Michigan’s playoff matchup with Alabama in the Rose Bowl will be here before we know it, and the Wolverines are eager to get a win after losing in the semifinal in back-to-back seasons. In both those previous semifinal matchups, the Wolverines got behind early and spent the games trying to play catch-up.
This season, it will be important for Michigan to start the game strong and finish the job, especially against a team as well coached and talented as Alabama.
Plenty has gone right this year for Michigan, and it will be important to continue those positive trends. However, in the final four games of the season, Michigan hasn’t looked as strong as it did during its previous nine, so the Wolverines will be able to use their mistakes to their advantage to get the win.
Let’s have a look at some of these things in order to figure out how Michigan can reach the National Championship.
Protect J.J. McCarthy
This is a requirement no matter who you’re playing, but Michigan’s pass protection has looked like a real weakness since the Penn State game. Beginning in that game, we saw Michigan shift back toward a run-heavy approach, largely due to the success Penn State’s edge rushers were having getting to McCarthy. Even in the Big Ten Championship, Iowa sacked McCarthy four times to muddle the offense.
While it’s all worked out and Michigan has won these games, the Wolverines will have to be multidimensional and be able to throw the ball if the situation calls for it against a strong opponent like the Crimson Tide. Surely this will be more difficult without Zak Zinter, Michigan’s best offensive lineman, so it will be important for Trente Jones and Karsen Barnhart to register some strong reps at right tackle and right guard, respectively, leading up to the game.
Additionally, while Michigan needs to keep McCarthy from getting sacked and losing yards, it will be important just to keep him from taking too many hits so he isn’t hampered throughout the game. Alabama defenders, like star edge rusher Dallas Turner, will be ready, so Michigan will need to be prepared to match that intensity.
Get after Jalen Milroe
On the flip side, this is also an important goal regardless of who you’re playing, but this could be a spot where Michigan has a chance to do some real damage.
The Crimson Tide rank No. 122 in sacks allowed this season, having given up 43 sacks, meaning this is an area where they could be susceptible. The Wolverines certainly have the horses in edge rushers like Jaylen Harrell, Josaiah Stewart and Braiden McGregor, so it will be interesting to see if they can take advantage.
In previous playoff games against Georgia and TCU, Michigan failed to get after either team’s quarterback, registering only one sack combined between the two games. As a result, both offenses were able to operate smoothly and put Michigan in early holes.
Getting pressure on Jalen Milroe will be important to prevent him from having clean pockets to work with and forcing him to make throws on the run. Also, despite Milroe’s ability to be a threat with his legs, Michigan has the athleticism all around the defense to prevent Milroe from completely dominating on the ground if he’s constantly forced to scramble.
Pressure has been a missing piece the last two playoff games, so it could be a big game changer to get that on track.
Unleash the tight ends
Statistically, wide receiver Roman Wilson has been Michigan’s leading receiver this year with 662 yards and 11 touchdowns. He’s proven to be a reliable target for McCarthy, but him and fellow receiver Cornelius Johnson will face some tough tests in this game — matching up with two of college football’s best corners in Kool-Aid McKinstry and Terrion Arnold.
Because of this, Michigan will have to get creative and utilize tight ends Colston Loveland and A.J. Barner to make an impact in the passing game. The two are both mismatches with their size and athleticism — especially Loveland, who has taken on a bigger role in the second half of the season.
Not only are they special talents in their own right, this area could represent a solid means for Michigan to move the ball. Alabama’s corners are a real strength of its defense, while the linebackers and safeties could be more susceptible to allow the passing game to have success over the middle.
A tight end was actually a major key in Alabama’s lone loss this season against Texas. In a pass-catcher group that boasts Xavier Worthy and Adonai Mitchell, it was tight end Ja’Tavion Sanders who led the Longhorns in receiving in that game with 114 yards. While that’s plenty of production to try and match, it could be a good blueprint for Michigan to try and follow.