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Michigan preview: Will Bama’s speed make the difference over disciplined Wolverines?

 

The reason Alabama got the benefit of the doubt in making the four-team College Football Playoff field largely comes down to the reality that the Southeastern Conference, year in and year out, produces the greatest athletes and is the darling of NFL draft rooms. Now, it’s time to see whether reality matches the reputation.

Alabama will head to the semifinals of the CFP to face the top overall seed, Michigan, which went undefeated in the other of what is basically the “Power 2” conferences, the Big Ten. While the ACC, PAC-12 and Big 12 also get the “Power” label, for the most part the SEC and Big Ten have separated themselves from the pack in regard to total strength of the conference from top to bottom. And in Michigan, Alabama gets one of the best defensive teams in the country, no matter the conference, which should mean a tough test for a Crimson Tide offense that continues to get better with each passing week but that is still not truly explosive.

While much of the media firestorm of late has been around Alabama and its candidacy for the College Football Playoff, Michigan and its head coach, Jim Harbaugh, continue to collect mail from the NCAA head offices regarding alleged rule violations. Michigan utilized a rotating list of interim coaches earlier this year while Harbaugh was suspended, however, so most of the players will probably opt to just throw the new allegations on the pile rather than dwell on what a conviction could mean.

OFFENSE

To say Michigan’s offense personifies what Big Ten football is all about would be an understatement. Michigan’s scheme plods along at times, which might be an insult to plodders. The Wolverines rank 68th in total offense, 60th in rushing offense and 72nd in passing offense out of a conservative pro-style attack, but it’s effective – and it doesn’t make many mistakes. Michigan ranks 1st in the nation in fewest penalties per game and 2nd in fewest penalty yards accrued. The base offense features two tight ends almost all the time and the Wolverines also opt to carry a traditional fullback. Alabama ranks 53rd in total offense, 46th in rushing offense and 59th in passing offense out of a more multiple pro-style variant.

QUARTERBACKS
Jalen Milroe’s story of ascension from limited former backup quarterback to a guy who was one seat outside an invitation to New York City for the Heisman Trophy presentation is just begging for a Hollywood adaptation. Milroe and Michigan’s J.J. McCarthy have almost identical passing numbers – about 2,800 yards, 20 touchdowns 5 interceptions and a healthy completion percentage for each player – but the separation comes when it’s time to get on the move. McCarthy is a good athlete and can scramble, but he isn’t considered a dynamic runner. Milroe can be when he wants to be. Milroe’s season rushing output more than tripled McCarthy’s, and that was with one fewer game for the Alabama quarterback. McCarthy is a bit more accurate and threw fewer interceptions (4, to 6 for Milroe) but overall we’d take Milroe here. The complicating factor is the backup quarterback situation; Alabama will use Ty Simpson in that role, and he appeared to develop nicely as the season progressed. But Michigan’s top three backups – the Wolverines used four backups overall – were a combined 20-for-23 (87.0%) and top backup Jack Tuttle is also a threat to run. The Wolverines’ edge in depth pulls this one a bit closer but it’s hard to argue with what Milroe did against Auburn and Georgia to close out the regular season, when the chips were down and Bama had to have it. Advantage: Alabama

RUNNING BACKS
Blake Corum is hovering right around the 1,000-yard mark for the year for Michigan, but the more impressive stat is his touchdown count: a staggering 24. Corum is only about 5’7” or 5’8”, but he’s close to 220 pounds and can be hard to get down with his low center of gravity. Donovan Edwards is the top backup; as a runner, he has averaged less than 4 yards per carry on more than 100 attempts – but he’s also the team’s fourth-leading receiver with 30 catches. Such numbers typically point to the player being more of a scatback or slot, but that’s not the case here, as Edwards is 6’1”, 215. Kalel Mullings, who tips the scales at around 240 pounds, rounds out the top group. Michigan also uses a fullback, Max Bredesen. Alabama likely will be without Jase McClellan again this week as he rehabs a foot/ankle injury. With McClellan out, the job is all Roydell Williams’ to make the best of, and Jamarion Miller will be the top backup. Justice Haynes is available if Bama needs more depth. Even with McClellan available, Michigan’s RB output has been incredibly efficient and dependable. Without McClellan, this is a clear edge to the Wolverines. Advantage: Michigan

