Both teams utilize a multiple defensive scheme based mostly on a 3-4 base concept. And given Michigan’s preferred offensive alignment, this may be one of the few games fans actually get to see Alabama in base defense very often. Michigan put up good numbers – 7th in total defense, 22nd in rushing defense, 5th in raw pass defense, 30th in pass efficiency defense, 19th in scoring defense, while Alabama held serve: 17th, 36th, 9th, 7th and 15th in those same categories. But attrition is going to hurt Alabama significantly in this game.
Michigan ends Kwity Paye and Aidan Hutchinson, along with nosetackle Carlo Kemp, can all be a load. Hutchinson and especially Paye were disruptive, combining for 11 sacks and 21 tackles for loss. Kemp was productive, but not necessarily explosive. The fourth lineman, secondary tackle Michael Dwumfour, didn’t put up a lot of big numbers for the number of snaps he got. The real issue is depth. Michigan only played six guys, and Michael Danna had to be the chief backup at three spots. He handled the role well, though, recording 3 sacks and showing versatility.
Freshman Chris Hinton has a bright future but was overwhelmed a lot in his first year. Were Alabama not dealing with injuries, the Crimson Tide would probably take this category, but LaBryan Ray and D.J. Dale will miss this game and Raekwon Davis probably won’t be 100 percent. Those were Alabama’s day-one starters back in September. Now, Phidarian Mathis will start at nose, rotating with Tevita Musika. Justin Eboigbe and Byron Young will split the end position opposite Davis.
Look for a lot of Christian Barmore at multiple positions, as he is the most disruptive lineman on either team. Stephon Wynn Jr., Braylen Ingraham and Ishmael Sopsher will provide depth. Alabama needs a second lineman to step up next to Barmore and counteract Michigan’s Paye and Hutchinson. Advantage: Michigan
With Alabama probably in base for a chunk of this game, there’s going to be a lot of pressure to perform on whichever outside player is picked to replace Terrell Lewis at strongside linebacker. Lewis is opting to skip the bowl game to focus on NFL Draft prep. Christopher Allen is the most likely choice, although Ben Davis has been surprisingly productive in limited chances, and both are expected to play.
Anfernee Jennings will take the other outside post, while Shane Lee and Christian Harris start inside, backed up by Brandon Ale Kaho and Markail Benton. Michigan’s power-focused, straightforward offense ought to help Lee and Harris a bit, as there doesn’t figure to be as much focus on playing in space this week, but they’ll have to do a better job covering the tight ends on pass routes.
For Michigan, the Wolverines have gotten production from all four starters, inside players Jordan Glasgow and Cameron McGrone and outside players Khaleke Hudson and Josh Uche. All four have significant sack totals and can also play the run and make plays behind the line of scrimmage.
The only question for the Wolverines, and the one area in which Alabama has a solid edge, is in overall depth. Michigan used just three reserve linebackers this season and none jumped off the page: ILB Devin Gil and OLBs Michael Barrett and Jordan Anthony. If Lewis were available for this game, Alabama would have something to say here, at least in regards to the outside linebacker comparison. But with Lewis out, this is a clear edge to Michigan. Advantage: Michigan
Alabama has done a better job stopping the big play, while Michigan has been better at holding overall yardage down. The unknown factor in such a comparison is a lack of common opponents, and whether Michigan benefited from playing more ground-oriented teams.
Regardless, Trevon Diggs isn’t playing for Alabama, and that’s probably enough to flip this from an Alabama edge to a Michigan advantage. Josh Jobe will start in Diggs’ place for Alabama, opposite Patrick Surtain II, who had a rough second half to the season and will enter spring ball with something to prove, lest he find himself moved to Star safety.
