Alabama is an immovable force atop the Football Bowl Subdivision. But Cincinnati is the only unbeaten team in the country. Michigan is surging into the postseason after rolling through the top challengers in the Big Ten. But Georgia was already being compared to some of the dominant teams in recent history before falling to Alabama in the SEC championship game.
Something has to give as these four teams prepare for New Year's Eve and the College Football Playoff national semifinals.
In the Cotton Bowl (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN), No. 1 Alabama looks to advance to another championship game while No. 4 Cincinnati aims to make more history as the first Group of Five team to win a playoff game.
And in the Orange Bowl (7:30 ET, ESPN), No. 2 Michigan takes on No. 3 Georgia in a matchup of two teams with far more similarities than differences.
There's an argument for why each team has what it takes to win on Friday and play for the national championship on Jan. 10. These reasons stand out:
Why Alabama will beat Cincinnati
Because of Bryce Young. This year's Heisman Trophy winner carried Alabama to an SEC championship with one of the best three-game runs by a quarterback in program history. He went for 421 yards and three touchdowns in the win against Georgia, accounting for almost half of all passing scores allowed by the Bulldogs during the regular season. While not the only star quarterback in the Orange Bowl, Young gives the Crimson Tide a major edge in the chase for another championship.
Because of history. Alabama dropped the Sugar Bowl to Ohio State in the first year of the playoff format but has dominated since, winning five straight semifinal matchups by an average of 20.2 points per game. Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide have a method for preparing for these games with a proven track record of results.
Because a close game favors the Tide. This offense ranks near the top of the Football Bowl Subdivision when it comes to converting in the red zone: Alabama is 13th in overall scoring percentage (91.8%) and touchdown percentage (70.5%). On the other hand, Cincinnati has the nation's worst kicking game. The Bearcats had made just 7 of 17 field goal attempts on the season.
Why Cincinnati will beat Alabama
Because this is an elite team — and not just for the Group of Five. There is star power across the board for a program that has dominated the Group of Five and earned a spot in the semifinals. Cincinnati has lost just once since the start of the 2020 season, to Georgia in last year's Peach Bowl, and has All-America talent at quarterback, defensive lineman and cornerback. Coach Luke Fickell is 48-14 overall since taking the Cincinnati job and 44-6 in the last four seasons.
Because of the secondary. In cornerbacks Sauce Gardner and Coby Bryant, the Bearcats have the defensive backfield to run with Alabama's receiver corps and make things more difficult on Young and the passing game. Cincinnati allowed only two opponents to throw for more than a single touchdown and gave up more than 250 yards through the air only once.
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Because they get up for big games. The Bearcats went through a midseason swoon against inferior American competition but turned it on against the elite teams on the schedule. Cincinnati averaged more yards per play against winning teams (7.6) than teams with losing records (6.1) and allowed slightly fewer points per game against winning teams (16.4) than losing teams (17.4).
Why Michigan will beat Georgia
Because this team is rolling. Given how Alabama sputtered in the Iron Bowl before rebounding to win the SEC crown, Michigan is the hottest team in the playoff bracket. The Wolverines capped the regular season by running for a combined 508 yards and averaging 7.7 yards per play in lopsided wins against Ohio State (42-27) and Iowa (42-3) to capture the Big Ten championship and head into the semifinals on a high note.
Because the Wolverines can be themselves. For better or worse, Georgia will allow Michigan to stick to a familiar script. Rather than being thrust into the sort of quarterback-driven shootout that comes with a matchup against Alabama, the Wolverines can lean on the best running game in the Power Five (223.9 yards per game on 5.3 yards per carry) and try to loosen up the Bulldogs' defensive front.
Because they won't beat themselves. Michigan committed 11 turnovers during the regular season, good for eighth among teams in the Power Five, and only lost the turnover battle twice — in those wins against the Buckeyes and Hawkeyes. Quarterback Cade McNamara has thrown just four interceptions in 309 attempts; only three other Power Five passers have or had four or fewer picks in 300 or more throws.
Why Georgia will beat Michigan
Because this defense is still the best. We'll see if Alabama's 41-point outburst in early December carries over to the playoff. That seems unlikely based on how this defense fared during the regular season: Georgia still leads the FBS in yards allowed per play (4.01) and points allowed per game (9.5). The Tide accounted for a third of the 124 points the Bulldogs have given up this season; take that game away, and the Bulldogs are giving up just 6.9 points per game.
Because it's strength against strength. Georgia can respect Michigan's style and the Wolverines' late-season surge but still feel good about the on-paper matchup. That's especially true on defense, where an opponent more interested in setting a tone with physical play up front plays right into the Bulldogs' strength, depth, experience and scheme along the line and at linebacker. On the flip side, however, Georgia's offense has to slow down Aidan Hutchinson and Michigan's wonderful pass rush. That's a matchup that figures to play out in the Wolverines' favor.
Because Stetson Bennett has been a lot better than you think. He's been unable to shake the label of being a walk-on and has been the subject of far more scrutiny than expected from a starter at least partially responsible for one of the best regular seasons in program history. But Bennett has been very good all season in a role tailored to fit his skill set and the Bulldogs' offensive scheme. He currently ranks second among SEC passers in efficiency rating (176.9) and is the only quarterback in the Power Five to average more than 10 yards per throw.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: CFP semifinals: How Alabama, Michigan, Georgia, Cincy can win Friday