College Football Playoff semifinals: 3 keys for each team

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After a long, exciting college football season, it’s come down to this: Four teams competing in the College Football Playoff semifinals on Saturday, each hoping to earn a chance to face off for a shot at the big gold trophy.

Who has the edge in Saturday’s big games? Here are three keys for each team.

PEACH BOWL

No. 4 Ohio State vs. No. 1 Georgia (-6.5)

These are two of the three most talented and evenly-matched teams in the country. UGA has 15 five-stars to Ohio State’s 14, 53 four-stars to Ohio State’s 52, and 17 three-stars to Ohio State’s 16. UGA has the second-best scoring defense in the country and Ohio State has the second-best scoring offense. Both have Heisman finalists at quarterback, and both have head coaches with generational talent — an offensive mind in Ryan Day and defensive mind in Kirby Smart.

KEYS TO THE GAME FOR GEORGIA

Stop Marvin Harrison Jr.

Find a way to bracket Harrison Jr. and force Emeka Egbuka, Julian Fleming and others to beat you. For two years, UGA has heard Ohio State has one of the deepest wide receiver corps in the country. Make them prove it.

Hold the ball

Suffocate the Buckeyes offense. It can’t breathe without possession. The Dawgs are the rare elite team without a 1,000-yard tailback or a 1,000-yard receiver. This underscores how the offense acts as a featured complement to what has been the best defense in football for two consecutive seasons.

This also means the offense needs to act like a good grad assistant to the defense and just stay out of its way. That means don’t turn the ball over, take what the OSU defense gives you and sit on the football. The only way Ohio State can beat Georgia is if the game turns into a shootout.

Load out 12 personnel — two tight ends, one running back — early often

Let the bash brothers, Brock Bowers and Darnell Washington, go to work on an OSU secondary that was exposed in man-to-man and couldn’t fill a gap if you gave them 100 yards of flex seal tape.

Bowers and Washington are a matchup nightmare for every team UGA faces. Having one feels like an advantage; having both feels like having a 12th man on the field.

KEYS TO THE GAME FOR OHIO STATE

Run east and west to get north and south

You have the best wide receiver room in the country, so put him to work with bubble and wide receiver screens. Kent State enjoyed success against UGA with those screens, and those are matchups you can win. If you can get UGA running sideline-to-sideline, you can punch them in the gut later in the game. But if Ohio State decides to go through UGA rather than around or over their heads, then UGA will say thank you and take their three-and-outs.

Four hands on Jalen Carter at all times

Every run play needs to involve two men blocking Carter, the most talented nose tackle in the sport. He’s that good at wrecking offensive lines. With no TreVeyon Henderson, mix in the Mighty Miyan Williams and Dallan Hayden as often as you can. When one gets hot, go fast and ride that back. Wear out that UGA front if you get the chance.

Marvin the Martian is always down there somewhere

Give him a chance to go straight at Kelee Ringo’s chest. While there are 29 five-stars in this game and two Heisman finalists, there is just one Biletnikoff Award finalist, and he needs to see double-digit targets. Harrison emerged as the Buckeyes’ No. 1 option with 72 catches for over 1,100 yards with 12 TDs.

Harrison Jr. will have his 1-on-1 opportunities against Georgia’s man coverage. He’ll have to win more of those than he loses for the Buckeyes to win.

WHAT’S AT STAKE FOR GEORGIA?

Dear Georgia,

After 40 years, you finished the climb. You sit alone on the mountaintop, warm inside your bastille, a banner praising what you did yesterday. You’re peerless now, yes, but at this price: You are now hunted. Against Kent State, you looked lazy. Against Missouri, you looked bored. This is who you are now — the favorite. Winning isn’t celebrated anymore. It is expected. Can you handle that expectation? Can you maintain the mantle it took four decades to take?

The changing of the guard has happened already. You are no longer storming castles. Taking it isn’t the same as keeping it. The enemy is at the gate, and you stand alone.

WHAT’S AT STAKE FOR OHIO STATE?

Dear Ohio State,

You are the team that has lost twice in a row to the one you call That Team Up North. You are the team whose head coach has been compared to John Cooper and Marv Levy. You are that team whose quarterback has yet to win a championship. You are that team who was simply the best of the rest. You’re the fourth team — the dunked-on spot. But is that all you are?

Will you back down, cower, like a false king standing naked and shivering in the woods while the monster feasts on your people? Is it not the heart of the Buckeye nation that beats in you? Will you set the table in the enemy’s mess hall, wait for the monster to approach your door and beg him to enter so that might know you as Grendel knew Beowulf. Are you not ripper, terror, slasher, gouger? Are you not the teeth in the darkness? The talons in the night? Is yours not strength and lust and power? Are you not The Ohio State?