WIDE RECEIVERS
Again, the two teams are matched almost identically at the top of the depth chart, where Michigan’s Roman Wilson and Alabama’s Jermaine Burton have similar sizes and similar numbers. Second receiver Cornelius Johnson will be one of the bigger receivers Alabama has faced this year, but Alabama’s second option, Isaiah Bond, has more explosive speed. Michigan will start two tight ends, A.J. Barner and Colston Loveland, and they’ve combined for 62 catches, making them the most often-targeted tight end tandem Alabama will have seen in the 2023 season. Given Alabama’s penchant for letting tight ends get lost in coverage sometimes, this level of production is a concern. Alabama has better depth at receiver, with Malik Benson, Kendrick Law and Kobe Prentice all in about the same atmosphere as the starters. Michigan has Semaj Morgan and Tyler Morris, a pair of younger players who are a good bit smaller than the starters. Alabama will be able to equalize the tight end comparison somewhat, using C.J. Dippre, Amari Niblack and Robbie Ouzts. This is actually closer than it all might appear, but it might come down to the open-field playmaking ability of Bond and Niblack, along with slightly better depth on the Alabama side – and, presumptively, better overall speed as well. Advantage: Alabama

OFFENSIVE LINE
The best overall player on either side is likely Alabama’s RT J.C. Latham, and LG Tyler Booker might be second on that list. Third through seventh, though, is probably the Michigan starting offensive line, even though Zak Zinter won’t be a part of it due to a leg injury. Michigan ranks 28th in sacks allowed and 4th in tackles for loss allowed, another in a long string of teams that have better stats than Alabama (115th in sacks allowed, 80th in tackles for loss allowed). For the Wolverines, the three stalwarts are C Drake Nugent, LG Trevor Keegan and RG Karsen Barnhart. Keegan is the best of those three. With Zinter out, things might get a bit shaky at tackle, especially since LaDarius Henderson and Myles Hinton were already battling for one of the jobs. Trente Jones steps in for Zinter, but all three tackles figure to play. The takeaway, regardless of what’s going on at tackle, is that Michigan is the more consistent across the line. Alabama continues to have snap issues with C Seth McLaughlin. Jaeden Roberts will start at right guard and true freshman Kadyn Proctor at left tackle. It should be noted, though, that despite Alabama’s shaky OL metrics and the recurring snap issues, Alabama’s offensive line clearly outplayed a superior Georgia offensive line in the SEC Championship Game. The same thing could happen this time – there’s a big-time potential athletic advantage for all but McLaughlin on Alabama’s side compared to their Michigan counterparts, but the key word there is potential. Michigan has just been steadier and more dependable. Advantage: Michigan

DEFENSE

Michigan will operate from a 4-2-5 defense with a pair of full-time edge DEs and five defensive backs. The system has worked well this year; the Wolverines rank 1st in scoring defense, 2nd in total defense, 2nd in pass defense, 5th in rushing defense and 6th in pass efficiency defense, and are also 2nd in turnover margin. Opponents matter, though, and this is where the Wolverines’ weak schedule causes some noise in the line. Michigan will not have seen team speed like the kind Alabama can bring except perhaps from its game against Ohio State. Alabama will utilize its 3-4 over/under as usual, and while the worst ranking of any major category was 29th in rushing defense, the raw numbers would certainly seem to favor Michigan across the board.

DEFENSIVE LINE
If there’s a place Alabama’s superior athleticism will show up in this matchup, it’s likely to be either here or in the secondary. Michigan ranked 36th in sacks and 68th in tackles for loss despite the subpar schedule (Alabama ranked 12th and 29th in those categories, respectively). The Wolverines are strong to the tight end side with DE Jaylen Harrell and DT Kris Jenkins both being legitimate pro prospects. Jenkins doesn’t make a ton of plays behind the line, but was fourth on the team in total tackles and is always active. Harrell led the team with 7 sacks and 9.5 tackles for loss, but neither he nor weakside DE Braiden McGregor make a lot of tackles under normal circumstances. McGregor led the team in QB hurries with 7 but had just 2.5 sacks. The other tackle spot belong to Mason Graham, although Rayshaun Benny and Kenneth Grant will both play enough inside to make it look like a rotation. Cam Goode should also play some inside, while the ends will be backed up by Derrick Moore and Josaiah Stewart, both of whom have comparable stats to the starters they back up. Stewart is an interesting player given his lack of size; he is smaller than most FBS defensive ends, even in a four-man front. Michigan was credited with 47 QB hurries on the year – and gave up only 6 – which highlighted the impressive play of both lines. Alabama will start Tim Keenan in the middle with Justin Eboigbe and Jaheim Oatis outside, with Damon Payne Jr., Jah-Marien Latham and Tim Smith the primary backups. The best player on either side is likely Alabama’s Eboigbe – if not, it’s Michigan’s Jenkins – and after that it’s hard to compare because the two teams are built completely differently in the front seven. The personnel doesn’t match well because of the particulars behind a three-man front versus a four-man front. It’s a close call but we’ll take the Tide. Advantage: Alabama

