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Alabama, Michigan, Georgia and Cincinnati make College Football Playoff


Cincinnati, led by quarterback Desmond Ridder, right, is the first team from a Group of 5 conference to make the College Football Playoff.

By Alan Blinder


You again, Alabama? It has been how long, Michigan? Good to see you, Georgia. This way to orientation, Cincinnati.


The College Football Playoff selection committee announced Sunday that those four teams would vie for this season’s national championship. They represent three conferences, 31 claimed national titles and plenty of hopes, hypes and expletives.


Left out without meaningful dispute: Clemson, Notre Dame, Ohio State and Oklahoma, which are among the bluest of the sport’s blue bloods, but which will be elsewhere Jan. 10, when the championship game is contested in Indianapolis.


The selection committee’s choices for the four-team tournament were widely expected after conference championship games Friday and Saturday. Sunday’s rankings were responsible, though, for setting the semifinal matchups Dec. 31.


No. 1 Alabama will play No. 4 Cincinnati in the Cotton Bowl in Arlington, Texas, and No. 2 Michigan will meet No. 3 Georgia in the Orange Bowl in Miami Gardens, Florida.


The Southeastern Conference again filled half the playoff field. A rematch of its conference championship, in which Alabama defeated Georgia, is a possibility for the national title game. The Big Ten will be pleased, too, particularly about the opportunity to remind fans that Ohio State is not its lone power. And the American Athletic Conference, home to Cincinnati, will step into history as the first Group of Five league to have a team appear in the playoff, which made its debut in the 2014 season and replaced the Bowl Championship Series.


The Atlantic Coast Conference missed the playoff field for the first time, while the Pac-12 failed to qualify a team for the fifth consecutive season. The Big 12 Conference, which started the weekend with Oklahoma State ranked fifth but then saw the Cowboys lose to Baylor in the league’s title game, will be absent for the second straight year.


Alabama, which, under coach Nick Saban, has won six national championships since 2009, enters the playoff with the momentum of its most recent game as its finest of the season. Alabama (12-1) arrived at the SEC championship game as the playoff’s third-ranked team and opened that contest against Georgia, which was then No. 1, slowly. But Bryce Young ultimately threw for 421 yards and three touchdowns; he also rushed for one against a Georgia defense that had been the best in the Football Bowl Subdivision.


Alabama struggled in November, when it won three games by a touchdown or less, and it lost to Texas A&M in October. But Saturday’s demolition of Georgia’s perfect season, on top of 11 other wins, locked up a chance for the Crimson Tide to repeat as national champions. (Alabama routed Ohio State in last season’s title game.)


“In this last game, we seemed to play to the standard that we wanted to play to against a very good team,” Saban said Sunday. “Now it’s going to be everybody’s choice as to whether we can maintain that and be consistent with that moving forward as we play in the playoffs. It doesn’t get any easier.”


One problem already: Saban said that John Metchie III, who had 97 receiving yards on eight catches against Georgia before an injury late in the first half, would miss the playoff.


Michigan (12-1) will make its inaugural playoff appearance after hounding Iowa, 42-3, in the Big Ten championship game. A week earlier, the Wolverines had downed Ohio State for the first time in a decade.


Indeed, much of Michigan’s most illustrious football history came in the first half of the 20th century, and the Wolverines have not claimed a national title since the 1997 season, before the BCS and the playoff were used to determine the champion. But this year’s team has been far more ferocious than expected: The Wolverines did not make the cut in The Associated Press Top 25 preseason poll.


They wound up being a playoff lock.


Georgia, which has been the top-ranked team since the selection committee released its first rankings Nov. 2, came into the weekend as the surest bet to make the playoff, where it last appeared in the 2017 season. Even falling to Alabama in such spectacular fashion was going to be nowhere near enough to let a season’s worth of work, including a dozen wins, fall by the wayside.


Every other top-tier Power Five team, after all, had at least one loss, too.


Kirby Smart, Georgia’s coach, signaled Sunday that he remained supportive of Stetson Bennett IV, who was 29 for 48 with two interceptions against Alabama.


“Obviously, we have to play better in a lot of areas, but to put any part of that blame, or all of that blame, on Stetson, there’s a lot more to it than that,” Smart said. “We’ve got to play better around him. We’ve got to play better on special teams, defense and, really, all facets of the game.”


Cincinnati (13-0) experienced nowhere near as much heartburn Saturday, when it beat Houston, 35-20, in the American league’s championship game. It had fixed a course for the playoff in October, when it went on the road and beat Notre Dame, 24-13.


The Bearcats have scored about 39 points per game and have averaged 429 yards of offense. The Cincinnati quarterback, Desmond Ridder, had a game this year in which he threw three touchdown passes, ran for a score and caught a throw for another touchdown.


But the Cincinnati defense has been particularly sturdy and has allowed an average of 4 yards per play this season. Cincinnati’s opponents have scored a total of 25 touchdowns — the Bearcats have scored 70 — helping Cincinnati to lock down the conference lead for fewest points allowed per game (16.1).


“We don’t want to think we’re carrying some flag for the non-big schools, so to speak,” Luke Fickell, Cincinnati’s coach, said. “We just want to be us, and our guys have done an unbelievable job all year at kind of handling all of the different distractions and different things that we’ve kind of gone through with people trying to tell you how you need to play and what you need to do to have any chance.”


In addition to the semifinal matchups, the playoff committee also announced pairings for four other major postseason games.


The Peach Bowl on Dec. 30 in Atlanta will feature No. 10 Michigan State and No. 12 Pittsburgh, which won the ACC. The Fiesta Bowl, in Glendale, Arizona, will pit fifth-ranked Notre Dame against No. 9 Oklahoma State on Jan. 1. Later on New Year’s Day, No. 6 Ohio State will meet the Pac-12 champion, No. 11 Utah, in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. And that night, No. 7 Baylor, the winner of the Big 12 title, will face eighth-ranked Mississippi in the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans.

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