Ed. Note: You’re not going to believe this, but we don’t know half of Michigan fans half as well as we should like, and we like less than half of Michigan fans half as well as they deserve.
Okay, perhaps that’s an over-generalization. But it is true that finding a college football fan holding estimable familiarity with both the Georgia Bulldogs and Michigan Wolverines is a tall task. Nevertheless we did it.
He goes by many names. You may know him as @BravesAndBirds on Twitter, the former proprietor of a blog of the same name, and one of our favorite observers of college football for its own sake.
Or, you can just call him Michael. He’s an above average Alpine zither player, one of the world’s great Hungarian Verbunkos dancers, and holds the record for Goose Burgers consumes in a single sitting at Macon’s world famous Gray Goose Player’s Club (2). What’s more, he nimbly bestrides the worlds of Georgia and Michigan football and has agreed to provide us a Wolverine’s eye view of tomorrow’s Orange Bowl. Enjoy.
Hello! My name is Michael. I grew up in Macon. I have lived in Georgia for two-thirds of my life. I am a casual Dawg fan who tries to be as conversant as possible about the Dawgs because of the large portion of my social network who went to UGA. I sweltered in the upper deck at Bryant-Denny in 2002. I moderated a “fire Bobo or shoot him into space?’ debate at halftime of the 2011 Boise State game. I smacked my forehead and shouted “WTF!?!?” at the 2018 SEC Championship Game.
I also got my undergrad degree from Michigan (in history, naturally, so I am a dues-paying member of Michigan War Dad Twitter) and am what one might call an obsessive Wolverine fan. I once explained my problems with the Michigan running game under Lloyd Carr using salt and pepper shakers when on a date with the woman who would become my wife. I read MGoBlog on a daily basis, including the lengthy Upon Further Review pieces after each game. (If you want to take a deep dive on the enemy, this is the best way to do it.) I went to two games this year, the easy win over Washington in September when the Huskies inexplicably left two safeties deep against a team that wants to run the ball and the stressful win at Nebraska when a Brad Hawkins strip and recovery was but one tile in the mosaic of bizarre losses that Scott Frost assembled in 2021.
It’s with that background that I can tell you confidently that if you are a Dawg fan of a certain age, then you are already familiar with this Michigan team: it’s 2002 Georgia reincarnated. Consider:
• Michigan’s best player is a White defensive end with a number ending in seven (David Pollack = Aidan Hutchinson);
• Michigan’s starting QB is a good decision-maker with average arm strength who excels at avoiding bad plays (David Greene = Cade MacNamara);
• Michigan’s back-up QB is a five-star freshman with a two-initial name who has a stronger arm and better legs than the starter, but still needs to learn the offense and make quicker decisions (D.J. Shockley = J.J. McCarthy; you can also see Jake Fromm and Justin Fields in Michigan’s QB situation if you prefer);
• Michigan’s starting tailback Hassan Haskins carried 261 times for 1,288 yards at 4.9 yards per carry (Musa Smith’s numbers in 2002: 260 carries, 1,324 yards, 5.1 yards per carry);
• Michigan has leaned on an automatic placekicker to win close games (Billy Bennett = Jake Moody);
• Michigan’s one loss came against a hated rival where one defensive flaw killed them (UGA’s inability to defend a bubble screen against Florida = Michigan’s inability to get lined up against tempo; Michigan also had a key drop late against MSU that had a faint whiff of Terrence Edwards); and
• Michigan ended a long conference title drought with a dominating championship game win against a team from the Eighth Circuit.
We’ll never know how 2002 Georgia would have done in a four-team playoff, but it would have been fun to find out. 2021 Michigan would have gone right into a title game with Alabama if we were still saddled with the BCS, but instead, we get a New Year’s Eve matchup between two programs that have not met since 1965. Here’s your scouting report on the Michigan team that is the obstacle between Georgia and a likely rematch/purification by fire with Alabama:
1. This Michigan team is not manufactured by the creative department at Fox.
Being an educated fan, you have probably figured this out already, but if you need convincing that this Michigan team isn’t just a creation of the media kowtowing to a large fan base, here’s the stat that should convince you: Michigan is 11-2 against the spread. They have consistently exceeded the expectations set for them by the people with skin in the game.