LINEBACKERS
Middle linebacker Junior Colson is projected as a possible first- or second-round pick, but while he finished the year as the Wolverines’ leading tackler, the rest of his production didn’t add up to the hype. Colson finished the regular season with no sacks and just 2 tackles for loss and 2 QB hurries, but he was 27 tackles ahead of the nearest teammate – the other starting linebacker, Michael Barrett. Barrett’s tackle production may not have been as good, but he made more game-changing plays from his weakside position. Barrett’s size is borderline, but both Colson and top backup Ernest Hausmann have SEC-worthy builds. All three will play. Alabama will start Deontae Lawson and Trezmen Marshall inside, with Jihaad Campbell playing a significant role. Outside, it’s the dynamic duo of Chris Braswell and Dallas Turner, with Quandarrius Robinson playing in a key bench role. The Georgia game might have been the best inside LB play Alabama has gotten all year, and outside linebacker play has been consistent throughout the season. Like with the defensive line category, it’s hard to compare like-for-like due to the build of the defense itself. This one is actually fairly close, probably closer than Alabama fans would like. Advantage: Alabama

DEFENSIVE BACKS
Michigan’s safety trio, led by FS Rod Moore and NB Mike Sainristil, forms the core of a solid back end of the defense. Makari Paige rounds out the trio, but most of the focus in the preseason was on Moore. Sainristril had the best season of the bunch, though, with a stat sheet that lights up with key individual plays. Quinten Johnson and Keon Sabb will split the dime spot and provide depth. The situation is a little less clear at corner, where Will Johnson and UMass transfer Josh Wallace will start. Jyaire Hill and Keshaun Harris will back them up. Alabama will start Terrion Arnold and Ga’Quincy McKinstry at corner, with Trey Amos backing them up and playing dime, and Malachi Moore, Caleb Downs and Jaylen Key at the safeties, with Kristian Story providing depth there. The safety sets are probably close to equal, but Alabama has a big edge on the perimeter. McKinstry is expected to be back at 100 percent after missing the second half of the Georgia game with concussion concerns. Advantage: Alabama

SPECIAL TEAMS
This is about as close to a tie as one can get. Both teams have excellent kickers, Will Reichard for Alabama and James Turner for Michigan. Both teams have able punters – Tommy Doman for Michigan, James Burnip for Alabama. Whereas Alabama has struggled a bit on punt returns and punt return defense, Michigan has been mediocre on kickoff returns and weak on kick return defense. It’s really hard to call this one, and it really has to come down to very small things like Reichard’s superior experience on long kicks and Caleb Downs’ emergence as a punt returner late in the year. Advantage: Alabama

OVERALL

Alabama leads in six categories, Michigan in two, but there isn’t a big edge to anyone at any position other than maybe Michigan at running back. Special teams and the defensive line comparisons are virtual ties. In the OL-DL cross-matchups, Michigan’s offensive line holds a clear edge over Alabama’s defensive line, with Alabama’s OL and Michigan playing to a push, maybe a slight edge to Alabama.

There’s just too much team speed for Alabama to let the cross-matchups be the only determiner here. And for the upteenth time, we have a hard time making some of the Michigan evaluations due to the schedule. Let’s look at that schedule in-depth for a moment here: Michigan’s toughest game was clearly against Ohio State. Second-toughest … either Iowa or Penn State. Michigan’s opponents were a combined 4-30 against the AP Top 25; Alabama’s SEC opponents were 13-31.

That isn’t to say Michigan isn’t a good football team, because it is. It is exceptionally disciplined, tough to move in the trenches, and plays to the demeanor of its head coach. It’s unlikely that the sign-stealing scandal that plagued Michigan throughout the regular season will have or would have had any effect here, as Alabama was unlikely to its postseason scheme or playcall changes out of the bag early, anyway.

It’s hard to make a case for Alabama holding edges across the board on defense when Michigan was so statistically dominant, but that’s why analysis matters. We don’t see the explosiveness at the second and third level of the defense, and the productivity up front just wasn’t there. Michigan can surely win this game – and it won’t even take many mistakes on Alabama’s part to see it come to fruition – but we believe at least some of the Wolverines’ season was fool’s gold due to level of its competition.

Alabama 27
Michigan 13

Follow Jess Nicholas on X at @TideFansJessN

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