Hickey: Final thoughts and a prediction for Ohio State and Michigan in CFP semifinals
We’ve never been here before — a Big Ten twinbill in the College Football Playoff, and with it a chance at an Ohio State-Michigan rematch for the ages.
We should get used to seeing things like this, of course. In 2 years, it will be a 12-team playoff. That format is likely to produce 2-3 Big Ten playoff berths a year. And though it’s unlikely we will always see 2 of those teams in the semis, it does figure to happen more than once every 8 years.
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But first thing’s first. The Wolverines must take care of TCU in the Fiesta Bowl, while the Buckeyes look to upset undefeated Georgia in the Peach Bowl.
In the spirit of the season, we’re offering you 2 stories for the price of 1 — thoughts and a prediction for both the Fiesta Bowl and Peach Bowl.
I know what you’re thinking — how is this a deal when the price is already free?
But don’t worry about that. It’s time to focus on football.
No. 2 Michigan vs. No. 3 TCU
Does the CFP know how time zones work?
Someone needs to explain to me why a game in Phoenix is kicking off before a game in Atlanta. Did someone look at the NFL standings from 1992 and think “Oh, Phoenix is in the NFC East and Atlanta is in the NFC West! How did I never notice this?”
(There was a time the Falcons and Braves both played in the same division as teams from San Francisco and Los Angeles. Don’t ask.)
Fiesta Bowl fans have it lucky. Their game starts at 2 p.m. local time, meaning they’ll have a good 6 hours to get ready before the ball drops at midnight on New Year’s Eve.
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The Peach Bowl kicks at 8 p.m. local time. Fans will still be in the stadium at midnight. Heck, if there’s overtime, the game might be still going while most of the country is paying more attention to Ryan Seacrest.
Never go head-to-head with Seacrest. He’ll wreck you every time. Each game should kick off 2 hours earlier.
And if the CFP people insist on keeping these kick times, at least put them in the time zone that makes more sense.
Rant over. Now it’s time to focus on football.
Michigan’s dream matchup
On paper, this matchup sets up wonderfully for the Wolverines.
Kansas State is the team that gave TCU the most trouble this year. The Wildcats had a 28-10 lead on the Horned Frogs in the regular season before TCU rallied for a 38-28 win. In the Big 12 championship game, Kansas State was again unfazed by the Frogs. A goal-line stand clinched the Cats’ 31-28 overtime win.
Kansas State is a gritty, blue-collar bunch built on defense and a strong run game. The Wildcats were second in the Big 12 in rushing yards and No. 1 in scoring defense.
Michigan is a much, much more potent version of the K-State blueprint.
Unless TCU is able to get to a sizable early lead and put JJ McCarthy in the unusual position of playing catch-up, the table is tilted towards the Wolverines.
Frogs don’t die
If Michigan gets out to a big lead early — a very distinct possibility — Wolverines fans should not feel emboldened to start booking flights to Los Angeles for the national championship game. Time after time this season, the Horned Frogs looked cooked before hopping out of a jam.
In addition to their 18-point comeback against Kansas State, the Frogs rallied from a 17-point deficit to Oklahoma State.
TCU also has a flair for the dramatic.
Quarterback Max Duggan hit Quentin Johnston for a 24-yard touchdown with 1:36 remaining in a 38-31 win over Kansas. The Frogs also scored 9 points in the final 2:03 at Baylor, including Griffin Kell’s 40-yard field goal at the gun for the 29-28 win.
If Michigan gives TCU any breathing room in the second half, assume the Frogs are capable of taking it. The Wolverines cannot take their foot off the pedal.
It’s better to be lucky than good, and this year TCU has been a little bit of both. There is something to be said for Max Duggan and TCU’s ability to pull games out in the clutch.
But there is also the matter of TCU facing those deficits and the need for late heroics. If it happens against Michigan, which ranks 4th nationally in time of possession, there won’t be much avenue for a miracle comeback.
The average margin in a CFP semifinal is 21 points. TCU has too much fight to get blown out, but Michigan’s strengths are too much to overcome.
Michigan 35, TCU 24
No. 1 Georgia vs. No. 4 Ohio State
The ground game will determine the victor
To the uninitiated, a game featuring 2 Heisman finalist quarterbacks probably seems destined to be decided through the air.
That won’t be the case here.
Ohio State’s path to victory requires slowing down Georgia’s run game. And the Bucks’ offense needs to get its own run game going against the nation’s top run defense.
The Bulldogs averaged 255 rushing yards in their final 3 games. Ohio State comes in after allowing 252 rushing yards to Michigan in The Game, which is not exactly encouraging. Georgia’s offensive line has allowed 7 sacks and 46 tackles for loss, both of which rank in the top 4 nationally.
And for imposing as Georgia’s defensive front is, it’s yet to run into an offensive line as solid as Ohio State’s. The Buckeyes have allowed 8 sacks and 44 TFL.
Ohio State is averaging 5.5 yards per carry this season. If the Bucks match that, they’d be the first team to best 5 yards per carry against the Bulldogs since 2018. And they will win.
CJ Stroud’s money game
There are NFL Draft experts out there — presumably making good money, no less — who legitimately believe Kentucky quarterback Will Levis is the best prospect in the upcoming draft.
The same Levis who couldn’t beat out Sean Clifford for the Penn State starting job, so he transferred to Kentucky. Also, the same Levis who eats bananas still in the peel and puts mayo in his coffee instead of cream. There couldn’t be more red flags.
But the same people who insisted Zach Wilson and Christian Hackenberg would be great NFL quarterbacks will continue to beat that drum. Undoubtedly, some organization — perhaps not the Jets this time — will be foolish enough to buy it.
Though winning a championship is CJ Stroud’s biggest goal, doing so in a manner that shows he’s also the best quarterback prospect in the upcoming draft would kill multiple birds with a single stone.
Against Georgia, Levis was 20-of-31 for 206 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Stroud has the ability to put together better tape against the Bulldogs — and he’ll need to if the Buckeyes are to win.
Who can make (and prevent) the big play?
Both of these offenses are in the top 10 nationally in scoring. Explosive plays are inevitable.
Georgia is 12th in the country with 78 plays of at least 20 yards, while Ohio State is 18th with 76 such plays.
Both defenses are near dead-even when it comes to preventing big plays, too. The Buckeyes and Bulldogs have both allowed 42 plays longer than 20 yards, which is tied for 12th nationally.
There may only be 4-5 explosive plays in this game, but they will be there. Simple as it sounds, Ohio State can win if it has the majority of them.
With Ohio State backing into the CFP after getting hammered by Michigan, there’s probably an expectation among SEC fanatics that Georgia will give the Buckeyes the same treatment.
But I’m going with a more reliable adage than “S-E-C! S-E-C!” And that is, “Vegas always knows.”
The line for this game has been sitting at 6.5 points, which pretty much begs bettors to take Georgia. Like we said earlier, the average margin of CFP semifinals is 21. Georgia has only had 1 game decided by less than a touchdown all season. This feels like a recipe for a blowout.
And that mindset is how casinos end up looking much nicer than anywhere you live. Ohio State is going to keep this close.
Alas, this is neither horseshoes nor hand grenades. Georgia’s championship pedigree will kick in late, preventing an epic Ohio State-Michigan rematch.
Georgia 35, Ohio State 31