The Ultimate Orange Bowl Preview: Michigan and Georgia are the same team. Whose strength will win the day?
Everything you need to know about Friday’s Playoff semifinal collision between Georgia and Michigan in Miami.
For two programs that are so similar in so many other ways, it’s hard to imagine a bigger urgency gap with a national championship on the line than the one that exists between Michigan and Georgia. Two teams, both 12-1; both led by former players who returned to coach their alma mater; both defined by their defenses and emphasis on winning the line of scrimmage; both playing for a shot at ending a decades-long national title drought; and both representing huge, highly engaged fan bases, which could not possibly be approaching the opportunity in more different states of mind.
Michigan was not supposed to be here and knows it. This time last year, the extended Wolverine universe was in a pitched debate over the state of the program following an embarrassing, 2-4 finish in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, which felt less like a one-off under bizarre circumstances than definitive proof of decline under Jim Harbaugh.
The distance between Michigan and Ohio State was at an all-time high. The initial recruiting juice Harbaugh brought to job was running out. Momentum in general was at a dead stop. There was no sense that Harbaugh, who agreed to a significant salary cut, reduced buyout and major staff changes last winter just to delay the inevitable, was on the verge of turning it around. The Wolverines opened the season unranked and picked to finish 4th in the Big Ten East by B1G media. Harbaugh occupied arguably the hottest seat in America.
Four months later, there’s only one word to describe that team finding itself in this game: Gravy.
The main course is cooked, and it’s already a smashing success far above and beyond anyone’s realistic expectations. In fact, 2021 was not only a success: It was kinda fun, a word no one has used in connection with Michigan football in, well, possibly ever. This team is one they’ll be canonizing in Ann Arbor for many years, no matter what happens against Georgia or beyond. It’s the one that exorcised an entire generation’s worth of demons against Ohio State by physically whipping the Buckeyes in the snow in front of God and the largest TV audience of the season. The one that snapped a 17-year Big Ten title drought, matched the school record for wins, and turned a defensive lineman into the runner-up for the Heisman. The one that vindicated the school’s patience with a coach the fans badly wanted to succeed.
So, yeah, to Michigan an out-of-the-blue Playoff run amounts to a big ol’ helping of gravy. However badly the Wolverines want to win – and the competitive impulse is absolutely not in doubt here – they do not need to win on some core emotional level. This season has already given them everything they needed.
Georgia? If the Bulldogs blow this, they’ll never hear the end of it.
A month ago, Georgia was the undisputed favorite to win it all, a defensive juggernaut with the deepest roster in the country and no serious competition for the top spot in any poll. 2021 had all the makings of The Year, finally, that the Dawgs put the ghosts of 1980 to bed. Then they ran into Alabama (again) and all the old reminders of their big-game failures under Kirby Smart came roaring back (again) with a vengeance.
It’s a testament to Georgia’s week-in, week-out dominance throughout the regular season that, even in the wake of a sobering loss, its place in the Playoff field was never in doubt. The Bulldogs are solid favorites in Miami (at mid-week the point spread is up to 7.5) despite technically arriving as the lower seed, and still have the best chance to claim the title of any remaining team according to ESPN’s Football Power Index, among others. A rematch against Bama is a strong possibility, as well as the chance for vengeance/redemption that comes with it. It’s entirely possible that, in a few weeks, they’ll go on to relegate their flop in the SEC Championship Game to a footnote on the way to a much bigger, more satisfying triumph.
In the meantime, though, it’s safe to say the attitude among UGA fans right now is the opposite of fun. That window slammed shut sometime around sunset on Dec. 4. From here on out, it’s strictly business.
When Michigan has the ball
1. Is Michigan’s o-line for real?
The o-line opened the year as a big, blinking red question mark and ended it as a strength. The win over Ohio State was a clinic in old-school, straight-ahead o-line play, with Michigan pounding the Buckeyes for more rushing yards (297) on more yards per carry (7.2) than any offense against OSU since 2014; the Wolverines scored touchdowns on each of their last 5 possessions, sustained drives covering 60+ yards apiece in appropriately miserable conditions.