Xavier McKinney will play in this game, so the safety group of McKinney, Shyheim Carter, Jared Mayden and Jordan Battle remains intact. With Jobe now starting, the reserve corner figures to be either Marcus Banks or Jalyn Armour-Davis. It will be interesting to see how (and via who) Alabama handles Michigan WR Nico Collins. The Wolverines will start Ambry Thomas and Levert Hill at the corners, with Josh Metellus, Daxton Hill and Brad Hawkins at safety.
One interesting aspect to Michigan’s secondary has been the inability of the safety group to force turnovers in the passing game. Michigan ranks a paltry 71st in interceptions as is, but the safety group has only 3 combined all year. Each starting corner has that many by himself. We probably should keep Alabama on top here just off the difference between SEC and Big Ten opponents alone, but the loss of Diggs is significant and this will be Jobe’s first extended action since the College Football Championship Game loss to Clemson in January. Advantage: Michigan
Talk about a minefield of mediocrity. Both teams have issues at placekicker. Alabama will probably use Joseph Bulovas exclusively in this game, but Will Reichard hasn’t been ruled out yet. Bulovas has the best accuracy numbers of any of the four main kickers in this game, but he’s coming off a tough miss against Auburn and hasn’t been consistent or rangy enough in 2019 to be trusted with high-leverage situations. Reichard certainly has the potential, but two hip flexor injuries in 2019 suggest he should probably just be shut down and come back in the spring.
Michigan has used Jake Moody and Quinn Nordin, with similar results to Bulovas. As for punting, Michigan ranks 42nd in net punting while Alabama is at 124th, but Alabama’s numbers are a bit deceiving, as most of the damage came before Alabama discovered Ty Perine sitting at the end of the bench at the beginning of the season’s second half. Michigan’s Will Hart has a big leg but has problems placing punts inside the field of play and avoiding touchbacks.
Alabama holds a strong edge in both coverage and returns, which it does against most opponents. Michigan is especially weak in kickoff coverage (106th) and mediocre in punt return coverage (52nd), which means Jaylen Waddle will probably get the chance to do something special in this game. Hart’s performance at punter is probably enough to give the Wolverines the edge in the kicking battle, and almost forces Waddle to be a factor if Alabama is to win this category. Advantage: Michigan
The above analysis yields the weirdest result of any Alabama game this year, if not the last three or four: Michigan leads Alabama 5-3 in a pure unit comparison, but Alabama holds such a big edge in both OL-DL cross-matchups that we actually would consider a Michigan win to be a significant upset.
The reason is pretty simple: speed. Alabama’s edges in the offensive skill categories are by margins so wide that it leaves Michigan playing catch-up when the comparison rolls to defense. In addition, the Alabama offensive line is playing at a high level right now – Michigan, not so much – and the differences at QB, DB and special teams are negligible. The only area Michigan holds a comfortable edge is linebacker, and even with Alabama’s attrition, the Crimson Tide holds a depth advantage in the defensive front seven.
The line comparisons have their own idiosyncrasies. Michigan’s starting DL looks better on paper than Alabama’s, but the Wolverines have almost no depth and don’t match up well with Alabama’s offensive line. Meanwhile, Michigan’s offensive line has struggled to keep defensive lines far worse than Alabama’s out of the Wolverine backfield.
The real question, which can’t be answered, is which team wants more to make a statement. Michigan is approaching this game as a We’ll-show-the-SEC deal, trying to bolster respect for a program that, frankly, has fallen into the good-but-not-great zone over the past few seasons.
Alabama, meanwhile, was embarrassed against Auburn and may very well have lost out on an opportunity to appear in the College Football Playoff as a result. The last time something like this happened, Alabama followed up with a poor showing against Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl. But the time before that – and the last time Alabama played in the Citrus Bowl, following the 2010 season – the Crimson Tide buried Michigan State and nearly killed QB Kirk Cousins as collateral damage.
If Michigan gets 2013 Alabama, the Wolverines have an excellent opportunity to post a meaningful victory. If Michigan gets 2010 Alabama, however, it has no chance.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN
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