7:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Georgia -7.5, Over/Under: 45.5
If today’s other National Semifinal is a classic case of David versus Goliath than the latter of the two matchups figures to be every bit the clash of heavyweights that it has been billed to be, as the (No. 2) Michigan Wolverines battle the (No. 3) Georgia Bulldogs in the Orange Bowl from Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida. 2021 has been a long time coming for Michigan (12-1, 9-1 in Big Ten) or more particularly (Head Coach) Jim Harbaugh, who managed to shed a great deal of mounting pressure from his shoulders. Upon returning to Ann Arbor back in 2015, the 58-year-old was expected to vault his alma mater back to elite status, and though he managed to win plenty of games (61-23), he struggled to best the teams that they were so desperate to become, particularly (bitter rival) Ohio State who he lost his first six encounters against. After last year’s disappointing 2-4 finish in the pandemic-ravaged 2020, the only thing that was certain about the Wolverines was that Harbaugh’s seat was warmer than it had ever been, with his troops entering this season as a proverbial question mark. Indeed, Michigan came into 2021 unranked in the preseason polls for the first time since his arrival seven years ago and appeared to revel in the fact that nobody saw them coming until it was too late, for when it was all said and done the Maise & Blue captured every goal that had been laid before them, winning the Big Ten East Division before taking home their first conference championship since 2004, en route to booking passage to their first appearance in the College Football Playoff. Oh, and they FINALLY took down the Buckeyes, snapping an eight-game losing streak dating back to 2011. With the winner of that late November clash likely heading to the Playoff, Harbaugh, who was recently crowned National Coach of the Year, can take comfort in the fact that his charges put together a comprehensive beating of their hated rivals, for this 42-27 triumph wasn’t merely a case of good fortune or narrowly avoiding defeat. No, these Wolverines absolutely took it to the Scarlet & Gray; after a tightly contested first half in which Michigan led 14-13 at the break, the hosts DOMINATED the second half of play in outscoring the visiting side 28-14. Though both combatants posted over 450 total yards of offense, those yards weren’t created equally as the home side owned the afternoon on the ground, pummeling Ohio State with 297 rushing yards and SIX touchdowns on forty-one carries in comparison to a scant sixty-four yards on thirty attempts for the visitors. Poetically, it was (Senior Tailback) Hassan Haskins (261 CAR, 1,288 YDS, 4.9 Y/A, 20 TD) that led the charge with a career-high 169 yards and FIVE touchdowns after losing heavily to the Buckeyes twice previously, while (Sophomore) Blake Corum (141 CAR, 939 YDS, 6.7 Y/A, 11 TD) added another eighty-seven yards on just six attempts. Just how potent was (Offensive Coordinator) Josh Gattis’ attack, you ask? Michigan faced just eight third downs all game and were penalized only twice. Defensively, the Wolverines traded blows with the Buckeyes’ high-powered passing game, forcing the reigning league champions to earn everything they got; Ohio State were clearly the more desperate side, going for it on fourth down on four occasions, as (Freshman Quarterback) C.J. Stroud attempted nearly fifty passes with the hosts eventually teeing off on him later in the contest. (Heisman Finalist) Aidan Hutchinson (58 TKL, 15.5 TFL, 14.0 SK, 2 FF, 1 FR, 3 PD) was a wrecking ball throughout the affair with seven tackles and three sacks, while hitting the signal-caller on countless other plays, setting the tone for a unit that has been nothing short of elite this season. One of the biggest changes that Harbaugh made coming into 2021 was replacing (longtime Defensive Coordinator) Don Brown with Mike Macdonald, who came referred to by his brother John with the Baltimore Ravens. Needless to say, this has proven to be a masterstroke from Harbaugh, for Macdonald has pressed all the right buttons in his first year with the school; Michigan has allowed just 16.1 points per game (5th in FBS) on 315.8 total yards, including 194.7 yards against the pass on 5.9 yards per attempt, and another 121.1 yards against the run on 3.5 yards per carry. Furthermore, they’ve amassed