Each week, college football insider Matt Hayes tackles the hottest topics in the Big Ten. 

1. The B1G Story

Michigan hasn’t felt this good about itself in more than 2 decades.

The Wolverines have vanquished Ohio State (temporarily, anyway), won the Big Ten and made a convincing argument as the hottest team in college football.

It’s a Maize and Blue world, everyone.

At least until the College Football Playoff Orange Bowl semifinal against Georgia.

“I get it, we all want to see Michigan play well for the conference,” a Big Ten coach told me. “But they’re running into some tough sledding.”

So I decided to see just how tough. Three Big Ten coaches and 2 NFL scouts broke down the Orange Bowl, and the opinions were nearly identical:

  • Michigan is playing with a ton of confidence, which is critical this late in the season.
  • After beating Ohio State, Michigan believes it can play with anyone in college football.
  • There’s a big difference between believing and doing.

“I’m not so provincial to not realize, hey, that’s a different animal on the other sideline,” another Big Ten coach told me.

Specifically, it’s a different defense.

Ohio State barely pushed back on Michigan’s ground and pound offense, and the Wolverines were never really put in difficult down-and-distance situations.

They didn’t play behind the sticks, and quarterback Cade McNamara wasn’t forced into difficult third-and-make-a-play situations – where a pass rush can disrupt timing and lead to turnovers.

Michigan has mostly avoided those situations all season. The Wolverines won’t be able to avoid them against Georgia.

“That’s the thing that has me concerned,” an NFL scout told me. “Alabama didn’t necessarily do anything unique in pass (protection). Having (Alabama QB Bryce) Young gives you an extra beat or two to make a throw. It gives you the ability to break containment and throw accurately on the run.

“That’s one of the big misnomers of that (SEC Championship) game. Georgia got enough pressure, but Young was making terrific throws and extending plays. Does McNamara do that? I don’t think so. He’s not that type of player. So then what’s your answer?”

It’s simple, the Big Ten coaches told me: run the ball.

The coaches point to the undeniable reality that Georgia played 2 dangerous offenses all season (Tennessee and Alabama), and was hurt by both. But not in the run game.

Tennessee ran for 53 yards, and Alabama had 115 – but both got explosion plays in the passing game. Michigan, Big Ten coaches say, will be the best run blocking team Georgia has played all season.

Even if Georgia has success early, Michigan can’t give up on the run – and needs yards in the run game from unconventional areas. That means McNamara escaping and picking up “lost” yards, Big Ten coaches say.

Or backup JJ McCarthy getting yards in similar situations, or on zone read QB option runs.

“That’s a physical group up front,” a Big Ten coach said of the Michigan offensive line. “They get their hands on you, and you’re moving where they want you to move. But you can’t replicate what they’re going to face. They had success against a really good Wisconsin defense, but the Georgia front seven will pose some unique problems from an athletic standpoint. They’re long, they’re physical and they chase.”

Said another Big Ten coach: “This is who you are. Don’t back away from running the ball now.”

It’s no big secret: If Michigan can find a way to run the ball with enough consistency, it forces Georgia to commit more players to stop the run — and the offense will find explosion plays in the passing game.

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Michigan simply isn’t good enough in the passing game to line up and win individually on the outside – and protect long enough to make it all work. But if the Wolverines can run the ball, speedy receivers will run free in the secondary.

Don’t give up on TBs Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum. They’ve been the offense all season. Their ability to gash a defense sets up everything.

“We were so concerned about those two (tailbacks), that every time I looked up, (WRs Cornelius) Johnson and (Roman) Wilson were running around in our back end,” another Big Ten coach said. “They’ve got guys that will hurt you if they get time to throw it, and (McNamara) got better every week. If you can run it, there’s more separation in the back end and throws don’t have to be perfect.”

One Big Ten coach pointed to the Michigan-Wisconsin game, when the Wolverines scored 38 points on a Wisconsin defense that, statistically, is in the same zip code as Georgia.

Michigan ran for only 112 yards on 44 carries, and won the game by scoring 18 points in the fourth quarter – getting 10 points off 2 Wisconsin turnovers. Michigan had 14 rushing yards in the fourth quarter.

“That game was an anomaly the way it played out,” another Big Ten coach said. “If Michigan has less than 100 yards rushing three quarters into a game against Georgia, they’re in big trouble.”

2. How badly do you want it?

It’s all about opt-outs at Ohio State, 2 elite wide receivers (Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave) skipping the Rose Bowl to prevent injury prior to the beginning of their NFL careers.

And it will quickly be about 3 young receivers — 3 former elite recruits — moving into the starting lineup.

“What a great opportunity for guys to show their teammates and show each other how productive they can be,” said Ohio State coach Ryan Day.

These aren’t just any backup wide receivers. Julian Fleming and Emeka Egbuka were 5-star recruits, Fleming was the No.3 overall high school player in the 2020 recruiting class, according to the 247Sports composite. Marvin Harrison Jr., another elite 4-star recruit, will also become more involved in the rotation.

