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Michigan wrap-up: Offense absent, defense fades late in Rose Bowl loss


If anyone ever asks why NFL teams play offense the way they do, and why college teams still attempt to invest the amount of time necessary to run a pro-style attack properly, show them the last two Alabama games, and pay special attention to Bama’s opponents in those games.

High-flying gimmick offenses will come and go, and the pro-style attack is notoriously difficult to run consistently at the college level because of practice time constraints placed on schools by the NCAA. Yet, when it works, it works.

Georgia came within three points of Alabama, and Michigan took Alabama to overtime and won the game. Aside from the misdirection handoffs built into the Michigan offense to slow down Alabama’s superior pursuit speed, we’ve seen this kind of thing before. Given that Lynyrd Skynyrd was the band featured to ring in the new year in Nashville, it’s sort of fitting that Michigan’s brand of football could be described in two words: Nuthin’ Fancy.

Michigan’s offense wasn’t the only thing crisp in its execution and efficient in its results. The Michigan defense played with a chip on its shoulder, clearly disrespected in the run-up to this game as too slow to compete with Alabama’s playmakers. A statistical comparison was far more lopsided than the final score, and were it not for multiple special teams breakdowns on the part of the Wolverines, the ending to this story would probably have been written differently.

We’ll delve into the particulars in our usual breakdown section, but with Alabama’s season now over, it’s time to take stock in what we saw. Was this supposed to be a playoff Alabama team? Maybe, but Georgia was the clear SEC favorite in the preseason, a third straight title shot almost assured. Alabama was the team without a quarterback, without confidence in its offensive direction, and rebuilding its defensive staff. Then Bama lost to Texas in Week 2, and suddenly questions began popping up about Nick Saban’s immediate future.

Whether Alabama possessed the ability to win the national championship for 2023 is unclear, given how it struggled with a Michigan team that still was clearly not as fast or explosive as was the Crimson Tide. But losing in overtime at least confirms that Alabama had the ability to get back to the championship game and compete.

In this new day of unlimited transfers, NIL payola and an NCAA on a legal losing streak that would rival Prairie View A&M’s erstwhile decade of football impotency, it’s hard to forecast what future seasons will bring while amateur sports are in the process of losing their very identity. Alabama will have Jalen Milroe back in 2024, and so far the Crimson Tide has gotten better than it has given in transfer portal trades. Nick Saban appears set to return, and sources in Tuscaloosa don’t expect the kind of wholesale, program-redefining changes to the assistant staff that have served to interrupt momentum in previous offseasons. In other words, it doesn’t look like Alabama is going backward any time soon, much to the chagrin of its rivals – or Florida state politicians and university presidents.

In the immediate future, Alabama will have to figure out what went wrong against Michigan and correct it going forward. It would appear on its face that Alabama met its match, or near-match, in an opposing coaching staff, one that answered Bama’s adjustments tit-for-tat. Unfortunately for Michigan, its staff will never get the full credit it might be due, ever again, thanks to the sign-stealing scandal. For now, its staff can just say “don’t care, got win” and there’s not much to be done about it.

Winning championships are hard, and you never know when your gun might run out of bullets. Ask Minnesota, one of the most dominant college football teams in America at one point, what the last 60 or so years have been like. This certainly doesn’t feel like the end for Alabama, or anything close, but if this team really was a few bricks short on its foundation, then Nick Saban will once again have a pressure-filled offseason trying to find and develop players for those vacant slots.

The Process never ends, because this sport never ends. But the season has indeed ended. Moments of magic, ultimately concluding in a bitter “what-if.”

Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Michigan:

1. Michigan OL controlled the point of attack, kept its QB clean and the UM offense was a bastion of efficiency because of it. Now you know why we picked Georgia in the SEC Championship Game preview. Michigan had edges in both our OL-DL cross-matchups and picking against the leader in our cross-matchup categories is dangerous. We opted to go against the numbers in this game and it was the wrong call. Michigan’s offensive line, despite being down a starter, controlled Alabama’s defensive front all game. Alabama never got consistent edge pressure, and was erratic at stopping the Michigan running game despite RB Blake Corum clearly not being a runner as dynamic as any of Alabama’s four backs. Michigan QB J.J. McCarthy threw for only 221 yards but had 3 touchdowns, didn’t throw an interception (although he came within half a shoe of doing so on his first attempt of the game) and ran for almost half the yardage Jalen Milroe ran for on one-eighth of the attempts – largely because he avoided getting sacked. NFL teams draft Big Ten offensive linemen regularly and it’s clear why; the technique was there, the strength was there, but the mistakes weren’t. Michigan also cracked the code on Alabama’s run defense in the fourth quarter, and throughout the game, its running backs simply didn’t go backward. It was textbook, fundamental football that started up front.

2. Bama has to fix its own OL woes. Individually, it doesn’t make sense. J.C. Latham is expected to be a high draft pick. Tyler Booker and Jaeden Roberts are considered – individually – two of the best guards in the conference. Kadyn Proctor was the top offensive lineman in the country coming out of high school a year ago. Seth McLaughlin’s snap issues have been beaten to death, but while he had a few that were suboptimal in this game, it wasn’t akin to the major snafus that punctuated games earlier in the season. Yet, Alabama got bullied up front. Michigan’s defensive line was profiled as being great at two positions and mediocre at two positions, but you couldn’t find a Wolverine weak point after the first drive was in the books. Whatever the problem is here – whether Alabama is poorly coached up front, or doesn’t play together well on the field, or if it’s McLaughlin or Milroe not putting the line in the proper protection schemes – something’s gotta give. Nearly every instance of Alabama struggling on offense this season could be traced back to offensive line play. If Alabama had Michigan’s OL play in this game, the Crimson Tide would have won by twenty.

3. Defense faded late, never got consistent edge play and DBs appeared to play confused at times. After holding serve for all of the third quarter and some of the fourth, the defense picked the worst possible time to get sloppy. Alabama appeared to get its best production up front when Damon Payne Jr. was at nose, and Justin Eboigbe continues to prove why he’ll be sorely missed next year. Everyone else? Far too erratic to be considered effective over the course of a full game. The two greater issues, though, were that Alabama couldn’t get home with its outside pass rush, and this was far from the best game Alabama’s safeties have played this year, often failing to adjust to pre-snap motion, or failing to get into the proper run fit prior to the play. There was a lot of the Texas game in this one and it kept coming back to bite Bama at inopportune moments.

4. A matchup Michigan won that we didn’t see coming – WR/DB: We didn’t think that Michigan could keep up with Alabama’s outside speed at receiver, and while the offensive line failing to give Jalen Milroe enough time to throw had a lot to do with it, Michigan’s secondary did a fabulous job at taking away what Bama wanted to do on the edges. Jermaine Burton was basically nullified, and Isaiah Bond had one catch of significance. Milroe completed almost 70 percent of his passes but most where dump-offs, the combined result of a forceful pass rush and a secondary that executed its pass-offs adroitly and didn’t give much cushion to any wideout. On the flip side, Alabama did a commendable job taking away most of Michigan’s tight end passing game, but gave up too much to wideouts Roman Wilson and Tyler Morris.

5. On a good note, Bama’s running backs played well and the future there is bright. Jase McClellan played spectacularly given the injury he sustained against Auburn, showing no signs of what we’ve been told is a recurring injury. Jamarion Miller and especially Justice Haynes gave Alabama some spark when in the game. Roydell Williams struggled, but got only one touch total on the game, so his struggles weren’t nearly the factor some made them out to be. We hate that McClellan’s comeback story has to end here, but this was a nice bookend game to his career and showed his toughness.

Follow Jess Nicholas on X at @TideFansJessN

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