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No. 2 Michigan vs. No. 3 TCU Preview: A business trip to the CFP Semifinals

The Wolverines are back in the College Football Playoff and are starving for more.

Playoff Semifinal at the Capital One Orange Bowl - Georgia v Michigan Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

With the clock quickly approaching midnight on New Year’s Eve, the Michigan Wolverines ended 2021 with a disappointment, getting blown out by eventual the national champions in their first ever appearance in the College Football Playoff. While the season was unquestionably a massive success, that semifinal loss left the team hungry for something more.

365 days later, the Wolverines are somehow back in the same position after working all year to get another shot at this opportunity. Again the second-overall seed, this time it is Michigan who is the big favorite and is expected to defeat the No. 3 TCU Horned Frogs and set up a big rematch in the championship game, regardless of who shows up on the other side.

Obviously there are no givens in the CFP, but Michigan has to feel confident with its draw. TCU is a quality opponent, but matches up poorly with the maize and blue, and the teams’ performances this season, roster composition, and previous playoff experience (or lack thereof) tip the scales one way. If the Wolverines come out and execute, there will be one final test two Mondays from now.

No. 2 Michigan Wolverines (13-0) at No. 3 TCU Horned Frogs (12-1)

Date & Time: Saturday, Dec. 31, 4 p.m.
Location: State Farm Stadium, Glendale, AZ
TV/Streaming: ESPN

Come and stop it

If there ever was a big game that set up perfectly for Michigan to bring out its ideal gameplan, this would be it. TCU’s 3-3-5 defense can be effective in Big 12 play, but there is no offensive line that gets close to that of the back-to-back Joe Moore Award-winning unit. Add in Donovan Edwards, who showed he is clearly ready for the RB1 role, and the Wolverines will not be shy about their approach.

The Frogs do leverage their linebackers to come attack the gaps and limit the damage of opposing rushers, but no one has been able to really contain Michigan this season. Edwards has the speed and power to burst up the middle and the quickness to get to the edge as well. It is not unrealistic that Edwards and company will be able to drive the entire length of the field all game long.

Should TCU break tendency and really commit to stopping the run, then it will be another chance for J.J. McCarthy to shine. He might not have another Ohio State performance but might not need to; even just hitting Luke Schoonmaker and Colston Loveland for decent chunks down the middle should force the defense to recalibrate.

SP+ has the Frogs sitting 33rd defensively, which is fourth-toughest on Michigan’s schedule this year and well short of elite. The secondary has some dudes, but this is unlikely a game for McCarthy to really air it out. Jim Harbaugh is going to challenge TCU to stop him from doing exactly what he wants, and it is hard to see this front six able to hang tough over 60 minutes.

Disciplined aggression

On the flipside, TCU is driven by its offense and Heisman runner-up Max Duggan. This unit ranks sixth nationally per SP+, just a bit behind Ohio State. Duggan is the real deal — he hits shots downfield, uses his legs to both stay alive and take yards on the ground, and is fearless in his decision-making.

Duggan’s biggest target is future first-rounder Quentin Johnston. The 6-foot-4 receiver is due for at least one huge catch a game and is the weapon to watch downfield. While the Frogs have some other talented skill players as well, Johnston feels like the one most likely to punish the Wolverines and should be the number one focus of the defensive backs.

For Michigan to win, the defense must do two things. The first is the age-old challenge against mobile quarterbacks and that is not allowing Duggan to extend plays with his legs. The playmaker has rushed for at least 50 yards in nearly half his games this year, and even if he ends up throwing it, the secondary has allowed too many contested catches to feel good about any scramble drill.

If the Wolverines can get after Duggan, however, then the outcomes will look much different. Whether it is because of necessity or wild confidence. Duggan never shies away from going for the big play. Even with rushers charging at him he will try to make the throw downfield, which can easily result in sacks or interceptions. If the defense finds a way to generate some pressure, it is not hard to see some big mistakes coming from the Frogs.

Thirteen going on fourteen

All season long Michigan has shown its ability to win games in whatever way is needed, and there has not been a Saturday where it felt like the Wolverines were the lesser team. This team is very self-assured and very well-coached, and in the postseason those factors can be the difference. Many of the Wolverines were on this stage last year, and that experience will help this year go differently.

TCU is a legit opponent who has experienced a great season of its own, with a similar second-half improvement trend. The difference, though, is that the Frogs have often had to claw their way back after falling behind, and when considering how they match up against Michigan’s run game, this game does not set up well for them to make a big comeback.

The Wolverines should feel really good about their ability to score and hopeful about the defense’s chances to record more wins than losses. Duggan is going to swing for the fences on Saturday, but there is a real opportunity to force more double plays than homers. If the defense can rattle him a bit whether through pressure or scheme, Michigan is going to have a great night.