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Rose Bowl Preview: Michigan vs Alabama

Michigan is determined to improve upon its recent performances in the college football playoffs. But to do so, the Wolverines will have to get past perennial power Alabama.

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Ohio State v Michigan Photo by Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images

Fresh off capturing its third consecutive Big Ten championship, Michigan is set to make its third consecutive appearance in the college football playoffs. The three-year stretch represents a renaissance of sorts for the Michigan football program, putting the Wolverines back atop the Big Ten and back among nation’s elite. Each of the past two seasons, however, has ended in disappointing fashion, with crushing playoff losses. It’s a script that Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines are determined to change this year.

“Unfinished Business” is the way running back Blake Corum has described it. “It feels great,” Corum told reporters after defeating Iowa, “but the job is not finished.” It’s a sentiment shared by Corum’s teammates. “This was one of our goals (the Big Ten championship), and it feels great to accomplish it,” J.J. McCarthy added, “But there’s more that we want to accomplish.”

Accomplishing more won’t be easy, however, with the top-ranked Wolverines drawing Alabama in their national semi-final match-up at the Rose Bowl.

After losing to Texas in early September, the Crimson Tide spent much of the season on the outside looking in with respect to the college football playoffs. Alabama quietly won its next ten games, but largely stayed out of the national championship conversation. After not-so-quietly defeating two-time defending national champion Georgia in the SEC title game, the Tide is back where it’s accustomed to being – in the hunt for a national championship.

Yet despite finishing the season on an 11-game winning streak and dethroning Georgia, Alabama still carries the tag that it’s not a “typical” Alabama team. But that’s selling the Crimson Tide short.

Pro Football Focus recently published a ranking of the top 275 draft-eligible collegians. Alabama landed 13 players on that list – including three in the top 25 and five in the top 50. Put another way: ‘Bama is loaded.

But so is Michigan. That Pro Football Focus list? The Wolverines placed 14 players on it (Texas and Washington placed 11 and seven players respectively). So, in a heavyweight battle between two teams brimming with NFL talent, how do Alabama and Michigan match up? Or perhaps more significantly, on which match-ups will the game’s outcome ultimately hinge?

Alabama’s Pass Rush

One advantage Alabama will try to exploit is its pass rush. If the Tide is loaded with NFL talent, it begins with edge rushers Dallas Turner and Chris Braswell. Turner, a consensus All-American and SEC defensive player of the year, is a force. The junior has nine sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss through 13 games this season. Together with Braswell, who’s tallied eight sacks and forced three fumbles, Alabama’s pass rush is among the nation’s best. This is particularly true on passing downs, when Turner and Braswell are typically on the field at the same time. For a Michigan team that’s had trouble protecting its quarterback down the stretch, that could spell trouble.

Michigan’s coaches have had a month to re-make its offensive line after losing All-American guard Zak Zinter against Ohio State. They’ve undoubtedly done so with an eye toward doing what it can to contain Turner and Braswell. But it will require more than that.

For Michigan, the key won’t be shutting down Alabama’s edge rush, after all, no one has had much success at doing that all season, but rather limiting its impact. That means staying out of obvious passing situations (when both Turner and Braswell are on the field) and attacking the middle of Alabama’s defense. Fortunately for Michigan, that’s not one of Alabama’s strengths.

Michigan’s Running Game

If there’s an area on this Alabama team isn’t as stout as past Alabama teams, it’s the interior of its defensive line. The same is true of its linebacking corps. And that’s an area that Michigan is capable of taking advantage.

Despite struggling to replicate its rushing success of the past two years, Michigan’s strength is along the interior of its offensive line (even without the injured Zinter). If Michigan can get Corum and company going on the ground, particularly between the tackles, it would not only help keep the chains moving, but it would take some pressure off McCarthy and Michigan’s passing game. Which is critical, because it’s more than just Alabama’s pass rush that will make things difficult for Michigan through the air.

Alabama’s Secondary

If Alabama has a position group that rivals its pass rush in talent, it’s its secondary. The Tide boast two of the best corners – and the best cornerback tandem – in the country. Kool-Aid McKinstry and Terrion Arnold are both first round NFL talents who will make things extremely difficult for Michigan’s passing game – particularly if the Wolverines rely on solely their receivers to move the ball through the air.

For the Wolverines to balance out their running game and keep the Alabama defense honest, they will have to involve more than just their receivers in their passing game. Something Michigan has the weapons to do.

Michigan’s X-Factors

Perhaps the biggest offensive advantage that Michigan has, in this or any game, is the match-up problems that running back Donovan Edwards and tight end Colston Loveland present in the passing game. Edwards has struggled on the ground this season, but remains an elite receiving threat. It’s a similar story with Loveland, who’s as good a receiving tight end as there is this side of Georgia’s Blake Bowers. If Michigan wants to change its luck in the playoffs, in addition to re-establishing its rushing attack, it will need to lean on both Edwards and Loveland in the passing game.

Alabama Quarterback Jalen Milroe

A big part of the reason that Alabama has flown somewhat under the radar most of the season is because of its early season loss to Texas. But this is not the same team that lost to the Longhorns in early September. A young team, the Tide has gotten better as the season has progressed. And nowhere is that more true than at quarterback.

First year starter Jalen Milroe had a rough afternoon against the Longhorns, throwing a pair of interceptions, but has bounced back to pass for more than 2,700 yards and 23 touchdowns (against only 6 interceptions). But perhaps the best way to illustrate Milroe’s progression is that after being benched for his early struggles, Milroe finished the season as a Heisman trophy candidate.

But as much as Milroe has improved, he’s still a first-year quarterback in the nascent stages of deciphering defenses and pass coverages. A big part of Michigan’s resurgence over the past three seasons has been its defense. Beginning with prior defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald and continuing with current defensive coordinator Jesse Minter, Michigan has changed its defensive structure and philosophy. In addition to adopting more of an NFL-style defense, Michigan has proven capable of adapting and adjusting more than it’s been able to do in the past.

Case in point, Ohio State and Marvin Harrison Jr. Michigan far from shut down Harrison, who caught five passes for 118 yards and a touchdown in Ann Arbor, but the Wolverines did prevent the All-American from taking over the game – and did so with some creative defensive sets. “I’ve never seen anything really like it until today,” Harrison said of Michigan’s defensive effort. “I got doubled a lot more today than I ever have before. And like I hadn’t seen before.”

Milroe will present challenges, particularly on the ground, where the 6’2”, 220-pounder is a force. But with over a month to prepare, Michigan and Minter and company will do their best to dial up defensive schemes that will give Alabama’s young signal-caller cause for pause in passing situations.

Michigan Quarterback J.J. McCarthy

Harbaugh has called McCarthy the most talented quarterback to ever play at Michigan. And the junior from Illinois just might be that. McCarthy is an NFL talent who is capable of making throws not seen in Ann Arbor in … I don’t know how long. But McCarthy has more weapons than just his arm. Athletic and a capable (and fast) runner, McCarthy can also make plays with his legs.

Michigan has largely protected McCarthy this season, but that will need to change. Especially with Alabama’s propensity to load up against the run. If Michigan hopes to advance further it has the past two seasons, McCarthy will likely have to showcase his legs as well as his arm.

Final Word

Despite being the betting favorite in Vegas, most pundits are predicting Alabama to prevail. Asked about that, Michigan’s offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore was nonplussed. “That’s because they’ve won it. We need to go out and win it.”

If Michigan can attack the middle of Alabama’s defense – both by generating a consistent running game and getting Edwards and Loveland involved in the passing game – while keeping Milroe from getting comfortable on the other side of the ball, the Wolverines have their best chance of doing so.


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