Matchups to watch in the CFP semifinals

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·12 min read
Matchups to watch in the CFP semifinals
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After weeks of buildup, the time for talk is over. On New Year’s Eve, four teams will take the field with the hopes and dreams of winning a national championship. In the early game, Alabama will square off with Cincinnati in the Cotton Bowl classic. Later in the evening, Georgia and Michigan will clash in the Orange Bowl.

How might these games turn out? Let’s try and answer that by diving into some critical matchups to keep an eye on when these games kick off.

Jameson Williams versus the Cincinnati secondary

(AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

We start with the Cotton Bowl Classic, between the top-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide and the fourth-ranked Cincinnati Bearcats. Perhaps the most-anticipated matchup in this game begins with wide receiver Jameson Williams. In the wake of Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith moving on to the NFL, Williams exploded for 65 receptions for 1,445 yards and 13 touchdowns this season.

The talented receiver is a threat in a variety of ways for the Crimson Tide. He can certainly work over the top of a defense in the vertical passing game. On this touchdown against Georgia in the SEC Championship game, he gets behind the defense on a double-move, racing past both a corner and a safety for the score:

It goes without saying that Cincinnati is going to need an answer for Williams. That leads us to why this is an anticipated matchup, as the first idea might be Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner, the long and talented cornerback for the Bearcats. For a deep dive into his game, you can give this video breakdown a watch:

Cincinnati has used Gardner all over the field this year, aligning him on the boundary whether to the right side of the defense or the left, or sliding him inside to the slot. Given his skill-set, or his ability to align on both sides of the field, one might expect Gardner to get the Williams assignment.

A battle between potential first-round players in a national semifinal? That is a heck of a way to spend New Year’s Eve.

But there is another option for the Bearcats.

They could turn to Gardner’s teammate, Cody Bryant, and put him on Williams along with some dedicated safety help. Then take Gardner and put him on the other boundary receiver and leave him on an island. With John Metchie III sidelined after suffering a knee injury in the SEC Championship game, that could mean Gardner across from Traeshon Holden, JoJo Earle, Javon Baker or Ja’Corey Brooks, the Iron Bowl hero.

Bryant is a solid coverage corner in his own right, with three interceptions on the season. On this play against Tulane he sticks on the vertical route and gets his head on the football, making the play downfield:

That might not give fans and draft evaluators the matchup they want, but it could be a way for Cincinnati to neutralize the outside passing game, forcing Alabama to turn to tight ends Jahleel Billingsley and Cameron Latu when quarterback Bryce Young drops to throw.

Desmond Ridder versus Nick Saban and Pete Golding

A good way to think about matchups, when considering the quarterback, goes beyond just the defenders he will be lining up against. One must also consider the defensive coaching staff who will have spent a good bulk of their meeting time coming up with ways to try and confuse, bait or trick the passer.

For this meeting, that means Desmond Ridder — another potential first-round selection come next spring — against the minds of Nick Saban and defensive coordinator Pete Golding.

Interestingly enough, the legendary head coach gave us a means of kicking off this discussion earlier this week:

This play from Ridder against UCF earlier this season is a good example of what the coach is describing:

On this play the Bearcats have a double-post concept called to the left side of the field. Houston shows a pair of safeties deep before the play, but right at the snap one safety blitzes while the other brackets the inside post along with the slot defender. Ridder spots this, stays calm in the pocket and gets his eyes to the outside post route, which is working against a cornerback playing with outside leverage and no help to the inside. For his part the receiver, Tyler Scott, runs a great route, stressing the leverage of the CB by faking to the outside before cutting back inside.

Touchdown.

This week, however, Ridder is going to be squaring off with a Saban defense that can confuse quarterbacks in a few different ways, and is well-coached in how they relate to routes after the snap whether in single-high or split-safety coverages. Take, for example, this interception against LSU:

Prior to the snap, the picture is a little muddied for the quarterback. Alabama shows pressure, walking up a pair of defenders to the right side. They also give some man coverage indicators to the outside, with one cornerback in press alignment over the single receiver, and three defenders aligned over the three receivers to the trips. There is also a safety lurking right over the football. If you are the QB looking at this picture before the play, you might be expecting a Cover 1 coverage with some pressure coming after you.

Pressure does come, but in a bit of an unexpected manner. The two walked-up defenders drop into coverage and Alabama blitzes the slot defender, rotating into a two-deep coverage behind it. The QB, after first looking to the trips side of the formation, tries to throw backside but drills his pass right into the defender.

Also, take note of the technique from the cornerback who makes the interception, as he plays this with Saban’s “Club” technique which he will have defenders use in Cover 2 press situations. The cornerback jams off the snap with his outside hand, and then sinks to get depth.

(Here is where I plug anything @CoachVass does as being well worth your time).

Ridder is a very good college quarterback and is in the first-round discussion for a reason. But he’ll need to navigate this Alabama secondary and find a way to make plays against this difficult defense for the Bearcats to advance.

Georgia's offensive line versus Michigan's defensive front

We now turn to the Orange Bowl, between the Michigan Wolverines and the Georgia Bulldogs. Georgia has yet to name a starting quarterback for the game, as senior Stetson Bennett, who took over after J.T. Daniels was injured earlier this season, finished the year 9-1 as the Bulldogs starting quarterback.

However, that one loss was a big one, coming in the SEC Championship game. Bennett completed 29 of 48 passes for 340 yards and three touchdowns, but also threw a pair of interceptions in the loss.

Whether it is Daniels or Bennett under center, the Georgia offense is going to have to deal with a pair of pass rushers from Michigan, Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo, who can be a problem for quarterbacks. Hutchinson, a Heisman finalist and expected early selection in the 2022 NFL draft, was third in the nation with 14 total sacks. Ojabo was not far behind, notching 11 total sacks this season.