In the Big Ten Championship Game, they gashed Iowa on the ground for 211 yards on 6.2 per carry, both season highs against a typically sturdy Hawkeyes defense. For the season, they led the Big Ten in rushing, allowed fewer sacks than any non-option team, and won the Joe Moore Award as the nation’s best OL unit — fitting recognition for a group that didn’t have a single individual recognized as a first-team all-conference pick by Big Ten coaches or the film eaters at Pro Football Focus.
The main beneficiaries of the line’s emergence were running backs Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum, a classic thunder-and-lightning duo that led all RB tandems nationally with a combined 2,227 yards and 31 touchdowns despite Corum missing most of November with a sore ankle. With the job mostly to himself down the stretch, Haskins came into his own as a high-mileage, every-down grinder with a nose for the end zone (9 TDs in the past 3 games, the longest of which covered 13 yards) and a flair for hurdling dudes in the open field if given the chance. And even in a limited role, Corum remained a breakaway threat, returning from injury to average 13.4 yards on 11 carries in the past 2 games.
BLAKE CORUM 67 YARDS TO THE HOUUUUSE 💨💨💨 pic.twitter.com/HfZjvqMfhv
— 247Sports (@247Sports) December 5, 2021
Whether any of that translates against UGA’s deep, decorated and largely immovable front seven after almost a month off is another question, possibly the central one on either side of the ball.
Nobody has run on Georgia with any kind of consistency on Michigan’s terms, or really even come close. The Bulldogs are No. 2 nationally in rushing defense (81.7 ypg) and No. 3 in yards per carry allowed (2.6), the third consecutive season they’ve ranked in the top 3 on both fronts. The opponents that fared the best on paper, Alabama and Florida, both relied heavily on their quarterbacks to make plays with their legs — in Bama’s case via a handful of timely scrambles by Bryce Young on designed passes, and in Florida’s case primarily in garbage time.
Michigan QB Cade McNamara is no threat in that department, while the Wolverines’ designated runner at the position, true freshman JJ McCarthy, has been limited to the odd package play. (See below.) Big plays? Fat chance: Georgia’s given up just 3 runs of 20+ yards, fewest in the country, with a long of 34.
It’s always possible that the Wolverines’ line will turn out to be the kind of irresistible force capable of knocking the immovable object on its heels, if not quite to the tune of their season averages then at least enough to keep the ground game viable into the fourth quarter. That in itself would be an achievement on par with ice-boxing Ohio State.
More likely, they’re going have to settle for keeping the Dogs honest between the tackles, getting creative on misdirection and option looks, and hoping Corum or one of their other young playmakers can pop one when the opportunity strikes.
Key matchup: Michigan’s Interior OL vs. Georgia’s Interior DL
Georgia’s starting rotation of Jordan Davis, Jalen Carter and DeVonte Wyatt was the most physically overwhelming unit in college football this season, a trio of 300-pounders who were born specifically to shed blockers, absorb double teams, and render ground games irrelevant. They’ve been prominently collapsing pockets and keeping heat-seeking linebacker Nakobe Dean clean at the second level all season. (Carter and Davis have come in for some face time as goal-line blockers on offense, as well.)
By comparison, even the average Michigan fan probably couldn’t pick out LG Trevor Keegan, center Andrew Vastardis and RG Zak Zinter if you handed them a copy of the roster. As first-year starters, though, their maturation over the course of the season has been emblematic of the team’s. If they hold their own in the trenches the Wolverines will, too.
Bonus matchup: Michigan TE Erick All vs. Nakobe Dean
I’m cheating a little bit here in drafting All as an honorary o-lineman, but just barely. To be sure, All is a full-service athlete who has had his moments in the passing game and will certainly have Georgia’s attention as a receiver. But it’s his reputation as a tenacious blocker that’s won him a cult following among a certain corner of the Michigan Internet, and as the closest thing to a traditional fullback in OC Josh Gattis‘ offense he’s often the key variable in whether a play succeeds or fails at the point of attack.
