With the College Football Playoff coming up, online managing editor Quentin Corpuel and columnist Daniel Miller teamed up to tackle questions and topics regarding this year’s star-studded playoff.
Before we hit the CFP, let’s do a quick season debrief. What has been your favorite part of this college football season up to this point?
Corpuel: The return of normalcy! From having fans back in full capacity to College GameDay’s jubilant atmosphere filling my living room at nine a.m., it was refreshing to experience a normal college football season after a bizarre 2020 campaign. It was so eerie having games be played in front of half-empty or fully empty crowds, especially primetime matchups like Georgia-Alabama where a usually rowdy Bryant-Denny Stadium wasn’t even filled to 20% capacity. Games were being canceled left and right due to COVID. Several top draft prospects opted out of the 2020 season due to COVID concerns. The Big Ten didn’t start their season until October 23, and the Pac-12 didn’t start theirs until November 7. There was no home-field advantage. There was little energy. College football wasn’t the same.
It’s been so great this year to see fans return to stadiums in all major sports, but especially college football. College football fans completely change the game day atmosphere; they have the power to literally swing games. It was fun seeing Ohio State completely falter to a deafening Michigan Stadium crowd a few weeks ago; Iowa’s crowd was responsible for causing not one, not two, but three consecutive false start penalties on Penn State earlier this season. The best games of 2021, from Oklahoma-Texas to Michigan-Michigan State to Alabama-Texas A&M, were made so much more exciting by the presence of fans. There were almost zero games affected by COVID, and most everyone had a normal 12-game season. There’s a comforting element to normalcy, and I feel like all of us college football fans re-experienced that feeling this season.
Miller: Upsets and parity, baby. Each and every week, it felt like the top ranked teams in college football were in trouble. While these past three months weren’t 2007-level crazy, upsets were certainly a huge part of the 2021 season. Every single week from Weeks 1–13 saw at least four ranked teams lose and at least one unranked team fall to an unranked opponent. From Oregon’s huge road upset over Ohio State, to their defeats to underdogs Stanford and Utah, to Purdue’s stunning upsets of Michigan State and Iowa, to unranked (at the time) Texas A&M defeating Alabama in OT, to losses by Baylor, Oklahoma State, Pitt and Wake Forest to unranked teams. There were plenty of close calls, like the Iron Bowl going to 4 OTs and pretty much Oklahoma’s entire season. The final two weeks saw both the number one and two teams fall. Every single week, we got something to look forward to. There was so much turnover in each week of the polls that every matchup felt exciting.
It wasn’t only the upsets that made this college football season fun, but for the first time in what feels like forever, parity prevailed! Two new teams will debut in the CFP this year, including a non-power 5 team in Cincinnati. Clemson’s reign over the ACC ended — for now. Usual CFP competitors Ohio State and Oklahoma both failed to reach their conference championships. Neither of the three powerhouses I just mentioned will be competing in the CFP for the first time since the playoff started back in 2015. The sport felt like it needed new blood, and although we got Alabama again as well as two SEC teams, seeing Michigan and Cincinnati in the CFP is incredibly refreshing.
Ok, Playoff time. What’s the most intriguing question heading into this year’s CFP?
Corpuel: Can Georgia’s offense step up if the defense isn’t playing lights out? The SEC championship was the first time all season Georgia’s defense looked vulnerable, and the offense struggled to make up for the defense’s mistakes, something it hadn’t had to do all season. After the Clemson game, all but one of Georgia’s regular season victories were decided by 20+ points. The offense never had any pressure on them to lift the Bulldogs because their defense was always so dominant.
Look, their offense is still good comparatively to everyone else in college football. They’ve scored 30+ points in all but three games this season, scored the eighth most offensive touchdowns in the country and have a ton of talent on that side of the ball. But at the same time, I don’t love their chances if Michigan’s offense is clicking. Stetson Bennett IV is like Ryan Tannehill; he’s very efficient, but he’s not a volume passer, and when he had to be a volume passer against Alabama, it wasn’t pretty. The SEC championship was the first time Bennett IV has thrown over 30 passes in a game this season, and it was easily his worst performance of 2021. Brock Bowers has been fantastic, and the Zamir White-James Cook backfield duo has played well this season, but Georgia’s offense has yet to prove they can step up when the defense isn’t playing historically great.
I’ll conclude with this: Michigan’s offense is not nearly as high-flying as Alabama’s, as the Wolverines love to pound the rock with Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum behind a very good offensive line. Georgia’s defense should theoretically be able to contain Michigan’s offense a lot better than Alabama’s, thus putting a little less pressure on Georgia’s offense to dig them out of a hole. Plus…Georgia’s defense is still historically awesome. But the question of whether their offense can rise to the occasion in big time games still remains.
