In the six weeks leading up to Georgia locking horns with Alabama, the Bulldogs had faced just one opponent that would finish above 0.500, and it showed. The inability to run the football – 30 rushes for 109 yards (3.6 per carry) – forced Kirby Smart to make the SEC title game a battle of quarterbacks, pitting eventual Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young against his walk-on Stetson Bennett. The results were predictable. Bennett’s 340 yards on 29 of 48 passing rang hollow, primarily due to two picks, one returned for a touchdown, and the Dawgs lost to Bama by the exact score they did last year, 41-24.
Bennett has attempted 30 or more passes just five times in his career. Three of those came at Jones, the junior college he transferred to in 2018 after taking a redshirt at Georgia the year prior. Bennett lost all but one of those, completing just 56 percent of his passes, with 11 touchdowns against eight interceptions. It’s worth noting Alabama is the only FBS team to force Bennett and company into doing what they don’t want to do.
It would behoove Michigan to join the club and the fact is Michigan is prepared to. In 13 tries, the Wolverines have made the opposition throw 30-plus passes nine times. Against Michigan, opponents have an average passing line of 18 for 32, or a completion rate of, oddly enough, 56 percent. Bennett’s teams lost those four aforementioned games by an average of 10 points each.
To beat Michigan, Georgia has to run it effectively and, believe it or not, it starts with Bennett. He’s 14-0 when he gains at least 2.3 yards per carry, all the more incentive for him to tuck it and run it when the situation presents. Michigan’s rush defense is no. 19 in yards per game given up (121). Against Power-5 opponents that finished above 0.500, it gave up even less (104). It also ranks no. 17 in yards per carry given up (3.5). Against P5+.500, it’s better still (3.0). This spells a tall task for the Bulldog tailback by committee, but it seems a better option than letting Bennett fire at will.
On the other side of the ball, the good news for Georgia is Cade McNamara is not Bryce Young. The bad news is he doesn’t have to be. If you look back at games against Clemson, Arkansas, Auburn, Kentucky, and Tennessee, the inability to run the football against Georgia was the common theme. Alabama didn’t have to run the football and hasn’t been inclined to try all season.
Michigan, however, brings a rushing attack into Miami unlike any the Bulldog defense has seen all season. If Michigan can average between 4.5 and 5.0 yards per carry, it’ll be right where it wants to be. The Wolverines are averaging 4.7 YPC on 39 carries per game against P5+.500. That kind of productivity will control the clock, limit Georgia’s possessions, and the only question then becomes whether Michigan can score touchdowns, not field goals. As of late, Michigan has dramatically improved in that area. Not sure if offensive coordinator Josh Gattis realized how ridiculous his original answer was to the last question during his pre-Maryland presser and, as a result, decided to place more emphasis on scoring touchdowns in the red zone. In any event, Michigan has attempted just one field goal since.
However, in Georgia’s four wins against P5+.500, the run defense was stupid good, holding Clemson (-164), Arkansas (-137), Kentucky (-164.5), and Tennessee (-157.5) drastically below what their rushing yards per game would be by season’s end. Even in the loss to Alabama, the Tide (-31.2) were well off their rush yard average. So while the recipe for success for the Wolverines is simple, it’s anything but easy. They’re about to enter the eye of the storm.
Once again, on paper, Georgia has more talent and has performed better, but this time only slightly. Michigan has the advantage on the edge, led by Heisman-runner-up Aidan Hutchinson. Freshman Chaz Chambliss is talented and played some against the Tide, but he’s averaging less than eight snaps per game, so it’s hard to see him having a huge impact in this one. Five-star Nolan Smith keeps this position from being a complete runaway, primarily because he’s much better at stopping the run (86.8) than is David Ojabo (70.3).
What Georgia lacks on the edge, though, it makes up for in spades up the middle. The Wolverines are going to try to run the football; it’s who they are. But just as the Georgia defense hasn’t seen a rushing attack like Michigan’s, Michigan hasn’t seen an interior and bevy of linebackers like Georgia’s. Much has been made of 6-foot-6, 340-pound Jordan Davis having to take plays off, but if that’s the case, he’s doing so at select times on the field. Davis is averaging just three fewer snaps per game than leading interior defender Devonte Wyatt. If Michigan gets denied up the middle, it can still use its pin and pull, but it has to do so with an eye toward attacking the edge and mix in some zone reads for the same purpose. The only problem with that, though, is Georgia’s stacked at linebacker and showcases them proudly in that 3-4.
There’s been a lot of talk about Michigan’s big-play capabilities, but it’s hard to see Georgia’s defense allowing many. As a result, third-down conversions will be key. Michigan enters this game no 15 in the nation in third-down conversion percentage (Georgia is 31st).
Michigan’s Gattis was recognized as the top assistant in the nation about three weeks ago. Every Broyles recipient in the playoff era has received the award while on staff for a team in the CFP. The team with the Broyles Award winner has won its semi-final the last three years. Only once in the playoff era has a defensive assistant won the award. The six CFP-era offensive assistants to win the award are 4-2 in the semi-final, in which their offenses averaged 34 points.
Joe Moore Award
The Michigan offensive line was recently awarded the Joe Moore Award, a 350-pound trophy loaned to the most outstanding offensive line unit in the country. The last two teams whose units received the award went on to win the national title. The only offensive line to win the award before going out to the Orange Bowl lost (Oklahoma, 2018).
CORRECTIONS: There were two errors of fact when this post was originally published. I stated Georgia had not faced a team above .500 in seven weeks before facing Bama. No. 1, Georgia had beaten Tennessee and, no. 2, time timespan was six weeks, not seven. Both have been corrected and my apologies for the oversights.