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No. 1 Michigan Wolverines vs. No. 4 Alabama Crimson Tide Preview: Where they belong

In a clash of titans, Michigan looks to finally get over the CFP hump.

91st Rose Bowl Game Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images

Regardless of what the immediate future holds, there is no questioning that 2021-2023 has been a special time for the Michigan Wolverines. Coming out of covid and finally beating Ohio State (three straight times!) and finally winning the Big Ten (three straight times!), this historic program is at long last beginning to look like its old self.

Common folk will say it is thanks to advanced scouting, though anyone who has watched this team knows that benefit has been minimal at best. No, this is a changed team who has rightfully earned its accomplishments despite ridiculous suspensions this season, letting its play do the talking on the road to a No. 1 ranking and a No. 1 SP+ rating.

So no, a loss to the Alabama Crimson Tide does not negate this season — or the previous two — but it would sting to go 0-for-3 in the College Football Playoff. The narratives over the past month have been loud and obvious, but perhaps this sort of fanfare is appropriate given these two blue bloods and this historic venue.

Michigan lost to a clearly superior Georgia in 2021 and a clearly inferior TCU in 2022. Now, the matchup looks much closer with no excuses to be made. The Wolverines can absolutely win this game, but it will require a disciplined, comprehensive effort to do so. If there ever was a team to provide that, though, this one certainly feels like it.

No. 1 Michigan Wolverines (13-0) vs. No. 4 Alabama Crimson Tide (12-1)

Date & Time: Monday, Jan. 1, 5 p.m. ET
Location: Rose Bowl, Pasadena, CA
TV/Streaming: ESPN

Offense: Sum of the parts

Alabama comes in with the eighth-best defense per SP+, which is actually below that of Iowa, Ohio State, and Penn State, teams that Michigan has obviously beaten recently. Regardless of how anyone feels about this specific metric, the takeaway should be that Michigan has faced this caliber of defense multiple times this season, though none of those games were a walk in the park for the offense.

As always, the Wolverines will look to establish the run game with Blake Corum and the offensive line, but it is important that they are willing to pivot as needed, which might be the case against a defensive line full of NFL talent. The Crimson Tide are extremely talented athletically, meaning there needs to be some wrinkles compared to a typical Big Ten slugfest, as it is unfortunately clear which side has the advantage in terms of raw ability at nearly every position.

For Michigan to win, J.J. McCarthy needs to have one of his best games of the year. This does not mean launching the ball deep 30 times, as corners Kool-Aid McKinstry and Terrion Arnold look to have a pretty big advantage over the wide receivers. It does mean utilizing his mobility, though, whether that be on designed runs or moving the pocket against the pass rush. The Wolverines are at their best when all options are on the table and the offense operates as a comprehensive unit with multiple ways to attack.

When he does throw the ball, Donovan Edwards and Colston Loveland need to be extremely involved. Both have the ability to win their battles 1-on-1 and can allow McCarthy to get the ball out quickly and safely. McCarthy does not need to be treated cautiously, but Michigan should not be looking for a shootout either. At this point, hoping for explosiveness is probably not the way to go. Instead, the Wolverines will need to be consistently efficiency, taking the options available and staying ahead of the chains, something McCarthy can be entrusted to do.

Defense: Contain and confuse

The biggest variable in this game, of course, is Jalen Milroe. The Alabama quarterback has been up-and-down throughout the season, but he is plenty talented with his arm and lethal with his legs. Michigan does not win this game if Milroe is putting up highlights, regardless of how everything else transpires. There are various schools of thought on how to handle a mobile quarterback, but I feel strongly that the Wolverines need to force Milroe to win with his arm.

This does not mean playing too conservatively and never blitzing, but the front seven must show composure and not allow him to move the chains with his legs or on scramble drills. Instead, Jesse Minter needs to scheme the game of his life as he did against Kyle McCord and Marvin Harrison Jr., disguising coverages to limit the passing game. Michigan must make life tough for Milroe without dedicating extra defensive backs, and while that might mean some open receivers underneath, this defense just needs to buckle down in the red zone.

The Wolverines have been great all season long and have the ability to contain this offense, even with a dynamic threat like Milroe. It will require the defensive line to win against the Crimson Tide’s offensive line, and this is probably the single biggest toss-up of the contest. If Michigan cannot generate any pressure then it is going to be a long day, but if Milroe is hurried without bringing extra rushers, the offense will find it hard to consistently find the end zone.

Alabama has the No. 11 offense per SP+, better than anyone else Michigan has seen but not quite elite. It is explosive at times but also flawed and not one that should overpower the Wolverines. The running backs and decent and the receivers are athletic, but it all comes down to how much Milroe is able to create on his own. The defense needs to get after him without overexposing itself, and doing so should force enough struggles from a quarterback forced to be one-dimensional.

All the marbles

The past is the past, but Michigan enters this game with a ton of baggage. The hope is that the team uses that in a productive way, learning from its past mistakes and channeling that to change the outcome this time around. This current squad looks to be the best of the past three, built to win in a variety of ways against all types of opponents.

There will be no greater test of that than against Alabama. The defense will be asked to stay on its toes every single snap and the offense must be multi-faceted and execute each and every play. No Jim Harbaugh team has been better suited to beat this sort of blue-chip laden opposition, and this is where legacies are cemented.

No one nationally believes in Michigan, or at least no one wants to bet against Alabama. Meanwhile, the computers are cautiously optimistic in the No. 1 team. Ultimately, this comes down to individual playmakers and who is able to capitalize when the opportunity is there. These Wolverines have been up to the challenge 13 times before — why start doubting now?