The semifinal round of the 2021-22 College Football Playoff concludes with Michigan meeting Georgia in the Capital One Orange Bowl on Friday night in Miami. The Wolverines are making their first trek to the playoff, while the Bulldogs are back in the postseason for the second time under coach Kirby Smart. The winner of this matchup is set to take on Alabama or Cincinnati in the national championship game on Jan. 10 in Indianapolis.
Michigan's path to the playoff started last offseason. After a 2-4 record in the abbreviated 2020 season, coach Jim Harbaugh hit the reset button. Harbaugh rebooted his program with a new staff, and the fresh approach with different assistants paid big-time dividends. The Wolverines crushed each of their first three opponents by 20 or more points and later picked up road wins versus Wisconsin and Nebraska to head into their showdown against Michigan State with a 7-0 mark. Harbaugh's team stumbled late (37-33 loss to Michigan State), but the program rebounded back into playoff contention by beating Penn State (21-17) and Ohio State (42-27) before a dominating Big Ten Championship Game victory over Iowa (42-3). The Wolverines are arguably the most-improved team in the nation this year and are just a win away from a shot at the CFB Playoff title.
Georgia's appearance in the Orange Bowl ended a playoff drought that lasted three years after Smart's team lost to Alabama in the national title game for the 2017 season. The Bulldogs ranked as the No. 1 team for a good chunk of the regular season thanks to wins over Clemson (10-3), Arkansas (37-0), and Kentucky (30-13), but a loss to Alabama in the SEC Championship Game dropped Smart's team to No. 3 in the rankings. Although the Crimson Tide ended Georgia's perfect record, dominant was the best word that summed up the regular season. Only one (Clemson) of the Bulldogs' victories came by one score, with the other 11 wins coming by 17 or more points.
Georgia and Michigan have played just two previous times on the gridiron. Both teams have one victory apiece, with the last meeting taking place in 1965. The Wolverines have lost four bowl games in a row. The Bulldogs are 2-1 in their last three postseason trips.
Capital One Orange Bowl (CFB Playoff Semifinal): No. 2 Michigan (12-1) vs. No. 3 Georgia (12-1)
Kickoff: Friday, Dec. 31 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Where: Hard Rock Stadium (Miami)
Spread: Georgia -7.5
When Michigan Has the Ball
Improvement on both sides of the ball fueled Michigan's jump in wins from 2020 to '21. Although the defense has received most of the accolades (and rightfully so), the offense also took a big step forward this fall. The Wolverines averaged 6.5 yards per play this year (up from 5.95) and 37.7 points a game (up from 28.3).
While Michigan's offense averages nearly 40 points a game, Friday's matchup versus Georgia is the toughest battle it will face in 2021. The Wolverines run the ball on about 60 percent of their plays, but the Bulldogs rank second nationally against the run by limiting teams to 81.7 yards a game. Anchored by a deep front that features standout Jordan Davis, Georgia's defense is giving up only 2.6 yards per carry, and only one opponent eclipsed more than 150 yards (Florida) this year. Michigan won the Joe Moore Award for the top offensive line in college football for '21, and this unit had no trouble clearing running lanes for a deep backfield featuring Hassan Haskins (1,288 yards), Blake Corum (939), and Donovan Edwards (158). However, the front five and the backfield aren't likely to find a ton of running room against the Georgia defense.
With a strength versus strength battle up front, it's unlikely Michigan is going to line up and simply move Georgia's defensive front in the run game. The Wolverines have to get creative on offense against one of the top defenses in the nation, but this unit also has to find ways to consistently move the ball through the air. The Bulldogs allowed only two teams — Tennessee and Alabama — to eclipse 300 passing yards this year, so the sledding here isn't going to be easy for Harbaugh's team. Quarterback Cade McNamara has been efficient (64.6 completion percentage) with 2,470 yards, 15 touchdowns, and only four interceptions. Can McNamara consistently deliver enough big plays downfield to test Georgia's secondary? To do so, he will need Cornelius Johnson (37 catches), Roman Wilson (24), Mike Sainristil (21), and Daylen Baldwin (16) to win on the outside. Tight end Erick All (34) is another weapon for McNamara to target over the middle.
