Before Georgia defensive back Chris Smith sat down for his virtual Orange Bowl news conference, a blue disposable mask covered the lower half of his face.
Even as professional leagues bend their schedules because of Covid-19 outbreaks, the College Football Playoff’s message is clear: We will take precautions, but playoff games will not be postponed. If no team is able to play in the national title game in January, no champion will be crowned this season.
Several bowl games have been canceled because of outbreaks, but a slate of the major bowls is coming Friday and Saturday.
Here is a look at how the semifinal teams and a few bowl contenders match up:
All times Eastern.
COLLEGE FOOTBALL PLAYOFF SEMIFINALS
COTTON BOWL: 1 ALABAMA vs. 4 CINCINNATI
3:30 p.m. Friday, ESPN
The Group of Five’s Cincinnati Bearcats (13-0) obliterated their American Athletic Conference opponents with stout defense. The Bearcats’ playoff résumé is highlighted by a statement victory over Notre Dame in October and a win over Houston in the A.A.C. championship game. A newcomer to the playoff, Cincinnati is trying to become the first team outside of the Power 5 conferences — The Atlantic Coast, the Big 12, the Big Ten, the Pac-12 and the Southeastern — to win it since it began in 2014.
Alabama (12-1) temporarily vacated its position as the nation’s top-ranked team after an October loss to Texas A&M and a close win over Auburn in the Iron Bowl. The Crimson Tide climbed back into the No. 1 spot after defeating Georgia for the SEC title in one of their best overall performances of a somewhat inconsistent season.
Quarterback Bryce Young, Alabama’s Heisman Trophy winner, led the Crimson Tide’s electrifying passing attack, powering Alabama to its seventh playoff appearance. When Alabama’s offense sputtered, it was Young’s playmaking ability that often kept the team out of danger. In the performance that helped secure his status as the nation’s top quarterback, Young threw for more than 400 yards against Georgia’s vaunted defense.
Though Alabama may have the best player in the game in linebacker Will Anderson, a voracious pass rusher, the Bearcats’ defense is experienced and athletic. Cincinnati’s defensive front features two first-team All-A.A.C. defensive linemen, Curtis Brooks and Myjai Sanders, and its secondary has the Jim Thorpe Award winner in (given to the nation’s top defensive back) Coby Bryant.
Jameson Williams, Alabama’s explosive receiver who transferred from Ohio State, is its primary big-play threat with more than 1,400 receiving yards this season. Cincinnati’s Ahmad Gardner, who figures to be a first-round N.F.L. draft pick, is the kind of cornerback who makes opposing quarterbacks look elsewhere for receivers. A defensive back who’s rarely thrown on faces a receiver who’s been nearly impossible to cover. Who wins?
ORANGE BOWL: 2 MICHIGAN vs. 3 GEORGIA
7:30 p.m. Friday, ESPN
In the spread era of college football, when elite offense typically beats elite defense, both Michigan (12-1) and Georgia (12-1) have built their identities on their defenses.
Georgia Coach Kirby Smart, who has won a semifinal game but not a championship in the playoff era, crafted a historically good defense in the regular season. The Bulldogs allowed just 9.5 points per game as they trampled each team they faced, except for an embarrassing game against the Crimson Tide in which they gave up 41 points. Alabama contained the Bulldogs’ star defensive lineman Jordan Davis, who won the Bednarik Award (given to the nation’s best defensive player). And Georgia’s defense, made up of elite edge rushers — one of whom, Nakobe Dean, won the Butkus Award for the nation’s best linebacker — failed to record a sack for the first time this season.
Michigan has the nation’s top offensive line, which has given its quarterback, Cade McNamara, the protection he has needed to complete over 64 percent of his passes.
The Wolverines’ best player, though, is Aidan Hutchinson, the 265-pound defensive end who is a projected No. 1 overall pick. He has 14 sacks this season, a single-season program record, including three against Ohio State. And the attention that he commands at the line could make room for players like David Ojabo, the Wolverines’ other talented edge rusher, to make plays.
The Bulldogs were the nation’s top-ranked team for much of the season and reeled off 16 straight wins over two seasons before losing to Alabama in the SEC title game. The lone blemish on Michigan’s record was its loss at Michigan State, but a win over Iowa in the Big Ten Championship Game secured Michigan’s spot in the playoff for the first time in the Jim Harbaugh era. Friday’s matchup at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla., will be the two teams’ first meeting since 1965.
OTHER BOWL GAMES TO WATCH
FIESTA BOWL: 5 NOTRE DAME vs. 9 OKLAHOMA STATE
1 p.m. Saturday, ESPN
Notre Dame (11-1) was still in the playoff hunt when Brian Kelly, its longtime head coach, left the program to take the Louisiana State head coaching job. Marcus Freeman, the Irish’s defensive coordinator, was promoted soon after and will try to guide Notre Dame to its first win in one of the top six New Year’s Day bowl games in over two decades. The Irish opened the season with an overtime win over Florida State, and their only loss was to Cincinnati. But they will be without their leading rusher in Kyren Williams and one of their top defensive weapons, safety Kyle Hamilton, both of whom announced their plans to skip the bowl game and enter the N.F.L. draft.
Oklahoma State (11-2) missed the playoff field by a few inches after Baylor’s goal-line stand halted its attempt at a go-ahead touchdown in the Big 12 Championship game. Before that, the only loss Coach Mike Gundy’s team had was at Iowa State in October. In a conference not known for its defense, the Cowboys led the nation in sacks and tackles for loss.
ROSE BOWL: 6 OHIO STATE vs. 11 UTAH
5 p.m. Saturday, ESPN
Utah (10-3) had never reached the Rose Bowl before winning its first Pac-12 championship in program history to earn a berth to the game in Pasadena, Calif. The Utes captured the conference title with a dominant 38-10 victory over Oregon, just two weeks after a 38-7 rout of the Ducks in Salt Lake City. Utah’s strength on offense is its run game, highlighted by running back Tavion Thomas and quarterback Cameron Rising, who is a legitimate running threat.
Despite an early loss to Oregon, Ohio State’s playoff aspirations endured until late November, when it lost to Michigan in a 42-27 blowout. The Buckeyes (10-2) will play in the Rose Bowl for the first time under Coach Ryan Day. Led by the freshman quarterback C.J. Stroud and his top receiving targets, Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, Ohio State had one of the best scoring offenses in the country. Olave and Wilson opted out of the Rose Bowl to prepare for the N.F.L. draft, leaving Smith-Njigba, who led the team in receiving yards this season.
SUGAR BOWL: 7 BAYLOR vs. 8 MISSISSIPPI
8:45 p.m. Saturday, ESPN
Mississippi powered its way to a 10-2 season behind one of the nation’s most high-powered passing attacks. Quarterback Matt Corral threw for over 3,000 yards to lead the Rebels to their first major bowl appearance of the Lane Kiffin era.
Baylor has a solid run game and a defense that kept it in the top 10 nationally despite two losses. After going 2-7 in Coach Dave Aranda’s first season, Baylor went 11-2 in 2021, including a season-ending victory over Oklahoma State. The Bears’ goal-line stop on fourth down kept the Cowboys out of the playoff and secured the Big 12 title for Baylor.