2. This Michigan team is fast.
Banish your notions of a thick-legged, plodding Big Ten team aspiring to three yards and a cloud of dust. (A Woody Hayes phrase, but just play along.) Michigan led the nation in offensive plays of 50+ yards. Two of the three running backs who will see time (Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards) are both lightning fast and good receivers out of the backfield. The receivers are about as fast as you would expect for a major team’s receivers (Roman Wilson is the primary deep threat; AJ Henning is the most dangerous as a runner) and the coaches do a good job of getting them the ball in space. The team’s offensive structure has worked this year because Josh Gattis has successfully grafted his speed-in-space concepts onto Jim Harbaugh’s typical power running game. You’ll frequently see running backs going in one direction and slot receivers going in the other, stretching the defense horizontally. For instance, the first touchdown against Ohio State.
The biggest concern that Michigan fans have had ever since the matchup with Georgia was confirmed was the notion of a run-first offense having to go up against an elite run defense. The notion of running power and counter at Jordan Davis, Jalen Carter, Nakobe Dean, Channing Tindall, and friends is not pleasant. It seems unlikely that Hassan Haskins is going to churn out five-yard runs consistently. Thus, the path to victory for Michigan would have to involve hitting big plays on the ground, a 60-yarder to make all the two-yarders worthwhile. Michigan has not seen a defense like Georgia’s this year, but while the Dawgs are number one in defensive SP+, Wisconsin is second and Iowa is fourth. Michigan put up 80 points on those two teams and they did it with plays of 34, 38, 56, 67, 75, and 38 yards. Michigan also scored on those teams because their offenses were bad and thus Michigan could tilt the field on them; Georgia’s offense is MUCH better than anything in the Big Ten West. Also, Georgia’s defense is better. It’s a mix of Ohio State talent with Wisconsin/Iowa coaching, which is unlike anything that Michigan has seen this year.
3. The running game is more effective when J.J. McCarthy is at QB.
If Michigan is going to hit big plays on the ground, then they will most likely come with J.J. McCarthy at QB. McCarthy isn’t exactly Mike Vick, but he is fast and can make reads in the running game such that defenses have to account for him, thus creating the numerical advantage that boost modern running games. Michigan’s first touchdown against Iowa illustrates both aspects. The play works because the back side of the defense must respect McCarthy’s legs, which J.J. then shows off by showing up at the end of the play as a blocker.
Side note: I cannot express how much anxiety was averted by the Corum touchdown and then the 75-yard running back pass from Edwards on Michigan’s next offensive snap. Iowa has a remarkable ability of beating more talented teams by getting them into ugly, defensive games decided by turnovers and bizarre special teams events. Take all the icky feelings that you have about playing South Carolina in Columbia and then transplant them in a cornfield.
4. Cade McNamara is hard to sack or pick, but the tradeoff is that he leaves big plays on the field.
Another QB competition that McNamara/McCarthy calls to mind is Tom Brady and Drew Henson in 1999. Brady was more accurate, harder to sack, and made quicker decisions, but Henson was a remarkable athlete, as evidenced by the fact that he cut his Michigan career a year short to take a big bonus from the New York Yankees at the behest of Yankees owner/Ohio State booster George Steinbrenner. (Yes, Ohio State has a history of churning out absolutely, totally, loathsome people.)
