The “Granddaddy of Them All” doubles as the opening College Football Playoff semifinal this year, with No. 1 Michigan facing off against No. 4 Alabama in the Rose Bowl.
It’s a dream matchup for anyone not rooting for Florida State, with the two winningest programs in college football history facing off at one of the most iconic venues in sports.
Two standout defensive units will look to shut down opponents who move the ball very differently, making this an intriguing matchup to decide the first finalist.
Here are three key questions for Monday’s contest in California.
Can the Michigan passing attack lift off?
Michigan’s offense is powerful, plodding, efficient, disciplined, and reliable. The Wolverines know what they do well and don’t stray from that en route to putting up over 36 points per contest: eat up chunks of yardage and clock, convert third downs, and give the ball to Blake Corum inside the 5-yard line. Corum leads the country with 24 touchdowns on the season and is essentially a guarantee to convert in short-yardage situations.
Noticeably absent from the above list is the word “explosive.” Only 18 of Michigan’s plays have gone for at least 30 yards, ranking 115th out of 133 FBS teams. J.J. McCarthy is an incredibly efficient quarterback but hasn’t topped the 150-yard passing mark in a game since Nov. 4. That’s a streak of four total games in which the passing attack either wasn’t needed or couldn’t produce. Michigan also hasn’t topped the 31-point mark during that four-game stretch after doing so in each of the five previous matchups.
While they still won those contests thanks to defense and the running game, that blueprint is highly unlikely to work against the Crimson Tide. Saban’s defense has yet to allow a running back to top the 100-yard rushing mark this season, and Michigan will be without All-American offensive lineman Zak Zinter for the contest. That likely puts the onus on the passing attack to generate enough plays to keep the sticks moving. Whether the receiving group can find space against one of the best secondary units in the nation – and whether McCarthy lets it rip – will determine if Michigan can stay in the fight versus the Crimson Tide.
Can Michigan contain Milroe?
While the Michigan offense struggles to create explosive plays, Alabama’s attack essentially needs them to function properly. A total of 23% of the Crimson Tide’s offensive plays go for at least 10 yards, and 50 of Jalen Milroe’s 171 completions this season have gone for at least 20 yards. Since returning to the lineup following his Week 3 benching, Milroe has been one of the SEC’s more dynamic players, averaging over 250 yards of total offense and totaling 28 touchdowns. Georgia coach Kirby Smart offered some very lofty praise for Milroe prior to the SEC title game, likening him to Lamar Jackson.
“(When playing Madden, my sons would) say, ‘I’ve got Lamar Jackson, and nobody can tackle him.’ This guy is a bigger, more physical version of that,” Smart said, per Dean Straka of CBS Sports. “He is playing in a different speed than anybody else when you watch him.”
Milroe passed his toughest test of the season in the SEC title game upset victory over Georgia, but the degree of difficulty remains high in the Rose Bowl. Michigan’s defensive stats have certainly been helped by playing a number of the Big Ten’s offensively averse programs, but it remains one of the country’s best. The secondary is particularly elite – led by the ball-hawking Mike Sainristil and standout corner Will Johnson. That pair will certainly try to bait Milroe into some dangerous throws that could lead to crucial turnovers.
Will Saban add to Harbaugh’s CFP woes?
One coach in the Rose Bowl this year has garnered endless media attention and made national headlines throughout the entire college football season. The other is Nick Saban.
Jim Harbaugh has served two separate three-game suspensions this year, is currently facing a potential Level I violation levied by the NCAA, and is widely rumored to be heading to the NFL once this season ends. Despite all the drama swirling around the Michigan program – from both the recruiting violation charges and sign-stealing scandal – the Wolverines have remained unbothered on the field and head to their third straight CFP semi. Unfortunately, the previous trips have produced troubling results in the form of a 2021 blowout by Georgia and last year’s shocking upset by TCU.
With 15 practices over the four weeks between the conference title game and the semifinal, coaching can play a huge difference in deciding the eventual winner and loser. Since losing to eventual champion Ohio State in 2014, Saban is a perfect 6-0 in the semifinal when given at least three weeks to prepare. Turns out giving arguably the best coach in college football history a lengthy period to game plan for an opponent is a significant advantage.
Harbaugh has clearly built an incredible Michigan program that can function at a high level whether he’s on the sideline or not. He’s beaten Ohio State in three straight years and claimed the first three-peat for outright Big Ten titles in Michigan history. The only thing missing on his resume at his alma mater is CFP success. All that stands in his way is the unquestioned GOAT of the modern college football era.