After months of speculating about who would reach the College Football Playoff, it’s time to finally play the games. No. 1 Alabama will take on No. 4 Cincinnati in the Cotton Bowl on Saturday afternoon, while No. 2 Michigan faces No. 3 Georgia in the Orange Bowl that will serve as the nightcap just before New Year’s Eve concludes. They’re two fantastic matchups with several different storylines threaded throughout the respective games.
Will Cincinnati shock the world and take down Alabama? Will Georgia recover from its loss to Alabama? Will Michigan continue proving the entire nation wrong? And obviously, will Bama take its latest step in attempting to win back-to-back titles for the first time in a decade? There are plenty of storylines that can be created across the two semifinals.
Making a case for … No. 1 Alabama | No. 2 Michigan | No. 3 Georgia | No. 4 Cincinnati
All of these questions will be answered soon in two games that should keep us entertained, but you know what makes entertaining games even more exciting? Wagering on them. As far as where you should be looking for your best bets, allow the expert gamblers here at CBS Sports — experts at betting, not necessarily winning — to help you make the most informed decisions.
So here are my thoughts on what we’re most likely to see on Friday during the College Football Playoff semifinals along with plenty of picks from my fellow scribes. Odds via Caesars Sportsbook
2021 Orange Bowl: (2) Michigan vs. (3) Georgia
Featured Game | Michigan Wolverines vs. Georgia Bulldogs
Spread: These teams are so similar that it’s hard to imagine scenarios in which either side is capable of pulling away from the other. Both offenses are built on running the ball behind an excellent offensive line that can wear down an opposing defense and break them in the second half. Both have passing attacks that are overlooked due to a pair of quarterbacks who aren’t elite but are the more traditional “game-manager” types. Then there are the defenses. Georgia has an elite front seven that’s proven impenetrable to nearly everybody it has faced this year. Michigan has an elite pass-rush led by Heisman finalist Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo.
I believe the back end of those defenses could be the difference. Georgia’s secondary is its defense’s weak point — though it’s still quite good! — and was exposed by Alabama in the SEC Championship Game. Michigan’s secondary is better and has an X-factor in Daxton Hill, who is capable of helping out against the run but also able to cover receivers and tight ends like Georgia’s Brock Bowers. I don’t think that’s enough to lead Michigan to victory, but it is enough to make sure the Bulldogs cannot pull away. So as I stare at that hook on the seven in the spread, I can’t help but go with the Wolverines. If the spread somehow crawls below seven before kickoff, I’d take Georgia. That’s how razor-thin this margin appears to be. Pick: Michigan +7.5
Total: It seems counterintuitive, but I’m going over. Yes, these are great defenses, but those defenses have overshadowed two good offenses. Georgia’s offense ranks first nationally in success rate and seventh in points per drive. Michigan ranks sixth in success rate and eighth in points per drive. While I don’t see this game becoming some kind of 80-point shootout, a 27-20 final is well within the likely range of outcomes. Let’s fade the general consensus. Pick: Over 45.5
Prop: While he hasn’t been a huge part of the passing offense for Georgia this year, James Cook can be used as an option out of the backfield. He’s caught 21 passes for 157 yards and three touchdowns, and this matchup should lead to opportunities for him as a receiver. While Brock Bowers is the focus of Georgia’s passing attack, Michigan safety Daxton Hill is capable of taking him out of play. Meanwhile, the rest of Georgia’s receiving corps has not been spectacular, and the Michigan pass rush could force Stetson Bennett to look for his checkdown a lot. That means Cook could see a larger share of targets than usual, and he’s capable of going over this total on only one reception. Pick: James Cook Over 15.5 receiving yards
2021 Cotton Bowl: (1) Alabama vs. (4) Cincinnati
Spread: If there’s a blowout in the CFP semifinals, this is the game most likely to provide it. The spread suggests as much, as does the fact that it’s Alabama going against Cincinnati, the first Group of Five team to ever play for a national championship since the start of the BCS. We’ve seen this story a few times already. This is Alabama’s seventh playoff appearance, and it has gone 5-1 in its first six semifinals with its lone loss coming to Ohio State in 2014. Its five wins have come by an average of 20.2 points with the closest game being a 45-34 win over Oklahoma in the 2018 Orange Bowl that Bama led 28-0 before OU joined the party.
Will that happen again? There’s a good chance! Cincinnati has featured an excellent pass-rush all season, which will come in handy against this Bama offense. If you allow Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young to sit in the pocket and allow his receivers to come open, he will pick you apart. You need to make him uncomfortable and have him moving to have a chance. I’m not sure Cincinnati can accomplish that feat as this Crimson Tide offensive line will be better than any line the Bearcats have seen this season.
On the back end, Cincinnati has top-tier defensive backs in Ahmad Gardner and Coby Bryant to slow Alabama’s receivers, but nobody can cover Jameson Williams for 60 minutes. On the other side of the ball, the Bearcats will need Desmond Ridder to have one of the best games of his life to keep pace with the Alabama offense, and I don’t see it happening. My heart is hoping for a close, exciting game, but my head tells me there won’t be much drama left in this one in the fourth quarter. Pick: Alabama -13.5
Total: While I don’t love either side of the total, I’d rather be on the over if I’m going in either direction. Cincinnati’s defense has been phenomenal this season, but as I wrote above, I’m not confident it can withstand this Alabama offense. Whether Alabama covers the spread or not, I don’t see many outcomes to this game in which Bama doesn’t score at least 30 points, and there’s a good chance the Tide will get into the 40s by themselves. So whether it’s a blowout or not, it should be a high-scoring affair as opposed toa slugfest. Pick: Over 58
Prop: The Bearcats have had one of the best defenses in the country all season as corners Ahmad Gardner and Coby Bryant have helped shut down passing attacks. The duo has been so effective that Cincinnati hasn’t allowed more than two touchdown passes in a game this season, and it’s only happened twice (against Indiana and Houston). Of course, Cincinnati has not faced a passing attack or a quarterback near the caliber of what they’ll see against Alabama and Bryce Young. Even with Jon Metchie missing the game, Alabama should have success moving the ball in the air to its other weapons, as Bryce Young has averaged 3.3 touchdowns this season. I’m expecting him to have another average performance today. Pick: Bryce Young Over 2.5 TD passes
Which College Football Playoff picks should you make, and will any underdogs will win outright? Visit SportsLine to see which teams will win and cover the spread — all from a proven computer model that has returned almost $3,600 in profit over the past five-plus seasons — and find out.