The College Football Playoff is here, as the sport sends out the year 2022 with a pair of compelling semifinal clashes. In the first, undefeated no. 2 Michigan battles No. 3 TCU, a program making its first CFP appearance, at 4 pm ET on ESPN. In the second, two football bluebloods will meet as unbeaten No. 1 Georgia takes on upset-minded No. 4 Ohio State at 8 pm ET on ESPN. The winners will then play for the national championship on Monday, Jan. 9 in Los Angeles.
Who will prevail in the Playoff semifinals? A quartet of Sports Illustrated college football writers preview each game, complete with score predictions and their pick for game MVP.
Peach Bowl: No. 1 Georgia vs. No. 4 Ohio State
Pat Forde: Georgia 35, Ohio State 21
If the Buckeyes had trouble holding up in the second half against the power of Michigan, what are they going to do here? Georgia is the most physically dominant team in the nation, punishing on both sides of the ball, and Ohio State flunked a test it had a year to study for in that regard against the Wolverines. The Buckeyes have five weeks to get better in an area where that’s not easy to do. If they are going to pull this off, they will need their best players to perform like superstars—quarterback CJ Stroud and receivers Marvin Harrison Jr. and Emeka Egbuka, specifically. That’s certainly possible, which is underlined by the roasting of the Georgia secondary got from LSU in the SEC championship game. But the Ohio State defense will also need to avoid the glaring lapses it had against Michigan, because Georgia can befuddle the Buckeyes with misdirection and eye candy to spring some big plays in the passing game and on the perimeter—then finish them off between the tackles with the power running attack.
Forde’s pick for game MVP: Stetson Bennett. The Georgia quarterback is a master distributor of the ball who can also make plays with his legs. He could have another in a series of big games in big spots.
Ross Dellenger: Georgia 31, Ohio State 20
The Bulldogs are a more complete team than the one that won it all last season. Sure, their defense is rock solid as always, but QB Stetson Bennett and his offense have put together one of the best offensive seasons in the country. The unit ranks eighth in total offense, 17 spots better than last season. It’s scored more than 30 points in all but three games this season, hitting 45 points in five games. Don’t sleep on the Bulldogs’ offense. We don’t expect the Buckeyes to be napping defensively, but we do expect Kirby Smart’s defense to swallow an Ohio State offense that, while talented and explosive, has struggled against good (and some bad) teams this year (it didn’t score more than 23 points in games against Notre Dame, Northwestern and Michigan).
Dellenger’s pick for game MVP: Georgia TE Brock Bowers. Bowers will add to his three rushing touchdowns and six TD catches this year en route to MVP honors.
Richard Johnson: Georgia 34, Ohio State 30
The Buckeyes offense, led by receiver Marvin Harrison Jr., will push the Dawgs on defense like they haven’t been yet this season. But in the end, Georgia’s offense surprisingly will be the thing that takes it over the top when Stetson Bennett outduels CJ Stroud thanks to the help of his matchup-nightmare tight ends.
Johnson’s pick for game MVP: Georgia TE Brock Bowers
John Garcia: Georgia 34, Ohio State 24
The more I read into the game, from a casual personnel perspective or a more specific research-based one, it keeps coming back to Georgia. The program has been the juggernaut of the sport since the 2020 pandemic season and could be wrapping up its best campaign relative to its offensive ability climbing closer to the dominant nature of the Bulldogs’ defense. The Buckeyes argument has me playing more hypotheticals than pure matchups—IF Ohio State can establish the run against the vaunted UGA front, then the passing game could open up. IF CJ Stroud uses his legs and Ryan Day’s staff works a mobile pocket, perhaps Marvin Harrison Jr., Emeka Egbuka and a talented wide receiver corps can win one-on-one matchups with the Bulldogs’ secondary.
It’s the opposite on the defending champions’ front, where the feeling is Georgia can adjust to whatever nature the game presents with ease. He could dominate time of possession and combine his running game and short passing game to keep the ball away from Stroud, creating fewer possessions and a fresher defense to attack the Buckeyes in the process. Even in the event of a shootout, Georgia has shown the capabilities to operate more freely offensively in 2022 with the best tight end room in the country and an all-of-a-sudden healthy wide receiver group available for the first time since its demolition of Oregon to open the season. Familiarity seems to be the best formula to slow down Stetson Bennett & Co., as select SEC teams have come close over the years, compared to nonconference opponents that have been met with Georgia power and aggression on both sides of the ball.
