Georgia-Michigan preview (Part 2)

by Dec 20, 20214 comments

We’re five days away from Georgia meeting Michigan for the first time in over 56 years and for just the third time ever. The stakes couldn’t be much higher in this the rubber match. Last week, we looked at the quarterbacks. Today, we examine the talent disparity on offense as a whole.

Football is a game of matchups, and while opposing offenses aren’t on the field at the same time, it’s useful to compare them side by side. I’ve gone through the tapes of these two teams’ biggest game of the year (Georgia vs. Bama, Michigan vs. Ohio State) and found Michigan played 19 players on offense versus Georgia’s 18. Wolverine quarterbacks J.J. McCarthy and Cade McNamara can be looked at as one, though, making for an even 18 a piece. Georgia played six wide receivers throughout the course of that game, whereas Michigan played just five. In lieu of a sixth wideout, Harbaugh employs jumbo tackle Trente Jones, on average about 10 snaps per game. Georgia’s sixth receiver, Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint, plays more than twice as much but has a significantly lesser impact, so, if you’ll allow it, I compared these two.

Color code corresponds to his 247Sports composite recruiting ranking: dark green = 5-star; light green = 4-star; yellow = 3-star; red = 2-star.

The tale of the tape gives Michigan an advantage in just four positions: center, halfback nos. 1 and 2, and jumbo tackle Trente Jones over sixth wideout Rosemy-Jacksaint. That means Georgia has the advantage in a whopping 13 matchups (excluding the negligible 0.1 advantage A.J. Henning has over Kearis Jackson). The significance of a nearly 7:2 advantage on paper is drastic to be sure. If you average the year’s Pro Football Focus grade for each of these players, Georgia, there too, has a decisive net four-point edge per player.

But what about Ohio State? Weren’t the Buckeyes more talented than Michigan and yet lost 42-27 in convincing fashion? Certainly. In fact, it was probably very similar to the advantage Georgia enjoys heading into the Orange Bowl. But the Michigan coaches and players did a wonderful job in returning this team — this program — to its roots. As a result, they had their eyes toward The Game the entire year. I’m reminded of the Bo Schembechler era (1969-1989). It’s well documented the program’s no. 1 priority year in, year out was to beat Ohio State, which might account for Bo’s winning record against his archrival. Contrariwise, it might also explain why Bo was a dismal 5-12 in bowl games. Can Michigan match the intensity and production it got a month ago against the Buckeyes against a team not named Ohio State? Kudos to Michigan for winning the B1G Championship Game, but Iowa and Georgia are not in the same stratosphere. Yet, based on what we know so far, Michigan doesn’t have to play its best game to advance, but it will need to come somewhat close to duplicating that stellar offensive performance against OSU for the Wolverines’ magical season to continue.

Stats that jump off the page

Pass protection

Georgia’s starting, five-star tailback Zamir White is about as competent in pass blocking as I am at holding back an avalanche. White’s paltry grade of 10.2 is by far the worst of the 222 grades assigned these 37 offensive players. Coincidentally, the next worse is Blake Corum’s pass blocking grade of 37.2. As bad as that is, it’s still close to four times better. Kirby Smart must be aware of this because he’s only asked White to pass block an incredible 13 times in as many games. White tried his hand at protecting Stetson Bennett four times against Alabama in the SEC Championship Game and got a fat F, that is, a grade of 0.0. He failed every time. There’s a small window of opportunity here for Michigan, but one it has to take advantage of. Michigan’s dynamic rush end duo has seven strip sacks on the year. Ojabo did it five times and Aidan Hutchinson added two more. This, of course, does not include Ojabo’s strip sack of Michigan State’s Payton Thorne back in October, which was recovered by Hutchinson in the end zone, egregiously overturned by a much more than dubious replay review. Not that Michigan won’t, but each time it rushes Bennett, it has to do it as if this were the rare occasion White’s back there protecting. With Georgia having the edge in personnel in so many categories, a strip sack/recovery would go a long way to bridge gaps and potentially change the game’s outcome.

Production that’s hard to see

Sticking with White, another cause for concern for Bulldogs is his overall performance. Excluding his four-carry, 83-yard effort against FCS Charleston Southern, White is averaging just 4.84 yards per carry, which is 132nd-best among FBS tailbacks. If you’re expecting White to make up for it catching passes out of the backfield, don’t hold your breath. His 10.5 yards per reception (on just six catches) is better than Haskins’ (7.3 YPC) and Corum’s (6.5 YPC), but not as good as Donovan Edwards’ 12.7 average on 17 catches. By the time the Orange Bowl kicks off, White’s best overall grade will have come nearly 12 weeks prior against Auburn — a team that was ranked at the time but ended the season on a four-game skid and needed its win over FCS Alabama State just to be bowl eligible. Against FBS Alabama, White had his second-worst performance of the season. Fortunately for Georgia, it has weapons all over the place and isn’t exactly dependent on White. Still, it would be nice if the Dawgs could get more production out of their star-laden tailback.

Tight ends for days

They love their tight ends at Georgia, and Michigan will probably grow sick of seeing them by night’s end. Georgia features two tight ends virtually half the time, and why wouldn’t you if you had two of the top 12 performers at the position in the country? Against Bama, freshman Brock Bowers led all receivers with 139 yards on 10 catches, including this beaut for 31 yards. It was quality over quantity for Darnell Washington and John FitzPatrick, who each had a catch, a touchdown and a 22-yarder, respectively.

