Why Michigan will beat Georgia
Because this team is rolling. Given how Alabama sputtered in the Iron Bowl before rebounding to win the SEC crown, Michigan is the hottest team in the playoff bracket. The Wolverines capped the regular season by running for a combined 508 yards and averaging 7.7 yards per play in lopsided wins against Ohio State (42-27) and Iowa (42-3) to capture the Big Ten championship and head into the semifinals on a high note.
Because the Wolverines can be themselves. For better or worse, Georgia will allow Michigan to stick to a familiar script. Rather than being thrust into the sort of quarterback-driven shootout that comes with a matchup against Alabama, the Wolverines can lean on the best running game in the Power Five (223.9 yards per game on 5.3 yards per carry) and try to loosen up the Bulldogs’ defensive front.
Because they won’t beat themselves. Michigan committed 11 turnovers during the regular season, good for eighth among teams in the Power Five, and only lost the turnover battle twice — in those wins against the Buckeyes and Hawkeyes. Quarterback Cade McNamara has thrown just four interceptions in 309 attempts; only three other Power Five passers have or had four or fewer picks in 300 or more throws.
Why Georgia will beat Michigan
Because this defense is still the best. We’ll see if Alabama’s 41-point outburst in early December carries over to the playoff. That seems unlikely based on how this defense fared during the regular season: Georgia still leads the FBS in yards allowed per play (4.01) and points allowed per game (9.5). The Tide accounted for a third of the 124 points the Bulldogs have given up this season; take that game away, and the Bulldogs are giving up just 6.9 points per game.
Because it’s strength against strength. Georgia can respect Michigan’s style and the Wolverines’ late-season surge but still feel good about the on-paper matchup. That’s especially true on defense, where an opponent more interested in setting a tone with physical play up front plays right into the Bulldogs’ strength, depth, experience and scheme along the line and at linebacker. On the flip side, however, Georgia’s offense has to slow down Aidan Hutchinson and Michigan’s wonderful pass rush. That’s a matchup that figures to play out in the Wolverines’ favor.
Because Stetson Bennett has been a lot better than you think. He’s been unable to shake the label of being a walk-on and has been the subject of far more scrutiny than expected from a starter at least partially responsible for one of the best regular seasons in program history. But Bennett has been very good all season in a role tailored to fit his skill set and the Bulldogs’ offensive scheme. He currently ranks second among SEC passers in efficiency rating (176.9) and is the only quarterback in the Power Five to average more than 10 yards per throw.
This should be a fun matchup. The strength on strength matchups are particularly interesting. Georgia prevents big plays on defense. Michigan likes to take its shots on offense. Georgia loves to stop the run. Michigan loves to run the football. The Wolverines love to rush the passer and Georgia does a good job of protecting the quarterback. This game is going to come down to who plays the cleanest, which quarterback plays the best, and which position group plays to its potential and maybe takes the game over. There’s a reason that Georgia is favored by a full score and it’s because the Bulldogs are deeper and more talented overall.
I read that and wondered, what can we realistically take from the Alabama loss and expect to translate successfully Friday night? In other words, what am I worried about most? Here’s what I came up with, in no particular order, mainly about the defense, because if Michigan scores 41 points, that’ll be it for the Dawgs:
- Can Georgia do a better job with quarterback containment? Of the things that puzzled the crap out of me during the SECCG, Bryce Young running three times for forty yards was pretty close to the top of the list. Check out his running game log this season. For the year, he’s averaged less than a half yard per carry; against Georgia’s defense, that average was 13.33. That’s inexcusable. Cade McNamara hasn’t been much of a runner this season, either (30 carries for 27 yards), but from the film I’ve seen, he’s got good instincts in the pocket. By the way, McCarthy, his backup, is something of a good runner, averaging better than four yards a carry. Georgia’s defense simply can’t break down against Michigan as it did against Alabama.
- How much can Georgia affect Michigan’s pass rush? The Wolverines have 34 sacks this season, good for 37th nationally. But, know what? Alabama is third in the country, with 46 sacks. Aidan Hutchinson is lauded, and rightfully so, but Will Anderson’s had a (slightly) better season. And once the wheels started coming off the wagon in the SECCG, Will Anderson freaked the crap out of Stetson Bennett. That’s another thing that can’t happen again.
- Can Georgia defend the slot better? I’ve harped on this already, but it bears repeating, Georgia’s defenders were abused all game long by Alabama’s slot receivers. Georgia’s defenders covering the slot allowed a season-high 168 yards across 10 catches, one of which was a score. And, yeah, yeah, Jameson Williams, I get it, but I saw less otherworldly guys like Slade Bolden have success there, too. Injuries at safety and star caught up to Georgia in the SECCG. The Dawgs need Chris Smith back at a level approaching healthy tomorrow. You know Michigan is going to probe and attack Georgia’s defense there.
- Turnover margin. Michigan and Georgia both forced the same number of turnovers on defense this season, but that number is a relatively unimpressive 65th nationally. Where the gap exists between the two is in offensive turnovers: Michigan is 13th; Georgia is 53rd. Stetson can’t give the ball away in Miami the way he did in Atlanta.
It’s certainly not hopeless. As Myerberg points out, that was a dominant defense we watched all during the regular season and Michigan’s offense overall is a much better match for Georgia than was Alabama’s. I just hope the staff has used the past couple of weeks to tighten up a lot of things.