LOS ANGELES — For the second half of the regular season, once Alabama lost its first game, Georgia and Ohio State seemed to be on a collision course to play in the College Football Playoff championship game at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood on Jan. 9.
But then the Buckeyes played Michigan, and their supposed revenge game against their rejuvenated rival turned out to be a 45-23 humiliation by the Wolverines in Columbus — a shocking result that threw out all assumptions as to which fan bases will invade Los Angeles in the new year.
Suddenly, Michigan joined Georgia in the top two, and Ohio State appeared to be rightfully on the outside looking in for a playoff spot. USC's loss to Utah in the Pac-12 championship game opened the door, and, since Alabama suffered a second loss, there was no one-loss team to walk through it other than the Buckeyes.
So, we'll get Georgia against Ohio State after all — just 10 days earlier and as what may as well be a Bulldogs home game in Atlanta, where they've already pushed around Oregon and Louisiana State this season.
The winner will get Michigan or Texas Christian, which means L.A. will be hosting a national championship game featuring two major brands or an underdog getting its title shot against an entrenched program.
Here are three things to watch for New Year's Eve in the Peach and Fiesta Bowls (times Pacific):
Peach Bowl, 5 p.m. Saturday, ESPN, No. 1 Georgia vs. No. 4 Ohio State
— 1. Can Rancho Cucamonga product CJ Stroud finally elevate Ohio State to a championship level on a big stage?
Stroud's rise to two-time Heisman Trophy finalist has been an inspirational story. He was a late bloomer as a prep quarterback in the Southland, overshadowed by Bryce Young and DJ Uiagalelei until he started to turn heads and rack up big-time scholarship offers. If he declares for the 2023 NFL draft as expected, he will likely be one of the first quarterbacks taken.
But there are some gaping holes in Stroud's legacy as a Buckeye. He is 0-2 against Michigan and quarterbacked Ohio State in its first back-to-back losses to the Wolverines since 1999-2000. Due to that, he has not led his team to a Big Ten championship, which had become a Buckeye birthright the last 15 years. This game against Georgia is Stroud's last chance to win a big game and lead the singing of "Carmen Ohio" afterward. If he does it, he just might get a third shot at Michigan, too.
The most obvious thing that has limited Stroud and the Buckeye offense is his lack of impact as a runner and a scrambler. Top defenses can feel very confident about where Stroud is going to be on each play — in the pocket — and can pick their moments to rattle him with pressure and not have to worry about him burning them with his legs.
If Stroud has anything extra in his skill set beyond his precision passing, the Buckeyes are going to need it to knock off Georgia.
— 2. Can Ohio State hang physically in the trenches with the Bulldogs?
In the Buckeyes' losses in 2021 to Oregon and Michigan, the Ducks and Wolverines were able to assert their will and push them around, particularly in the second half. Ohio State spent a year trying to fix that, hiring defensive coordinator Jim Knowles from Oklahoma State.
The lopsided score of this year's Michigan loss led to an easy narrative that Ohio State was dominated in the trenches again, but that wasn't really the case. Michigan wasn't grinding out first downs on the ground all game like it was in 2021. The Wolverines surprised Ohio State, which sold out to stop the run, by hitting them over the top in the passing game for three touchdown passes longer than 45 yards. Most of Michigan running back Donovan Edwards' 216 yards came on two explosive long runs in the fourth quarter that iced the game for the Wolverines.
Yes, Ohio State's defense had a bad day. But it wasn't because Michigan overwhelmed it between the tackles.
For the Buckeyes to hang around in Atlanta, they'll need to compete in the trenches like they did for most of the Michigan game but eliminate the back-breaking big plays.
— 3. How is Georgia tight end Brock Bowers deployed early?
Ohio State's defense has been one of the better units nationally at defending tight ends, highlighted by holding Notre Dame's Michael Mayer to five catches for 32 yards in the season opener.
No disrespect to Mayer, but Brock Bowers is … different.
Ohio State will undoubtedly key on Bowers in the passing game and force Georgia's less heralded wide receivers to beat them. It will be interesting to see what Georgia offensive coordinator Todd Monken does to get Bowers involved during the first few drives of the game.
Fiesta Bowl, 1 p.m. Saturday, ESPN, No. 2 Michigan vs. No. 3 TCU
— 1. Can TCU try to stop Michigan's ground game without being victimized like Ohio State?
During all of TCU coach Sonny Dykes' interviews since the matchup with Michigan was set, he has been consistent in saying that the Horned Frogs' mission will be to stop the Wolverines' ground game. Of course, he also knows that Ohio State did the same thing, playing a lot of cover-zero with its defensive backs and ultimately spelling their demise.
Michigan sophomore quarterback JJ McCarthy has proven now that he can make teams pay over the top, and it sounds like Dykes is going to make him prove it again.
The Wolverines are not the same running team without injured star Blake Corum. Sure, Donovan Edwards can change the game in an instant with his cutting ability and acceleration in space, but Corum was punishing opponents nearly every down in a way few college backs can do. It will be fascinating to see if TCU handles Michigan's physical style with a more measured approach to protect itself on the back end.
— 2. Can Michigan keep Max Duggan from extending drives with his legs?
Michigan traditionally has had a lot of trouble with mobile quarterbacks, and the Wolverines have not faced one yet this season in going 13-0. One of the keys to the game will be how Michigan handles TCU quarterback Max Duggan, who has rushed for 1,837 yards in his career.
If the Wolverines devote a spy to Duggan on clear passing downs, they could open themselves up to big plays from the speedy receivers such as Quentin Johnston and Derius Davis.
— 3. Will Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh coach tight, and will the Wolverines follow in their play?
Michigan has been a decided underdog in beating Ohio State the last two years. The Wolverines are not used to being a clear favorite (7.5 points) in a game of this magnitude, and there's a chance it will mess with their mentality, especially early in the contest.
Harbaugh has a major conservative streak, and if he thinks he has the better team, he will lean into protecting his team from the big equalizing mistake. But Michigan can't afford to play not to lose. The Wolverines are way better when they're loose.