The last non-SEC program to beat the Bulldogs was the “We’re Back!” Texas Longhorns and Sam Ehlinger back on Jan. 1, 2019. Nearly four years to the day later, it’s hard to imagine it happening again.
Garcia’s pick for game MVP: With Ohio State’s defensive focus on Brock Bowers & Co., Georgia RB Kenny McIntosh will make big plays on the ground and in the air against an OSU defense vulnerable to a power scheme. The last time we saw the Buckeyes, Michigan ran for 250-plus yards without its lead back.
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Fiesta Bowl: No. 2 Michigan vs. No. 3 TCU
Ford: Michigan 38, TCU 28
The crux of the matter is whether the Horned Frogs can hold up defensively enough to give their offense a chance to win the game. The data suggests no. TCU is a middling defensive unit, entering the bowl season ranked 56th nationally in yards allowed per play (5.41) and 118th in number of scrimmage plays allowed of 20 yards or longer (69). That’s a bad combination against an opponent with newfound explosiveness (Donovan Edwards on the ground, several receivers through the air) but also the mentality to patiently grind out five-yard runs all day.
Max Duggan will be able to make some passing plays and probably will make some running, as well. It would certainly help TCU’s cause if Kendre Miller can get untracked early in the running game, but doing that against the No. 3 rushing defense in the nation will be difficult. Sonny Dykes needs to come to the desert ready to get risky, whereas Harbaugh can arrive relatively certain that his preferred gameplan is probably good enough to carry the day.
Forde’s pick for game MVP: Donovan Edwards. The Michigan running back has been on fire at the end of the season, and that probably won’t stop against TCU.
Dellenger: Michigan 37, TCU 31
Like Georgia, I feel like Michigan is even better than the squad we saw advance to the CFP last season. The Wolverines play a more traditional offensive game mixed with a sturdy and talented defense. But can they corral the Comeback Kids? QB Max Duggan and TCU have put together one of the most unexpected and magical seasons in recent college football history. Coach Sonny Dykes and the Horned Frogs have won six games this season in which they trailed by double digits in the second half. The fairy tale will come to an end in Phoenix, where the Big 12 regular-season champions meet their toughest test of the year. Even without RB Blake Corum, the Wolverines will roll.
Dellenger’s pick for game MVP: Michigan QB JJ McCarthy. Against TCU, McCarthy will continue to be one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the country. He has thrown just three picks this year to go with 20 touchdowns.
Johnson: Michigan 31, TCU 20
In the end, I think Michigan’s running game will simply prove too fierce. Expect a heavy dose of Donovan Edwards, although the Wolverines have other capable backs in the stable. But the Joe Moore Award-winning offensive line will be the difference in this one.
Johnson’s pick for game MVP: Edwards
Garcia: Michigan 37, TCU 31
While the other semifinal is getting more run on my timeline, it is the battle of elite mascots that should play to more conventional college football entertainment. Both offenses are led by intriguing mobile quarterbacks who have come into their own this year en route to the big stage. TCU Heisman finalist Max Duggan may very well lead the team in rushing before all is said and done; he’s a true dual-threat approach that Michigan’s dominant defense hasn’t quite had to contend with so far. Duggan’s creativity and grit should help keep the Horned Frogs in it, although the Wolverines’ attack presents more balance and ball control. Even without Blake Corum, UM presents a lot of issues for opposing defenses with breakout star Donovan Edwards—who is also more comfortable in space than the injured back. That combination should open things up for JJ McCarthy and one of the most well-distributed and efficient passing attacks in the nation.
Naturally, in a game where the expectation may call for plenty of points, it will be a defensive move that alters the course of the result. This is where the Michigan secondary, possibly even true freshman Will Johnson, could make that late splash to either help the favorites get the ball back late for a game-winning drive or play catalyst to a clock-milking possession to hold off TCU’s Cinderella ride. one final time.
Garcia’s pick for game MVP: McCarthy has shown plenty of flashes in taking over in 2022, but this will be his most complete effort to date—as both a passer and a runner.