Dean, a unanimous All-American with sideline-to-sideline range and a motor to match, will frequently be the one he meets there. The winner of those collisions will have a lot to do with whether Michigan can turn minimal gains into more substantial ones.
2. Can Cade McNamara challenge Georgia deep?
It’s no secret that McNamara, a redshirt sophomore in his first year as a starter, is more valued in Michigan’s run-first system for his decision-making than his raw talent. He was not a blockbuster recruit, doesn’t have a huge arm or gaudy stats, and as a rule he hasn’t been asked to put the ball in the air any more often than necessary to keep opposing secondaries honest. More than two-thirds of his passes traveled less than 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, per PFF, while he was just 17-for-46 on attempts of 20+. Bryce Young, he is not.
That said, he’s not a sitting duck, either. Five of his 15 touchdown passes fell into the downfield column, including a 50-yard dime against Western Michigan, a perfectly executed flea-flicker at Wisconsin, and a 30-yard rifle down the hash marks at Penn State — all dead-on, big-time throws to different receivers.
Arguably his best throw came up just short of the end zone against Ohio State, on a perfectly placed lob to his favorite target, junior Cornelius Johnson, that might have been the exact moment the home crowd started to think, “this is really happening.”
There is big news coming to the upcoming 2022-23 Big Ten football season (and NFL season). Ohio online sports betting will be officially launching on January 1, 2023. Ohio will join other Big Ten states where sports betting has become legalized such as Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois and more.
This throw from Cade McNamara >>> pic.twitter.com/Q1Qsp1Lsqc
— Cam Mellor (@CamMellor) November 27, 2021
That’s the kind of narrow window McNamara can expect against Georgia’s blue-chip corners, and that’s the kind of throw he’ll have to make to exploit it. If the defense and ground game are holding up their end of the bargain, once may be enough. If not, the prospect of the Wolverines’ fate riding on his arm in the second half is probably one they’d rather not consider.
Key matchup: Cornelius Johnson vs. Georgia CB Derion Kendrick
Michigan lost its best wideout, Ronnie Bell to a season-ending knee injury in the opener, and replacing him as been an ongoing effort involving more or less the entire WR room on a provisional basis. Specific matchups are a challenge. If anyone qualifies as a go-to receiver, it’s Johnson, who led the team in receptions (37) and yards (602) and was the only player to record a catch in every game, but who at 6-2/211 doesn’t exactly fit the profile of a burner compared to Kendrick and his 5-star counterpart on the outside, Kelee Ringo. Opposite Kendrick, a future pro who’s yet to allow a touchdown in coverage this season after transferring to UGA from Clemson, the margin for error may be narrower than it’s been all year.
3. What does Josh Gattis have up his sleeve?
Gattis was one of the prime candidates to be sent packing last winter after a couple of disappointing efforts in his first 2 seasons as the Wolverines’ offensive coordinator. Instead, he survived the staff purge and has thrived in Year 3, improving the team’s scoring average by more than 9 points per game over 2020 en route to winning the Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant coach.
Obviously, the success of the every-down, bread-and-butter playbook has a lot to do with that. Beyond that, though, Gattis’ willingness to get creative with some of the intriguing young talent at his disposal has elevated the offense in ways no one prior to the season could have predicted, and which if nothing else are a pain in the butt for defenses to have to prepare for.
And whew, there is some intriguing young talent. The Wolverines have gone out of their way to incorporate backup QB JJ McCarthy, the gem of the last recruiting class, in a part-time, quasi-Wildcat role that has given him a chance to flash his potential as both a runner and passer in meaningful situations; McCarthy could replace McNamara in a pinch, as more than a few Michigan fans at various points this year have suggested perhaps he should full-time, and may be in line to take over as QB1 as soon as next year.