Backup quarterback J.J. McCarthy is an x-factor to watch on Friday. The freshman brings more big-play ability to the position (9.2 yards per attempt) but more risk (two interceptions in 42 pass attempts). He's also rushed for 100 yards over 23 carries. Georgia's defense is only allowing 4.01 yards per play and 9.5 points a game. For Michigan to have a shot, this offense is going to need to generate a couple of big plays to get into scoring position.
When Georgia Has the Ball
The quarterback position has been a source of intrigue for Georgia since the start of the season and remains a focal point going into Friday's game. JT Daniels closed 2020 on a high note and seemed poised to rank among the SEC's top quarterbacks for '21. However, after starting against Clemson in the opener, Daniels was sidelined due to injuries for the next game versus UAB. Although Daniels returned the following week, Stetson Bennett IV won the starting nod and has yet to relinquish the No. 1 spot on the depth chart. The former walk-on started for a chunk of '20 but took a step forward in '21. Bennett has passed for 2,325 yards and 24 touchdowns to seven picks and connected on 64.1 percent of his throws.
While Bennett has been solid for most of '21, he's coming off an uneven performance in the SEC title game against Alabama. The senior completed 29 of 48 throws for 340 yards and three touchdowns. However, he also tossed two interceptions and averaged only 7.1 yards per attempt. Although Bennett wasn't necessarily the reason why Georgia lost, his performance opened the door for more debate leading up to the Orange Bowl. While the SEC Championship Game ignited questions about quarterbacks in Athens once again, all signs point to Bennett starting against Michigan.
Bennett doesn't lack for options on the outside. Tight end Brock Bowers (47 catches) is a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses, with Ladd McConkey (28), Jermaine Burton (23), Kearis Jackson (14), and Adonai Mitchell (25) headlining the receiving corps. Also, the Bulldogs should get a boost from George Pickens. The talented junior suffered a torn ACL in the spring but played in the final two games of the regular season. With another month to knock off the rust, Pickens should be a bigger part of Georgia's game plan. Michigan ranks fourth in the Big Ten in pass efficiency defense and allowed just one opponent (Ohio State) to eclipse more than 300 passing yards.
Similar to the other side of the ball, the battle in the trenches looms large in Miami. Michigan's rush defense is limiting teams to 121.5 yards per game (3.5 per carry), and edge rushers Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo have combined for 25 sacks this year. Over nine SEC games, the Bulldogs surrendered just nine sacks. However, three of those came in the SEC title game versus Alabama. Can Hutchinson and Ojabo consistently get pressure to disrupt Bennett?
In addition to pressure, Michigan needs to contain Georgia's ground game and get the offense into obvious passing downs. Containing the Bulldogs' rushing attack won't be easy, however. Coordinator Todd Monken can use a couple of backs, which could take a toll in the second half. Zamir White (718 rushing yards) leads the way, with James Cook (619) working as a key cog on the ground and through the air, and Kenny McIntosh (319) also working into the mix. Bennett ranks fourth on the team with 251 rushing yards, and his mobility against a standout Michigan front could be crucial.
Two factors are likely to decide which team comes out on top in Miami: The line of scrimmage and quarterback play. Michigan and Georgia are both strong in the trenches, and the two quarterbacks enter the postseason under the spotlight. Considering the dominance of the Bulldogs' front against the run all year, the Wolverines likely need to pass to open up the run. McNamara needs to hit a few big plays early, along with successfully distributing the ball in space to the talented playmakers at running back and receiver. Bennett is under pressure to play well after an uneven performance in the SEC title game, and the senior will be tested by a Michigan front poised to bring pressure early and often. The Bulldogs shake off the disappointment from the SEC title game and find a way to edge the Wolverines to book a trip to Indianapolis to play for a national championship.
Prediction: Georgia 27, Michigan 20
Podcast: CFB Playoff Breakdown and Predictions