Orange Bowl – No.2 Michigan vs. No.3 Georgia
Despite having identical 12-1 records, these teams come into the Orange Bowl and the College Football Semi-Finals on different trajectories.
Michigan, so long a disappointment before the business end of the season approaches, now come into their first College Football Playoff on the crest of a wave. A cathartic 42-27 win over their perennial nemesis, Ohio State, sprung them free of seasons of frustration and “what-might-have-beens” to win their first Big Ten title since 2004, thrashing a previously No.2 ranked Iowa team 42-3 in the final.
Georgia, by contrast, had been the clear front-runner in college football all season. They were ominously tripped up by a relentless Alabama in the SEC Championship game, allowing the Crimson Tide a route into the Playoff and a potential rematch for the Bulldogs in the final. This sobering 41-21 loss for a previously unbeaten team has forced Georgia to take stock ahead of their showdown with Michigan this weekend.
The Orange Bowl promises to be a fascinating matchup of two teams boasting incredibly strong defenses and running games.
In their aggressive defensive ends Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo, Michigan has two potential top-10 picks in the NFL Draft. Hutchinson, at 6’6” and 265lbs, is widely considered the consensus No.1 pick with an explosive style of play likened to the Bosa brothers, Nick and Joey.
Michigan’s defensive line will put Georgia under pressure. Hutchinson (14) and Ojabo (11) have accounted for 25 sacks this season, including four against Ohio State. Coach Jim Harbaugh hired Mike Macdonald to be the Wolverines’ new defensive coordinator and he has made Michigan’s defense more mobile and harder to read for opposing quarterbacks.
This might spell bad news for Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett, who has been reliant on the Bulldogs establishing the ground game early. He struggled when forced to throw more than used to against Alabama’s secondary. Michigan’s defensive backs are underrated and will be boosted by the news that star safety Daxton Hill could travel to Miami.
Harbaugh has been instrumental in the rapid development of Cade McNamara at quarterback. The junior has a 65% pass completion rate for 2,470 yards for 15 touchdowns and just 4 interceptions this season, critical for a team with a clinical rushing attack.
Offensive coordinator Josh Gattis won the Broyles Award for the top assistant coach in college football this year. He likes a fast style of play to utilise the Wolverines’ talented playmakers. Michigan averaged 223.8 rushing and 228.1 passing yards per game this year, highlighting their very balanced attack. Their offensive line allowed the fewest sacks in the nation (just 10 this season), opening huge gaps for their outstanding backs Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum. Haskins has had an outstanding season, rushing for 1,288 yards and 20 touchdowns, with an outstanding five against Ohio State.
Corum has been a superb foil in his sophomore season, rushing for 939 yards and 11 touchdowns. Michigan’s hopes of a famous win will rest on the ability of their running game to soften up Georgia’s notoriously stingy defense who have allowed just 82 yards rushing per game this season.
Georgia’s defense has been dominant all season, bar a mid-game blip against Alabama who used their speedy receivers to isolate the Bulldogs’ secondary and go on a 31-7 scoring run.
The Bulldogs might need to return to their dominant best to support an offense that, while averaging 39.4 points per game (7th in the nation), has been reliant on establishing a platform with its running game to build a lead and allow Stetson Bennett to manage the game. In Zamir White (718 yards and 10 touchdowns) and James Cook (619 yards and 7 touchdowns), they have backs with the potential to rival Michigan’s and Cook offers a useful receiving outlet, catching three touchdown passes.
While receiving his share of criticism from fans who would like to see more of backup J.T. Daniels, Stetson Bennett has the fourth-highest passing efficiency in the nation and led Georgia to three straight wins over top-20 ranked Arkansas, Auburn and Kentucky this year. His two interceptions masked an impressive 340 passing yards and three touchdowns against a very good Alabama team who shut down Georgia’s run game and forced him to throw the ball considerably more than in previous games.
Bennett attempted 48 passes against the Crimson Tide, compared to an average of 18 attempts in his previous eight games. He needed to. Alabama held White and Cook to just 65 combined yards rushing.
The return of wide receiver George Pickens will give Georgia a boost on offense and the promising freshman tight end Brock Bowers gives Bennett another option under pressure. Bowers delivered a career-best performance in the SEC Championship game, catching 10 passes for 139 yards. He could be the difference maker against a voracious Michigan defense.
Georgia’s defense, filled with NFL-ready talent, including the monstrous 340lb defensive lineman Jordan Davis, has undoubtedly underpinned their run to the Playoff. Rather than the Bulldogs defense falling short in the SEC title game, they were undone by a sensational performance from a Heisman-winning quarterback who was on the money with his throws to the tune of 421 yards and three touchdowns.
Michigan’s offense, with the greatest respect, is not Alabama’s. Georgia’s defense ranked No.1 in the nation for points per game allowed (9.5), No.2 for rushing yards allowed (81.6 per game) and No.3 for passing yards allowed (171.5 per game). If they can do to Michigan what Alabama did to them and stifle the run, forcing the Wolverines to pass more and upset their balanced offense, that will form their best chance of advancing to the College Playoff Final. If they can’t, expect Michigan to have the platform to unsettle Stetson Bennett and suffocate Georgia.
This is a tough one to call. Both teams have explosive run games, stifling defenses and impressive linemen on both sides of the ball. On paper, Georgia has the talent and experience to control an explosive young Michigan team. My head says the Bulldogs, but the romantic in me senses a certain sense of destiny for Jim Harbaugh and his exciting team, who have slain the ghost of Ohio State (for this season) and the lingering sense of missed potential. They swept away a strong Iowa side and momentum seems to be with them. I’ll take Michigan to make their first ever Playoff final, by no more than seven points.
CHECK OUT THE PREVIEW FOR THE COTTON BOWL BETWEEN ALABAMA & CINCINNATI HERE
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College Football Playoff – Michigan Vs Georgia – Semi-Final Preview by Gareth Evans