His presence on the field at any given time will put Georgia on high alert. Ditto the other gem of the freshman class, utility back Donovan Edwards, who has only just begun to scratch the surface of his all-purpose potential late in the year; in the past 3 games, he broke a wheel route out of the backfield for a 77-yard touchdown against Maryland, casually hauled in a one-handed catch without breaking stride against Ohio State, and pulled up on a simple swing pass against Iowa to throw a 75-yard touchdown.
MICHIGAN FRESHMAN DONOVAN EDWARDS WITH THE 75 YARD SEND OMG 🚀 pic.twitter.com/ccSp5iRlc4
— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) December 5, 2021
Gattis regularly dials up that kind of stuff to break up the monotony of Hassan Haskins up the gut, and a lot of it has worked. Flea-flickers are almost a staple; the 3rd-leading rusher, sophomore slot receiver AJ Henning has averaged 18 yards per carry on end arounds and reverses, including an opening-possession touchdown against Ohio State on a perfectly executed Statue of Liberty play; and we haven’t even mentioned freakish freshman WR Andrel Anthony, who has toiled in obscurity since his monster performance at Michigan State (155 yards, 2 TDs on 6 catches). But given the fluidity of the depth chart, it might be due to remind everybody why he was very briefly hailed as the next big thing. There are a lot of options for Gattis to break tendencies, keep the Bulldogs on their toes, and/or catch them napping outside of the base offense, and most of them have already proven to be good ones.
Key matchup: Georgia DC Dan Lanning vs. Sleep
Lanning, who has overseen Georgia’s defense since 2019, has been pulling double duty the past 2 weeks between UGA and Oregon, where he was hired as the Ducks’ head coach on Dec. 11. That kind of arrangement is hardly novel for assistants who are too invested in a championship run to bail for a new job before seeing it all the way through, but it doesn’t add any extra hours to the day or make the workload — game-planning on one hand, recruiting and staffing up on the other — any easier to handle.
Kirby Smart himself pulled it off in 2015, when he stayed on as Alabama’s defensive coordinator through the Tide’s national championship run that season at the same time he was preparing to take over in Athens. His experience then and his routine involvement in the defensive planning anyway should help to smooth out the transition. As for Lanning, even over-caffeinated 35-year-olds have to power down sometime.
When Georgia has the ball
1. How committed is Georgia to Stetson Bennett IV?
Let’s dispense with the drama, such as it is: Bennett is the starting quarterback, as anyone could have guessed from the way Smart has managed the position this year and throughout his tenure. Although JT Daniels made the trip to Miami and will apparently be available to play, his temporary absence from the team due to COVID-19 protocols has likely closed the door on any scant consideration coaches might have been giving to making the switch after Bennett’s uninspiring turn in the SEC Championship loss to Alabama. Smarts puts high priority on practice reps for his quarterbacks, Daniels couldn’t attend practice, end of discussion. At least for now.
Anyway, I’m not here to bury Stetson Bennett. Prior to the Bama game, he’d done everything right, going 7-0 since taking over for an injured Daniels in early October while finishing No. 2 nationally (ahead of Bryce Young!) in pass efficiency, yards per attempt and QBR.
He’s had a better season than his counterpart in Miami, Cade McNamara, on all counts. By the time Daniels was cleared to return to the lineup, even the skeptics had to admit the former walk-on had consistently looked the part, and by mid-November the window for getting Daniels back up to speed in time for the postseason had apparently closed. He hasn’t taken a meaningful a meaningful snap since Week 4 against Vanderbilt, and that’s only if you consider a game that may as well have been over before the coin toss meaningful in the first place. It’s hard to blame Smart and OC Todd Monken for sticking with Bennett in the SEC title game.
As long as Daniels is in the picture, though, that decision is going to continue to be scrutinized on a possession-by-possession basis, and if Georgia is eliminated with a next-level talent on clipboard duty, it’s going to follow Smart for a long time. The Bama loss was a very clear warning of how that will unfold: The ground game stalls, the defense cracks, and the mounting deficit forces them to rely on Bennett’s arm against a blue-chip defense that has very little reason to respect it.