McNamara has a long way to go to be like Brady (although he has the benefit of better college coaching; if you want to get a Michigan fan of a certain age riled up, speak the name “Mike Debord”), but he has some of the basic starting blocks in that he is accurate, he makes quick decisions, he is hard to sack, and he rarely throws picks. Michigan’s offensive line won the Joe Moore Award this year in no small part because only one Power Five team averaged more rushing yardage per game (and that was an Ole Miss team that averaged a quarter-yard per carry less), but McNamara deserves some of the credit because he is excellent at reading a defense before the snap and getting the ball out quickly. Michigan was #1 nationally by a wide margin in fewest TFLs allowed, which speaks partially to an efficient running game and in part to the fact that the team did not give up sacks. It is hard to get this offense into long yardage situations.
The downside to this approach is that at least once a game, an announcer will say “McNamara had [insert name of receiver] open deep, but he instead chose to check down.” In a game where Michigan will likely struggle to string together long drives, that could be a problem.
5. Michigan’s defensive kryptonite is tempo.
Mike Macdonald has a BBA from Terry. (In case you were interested, he was also a SigEp in Athens.) He worked his way up the coaching ladder, first under Mark Richt at UGA and then under John Harbaugh with the Ravens. He has been one of the saviors of Michigan football this season, turning a defense that was increasingly ineffective under Don Brown into one that is #7 in SP+. He turned a defense that was a predictable, man-based, one-high outfit into one that shows all sorts of looks and consistently confuses college QBs. He was hired so that Michigan’s corners would stop getting defenestrated in man coverage by faster Ohio State receivers and one 42-27 win later, that prime mission has been accomplished. (It’s too bad that 42-27 will not lend itself to my favorite UGA joke: “what’s the time in Texas? Ten to nine.”) Macdonald had a wide variety of great calls this year. My personal favorite is this “I bet you’re running Mesh, so check this out” call to seal the win at Penn State. (There’s also this murdering of Iowa’s last chance, but it’s not fair to take too much pleasure in outfoxing Brian Ferentz.)
All that said, Michigan’s weakness this year on defense has been tempo. Opponents have repeatedly been able to catch Michigan unprepared and/or misaligned for plays by going quickly. Michigan State was especially good at this, popping big runs repeatedly by going fast. Macdonald has made some improvements in this department over the course of the season, but it is still a red flag. Michigan runs a complex defense and the downside can be that it can take them a while to get ready for a play. So how fast can UGA go on offense?
An added benefit to tempo is that Michigan does not have Georgia’s depth on the defensive line. There is a sharp drop-off from Michigan’s starters to their backups (look for Jess Speight and Donovan Jeter at DT as the cue to do this), so if Georgia can lock the backups onto the field, then they will have more success running the ball and they’ll have more time to throw.
6. Dax Hill could be Michigan’s only chance to handle Brock Bowers.
Michigan has not seen a tight end like Brock Bowers this season. The Wolverines held Wisconsin’s Jake Ferguson to two catches for 28 yards and Iowa’s Sam Laporta to six catches for 62, but neither are as athletic as Bowers. Michigan’s linebackers are average in coverage and will almost certainly struggle with Bowers (and potentially Darnell Washington, as well). The one guy who would have a better shot would be Dax Hill, who was a five-star recruit for a reason. Hill typically plays over the slot and stops opponents from edging the Wolverines to the wide side. That means that he draws the assignment of dealing with the slot receivers that college offenses use to move the sticks in key situations. (Side note: the key play in Michigan’s only loss was this perfect fourth and four throw from Peyton Thorne when Michigan was up 16, beating good coverage from Hill. Hill also showed his coverage skill on Nebraska’s final offensive play by locking up their best receiver on a slot fade.) In the Orange Bowl, that would mean Hill sees a lot of Ladd McConkey. Given Bowers’ importance to Georgia’s offense, it would not be a shock to see Hill get TE duty on key downs if Michigan goes with man coverage. Michigan has played a lot more zone this year than they have in the past, so this all might end up being moot.