Miller: Can Alabama’s offense make up for the loss of John Metchie III? During the SEC championship, the Alabama star WR and Heisman trophy winner Bryce Young’s most targeted pass-catcher this season, tore his ACL. He will miss the CFP, obviously, and many may assume that the Bama offense with fellow stud Jameson Williams will be just fine despite the loss of Metchie.
Well, ladies and gentleman, to assume is to make an ass out of you and me, and if you assume that the Alabama offense will be a-OK without Metchie III, you have a solid chance of being wrong.
In the games without one of Metchie III or Williams, the Tide have looked shallower on offense. When Williams was ejected for targeting early in the Auburn game, Bryce Young struggled to the tune of seven sacks, a sub-50% completion percentage and a very lackluster offensive game. Then, after Metchie III exited the SEC Championship, Alabama’s offense scored a grand total of three points over the entire rest of the second half.
Bryce Young and Jameson Williams are still one of the best, if not the best, QB-WR duo in college football, and it will take an exceptional defensive effort to slow that combo down. But if you are looking for a concern with the number one ranked team, that is certainly one.
What 2022 NFL draft prospect do you think has the chance to increase their stock the most?
Corpuel: Jameson Williams. The third-year speedster exploded this past season for over 1,400 yards, 15 touchdowns and a boatload of highlights. His next-level speed, elite space-creating ability, ungodly explosion and relentless motor make Williams look the part of a future NFL X-factor. He’s already skyrocketed up draft boards from August until now; after being nowhere near the top of most experts’ draft boards at the beginning of the season, Williams is now widely regarded as one of the three best wide receivers in the 2022 class as well as a likely top ten pick.
Williams now has a golden opportunity to truly establish himself as a top-10 pick: He gets to play at least one more game on the biggest stage in college football. Williams will also be matching up against Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner, one of the best defensive backs in the country who will likely hear his name called early in the 2022 NFL Draft. Williams’ situation and opportunity is similar to the one DeVonta Smith had last season. A huge plus for Smith’s draft stock last year was that he cooked numerous talented secondaries and dropped 215 receiving yards along with three touchdowns on a top-tier Ohio State secondary (deep breath)… in the bleepin’ National Championship. Similarly, Williams recently destroyed a very good Georgia secondary for 184 yards and two touchdowns and has torched SEC secondaries all season long. I’m not predicting that Williams will replicate Smith’s legendary performance, but if he wins this battle against a player of Gardner’s caliber, plus another potential matchup against Uber-talented Georgia/Michigan secondaries, Jameson Williams will almost certainly be the first pass catcher off the board in April.
Miller: Desmond Ridder. While Cincinnati went 13-0 and made the CFP, Ridder didn’t exactly accomplish all that, at least statistically. He threw for 3,190 yards, had a 65.9% completion percentage and threw for 30 TDs along with eight interceptions. Ridder certainly had a good season, but it wasn’t anything dominant or out-of-this-world. While that may sound like me being harsh on Ridder, it’s the unfortunate reality of playing at a non-Power 5 school. Unless you put up transcendent numbers (Ben Roethlisberger, Blake Bortles, Derek Carr) and/or objectively look like a future pro (Carson Wentz, Zach Wilson, Trey Lance), the chances of you being taken seriously as a legit future NFL QB are slim. While Ridder has the physical traits — 6’4”-215, strong arm and exceptional mobility — he didn’t put up eye-popping numbers, and a few less-than-impressive performances against UCF, East Carolina and Navy certainly didn’t help his draft stock, either.
That being said, Ridder has his chance on the biggest stage to prove that he’s for real. In an upcoming draft that appears to be a down year for QBs, the overlooked Cincy signal caller can now vault himself to the top of the QB board with a phenomenal performance or two, especially if he can catalyze what would be the biggest upset in CFP history over Alabama in the semis. Even if the Bearcats fall to the Tide, an exceptional outing against Alabama could cement him at the top of the 2022 QB class, which includes Matt Corral, Malik Willis, Kenny Pickett, Sam Howell and Carson Strong, none of which have separated themselves from the rest nor shown worthy of top ten selections. We have seen QBs elevate their draft stock from great play in the CFP, such as Mac Jones and Justin Fields last year and Joe Burrow in 2019. The QB is the most debated and discussed position in all of sports, and maybe Desmond Ridder can start a few more debates about how highly he should be drafted.
Who’s a guy in the CFP that not many people are talking about who could make a huge impact?
