, it helps when you have the program's winningest quarterback under center. Just as importantly, it's an offense that controls the ball and takes the necessary shots they need to in order to keep the defense off-balance. QB Desmond Ridder has shown growth every single season for the Bearcats and he's hoping to send off his collegiate career in a big way. Ridder has dominated American Athletic defenses all season long, but I don't think he will be intimidated by the Tide, either. Although he didn't put up huge numbers in the heartbreaking Peach Bowl loss to Georgia last year, he proved that he could make things happen against an SEC defense loaded with talent. Ridder has also proven he can make plays with his legs, even though the Bearcats don't call his number too often, which could an interesting layer to this game. In addition to him, Cincy leans on tailback Jerome Ford, who just so happens to be a former Alabama player. Although he's built like a bruiser, Ford has some burst in him and enters this game averaging over six yards per carry. He has to be salivating at the opportunity to do damage against an Alabama rush defense that has been streaky all of 2021. On the perimeter, Cincinnati doesn't have many future NFL guys, but Alec Pierce and Tyler Scott have proven to be difficult to contain. They're both potential deep threats with Ridder's arm and present a real challenge to a group of 'Bama corners that have been prone to the big play. Keep an eye on tight end Josh Whyle, who is often the security blanket in the offense and is a key piece on short yardage or goal-line situations. Two other things to watch when it comes to the Cincinnati offense: can the blockers contain Alabama's Will Anderson, and how does backup QB Evan Prater factor into the game-plan? Anderson has been the best defensive player in college football this year (even if Michigan's Aidan Hutchinson was the one who got the Heisman invite) and Prater is a fascinating player to me. He hasn't seen a ton of playing time on the year but against a defense with as much talent as Alabama's, you have to be creative to move the ball. Prater's ability to operate in different packages could help open up the Bearcat offense.

Based purely on brand name, Alabama shouldn't have too much difficulties with Cincinnati, even if they have been one of the Group of Five's flagship programs for awhile now. Of course, football games aren't played on brand names, and Cincy has strengths that could give Nick Saban's crew real troubles. The secondary is legit and ball-hawking, which could change the momentum of the game with a potential turnover. The offense might not be super exciting, but Ridder is a tremendous QB and has the arm to test Alabama vertically. I don't doubt the Bearcats are going to give the Tide a game, but can they win the game? I fear that the talent and depth on the Tide roster is too much over the course of four quarters, even if this is one of the weaker teams of the Saban era. It might not be too bold of a prediction, but I like Alabama to move on to yet another National Championship Game.

The Pick: Alabama, 27 Cincinnati, 17

Hassan Haskins, Michigan

Orange Bowl (7:30 PM EST, December 31st)

2 Michigan Wolverines vs. 3 Georgia Bulldogs

For much of the fall, there seemed to be one certainty: Georgia as the top team in the land. After beating Clemson to open the year, the Bulldogs reeled off 11 more wins in the regular season and walked into the SEC Championship Game as the National Title favorite. Just a few weeks later, UGA is reeling coming off a poor showing in the SEC Championship loss to Alabama and now faces a team going in the opposite direction. Michigan seems to be getting stronger as the season wears on and enters this matchup with all the momentum, as they were finally able to take down Ohio State and then pummeled Iowa in the Big Ten Championship.