Although he finished with a career-high 340 yards and 3 touchdowns in a losing effort, Bennett had to put the ball in the air 48 times to hit those marks, more than twice his season average, and for the second year in a row vs. Alabama, the negatives made a bigger impression than the positives.
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) December 5, 2021
That was the second of two costly Bennett picks in the second half, the first of which had already snuffed out a crucial red-zone scoring opportunity in the third quarter. Going back to last year’s regular-season loss in Tuscaloosa – a game that ended with an identical final score as this year’s loss, 41-24, and followed a similar trajectory – Bennett has thrown 5 interceptions in the past 2 meetings vs. the Tide, 4 of them with his team trailing in the second half.
Bennett was hardly Georgia’s only problem the last time out, nor, on a day when the running game made no impact, wide receivers generated no separation, and the defense got exposed at every level, was he even the biggest. He was, however, the most visible, and one of the few with a viable alternative standing a few feet away.
Obviously, Smart and Monken are going to do everything they can to avoid finding themselves in the same position against Michigan. If they do, though, will they be as reluctant to pull the plug? Against Bama, they had the luxury of understanding that at the end of the day they could afford to treat the loss like a mulligan. Not the case this time around. Now that they have a clearer picture of Bennett’s limitations, letting them dictate the entire team’s fate would be that much harder to justify.
Key matchup: Kirby Smart vs. Inertia
Smart is not paid $7.1 million a year to be obtuse about the most important position on the roster. After the Alabama game, he described the loss as “a wake-up call,” and technically he has not ruled out the possibility of making the switch to Daniels while reiterating his confidence in both quarterbacks. But everything about his track record at the position points to Bennett or bust.
2. Who are Georgia’s playmakers?
The Bulldogs arrived in Miami with a couple of known quantities in the backfield in senior RBs Zamir White and James Cook, but only one in the passing game: True freshman TE Brock Bowers. A 5-star talent with bona fide wide receiver skills, Bowers had a breakout day in the SEC Championship loss to Alabama, finishing with season highs for receptions (10) and yards (139) in his introduction to a national audience; that was consistent with his role throughout the season, which he ended as the only UGA player among the top 30 in the SEC in receptions (47) or yards (791).
At the end of Year 1, he already looks like the complete package for a “move” tight end, equally comfortable in a traditional inline blocking role or as a receiver from the slot, and as he’s healthy you can go ahead and pencil him in as an All-American in the next two.
Brock Bowers just went bulldozer mode for a TD pic.twitter.com/Fn95IhtzIq
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) December 5, 2021
The wideouts, on the other hand, might be an even bigger question mark than Michigan’s. The only player with a catch in every game, redshirt freshman Ladd McConkey, is a former 3-star signee who’s often mistaken for a walk-on; he raised some eyebrows in a midseason win at Auburn, hauling in five for 135 yards, but in the meantime he has just 150 yards over the last seven and is reportedly dealing with an undisclosed injury. No one else on the depth chart has come close to an above-the-fold performance. 2020 holdovers Jermaine Burton and Kearis Jackson have been limited by nagging injuries. Dominick Blaylock got just a handful of snaps at the end of the regular season after being sidelined by multiple knee injuries for nearly two full years. True freshman Adonai Mitchell has played significantly but struggled with drops.
The X-factor is George Pickens. For most of the year, it was doubtful Pickens would play at all in 2021 following a torn ACL in the spring, or would ever put on a Georgia uniform again with a certain NFL career waiting. But after a tentative return in the regular-season finale against Georgia Tech, he showed glimpses his old, acrobatic self against Alabama, playing 20 snaps and accounting for UG’’s longest gain of the day on a 37-yard catch in the first quarter. Like JT Daniels, he made the trip to Miami and expects to be available after his status was threatened by COVID protocols. If he’s anywhere in the remote vicinity of 100%, he immediately adds a downfield dimension that Georgia has struggled to sustain all year.