Corpuel: Kickers never get a ton of attention, and understandably so. Since they only have one job, their success is glossed over, and their mistakes are amplified. With that being said, I can assure you no one is talking about the potential impact of Michigan kicker Jake Moody.
Moody recently became the first Wolverine to take home the Lou Groza Award, which is given annually to the best kicker in the FBS. Moody was quite deserving of the award: Out of the FBS kickers that have attempted at least 23 field goals this season, only John Dalmas of Boise State converted a higher percentage of his kicks (26/28, 92.9%) than Moody (22/24, 91.7%). 16 of Moody’s makes were from 30+ yards (t-most in the FBS), and he came up clutch numerous times this season, including a 4/4 performance in a three point victory against Nebraska in Week 6.
Extremely reliable kickers are a rarity. Especially in late-game situations, having a reliable kicker is a huge advantage, both in college and the pros; just ask the Baltimore Ravens, who feel fairly confident in their ability to score at least three points the moment they cross midfield. While Jake Moody is obviously not Justin Tucker, Moody’s combination of range and accuracy gives Michigan a reliable outlet for points should they not find the end zone inside their opponent’s 35-yard line. They won’t be forced to go for fourth downs in said territory due to a lack of trust in Moody’s kicking abilities.
In contrast, fellow CFP competitor Cincinnati has had one of the worst kicking units in the country this season; the Bearcats rank 129th out of 130 FBS teams in field goal percentage (7/17, 43.8%), including a putrid 4/13 from 30+ yards. Cincinnati’s lack of reliable kicking is a major limitation to the Bearcats’ game plan; they’ll likely have to be over-aggressive inside Alabama territory due to their lack of trust in their kickers.
If you’ve followed American football for at least a little bit, you know that plenty of games have been decided by kicking. Super Bowls have been won and lost by kicks. Some of the best college football games ever have been decided by kicking. In a game that I believe is going to be very close, every possession, every point is going to matter. With “Money” Moody on Michigan’s sideline, the Wolverines have a major advantage that I feel not many people are talking about.
Miller: Jamaree Salyer, Georgia’s left tackle. Having a quality offensive line is paramount to success at any level of football, and it’s especially vital when you’re going up against two of the best edge rushers in college football in Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo. The beast that is Aidan Hutchinson was college football’s best edge rusher in 2021, totaling a Michigan school record 14 sacks while vaulting Kayvon Thibodeaux for the likely top pick in next year’s NFL draft. Ojabo presents a similar challenge, as the likely first-rounder tallied 11 sacks of his own in 2021. Combined with potential matchups against Will Anderson (15.5 sacks, 30 TFLs) or a dangerous Cincinnati d-line, Georgia’s o-line can make or break their hopeful title run.
Enter Salyer, an excellent, underrated left tackle who has been the star of what has been a very good Georgia offensive line this year. At one point during this season, Salyer had taken 615 pass blocking snaps in his UGA career and had allowed exactly zero sacks. Not only that, but Salyer matched up against Anderson in the SEC Championship game and could regularly be seen handling Anderson with ease. Anderson’s lone sack was when he was not lined up against Salyer, and the same went with his tackles for loss.
If Salyer can contain the Wolverines in the semis, he then might have to face Will Anderson again if Alabama beats Cincinnati. The combination of those two opponents is about as scary as any assignment for an offensive lineman, although Salyer is one of the few in the nation capable of handling it. Georgia will need him in order to make a run at the championship.
Alright, what are your semi-final predictions?
Corpuel: While I think Alabama is going to beat Cincinnati, it’s going to be closer than a lot may think. Have all the discussions you want about how Oklahoma State would’ve made it had they beaten Baylor in the Big 12 Championship, or how the Group of 5 should have its own Playoff, but the reality is that Cincinnati deserves to be here and should be taken seriously. Luke Fickell’s squad is strong on both sides of the ball, as the Bearcats sport a top-tier offense and defense. Led by Ridder, Gardner and a top-three run defense, the Bearcats have the tools to keep up with the Tide. But Alabama is the superior team, and I’m riding the Tide to the National Championship game.
Michigan-Georgia sounds a lot more fun than it did pre-SEC championship, as the Bulldogs got rolled by Heisman winner Bryce Young, and the Wolverines have outscored their last three opponents — including Ohio State and Iowa — 143–48. The Dawgs are hungry for redemption, and the Wolverines are out to prove that they belong in the year they finally made it to the CFP.
If you like defense, this is the game for you. No, this is not me predicting a 6–3 slugfest; both of these defenses are genuinely fun to watch. With so many perennial draft picks and impact players, I’m super excited to see who shows out on the defensive side of the ball for both teams.
