This is the undercard match in downtown Atlanta, but it’s important. Better draft position is the prize for the loser. The Falcons (5-10) currently are in position for the No. 6 pick. They would improve their chances of moving up in the draft order by losing to the Cardinals (4-11). The Falcons will play to win, as they should, but I don’t think many of their supporters will be sad if they lose.
The Falcons have lost four consecutive games and six of seven. The defense has been a little better lately. The offense is scuffling with rookie Desmond Ridder at quarterback, same as it did with Marcus Mariota. Coach Arthur Smith hasn’t helped by seeming to forget that running the ball is the unit’s strength, before snapping back to his senses. The Falcons win, but Arizona covers.
College Football Playoff semifinals
Peach Bowl (Mercedes-Benz Stadium): No. 1 Georgia (-6 ½) vs. No. 4 Ohio State
A recent headline at Football Scoop reads: “Two words are at the center of Kirby Smart’s leadership philosophy.” I thought those words would be “better players,” but it turns out they are “confront and demand.” I love the corny slogans of college football coaches. Bill Belichick’s leadership principle is simply “Do Your Job,” and he’s somehow managed to win six Super Bowls.
Smart has won big by recruiting waves of talented players and developing them into a physical and tough team. That led ESPN.com to produce a story titled: “How Kirby Smart built Georgia into another Alabama.” It seems to me that Smart should at least win two rings before anyone declares his program is on the same level as former boss Nick Saban, who has six at Bama. Can we slow down a bit here?
Maybe I’m just trying to talk myself into backing Ohio State because I love underdogs. I’m taking the Buckeyes and the points, but I don’t think I’ll need them. OSU will upset UGA with quarterback C.J. Stroud hitting on big pass plays to Marvin Harrison and the defense making amends for its no-show against Michigan.
If I’m wrong, then I will confront the Buckeyes and demand that they apologize for making me look bad.
Fiesta Bowl (Glendale, Ariz.): No. 3 TCU (+7 ½) vs. No. 2 Michigan
Jim Harbaugh’s record was 49-22 over his first six seasons at Michigan, including 0-5 against Ohio State. The Wolverines are 25-2 since then, with two trips to the CFP and two victories over Ohio State. Harbaugh is winning more games, but he’s not nearly as entertaining. I miss the kooky coach who somehow kept his job while never beating his main rival.
The Wolverines have been low-key dominant all season. Just one of their victories was by a margin of less than two scores. Windy conditions and an injury to star tailback Blake Corum played a role in that 19-17 win against Illinois. Corum is out for this game, too, but Michigan rushed for 252 yards against Ohio State, with Corum limited to two carries, and 225 yards versus Purdue without him.
Michigan’s running game will be a problem for TCU. Stopping the pass could be an issue, too. The Horned Frogs just aren’t that good on defense. That makes them the outlier of the CFP field. TCU won’t score enough points to keep up with Michigan. The Wolverines are the pick.
Other bowl games of interest
Sugar Bowl (New Orleans): No. 5 Alabama (-6 ½) vs. No. 9 Kansas State
After Alabama lost to Oklahoma in the 2014 Sugar Bowl, I asked former Falcon Julio Jones what happened to his old team: “They probably didn’t care.” That always sticks in my mind when I evaluate Bama in bowl games without a national title on the line. It seems the Crimson Tide do care about this one, though, so I’m picking them to cover.
Orange Bowl (Miami Gardens, Fla.): No. 6 Tennessee (+4 ½) vs. No. 7 Clemson
Clemson freshman QB Cade Klubnik played well off the bench in the ACC Championship game. Makes you wonder if Clemson’s season might have turned out better if Dabo Swinney hadn’t stubbornly refused to make a QB change. Volunteers QB Hendon Hooker (knee) is out, and star receiver Jalin Hyatt is finished playing for no salary. I’m backing the Vols on the theory that they’ll stop Clemson’s ground game and force Klubnik to make some mistakes in his first college start.
Rose Bowl (Pasadena, Calif.): No. 11 Penn State (+2 ½) vs. No. 8 Utah
It’s hard to figure how the Nittany Lions have only one top-five finish in the rankings over nearly 30 years. This season’s team is very good but still a notch below Ohio State and Michigan. At least Penn State isn’t the only Big Ten program living off its reputation since Nebraska joined the league in 2011. I like Utah to cover.
Cotton Bowl (Arlington, Texas): No. 16 Tulane (+2) vs. No. 10 USC
A Monday afternoon game against a Group of Five opponent is USC’s punishment for playing no defense in the Pac-12 Championship game. Tulane’s defense is just OK, and the Green Wave aren’t that explosive on offense, so I don’t understand why USC isn’t a bigger favorite. That surely means that I’m smarter than the betting markets and won’t regret picking USC to cover.
Other NFL games of interest
Panthers (+3) at Buccaneers
I’m torn on Tom Brady. I’d really like to see the Bucs lose this game and surrender control of the NFC South for good. But that probably would mean Brady returns for another season and somehow wins another Super Bowl after he looks washed up. Can we at least get him out of the division? I like the Panthers with the points.
Saints (+5 ½) at Eagles
Speaking of irritating people who won’t go away, Sean Payton reportedly is looking to get back on the sidelines a year after he left the Saints because winning without Drew Brees is harder. Pro Football Talk, citing an anonymous source, reports that Payton and Brees could team up in New Orleans. Hello darkness, my old friend. Eagles are the pick.
Last time: 5-4 (63-67-5 season).