You do not need to look hard to see these two players impacting a game. Take the late-season contest against Ohio State, a victory that put Michigan on a path to the playoffs and likely secured Hutchinson’s ticket to New York City for the Heisman Trophy ceremony. Hutchinson notched three sacks that afternoon, while Ojabo added one of his own.

On this play, you’ll see Hutchinson come off the edge and display good technique with his hands to beat the left tackle:

What this play also highlights, beyond Ojabo’s speed, is how Michigan uses these defenders on both sides of the football. Of his solo sacks this season, Hutchinson had three come while aligned over the left tackle, and the other eight when he was aligned over the right tackle. For Ojabo, of his ten solo sacks seven came while aligned over the left tackle, while the other three came with him over the right tackle.

Georgia’s tackles, and their pass protection schemes, are going to be tested when the Bulldogs have the football. The Bulldogs have a solid pair of tackles in Jamaree Slayer and Warren McClendon, but Georgia could also look to some heavier protection schemes as they have done throughout the season. In studying the Georgia offense, I charted 30 plays this season where the Bulldogs kept seven or more in protection, and they were still able to find success in the passing game.

On this play against Auburn, the Bulldogs implement a play-action design with a curl/wheel combination on the right with a deep post backside. Bennett comes out of the run action and, with seven in the protection scheme, he has all day to find Ladd McConkey on the backside post for the big touchdown:

These bigger protection schemes will see Georgia’s tight ends called upon to help protect the passer. This season the Bulldogs have used all three tight ends on offense: FitzPatrick, Brock Bowers and Darnell Washington. In the above example, you can see how keeping FitzPatrick in to block on one side, with the other side sliding to the outside, creates a pair of double team blocks on the edges. This might be how the Bulldogs look to slow down Hutchinson and Ojabo off the outside.

This play against Alabama in the SEC Championship game might be a view to the future. Presnap Bennett sees a pressure look from the Crimson Tide, so he adjusts the protection by bringing Bowers into a wing alignment to help against the look:

Against Iowa in the Big Ten Championship game, Hutchinson gets past the right tackle, and then the back staying in to block, getting to the quarterback for a sack in the second quarter.

When Georgia has the football, the matchup in the trenches — and how the Bulldogs look to neutralize this pair of pass rushers — is going to be a critical matchup to watch.

Josh Gattis versus Dan Lanning

At first blush, it might seem like a cop-out to highlight a matchup of coaches in this game. But when the Wolverines have the football, offensive coordinator Josh Gattis will be matching wits with Georgia defensive coordinator — and incoming Oregon head coach — Dan Lanning.

Why does this matter? Because over the regular season Lanning guided the Bulldogs to one of the best defenses in recent memory. With a mix of “safe” and simulated pressure schemes, as well as the ability to stop the run and force teams to be one-dimensional, the Bulldogs led the nation in scoring defense this season by a wide margin.

(And now a second plug, this time for Diante Lee, whose work you also need to be reading).

For example, take this sack against Kentucky:

A few things to note about this play, which goes for a loss of two yards. First is the pre-snap shift from the Georgia defense, which is something they do often. That forces the offensive line to adjust their blocking calls late in the pre-snap phase of the play, which can lead to some missed assignments. Then there is the gap integrity, created by the slant and twist from the defense. Tramel Walthour, aligned in the B-gap between the right guard and right tackle, slants across the face of the guard into the A-gap between the center and the right guard. Linebacker Nolan Smith, aligned in a wide alignment outside of the wing tight end, slants into the B-gap. Then there is Dean, who loops to the outside from his off-ball alignment.

The slant from Walthour occupies the right guard for a moment, preventing him from getting into the B-gap. That allows Smith to get the early penetration and put a hit on the running back behind the line, setting things up for the cavalry for when they arrive.

The run defense matters in this semifinal because Gattis is at the helm of one of the nation’s top rushing offenses. This season the Wolverines averaged 5.32 yards per carry, ranking 12th in the FBS in that statistic. Their 39 rushing touchdowns ranked third in the nation, and Michigan’s 224.2 rushing yards per game — again, game scripts being a factor — ranked tenth in the nation.

The Wolverines rushing attack is led by the tandem of Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum. Haskins has rushed for 1,288 yards this season and 20 touchdowns, while Corum added another 939 yards and 11 touchdowns to the effort. Schematically, while Michigan relies on a lot of zone concepts in the run game you will also see some power designs, such as GY pull with a guard and a tight end getting in front of the ball carrier.

Here against Ohio State, you can see Corum ripping off a big run on a zone concept, attacking the edge of the Buckeyes defense before cutting upfield:

There are two more elements to consider when contemplating the Michigan rushing attack. First, their offensive line is the best in the nation, having secured the Joe Moore Award, given to the unit deemed the best in college football. So this is a stout group up front. Then there is the way that Jim Harbaugh and Gattis use their quarterbacks. While Cade McNamara is the starter, the Wolverines turn to freshman J.J. McCarthy at times, usually to get his athleticism involved in the game. On this play, you’ll see McCarthy in the game as the Wolverines run counter bash at the Michigan State defense:

Here, McCarthy meets Corum at the mesh point and reads the defense. He decides to pull the football and keep it around the left edge, where he picks up Zinter and right tackle Andrew Stueber who are pulling to that side. Just one more way the Wolverines can stress a run defense.

The battle of wits between these two coordinators, and whether the Bulldogs can stop the Michigan run game and force the Wolverines to be one-dimensional, will be critical in determining a winner Friday night.

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