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Key Matchups: No. 1 Michigan vs. No. 4 Alabama

The Wolverines are set to face the most dynamic quarterback they have seen all season.

Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports
Erik Bean Erik is a lifelong Wolverines fan born and raised in West Michigan. He covers a variety of topics related to Michigan football including game analysis and recruiting.

Michigan will face Alabama in the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day. The Wolverines have not played Alabama since the Citrus Bowl four years ago, where the Crimson Tide defeated the Wolverines, 35-16. Fortunately, this Michigan squad is significantly better this time, and vice versa for Alabama.

Nick Saban and Alabama boast a variety of challenges for the Wolverines and will not make things easy. Let’s take a look at the Rose Bowl’s key matchups.

Michigan’s defense vs. Jalen Milroe

The Wolverines have historically had a very difficult time with dual-threat quarterbacks. Although this current team has cleaned things up defensively to better scheme against different offensive styles, there is still reason for concern regarding how to contain Jalen Milroe.

In last year’s College Football Playoff semifinal, TCU’s Max Duggan was very elusive and was able to scramble for 57 yards and two touchdowns. Duggan’s running ability resulted in TCU’s effectiveness marching up and down the field with ease. The Wolverines will have to shut down Milroe’s production on the ground if they want to limit Alabama’s offensive success.

Milroe is a first-year starter and has had an up-and-down season. He was benched early in the season following a loss at home to Texas. Milroe’s accuracy and decision-making had become and issue and was not putting the team in a position to win, something Saban does not tolerate.

But he hasn’t looked back since the win over Ole Miss. Since then, he has played exceptionally well and will enter the Rose Bowl coming off a huge victory over Georgia.

Luckily for the Wolverines, they have a backup quarterback in Alex Orji who can help mimic Milroe and his play style. This will surely help them prepare for what Alabama may throw at them. If Michigan really wants to shut down Alabama, it will have to contain Milroe’s running ability and put pressure on him early and often.

Alabama has had some struggles protecting the quarterback this season. The Tide have given up 43 sacks through 13 games. Jesse Minter will have a lot of looks planned out to confuse Milroe and make him hold onto the ball longer than he’ll want to. Look for Michigan to bring a lot of speed off the edge to get after Milroe.

Michigan’s rushing attack vs. Alabama’s DL

The Wolverines were much more balanced offensively this season. With J.J. McCarthy’s talent, it was necessary for the offense to adapt to effectively moving the ball both through the air and the ground. Down the stretch, though, Michigan returned to its bread and butter by pounding the rock.

Unlike last season, Michigan will have its best running back available in the CFP and will likely look to take advantage of a rush defense that is worse — or at least on par — than four teams they have already played this season. Nonetheless, the Tide have has some playmakers up front who will try to make Michigan beat them through the air.

Mike Hart and Michigan’s backs are likely licking their chops watching film from the Alabama vs. Auburn game. The Tigers were able to rush for 244 yards, and it took a fourth-down miracle for Alabama to escape with a victory. Auburn used quarterback Payton Thorne’s dual-threat ability to help open up the run, something Michigan will likely need to deploy in order to have similar success.

Alabama has some big bodies up front who won’t be easy to move, especially without All-American right guard Zak Zinter. Alabama’s defensive line is made up of guys all more than 290 pounds and led by senior Justin Eboigbe, who has 59 tackles and seven sacks. This squad likely won’t get pushed around in the trenches, so Michigan will need to get creative.

What the Wolverines may lack in power, they could make up for in speed. Michigan may deploy more bootleg plays and runs to the outside. The offense likely won’t have success early in the game running at the teeth of the Alabama defense, so if Michigan can open things up a bit and wear down the big bodies up front, the coaching staff can utilize Corum’s shiftiness to get things going inside.

Jim Harbaugh vs. Nick Saban

Many look at this Alabama team and see a team that is not as deep and talented as many of Saban’s former squads. The Tide have some weaknesses that can be exploited, but keep in mind that Saban — undoubtedly one of the best football coaches of all time — has had about a month to prepare for this game.

Saban is the winningest active coach in college football. He has won seven national titles as a head coach, including three in the CFP era. Alabama has only missed the playoffs twice and carry a 9-4 playoff record into the matchup against Michigan. He has a unique ability to exploit weaknesses in teams that many didn’t even know were there, something he’ll need to do against the Wolverines.

Harbaugh and the Wolverines have faced a multitude of distractions this season. Between suspensions and the sign-stealing saga, it is quite the achievement Michigan was able to run the table for a second straight season.

Harbaugh has had a very difficult time preparing for talented non-conference opponents in the past. This time, though, Harbaugh is taking a different approach to their bowl game preparation — they are focusing much more on getting healthy, staying fresh and not over-analyzing the opponent. The Wolverines have made it this far by staying healthy and focusing on fundamentals, so there is no reason to change that now.

Saban has also taken a unique approach to help prepare for the Wolverines — by hiring former Michigan linebackers coach George Helow. On paper, this was a savvy coaching move by Saban. Time will tell how much of an impact this will have on the outcome of the game, but hiring someone very familiar with Jesse Minter and Michigan’s defensive schemes certainly can’t hurt.

Although the play on the field will determine who comes away as the Rose Bowl champion, much will hinge on coaching decisions throughout the game. The Wolverines have remain unbeaten this year by playing disciplined football led by veteran playmakers, and they will need to do the same to defeat the Crimson Tide.