Jim Harbaugh deserves all the credit in the world for his off-season transformation of the Michigan program. There were a lot that didn't think he'd even be on the sidelines in Ann Arbor come fall of '21, but he switched up his staff, gave more control of the offense to eventual Broyles Award winner Josh Gattis, and once again seemed to have the swagger and confidence that had been missing from the UM program for a couple years. The result was a team that isn't flashy, but is well-built, balanced, and fights every second of every game. Quarterback Cade McNamara beat out a pair of newcomers, Texas Tech transfer Alan Bowman and highly touted freshman J.J. McCarthy, and put together an impressive campaign. McNamara isn't going to throw 50 times a game, but he's a capable game manager who finished the season strong. With that being said, keep an eye on McCarthy; Gattis and Harbaugh haven't been afraid to use the freshman in certain packages this year and he's got serious arm talent. On the ground, the Wolverines boast a terrifying 1-2 punch in Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum. Haskins led the team with 1,288 yards and 20 touchdowns, but Corum is the big-play threat who has played a major role in opening up this offense. Haskins has picked up some of the slack with Corum not 100 percent over the last month, but the expectation is that we should see a heavy dosage of both in this game. It will be a treat to watch this rushing attack square off against a Georgia rush defense that is elite, and features a star defensive tackle at the heart of it in Jordan Davis. At times, Georgia's pass defense has struggled, as they're not as deep or strong at corner as they've been in the past. That could give Michigan some opportunities on the outside in this one, but others have to emerge beyond top target Cornelius Johnson. Names like Roman Wilson, Mike Sanristil, Daylen Baldwin, and Andrel Anthony have all had flashes of brilliance, but can they put it together on the grand stage? Youngster A.J. Henning is another name to watch; although he's been fairly quiet as a pass-catcher, UM will feature him on jet sweeps or screens often.

Georgia's defense has been historically good in 2021, allowing less than ten points per game, but the offense doesn't get enough credit for the season it has put together. Despite the fact they've dealt with injuries all year and one of their preseason stars (Arik Gilbert) hasn't even been with the team, they're putting together 39 PPG and play a balanced brand of football. Former walk-on Stetson Bennett has been a masterclass on coming in as a backup and playing great football, as he's thrown for 2,325 yards and 24 touchdowns. However, J.T. Daniels, the preseason starter who hasn't been healthy for most of the year, cleared COVID protocols and may be called upon. While Bennett deserves all the credit in the world, there's no question that Daniels is the more gifted signal-caller, even if it hasn't shown up this fall. The passing game has had to deal with strange circumstances considering all the injuries, but breakout stars Brock Bowers and Ladd McConkey have been huge for them. Veterans Jermaine Burton and Kearis Jackson are supposed to be healthy after injury-riddled campaigns, which should provide extra support. Plus, I'm still waiting on tight end Darnell Washington to have his breakout game; he had a touchdown in the SEC Championship Game, but this guy is way too talented to be sidelined the way he has been this year. Georgia should rely on the ground attack to continue to be their primary source of offense, as they can feature as many as four extremely capable tailbacks. Zamir White led the team in rushing yards, but a healthy James Cook is arguably the offense's best weapon, even though he was held in check against Alabama. Up front, the Bulldogs don't quite have as many future NFL Draft selections as they've had in the past, but this is still a strong offensive line. This O-Line better be ready for war, as they face possibly their toughest test of 2021 in this Michigan defensive front. Aidan Hutchinson is the big name for the Wolverines, but he's far from the only one that can hurt you. David Ojabo had 11 sacks on the season, while Chris Hinton and Mazi Smith eat up blocks on the interior. Overall, the Wolverine defensive makeover has been the main catalyst for their improvement this fall, as new coordinator Mike MacDonald was an elite hire. They shouldn't be intimidated by this UGA group, but the secondary could be without a key face, as star safety Daxton Hill's status is questionable for this game. Hill is a crucial piece of the puzzle for the Wolverines as a player and leader.

Get ready for an absolute bloodbath between these two teams. They both want to out-muscle you the entire way and lean on their strength in the trenches and in the backfield to do so. Michigan enters the CFB Playoff with all the momentum in the world, but people seem quick to forget how dominant UGA was playing before the SEC Championship loss. The Bulldogs are the favorite, despite the fact UM is the higher seed, and I still believe they're the right pick. The defense is just too strong for a fairly conservative Michigan offense and they also have a clear edge in depth, helping them get over the top in the late second half.

The Pick: Georgia, 24 Michigan, 20

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