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Michigan vs. Alabama: Three individual matchups to watch in the Rose Bowl

The winners of these three matchups could decide the winner of the game.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 25 Ohio State at Michigan Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Michigan Wolverines have never had to worry about being handed the College Football Playoff (CFP) National Championship this season. From two different coaching suspensions to a limited quarterback in the final month of the season to facing two top-10 teams in the final three weeks of the regular season, it has been far from easy for Team 144. And with Alabama sneaking in as the four-seed, it will continue to be that way.

The Crimson Tide are considered by many as the most dangerous team in the country. After some early season struggles, Alabama has responded with 11 straight wins, an SEC championship, and head coach Nick Saban once again proving why he is the greatest collegiate coach of all time.

The Wolverines are aware of the tall task that stands between them and the unfinished business that sparked their second consecutive 13-0 season. This team knows all of those wins will be scoffed at if Michigan falls in the CFP semifinal for the third straight year.

On the field, this matchup is fascinating. How will the Wolverines slow down Alabama’s big-play attack? Is Alabama prepared for Michigan’s power running attack? Of the key individual matchups, these are three that could decide the outcome of the Rose Bowl.

Linebacker Michael Barrett vs. Quarterback Jalen Milroe

No single Wolverine in the front seven may be asked to do more in this game than linebacker Michael Barrett. He is one of Michigan’s best blitzers, a valuable piece in coverage, and will be tasked with occasional spy duties against dynamic Alabama quarterback Jalen Milroe.

Defending Milroe is far from a one-player task, but Barrett’s diverse skillset will qualify him to be the primary player charged with disrupting or containing the quarterback on any given play. Barrett’s angles and instincts will be tested, and defensive coordinator Jesse Minter will deploy Barrett like a queen on the chessboard as he hunts Milroe on every snap.

Edge Jaylen Harrell vs. Left Tackle Kadyn Proctor

Jaylen Harrell has separated himself late in the season as Michigan’s most complete edge rusher. In the last four games, Harrell has three sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss. Several Wolverines will have the opportunity in this one, but expect Harrell to get the bulk of the work against freshman left tackle Kadyn Proctor.

While improved, Proctor is the weakest link of this Tide offense by a wide margin. With Michigan having a definitive advantage here, expect Minter to frequently blitz Milroe from his right side, forcing him left and into Harrell’s vicinity as he duels Proctor on an island.

But more than just a pass rusher, Harrell’s discipline will be key in defending zone reads and setting the edge. Alabama loves to put aggressive edges in conflict, and Harrell’s ability to diagnose and keep contain will be vital to disrupting this explosive Alabama attack.

Quarterback J.J. McCarthy vs. Head Coach Nick Saban

Nick Saban is going to throw the kitchen sink at J.J. McCarthy in this game. Overloaded fronts, exotic pressures, split coverages, tendency breakers, you name it. Saban will have it ready.

Everyone remembers McCarthy’s struggles last year against TCU in the College Football Playoff, and he hasn’t exactly been setting the world on fire since getting hurt against Penn State. Saban will look to capitalize on this cold streak and force McCarthy’s unproven CFP hand into more mistakes.

However, McCarthy will have a chance to counter with his legs. McCarthy’s mobility is the ultimate wild card for this offense and has virtually been a non-factor in the final quarter of the season due to injury. Without the ability to run, it will be difficult for McCarthy to best Saban, but with 100 percent mobility and improvisation skills at his disposal, this will be a heavyweight fight between a master of his craft and a 25-1 starting quarterback with a chip on his shoulder.

Honorable Mention

I would be remiss if I did not include these as honorable mentions, although most of these battles will be more decided by scheme than anything else.

Cornerback Will Johnson vs. Wide Receiver Jermaine Burton

Will Johnson will draw Alabama’s No. 1 receiver in Jermaine Burton, but with this complex secondary, Johnson won’t be the only one covering him or helping out. Burton isn’t Ohio State’s Marvin Harrison Jr., but he is a physical, veteran who burned the Wolverines for a 57-yard touchdown in 2021 as a member of the Georgia Bulldogs. Taking away Alabama’s big plays is an essential element in slowing down its attack, and that starts with Burton.

Tackles LaDarius Henderson/Trente Jones vs. Linebackers Dallas Turner/Chris Braswell

Henderson and Jones are at the biggest disadvantage among linemen in pass protection against these elite edge players, but expect Sherrone Moore to ease their burden. Moore should use tight ends and running backs to help chip these edges and incorporate quick passes and a heavy run game — mammoth personnel could be a second-half staple — to help give Henderson and Jones any extra valuable seconds possible.

Tight End Colston Loveland vs. Linebackers/ Safeties

Colston Loveland is Michigan’s biggest mismatch in this game, even more so than running back Donovan Edwards against a linebacker, Loveland should see double-digit targets regardless of who is guarding him. Again, this is where scheme will come into play, and the Wolverines would be foolish not to test this matchup repeatedly until Alabama adjusts.