Michigan plays as many tight ends, but not nearly as effectively. Michigan’s first-stringer Erick All has shown flashes of brilliance. His 47-yard touchdown against Penn State certainly saved Michigan’s season, but his overall production is more aligned with Georgia’s third-stringer. The calls for backup JT Daniels have never been louder. It would behoove Smart to exploit the most lopsided comparison of position groups (Georgia +24.5) to make Bennett’s job easier and alleviate some of the pressure he might be feeling. A productive day from the tight ends combined with a serviceable ground game may prove all that’s necessary for the Bulldogs to reach the title game for the second time in the playoff’s eight-year history.

Games aren’t won on paper, but Georgia has to feel good about this matchup with Michigan. If the Dawgs contain Michigan’s run game, they should be poised to advance. That might be easier said than done, though. No one has as formidable a two-headed monster as has Michigan in Haskins and Corum. Both will need huge days if the Wolverines are going to pull the upset. But these are teams led by great defense, something we want to look at in depth in our next installment.

Shout out to Sports Reference for the countless ways you help me research for my articles.



  1. Keith, these objective, in-depth articles of yours are great for scouting out the opposition for fans who haven’t had or taken the time to analyze other teams throughout the year. Of course, a fan has no idea who their team is going to play in a bowl game as a season wears on and until the season ends, making it insane to put that much time in throughout all fall to scrutinize every team in the country — thus the value of your articles. Good job.

    For me, I had gotten away from sports the last several years for various reasons but have sure enjoyed getting back into it and Michigan’s resurgence this year. I’m old (64) and old-school (I love a dominant, physical running game). Thus, I really like UM’s running game and Aidan Hutchinson. As great as your article was, with my age and being such a fan back in the Bo Schembechler era, there’s one angle that I’ve always thought of that you did not cover.

    You were spot on about part of Michigan’s trouble in their bowl games being they put so much emphasis on the regular-season finale of OSU that their bowl game was actually a letdown game for them. Woody Hayes had the same issue on the other side of the rivalry. But another thing I always thought of is it’s harder to get the timing down for a consistent running game than it is a passing game. It’s harder to run block than it is to pass block, (no doubt the offensive linemen assigned to block Aidan Hutchinson would disagree with me). But, after taking five weeks off between regular season finale and the bowl, it’s harder to get the intricacies of the blocking schemes up to speed, (my opinion). Bo was much better against passing teams during the regular season than in the bowl games. His running the football just didn’t work in the bowl games, not until his later years when he, too, started incorporating more passing into his offense (not waiting until 3rd and long before desperately trying to throw it to the one designated man allowed to be targeted. I, of course, know this more because I lived it as a Michigan fan back in my younger years before you were even born.

    Anyway, from a strictly Michigan fan’s point of view, a big key (perhaps the biggest key) is will Michigan be able to get the timing back on running the football and thus make their play action work, as well. Tossing the ball all over the field would work better with JJ McCarthy than it would with Cade McNamara. But Coach Harbaugh is not going to bench his 12-1 quarterback at this juncture. The big key is will Michigan get its running game blocking down soon enough for the passing game to work also. We’ll see.

    Again, great article, Keith. Now I know what to expect from Georgia. I’d have never known otherwise. Go Blue!

    • The point you make about the long layoff is warranted. However, the wait a Big Ten team has to endure is significantly lesser now than it was back then. Ever since 2010, the conference broke tradition and extended the regular season beyond Thanksgiving. The next year it added the conference championship game, so now instead of waiting nigh six weeks between contests, a B1G championship participant has only to wait four weeks. When a third of your hiatus is eliminated, I have to believe it easier for the players to pick up where they left off. Time will tell, but I do believe that works in Michigan’s favor.

      Stay tuned because we’ve basically only looked at one side of the ball. Curious to see what we find as we delve into both defenses. Thanks as always for the comment.

  2. Four weeks layoff is indeed better than six. Still, it was a good, relevant excuse 20 years ago and I’m going to stick with it; at least until they win the national championship one more time before the good Lord calls me home. Thanks to Lloyd Carr for beating the odds back in ’97. We couldn’t run the ball that day either, but we prevailed because of a great defense led by Heisman Trophy winner, Charles Woodson. We once again have a defense led by a Heisman finalist.

    Perhaps we should put Aidan Hutchison back on punt returns like we did Charles. On second thought, maybe not; neither team would want to see that. Michigan would look desperate and foolish, which we are not either one. And God only knows what fears the imagination of Aidan heading up field with the ball and a head of steam would conger up in the poor defenders’ minds on Georgia’s punt team. (That, of course, if he could catch the ball to begin with).

    All right, we’re getting silly here. Time to do something constructive, like send out some Christmas cards. Go Blue and Merry Christmas.

    • It’s funny you mention punt returns. Things have settled down back there, but it was a serious problem at one point this season. Something for a future article between now and kickoff. A very merry Christmas!

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Keith Eichholz

Lead writer for the Voice of College Football. Thorough, evidence-based, critical thinker. Husband to a beautiful wife, father to a terrific kid, always looking forward to football Saturday.

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