The spotlight, though, is on Fleming – who was expected to break out this season and develop into an elite player. His projected emergence and the play of Wilson and Olave were the main reasons Jameson Williams left Ohio State and transferred to Alabama.

The weren’t enough balls in the offense to keep all 4 receivers happy. Then Jaxon Smith-Njigba – another 5-star recruit from 2020 — made a move early in the season, and by the end of this year, was the most productive receiver on the team.

Fleming, meanwhile, had 7 catches in minimal playing time, equaling his 7-catch output from his freshman season in 2020. Fleming, Egbuka and Harrison have combined for 22 catches this season.

“We recruited (Fleming), but didn’t really have a chance at him,” a Big Ten coach said. “Some guys take a little longer. You look at his (high school) tape https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G7AfEnV0BZg  and there’s little doubt he translates to this level. Big kid, can run, just a man among boys. The light goes on for some guys when they’re forced to the stage.”

3. Making a move

Bowl games serve 2 purposes: a reward for a grueling offseason and season, and developing young players.

Every now and then, a gem is found and takes a significant step forward. Ladies and gentlemen, we give you Wisconsin freshman QB Deacon Hill and Iowa freshman QB Joey Labas.

Neither are currently at the top of the depth chart. Both have the talent – and have shown it during bowl preparations – to make things interesting in spring practice and fall camp for incumbent quarterbacks who struggled this season.

Both Wisconsin and Iowa are at a crossroads offensively. The Badgers have invested two seasons in one-time elite recruit Graham Mertz, and gotten mixed results (18 TDs, 15 INTs).

Iowa has done the same with Spencer Petras (18 TDs, 11 INTs), and even tried Alex Padilla this season. If there’s no significant jump in production in Year 2 as a starter, many coaches move on.

Both Hill and Labas showed big arms and athletic ability in bowl practices, and even Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz – who avoids talking about young quarterbacks – took notice. And got well ahead of himself.

“It’s just been fun to watch him,” Ferentz said while the Hawkeyes prepared for the Citrus Bowl. “He’s one of those guys.”

Then, the classic Ferentz disclaimer: “Not quite ready to start, though.”

Don’t kid yourself, neither of these programs can afford more average to below average quarterback play in 2022. Both young quarterbacks will get every opportunity to make a move.

“Spring will be big,” Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said of Hill’s progression.

4. Powered Up

This week’s Power Poll, and one big thing: New Year’s resolution.

1. Michigan: Get dynamic QB JJ McCarthy ready to win the starting job in fall camp.

2. Ohio State: Give new DC Jim Knowles complete control of the unit, and coach Ryan Day doesn’t even walk in defensive meeting rooms.

3. Michigan State: Be more disciplined on the field. Spartans led the Big Ten in penalties (84) and penalty yards (796).

4. Iowa: Get physical at the point of attack. Iowa’s rushing yards per game (119.8) was its worst since 2009 (114.2), and was a direct reflection of a lack of interior push by the middle three on the line.

5. Penn State: Find more explosion plays in the run game. Lions were 13th in the Big Ten in run plays of 20 yards or more (7).

6. Minnesota: Find the old Tanner Morgan. The one-time elite QB has struggled in back-to-back seasons, and gets a sixth season in 2022.

7. Wisconsin: Cut down on turnovers. Considering the problems with ball security  (12 INTs, 10 fumbles), it’s a wonder Wisconsin won 8 games.

8. Purdue: Learn how to follow up big wins. Year after year, Purdue wins a game it shouldn’t – then loses one it shouldn’t the following week.

9. Maryland: Find a handful of impact defensive players from the transfer portal. Michigan State did it this season; why not the Terps for 2022?

10. Illinois: Find a quarterback who can win with his arm. Bret Bielema is a long way from Russell Wilson, and his time at both Arkansas and 1 season at Illinois was impacted by uneven QB play.

11. Nebraska: Win 8 games. That’s likely what it will take for Scott Frost to keep his job. The bar has been lowered.

12. Rutgers: Be competitive vs. East Division heavyweights, and win at least 1 game vs. Michigan, Ohio State, Michigan State and Penn State.

13. Northwestern: Get the typical bounce back year from Pat Fitzgerald teams (2011-12, 2014-15, and 2019-20).

14. Indiana: Find the magic of LEO again. Yeah, it’s corny – but it worked and galvanized a program.

5. The Weekly Five

Five things Michigan must do to beat Georgia in the CFP semifinal:

1. Affect the QB: Force Georgia QB Stetson Bennett off his spot. His accuracy drops significantly when throwing on the run.

2. Run between the tackles: You’re not running outside; there’s too much lateral speed on that defense. Get physical with isolation runs, and one (or more) will break into explosion plays.

3. Stay is favorable down-and-distance situations: If McNamara is placed in plus-7 conversion opportunities, the Georgia pass rush will impact the game.

4. Get a non-offensive touchdown: Georgia’s punt return coverage is iffy, and AJ Henning led the Big Ten in average per return (9.2).

5. Don’t lose the tight end: It’s not just Brock Bowers (the best tight end in CFB), there’s also 6-7, 265-pound mismatch Darnell Washington.