RJ’S PREDICTION

There’s no question Ohio State could’ve gone blow-for-blow with Georgia if the Buckeyes were healthy. It’s going to be tough to do that on Saturday night without two of their more talented skill players on the offense and as the underdog for perhaps the first time since playing for the national title two years ago.

Georgia is my pick to win the game, but a Buckeye upset wouldn’t surprise me in the least, especially given OSU has more to lose and more to gain than UGA in this semifinal.

FIESTA BOWL

No. 3 TCU vs. No. 2 Michigan (-7.5)

KEYS TO THE GAME FOR TCU

Sprinkle some Max on it

Duggan is your talisman. He is the magic man. When you find yourself in third-and-long with the game feeling as if it’s teetering on the edge — and it will be because that’s just how TCU likes to play — give the Heisman finalist the ball and no one else.

Post Michigan up

In Quentin Johnson and Savion Williams, TCU has a size advantage at wide receiver. Use it. A jump ball is a ball Johnson and Williams can win, especially if offensive coordinator Garrett Riley succeeds in sucking in Michigan’s safeties with steady doses of running back Kendre Miller and Emari Demercado.

Do it again

That thing Joe Gillespie and the defense did against Texas when they held the Doak Walker Award winner Bijan Robinson to 29 yards on 12 rushes and didn’t allow an offensive TD all game? Once is luck. Twice is a trend.

KEYS TO THE GAME FOR MICHIGAN

Outrun ‘em with Donovan

Stick the rock in running back Donovan Edwards’ stomach and run him like Frank Hopkins did Hidalgo. No tailback is hotter than No. 7 in maize and blue.

He’s rushed for 216 and 185 yards, respectively, in Michigan’s last two games. Against AP-ranked opponents, he’s averaged 10.2 yards per carry on 38 rushes. He’s the U-M bellcow. Ring him.

Give Sonny Dykes what he wants

J.J. McCarthy Michigan’s best chance to gap TCU off the line. Sonny Dykes said as much. He wants J.J. to be the reason TCU loses. Ohio State wanted that, too. Take your shots, Michigan, and force cornerbacks Bud Clark and the Thorpe Award winner Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson to hold the line for four quarters.

Bring five or more and bring them often

Remember that TCU-Texas game I mentioned? TCU’s offensive line showed its deficiencies in that game, too. Sending five was enough to pressure Max Duggan, so much so that Texas put him on his back with five sacks in that game. Blitz TCU and you’re probably gonna get to Duggan more often than he beats you.

WHAT’S AT STAKE FOR TCU?

Dear TCU,

I read about a team like you once. I say “read about it” because it was before my time. It was before yours, too. This team full of college kids like you had the audacity to skate onto the same ice as a bunch of pros suiting up for what was once called the Soviet Union’s men’s hockey team.

What was off about these college kids, though, is they believed they could win. It was 1980. These were the Winter Olympics. This group of college kids represented the United States in men’s hockey. They had a coach who liked to speak in riddles like your coach’s old man, Spike Dykes. But he pushed them. He skated them until he was sure they understood the challenge they faced and the name they carried on their chest meant more than the one they carried on their back. He’d yell at them, “The legs feed the wolf!” Like a litany, like a prayer. “The legs feed the wolf!”

There’s a Russian proverb that says, “A wolf is fed by its legs.” Did you know a wolf pack will hunt its prey for over 100 miles if that’s what it takes to eat? The legs feed the wolf. The U.S. men’s hockey team beat the Soviets. The legs feed the wolf. So my question to you, TCU, is what feeds you?

100 miles and running.

WHAT’S AT STAKE FOR MICHIGAN?

Dear Michigan,

What’s changed? You are not the underdog. You are no longer a nice story. Perhaps that was your story. Perhaps you still remember I didn’t rank you. I didn’t think you were that good. Perhaps that’s what you run on — spite. Keeps me charged up, respecting the process, tiptoeing the boundary between the confidence to win and the arrogance that can get you beat. But you still ain’t won it. It’s been 25 years since anybody wearing maize and blue even played for a national title. Oh, I’m sorry, did you forget? Last time you beat Ohio State you lost this game. So I’ll ask again: What’s changed?

The face on your bulletin board.

RJ’S PREDICTION

Michigan is my pick, and the score might not be close. The Wolverines are built to mash, and no one has succeeded in stopping that offensive line from moving men against their will so far this season.

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RJ Young is a national college football writer and analyst for FOX Sports and the host of the podcast “The Number One College Football Show.” Follow him on Twitter at @RJ_Young and subscribe to “The RJ Young Show” on YouTube.


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