7. Michigan has good DBs who do not intercept passes.
Michigan fans were terrified about the secondary coming into the season. It was a festering sore during … whatever it is that we are now calling the 2020 season and it was not expected to get better. As the secondary kept passing tests over the course of the season, we kept fretting that the next test would be the one where the tumor finally killed us. And then it never happened. In the biggest test of the season, Michigan’s secondary went toe-to-toe with Ohio State’s armada of future first round WRs. Michigan allowed 27 points and the prevailing sentiment afterwards was that the Buckeyes had to work hard for their scores, making a series of tough throws and catches against good coverage. The days of Chris Olave sauntering through the Michigan backfield were over. If Michigan can cover Olave, Garrett Wilson, and Jaxon Smith-Njigba, then they can cover anyone.
That said, Michigan did not intercept many passes this season. They picked off only eight throws (89th nationally) despite defending 64 passes (12th nationally). The three guys who have played deep safety – Brad Hawkins, R.J. Moten, and Rod Moore – combined for one pick. (Hawkins’ bad hands remain perplexing for Michigan fans because he came out of high school as a receiver.) This could mean that Michigan was unlucky or that their DBs are not adept at catching the ball when they get a chance. This becomes a big variable for the Orange Bowl. If the game is close, then a pick could decide it. Can these DBs will make that play when they haven’t been good at it all year?
8. The game might come down to Michigan’s DTs against the interior of UGA’s OL.
I am going to assume that you are aware that Michigan has excellent defensive ends. Aidan Hutchinson is likely to be the #1 pick in the Draft because he is dominant against the run and the pass. Ohio State’s offensive line is full of five-stars who are likely to be high picks; Hutchinson did this to them en route to a three-sack day. Michigan’s defense started to cook when David Ojabo emerged around the Wisconsin game, leading to a phenomenon where Hutchinson and Ojabo would take different angles to the QB with one flushing the prey into the other like the Raptors in Jurassic Park.
Georgia’s coaches are smart. They will have a plan for Hutchinson and Ojabo, most likely a combination of quick throws and extra blockers. Where Michigan will look to complicate this plan is with their defensive tackles. Mazi Smith and Chris Hinton have improved over the course of the season. DT and CB were seen as the two weak spots in the summer; they have been solved in no small part by a guy from Norcross (Hinton) and a guy from Suwanee (DJ Turner, who emerged at midseason as the team’s best corner). Smith and Hinton have turned that weakness into something that by Iowa was a strength. The interior of UGA’s OL is a relative weak spot and Alabama had success in that space. No plan survives contact with the enemy and not even Moltke the Elder would be able to figure out a solution to losing the individual matchups with both Michigan’s ends and tackles. (The same is true on the other side of the ball. If UGA’s front seven is whipping Michigan’s OL, then there won’t be much for Harbaugh and Gattis to do.) Stetson Bennett IV is prone to mistakes when pressured; Michigan’s plan will likely be based around its DEs winning against Georgia’s OTs and that plan is more likely to work if Smith and Hinton are in the backfield as well (or at least compressing the pocket so that Bennett cannot step up).
Overall, decades of being a Michigan fan have pushed me into this game as something of a pessimist. Harbaugh’s role model is his college coach. Bo Schembechler was known for winning Big Ten titles and then losing in Pasadena, where he went 2-8. Plenty of Michigan teams went West on the high of beating Ohio State and then found themselves losing a defensive struggle to USC. The scores of those eight Rose Bowl losses? 10-3, 13-12, 14-6, 27-20, 17-10, 24-14, 22-15, and 17-10. For good measure, Bo also threw a 14-6 Orange Bowl loss to Oklahoma into that mix, the game that Ace Rothstein nails in Casino. Even though I became a college football fan in the Eighties and only started rooting for Michigan around 1988 (and for the best of reasons: I hated Notre Dame), decades of bathing in the collective anxiety of fellow Michigan fans have conditioned me to expect an exhilarating win over Ohio State in November with a frustrating, low-scoring loss in the bowl game. So take that description of historically-based pessimism, match it up against whatever angst you feel as a Dawg fan (this is truly a perfect matchup of “close, but no cigar” programs), and do as you will.