Key matchup: Brock Bowers vs. Michigan DB Dax Hill
(Caveat: Hill’s availability is being widely questioned and Michigan hasn’t addressed it. Until something is reported, I’m assuming Hill will play. Obviously if he can’t, that’s a huge problem for Michigan and a huge advantage for Bowers and Georgia. Moving on…)
Hill typically mans the Wolverines’ designated nickel role, so he’s used to lining up across from slot receivers and tight ends alike. But he hasn’t faced another specimen quite like Bowers, whose Frankenstein combination of slot skills in a tight end’s body isn’t on the menu in the Big Ten, or most anywhere else. Then again, Hill’s skill set isn’t exactly common, either: A former 5-star prospect turned first-team All-B1G pick, he pairs the instincts and fluid cover skills of a full-time corner with a safety’s taste for blood as consistently as any player in the college game.
Dax Hill making 5 star plays, what an interception pic.twitter.com/vUdTC7do4o
— B1G CHAMPS (@UofMMoments) October 10, 2021
Given Bowers’ outsized role in Georgia’s passing game, locking him down beyond checkdown range would be like forcing the Bulldogs to play with one hand tied behind their back. Hill may be one of the few defenders out there with the potential to do it on his own.
3. Can Georgia block Michigan on the edge?
If you’ve made it this far then I think it’s safe to assume Aidan Hutchinson needs no introduction: Heisman finalist, highest-graded defender in America per PFF, possible No. 1 overall pick in next year’s draft, all-around wrecking ball, etc. His relentless, 3-sack performance against Ohio State was one of the great individual outings by a defensive player in years, and that was only a slight exaggeration on his week-in, week-out production throughout the year.
He may not be as explosive as a Jadeveon Clowney or Chase Young around the corner, but he’s more powerful, more consistent and altogether he has been even more disruptive.
Time to study the tape of the Hutchinson/Ojabo show… pic.twitter.com/JYgC41ryaO
— Dane Brugler (@dpbrugler) November 28, 2021
Let’s move on before this devolves further into a 10,000-word tribute to Aidan Hutchinson annihilating offensive tackles. Michigan’s other bookend, redshirt sophomore David Ojabo, has necessarily been relegated to second banana by comparison.
He began the year as a raw curiosity — born in Nigeria, raised in Scotland — who had barely seen the field in his first 2 years on campus. By midseason, though, Ojabo was regularly leaping off the screen as a dominant, speed-oriented counterpart to Hutchinson’s power game, and was already being touted as a potential first-rounder in his own right. He finished with 11 sacks, including multiple takedowns against Wisconsin, Michigan State and Penn State and 5 forced fumbles of the strip-sack variety. The frequency with which he and Hutchinson literally met at the quarterback was almost comical, you know, unless you were the quarterback.
Overall, Georgia’s pass protection has been a strength, allowing the fewest sacks (11) in the SEC – partly a byproduct of almost never facing obvious passing downs. Alabama’s front seven challenged that reputation, recording 3 sacks and 19 QB pressures, per PFF, with the Tide’s Heisman-worthy edge terror, Will Anderson Jr., leading the assault.
An easy way to gauge how things are going for the Bulldogs will be noticing how often Hutchinson and Ojabo can afford to pin their ears back on the pass rush without worrying about getting caught out of position vs. the run.
Key matchup: Hutchinson/Ojabo vs. Georgia OTs Jamaree Salyer and Warren McClendon
Salyer and McClendon, owners of 43 combined career starts, were both on the wrong end of a couple pressures against Alabama, including the first sack of the season at Salyer’s expense. Still, for the season they’ve allowed just 8 pressures between them, and their enormous size — Salyer’s especially, at 6-4/325 on the left side — doesn’t lend itself to being shoved around. The tackles will be sharing the toughest job on the field, which makes it all the more crucial for Georgia’s game plan to keep them out of 3rd-and-long and keep as much of the passing game within the play-action family as possible.