sixty-eight tackles for loss, thirty-five of which have been sacks, ten forced fumbles, and sixteen takeaways along with fifty-two passes defended, leading to a havoc percentage of 16.7%, meaning that this group has forced a loss or turnover on over 16% of their plays this season. Given his NFL experience, this defense features many pro concepts including multiple fronts and disguised coverages, putting its playmakers in position to make plays. Chief among them is Hutchinson, who became just the sixth defensive player to become a Heisman finalist and the second since 2009. The Edge-Rusher has lined up all over the front seven, from setting the edge to sliding inside to collapse the pocket to even standing up to rush the passer or drop into coverage on zone blitzes. Simply put, the Senior is every bit the top-five prospect that NFL Scouts proclaim him to be, leading the Big Ten with 14.0 sacks. With that said, he’s not the only stud on this side of the football, for fellow Defensive End, David Ojabo (35 TKL, 12 TFL, 11.0 SK, 5 FF, 1 FR, 3 PD) has been nearly as good with the Junior totaling eleven sacks and a league-best five forced fumbles. Unfortunately, one star that won’t be participating in tonight’s semifinal is (Junior Safety) Daxton Hill (65 TKL, 4.5 TFL, 0.5 SK, 1 FR, 2 INT, 7 PD), who didn’t make the trip with the team to Miami due to undisclosed personal reasons. With or without him, the Wolverines will be prepared for this slugfest with the Bulldogs, relishing the opportunity to get into a physical brawl with one of the biggest, baddest programs in the country. This affair will also provide them with another opportunity to prove that they belong among the best in the nation, for prior to that watershed win over Ohio State this was a program that had struggled mightily in compiling a 12-17 record against ranked opponents since 2015, though are 3-1 against such sides this season. Tonight’s meeting with Georgia will be just the third between these schools and the first since 1965 with each side winning once. Within this semifinal, Michigan will be competing for their first National Championship since 1997, when the topped Washington State in the Rose Bowl, earning the program its ninth national title and first since 1948.
Meanwhile, despite spending roughly two months of this season as the undisputed king of the college football mountain, Georgia (12-1, 8-1 in SEC) remarkably finds themselves as the only participant in this Playoff without a shred of momentum at their back. Then again, Alabama can have that effect on anyone, as the Bulldogs were utterly embarrassed in early December’s SEC Championship Game, a 41-24 drubbing at the hands of the Crimson Tide. So, what in the name of Herschel Walker happened, you ask? Well, ‘Bama found a way to masterfully exploit some chinks in the armor of what up until that point had been a historic defense. The affair began as (Head Coach) Kirby Smart & Co expected it to, with the SEC East Champions gradually building a 10-0 lead early in the second quarter, but then the balance of the game began to spiral out of control as (Alabama Quarterback) Bryce Young found Jameson Williams deep downfield for a 67-yard touchdown, and then following a quick three and out Young would strike once more with completions of forty, twenty-three, and thirteen yards to Williams and John Metchie to take the lead. After another three and out, the SEC West Champions slowed things down en route to traveling seventy-nine yards in twelve plays, kicking a field goal to extend their advantage to 17-10. The ‘Dogs would strike back with a quick 75-yard drive ending with a 32-yard touchdown from (Senior Quarterback) Stetson Bennett (64.1%, 2,325 YDS, 10.1 Y/A, 24 TD, 7 INT) to (Freshman Receiver) Ladd McConkey (28 REC, 430 YDS, 15.4 Y/R, 5 TD), though the Tide would hit them once again with Young wrapping up another 75-yard drive with an 11-yard jaunt into the end zone. While Smart was able to make some adjustments to stop the bleeding on the defensive side of the football, his offense offered little to nothing in the second half; on their six drives post intermission, Georgia punted once and turned it over on downs twice, while Bennett bookended a touchdown to (Freshman Tight End) Brock Bowers (47 REC, 791 YDS, 16.8 Y/R, 11 TD) with a pair of interceptions, the latter of which returned forty-two yards to the house. In the end, Smart and (Defensive