I think this game is going to come down to who wins in the trenches. Both teams are stacked at the line of scrimmage and are where they do most of their damage.
It’s going to be a very close game. Give me Georgia by single digits.
Miller: Alabama certainly played their best, most complete game in the SEC championship, and now the challenge becomes to do it twice more. The Crimson Tide have been inconsistent at times this season, as the offense or defense disappeared for stretches of numerous games. Although Alabama’s offensive line played great against the Bulldogs, that unit had been an issue all year. The Tide are heavy favorites in this one, and although I feel Cincinnati is absolutely deserving of their CFP spot, they don’t have an advantage of talent or coaching anywhere except maybe cornerback. I expect Alabama to pull away in the second half and win by a few touchdowns.
Michigan-Georgia should be a defensive grind, especially considering where both of these team’s strengths lie. Michigan’s pass rush is a nightmare for opposing offensive lines, and on offense, the Wolverines are a team that wants to be more physical, run the ball down your throat, control the game and pass only when they need to. They have a great running game, amazing defense and a capable quarterback in Cade McNamara. Unfortunately for them, they get to face an even more physical squad with the best run defense in the nation. Georgia wants to do the same thing as Michigan, except that they have a more capable downfield passing offense, especially with star TE Brock Bowers and the possibility of star WR George Pickens playing more. Georgia’s outside talent edges Michigan, and experience in big games leans the Bulldogs’ way as well. Give me Georgia by a touchdown.
And finally, who’s taking home the title?
Corpuel: Pre-SEC Championship, I would’ve taken the team whose defense is littered with five-star prospects and future pros; the team whose defense was the only unit in the country to allow less than 10 offensive touchdowns all season; the team whose defense had allowed fewer points per game (6.9) than 51 Division I college baseball teams allowed runs per game in 2021; the team whose defense was often times their best offense.
Welp, that was pre-SEC Championship. The tide has turned in favor of…the Tide. Georgia’s defense looked far from immortal against an Alabama team who, if we’re being honest, we doubted. While the hesitation was valid — the Tide weren’t as dominant as usual in 2021, struggling against Florida, LSU and Auburn while losing to Texas A&M — we still made the grave mistake of doubting Alabama. *Taylor Twellman voice* What are we doing? What are we doing? It’s Alabama. They have Heisman winner Bryce Young at quarterback leading an offense averaging nearly 500 yards per game. You want to talk about how loaded Georgia’s defense is? Alabama’s defense is also chock-full of future pros that have held 10 of their 13 opponents to under 25 points this season. And most of all, they have Nick Saban running the show. Need I say more? Actually, yes, yes I do.
I have gone back and forth on this prediction for a very, very long time. I don’t want one loss to deter me from sticking with Georgia, who I believed were the best and most consistent team throughout this entire season that has been filled with inconsistency all across the map. At the same time, however, Georgia had never been tested, and when they finally were, they faltered. Alabama has had their backs up against the wall several times this season, and they prevailed in (almost) all of those situations. Experience under adversity is crucial to postseason success, and Georgia doesn’t have the experience Bama does under those circumstances. I trust Bryce Young a lot more in crunch time than Stetson Bennett IV.
I expect the Bulldogs to come into the Playoff hungry and motivated to prove doubters like myself wrong. Considering Georgia’s history and the fact that only one team not named Alabama, Clemson or Ohio State have lifted the CFP trophy, I really want Georgia to win. But Alabama will be waiting. Give me the Tide to capture their fourth CFP title in the Playoff’s eighth year of existence.
Miller: Throughout this entire season, it felt like Georgia’s year. Despite their defeat to Alabama, one subpar game isn’t enough to derail that sentiment for me. Georgia’s coaching staff is too good to be schooled twice by an Alabama offense that is certainly not invincible. I don’t think Georgia is going to make a quarterback change, and I’m not sure whether it is the right time or if they need one. That being said, the dynamic nature of this Bulldogs team the whole year, how close, how together and united they are, how much they love each other and play for each other, it all seems to line up with the Bulldogs finally winning a title.
I felt it when I heard the leaked Kirby Smart halftime speech against Florida, when I watched the team dominate good teams in Arkansas, Kentucky and Tennessee on their way to a 12-0 regular season. I’m not convinced, but there seems to be a Georgia curse, especially against Alabama and Nick Saban, but eventually, every team breaks the glass ceiling. If any season is the season to break the 40+ year championship drought, it’s this one. I believe the Bulldogs prevail, winning by a field goal in another Georgia-Alabama instant classic.