Special teams, injuries and other vagaries
Michigan boasted the nation’s best special teams units across all phases, according to efficiency guru Brian Fremeau, excelling in almost every aspect of the kicking game. Kicker Jake Moody connected on 22-of-24 field goal attempts and 56-of-56 extra points, missing just once after Oct. 1; he was first-team All-Big Ten and a consensus All-American. Punter Brad Robbins ranked 5th nationally in net yards per punt (44.3), allowing only 9 returns for 3.9 yards a pop. The Wolverines scored on a kickoff return — the result of a trick play with a 21-point lead at Maryland — and led the nation in kickoff return coverage, allowing a meager 12.1 yards per return. (The vast majority of Moody’s kickoffs were either touchbacks or fair catches.) They blocked 3 punts, all 3 resulting in short-field touchdowns by the offense.
Cornelius Johnson blocked a punt.
The Michigan WR is going to get a ton of praise from Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines.
— Brad Galli (@BradGalli) October 23, 2021
The only thing they didn’t do well: Field punts. AJ Henning muffed 4 of them, the most of any FBS player.
Georgia’s kicking game solidly unremarkable. Kicker Jack Podlesny was 18-for-22 on field goals with no attempts beyond 50 yards; punter Jake Camarda averaged a career-high 47.1 yards per punt; the Bulldogs neither returned a kickoff or punt for a touchdown nor allowed one. They did block a couple of punts against Missouri and Arkansas, the latter of which they memorably recovered in the end zone for a touchdown that effectively ended one of the year’s most overhyped games in the first quarter.
Blocked kicks are lightning-strike events that fall outside the realm of predictability, but given that both Michigan and Georgia play starters on special teams and have demonstrated some flair for getting to the punter, a block in either direction shouldn’t come as a shock.
The COVID-19 situation: Fluid, as ever. Kirby Smart told reporters on Wednesday he expects his team to be “near full strength,” and with JT Daniels and George Pickens both having rejoined the team there are no known cases for Georgia as of this writing.
Jim Harbaugh hasn’t commented on Michigan’s side, and earlier this week team spokesmen declined to address a rumor that Hill didn’t travel with the team. (Again, until there’s official word or a credible report I’m chalking that up as a rumor and assuming Hill will play.)
For its part, the bowl is attempting to keep the players in a bubble to whatever extent it can in an area that’s considered a COVID hotspot. Any name can be crossed off the depth chart right up to kickoff, and if you’ve lived on planet Earth for the past 18 months, you know some of them probably will be. Which ones and how they impact the game remain TBD.
The bottom line …
Whatever else they are, at their core these are two old-school, run the ball/stop the run outfits and this should be a run the ball/stop the run game.
Both sides want to protect their quarterbacks as much as possible, let their defense force the other side into a big mistake, and take advantage of their opportunities when they come. Barring some busted coverages there aren’t likely to be a lot of points in this one — the over/under is set at 45.5 — and both teams are probably just fine with that.
There’s a lot to like about Michigan, which boasts the best player on the field in Aidan Hutchinson, a wider array of proven playmakers on offense, and the good vibes that come with ending the regular season on the highest possible note. Alas, momentum is not real. What is real is Georgia’s front seven on defense, which remains one of the dominant units in the sport. I’m not convinced Michigan’s offensive line can open up enough running lanes to sustain drives, and without the run support that’s carried them this far, I’m even less convinced the Wolverines have the downfield juice in the passing game to exploit UGA’s secondary the way Alabama did. Brock Bowers and George Pickens pose bigger matchup problems for Michigan than anyone in maize and blue does for Georgia, and they shouldn’t have to do much.
I’m still skeptical of the Bulldogs against an offense capable of putting up some points through the air. (Read: Alabama.) But Michigan doesn’t look like that kind of offense, and this doesn’t look like that kind of game. If it comes down to the defenses, it’s the Dawgs’ day.
– – –
Georgia 23, Michigan 19