No one really knows how to feel because this is uncharted territory. For the first time in history, the Michigan Wolverines are set to play in the College Football Playoff, and even as the No. 2 seed, there does feel like an element of playing with house money after blowing every preseason expectation out of the water. That will not be uttered by any players or coaches this week, though, as the Wolverines are here to win.
After a heroic win over Ohio State and a complete dismantling of Iowa in the Big Ten Championship Game, Michigan is rewarded with a semifinal against the consensus No. 1 team for the first 14 weeks of the year. Georgia is the only playoff participant to enter coming off a loss, but even without a conference title, this is clearly no team to take lightly.
The task is a big one; the Bulldogs are SP+’s top squad with the third-best offense and top-ranked defense in the entire country. Michigan has faced (and bested) tough individual units throughout the season, but this will be the biggest challenge to date. Vegas does not believe in the Wolverines, but there is certainly a path to victory in the Orange Bowl.
No. 2 Michigan Wolverines (12-1) vs. No. 3 Georgia Bulldogs (12-1)
The past three games have been a great representation of the power of Michigan’s running back room, with Donovan Edwards posting 170 receiving yards against Maryland, Hassan Haskins scoring five times against Ohio State, and Blake Corum rushing for 14.8 yards a carry against normally impenetrable Iowa. All three backs will have a role to play against a Georgia defense that ranks second in yards per game and third in yards per carry.
Much of this will come down to the offensive line, which should not necessarily struggle, but will have its work cut out for itself against an elite defensive front. This is strength on strength, as are most of the matchups given the similarities between the teams, and really it may just be as simple as which unit is able to win in the trenches.
Should the running game be held in check – which seems like a real possibility – then Cade McNamara will have to make some throws downfield. Nine different players have at least 15 catches this season, and there should be opportunities to play the matchups as opposed to force feeding any single pass catcher.
This does seem like another chance for J.J. McCarthy to make an impact. He has the arm to hit receivers in tight windows, and it has become clear that defenses need to treat him differently because of his legs, even if he does not keep the ball. After seeing the creative play calling over the past two games, expect more of the same following an entire month off.
As elite as the Georgia defense is, I believe the game will be decided on the other side of the ball. Michigan only faced one top-25 offense this year, and while the defense did an amazing job containing the No. 1 Buckeyes, this will be another tall task. The Bulldogs are 10th in the nation against Power Five schools at 5.2 yards per carry. The Wolverines have been really stout in this area over the past month, but there is very little margin for error.
Both teams are loaded with skill position talent, but unlike Ohio State, the Georgia offense is best in the backfield. The receivers are not insignificant, but there are multiple running backs that can do a lot of damage. Michigan cannot get too aggressive in the secondary, but avoiding getting run to death is absolutely imperative.
Coincidentally, Georgia also has some quarterback rotation questions, though Michigan’s partnership is operating much more smoothly. Starter Stetson Bennett has been good but not great, and he will get the chance to try to pick apart the Wolverine secondary first. The has the arm to do so, and tight end Brock Bowers is his favorite target and will be a problem over the middle.
However, getting pressure to Bennett could derail that game plan. He is no Spencer Petras, but even C.J. Stroud was fairly wobbly when he was not kept clean. This could be the one area Michigan really takes advantage, especially if Bennett gets pulled for previous starter J.T. Daniels, who has plenty of talent but also plenty of struggles and not many reps. We have seen in recent weeks what happens when the Wolverines defensive line is the best unit on the field.
The Bulldogs defense is ranked No. 1, but Wisconsin, Iowa, and Penn State all sit in the top 10 as well. Michigan had decent success against these units, and the narrative that this team is one-dimensional is foolish, as the whole offense is peaking at the right time. Georgia is likely going to try to win with its defensive line and keep bodies in the back seven. If the Wolverine offensive line can find some room on the ground, this could open up opportunities for McNamara (and McCarthy). The game is unlikely to be a Michigan blowout, but the media seems to be writing off an offense that has been both efficient and explosive all season.
Georgia has not played the most difficult schedule, so it is hard to know how good this team really is. The Bulldogs have put up massive point totals for most of the year, but Alabama showed what happens when they face a good defense. The only other top-10 unit they faced was Clemson, who held them to zero offensive touchdowns. Michigan comes into the game with the No. 7 defense per SP+. Georgia will score, and there is talent all across the roster, but it should not be a given that this team will not struggle against the Wolverines. If the defense plays similarly to how it did against Ohio State (and Iowa), it is very possible that the offense will score enough to win the game.