Coordinator) Dan Lanning’s troops were eviscerated for a staggering 536 total yards, including 421 through the air. To put this performance into perspective, the Bulldogs had previously allowed a mere 6.9 points per game on 230.9 total yards in 2021, including just 151.5 versus the pass on a scant 4.9 yards per attempt. In fact, that forty-one points relinquished was more than they had permitted in the previous four games COMBINED. Furthermore, it was the seventh consecutive loss to Alabama, and the fourth since prying Smart away from Tuscaloosa to return to his alma mater. Much has been made of (Alabama Head Coach) Nick Saban’s reign of terror over his former assistants, and Smart can certainly attest to that; three of those defeats were on the grandest of stages, with two coming in the SEC Championship Game, while the most notable was in the 2017 National Championship when the Crimson Tide rallied back from a 13-0 halftime deficit to stun the Bulldogs in overtime. So, how does Georgia pick up the pieces with a National Semifinal on tap? Well, apart from that implosion against ‘Bama, this is still arguably the best defensive team in the country with NFL talent to be found on every level. (Mammoth Defensive Tackle) Jordan Davis (28 TKL, 3 TFL, 2.0 SK), (Edge-Rusher) Adam Anderson (32 TKL, 5.5 TFL, 5.5 SK, 1 PD), and (rangy Linebacker) Nakobe Dean (61 TKL, 8.5 TFL, 5.0 SK, 1 FF, 2 INT, 4 PD, 1 TD) are among the finest pro prospects in the nation, and while the Secondary is on the younger side and were exposed against the Tide, they’re still difficult to consistently find windows to fit passes through. Whereas their opponent tonight will mix things up with multiple fronts and disguised coverages, this unit is far more simplistic, with Smart preferring to allow his guys to play fast and rally to the football. In many ways, they’re fortunate to be matched up with a team like Michigan, who wants to beat you in the trenches with their run game, which should provide the ‘Dogs with an opportunity to reset and do what they do best. On the season, they’ve allowed a mere 82.6 rushing yards on 2.6 yards per carry, with only four opponents managing to crack 100 yards against them. Hell, five of them were relegated below 2.0 yards per carry. However, the primary reason that they fell in such fashion to Alabama was the play of the offense, or more particularly Bennett, who in hindsight had been performing on borrowed time all year. By now, we’re all acquainted with the senior’s story; a legacy product who left the program only to return as a walk-on, Bennett lost his job late last season only to get it back following an injury to (Junior Quarterback) J.T. Daniels (72.3%, 722 YDS, 7.7 Y/A, 7 TD, 3 INT), and for the most part played well enough to keep the job, improving his completion percentage from 55.5% to 64.1%, his yards per attempt from 7.6 to 10.1, and his touchdown/interception ratio from 8/6 to 24/7, while also factoring into the rushing attack with 251 yards and another score. With that said, he’s been far from the most consistent passer, with poor performances against the likes of Florida (10-of-19, 161 YDS, 1 TD, 2 INT) and Charleston Southern (8-of-14, 105 YDS, 2 TD, 1 INT) leading to his meltdown in second half of the SEC Title Game (29-of-48, 340 YDS, 3 TD, 2 INT). A second season within (Offensive Coordinator) Todd Monken’s system has no doubt helped him to a degree, but one can’t help but wonder if he’s simply regressing to the norm, with the play of the defense masking that reality all along. We also can’t help but wonder if they wouldn’t have been better served by turning back to Daniels, who brought a more dynamic approach to the position, though the USC transfer’s health was always a question mark. It also hasn’t helped that this unit isn’t your typical Georgia offense. They’re young at a lot of positions, particularly at Receiver, and don’t have the typical depth in the Backfield that we’ve come to expect. Fortunately, the aforementioned Bowers has been a revelation as a freshman, leading the team in receptions (47), receiving yards (791), and touchdown catches (11). If Georgia is indeed going to advance to next week’s National Final and compete for their first National Championship since 1980, then this unit is going to have to come of age against some elite defenses, starting with Michigan before a potential rematch with their proverbial boogey man.