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Orange Bowl Preview: Michigan vs Georgia

Michigan makes its first appearance in the college football playoffs.

Most previews of tonight’s national semi-final match-up between Michigan and Georgia characterize the Wolverines and Bulldogs as different versions of the same team. And to a certain extent, that’s true. Both teams have elite defenses led by dominant defensive fronts. Both teams rely on strong running games complemented by effective, if not flashy, passing attacks. Both teams also pride themselves on playing hard-nosed, physical football. But while Michigan and Georgia may be cut from the same cloth, the teams are not, despite the prevailing narrative, mirror images of each other.

On offense, both teams are not only built around power running games, but also rely on multiple running backs and lean heavily on their tight ends - a rarity in today’s game. Both teams also run very balanced offenses. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a more balanced offense than Michigan’s, which gains 49.5% of its yards on the ground and 50.5% through the air.

If there’s a difference between the two offenses, it’s in their big play ability - an area in which Michigan is more explosive than many realize. How explosive? The Wolverines lead the nation in plays of 50 yards or more (17), 60 yards or more (10) and 70 yards or more (6). Such plays have been crucial to Michigan’s success this season, and if the Wolverines hope to advance to next week’s national championship game, they’ll need to continue that trend and connect on a few big plays against a Georgia defense that doesn’t give up many.

But while not as explosive as Michigan, Georgia isn’t exactly the “three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust” offense that many have characterized it as being. Georgia has a solid offensive line and a deep group of talented running backs that gets its carries, but the Bulldogs can also spread things out offensively. And Georgia has a pair of playmakers in wide receiver George Pickens (who’s still recovering from an ACL injury) and tight end Brock Bowers (who leads the Bulldogs in receptions and receiving yards as a true freshman) who will challenge Michigan. With weapons like these, Michigan’s defense will have to do more than simply load up against the run.

And speaking of defense, there are differences between the teams on that side of the ball, as well. Michigan wouldn’t be where it is this season without its vastly improved defense. Under first year defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald, the Wolverines improved from 89th to 12th in the nation in total defense. But while the Wolverines defense has been stingy (giving up just 16 points a game and only 24 touchdowns through 13 games), the Bulldogs have been downright overwhelming. Georgia’s second-ranked defense has given up the fewest points in the country (less than ten a game) and has surrendered only 14 touchdowns all season (five of which came against Alabama in the SEC title game). Michigan has faced some solid defenses this season, including Wisconsin’s top-ranked unit, but nothing like it will see against Georgia.

And about the defenses: Both units are led by dominant defensive fronts, but they come at you in different ways. Michigan’s strength comes from the edges. Led by Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo, Michigan’s pass rush is as good as any team’s in the country. Hutchinson and Ojabo have combined for 25 sacks and have given opposing offensive lines and quarterbacks fits all season. Georgia’s strength, on the other hand, is up the middle. Headed by interior linemen Jordan Davis and Devante Wyatt and linebacker Nakobe Dean - all first team SEC performers - the Bulldogs have proven almost impossible to run on.

And therein lies the challenge for Michigan. Michigan has established a clear identity this season: Imposing its will at the line of scrimmage and running the football. Running behind one of the nation’s best offensive lines, running backs Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum have combined for more than 2,200 yards and 31 touchdowns at a robust 5.6 yards a carry. Quarterbacks Cade McNamara and JJ McCarthy have made their share of big plays this season, but Michigan’s success hinges on its ability to run the ball.

Offensive coordinator Josh Gattis said that Michigan won’t change its run-first strategy against Georgia, and it shouldn’t. But the Wolverines can’t count on simply running up the middle all game. Gattis and the Wolverines will need to be creative in their rushing attack.

And that is the game in a nutshell. Because while Michigan will have its hands full trying to contain a Georgia offense that’s both physical and littered with dangerous playmakers, the game will likely be decided when Michigan has the ball. Of the many keys to the game, the most critical is Michigan’s ability to find a way to run the football. Because there’s no guarantee that Michigan will emerge victorious if it does have success on the ground, but it will have little chance of doing so if it doesn’t.


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How to Watch

Orange Bowl (College Football Playoff National Semifinal)
#2 Michigan Wolverines vs. #3 Georgia Bulldogs
6:30 pm | ESPN | Georgia -7.5 | O/U 45.5
Hard Rock Stadium (Miami Gardens, Florida)