No one has ever summed it up better than Santana Moss when he said, “Big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games.” Every team in the College Football Playoff is counting on its stars to be stars on the biggest stage in the sport, but in the biggest moments of the season, it is often an unsung role player who steps up to swing the game.
Think back to last year’s semifinal. Once TCU’s starting running back Kendre Miller left with an injury, backup Emari Demercado torched the Wolverines for 150 yards (8.8 yards per carry) and one touchdown. In the Georgia game, who helped lead the Bulldogs over Ohio State? Depth-providing wide receiver Arian Smith who hauled in three catches for 129 yards and one touchdown — Smith finished last season with 198 yards total.
1. Quarterback Alex Orji
Over the last two games, backup quarterback Alex Orji has carried the ball four times for 31 yards as a change-of-pace wildcat quarterback. This role was carved out for the young sophomore partly due to the lingering injuries of starter J.J. McCarthy, whose mobility has been limited in the final month of the season, but also due to the extraordinary physical talents of the 6-foot-3, 236-pounder.
Even with McCarthy at 100 percent, expect Orji to have a few touches in this game, and don’t be surprised if offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore dials up a pass to catch the defense off guard.
2. Defensive Tackle Rayshaun Benny
One of Michigan’s greatest strengths this season has been its defensive tackle rotation. Standouts Mason Graham, Kris Jenkins and Kenneth Grant are able to stay fresh deep due to the reliability and impact of Rayshaun Benny and Cam Goode. Against Alabama, this duo is going to once again be critical to late-game success, but could also be the pairing that swings the game.
Benny is no stranger to impacting big games. Against Ohio State in 2022, his pressure on C.J. Stroud forced an errant throw that turned into an interception. And against Penn State this year, it was his forced fumble that essentially ended the Nittany Lions’s continued plans of quarterback runs. Could Benny be the one who forces Alabama quarterback Jalen Milroe into a costly mistake?
3. Guard Giovanni El-Hadi
Michigan’s mammoth personnel swung the fate of the Penn State game and could be the difference against the Tide. However, with the injury to All-American guard Zak Zinter, the mammoth personnel grouping will look different.
Against the Nittany Lions, the extra offensive linemen were tackles Myles Hinton and Trente Jones, but with Jones now starting at right tackle, it is presumably up to backup left guard Giovanni El-Hadi to fill the role.
El-Hadi has been used less this year than last due to the sustained health of Trevor Keegan, but the junior has no shortage of experience. As it stands entering the Rose Bowl, El-Hadi has appeared in 28 games for the Wolverines — 19 on the offensive line — and has three career starts. If Michigan experiences success with its unique jumbo package against Alabama, El-Hadi will be a big reason why.
4. Edge Josaiah Stewart
Similar to the defensive tackles, Michigan’s starting edges Braiden McGregor and Jaylen Harrell have enjoyed late-game success due to the depth and rotation provided by key reserves. In this case, it is Josaiah Stewart and Derrick Moore providing valuable reps with little to no drop-off snap-to-snap. Against Alabama, Stewart is going to have an opportunity to make several plays against true freshman left tackle Kadyn Proctor.
Proctor is massive at 6-foot-7, 360 pounds, but his slow feet and inexperience have made him the weakest link of the entire Alabama offense. Proctor struggles with speed rushers pre-snap (frequently false starts) and post-snap with getting out of his stance and into proper positioning. Stewart is one of the best pure speed rushers Proctor will see all season and with Michigan’s propensity for stunts and twists, the young freshman is going to have his hands full before and after the snap on every play.
5. Linebacker Ernest Hausmann
Playing against Milroe, the play of the linebackers is going to be paramount to success. Whether that be coverage on running backs out of the backfield, gap integrity in run fits, precise angles on quarterback scrambles, or decisiveness as a spy, Michigan’s linebackers will have to play their best game of the season against Alabama to win.
Junior Colson and Michael Barrett are two of the most experienced linebackers in the country and have been outstanding this season. However, the play of sophomore Ernest Hausmann could be the difference for this position group when spelling the seasoned veterans.
One misalignment or missed assignment could be the difference in a tackle for loss or a touchdown against this boom-or-bust offense. Alabama’s offensive coordinator Tommy Rees will look to test Hausmann early and how he responds could be a difference-maker in the Rose Bowl.