Last year, the Michigan Wolverines found themselves as the No. 2 seed in the College Football Playoff squaring off against the Georgia Bulldogs. Obviously, the result of the game was not what they were hoping for, as the Bulldogs advanced to the National Championship with a 34-11 win.
The good news: Michigan is now in the exact same position, except this time the Wolverines enter the game as the heavy favorite, not the heavy underdog like last year.
Michigan has a chance to erase the pain from losing last year, but how can it get the job done this time around?
Utilize J.J. McCarthy’s talents
Michigan has a new quarterback under center this time around, one that possesses a unique and dynamic skillset that has been on full display the last two games. Cade McNamara was great last season, but McCarthy possesses a skillset Michigan didn’t have in the CFP last year.
Everything hasn’t been perfect this season, but McCarthy is a special quarterback and is playing his best football of the season right now.
The Wolverines have been without star running back Blake Corum since the Illinois game and will be without him against TCU. While Corum is obviously one of the best players in college football, his absence has forced the Wolverines to style the offense a little differently, and it’s been working so far. In Michigan’s last two games, it has put up 45 and 43 points, the second- and third-highest scoring totals against Big Ten teams this season.
McCarthy has been showcasing his arm talent and running ability more the last two games because it is now needed without Corum. Using McCarthy more keeps defenses off balance and honest, and it allows the offense to operate however they’d like.
Michigan is still a run-first team, but McCarthy is playing very well right now and seems to flourish on the big stage.
Find the right balance between run and pass
Another player who has stepped up big time in the absence of Corum is Donovan Edwards. Utilizing McCarthy is huge, but utilizing Edwards is just as important. These two have been key in the wins against Ohio State and Purdue.
Part of the reason these guys have been so good is because the balance between running and passing seems to be perfect right now. The way the offense has been working the last two weeks has allowed for big plays through the air and on the ground. Against Ohio State, the Wolverines had three passing touchdowns and three rushing touchdowns. Against Purdue, same thing. It’s working.
In last year’s CFP game, Michigan banked on the attack that worked all season long, but Georgia was ready for it. When it didn’t work, the Wolverines had nowhere else to go. This time around, Michigan needs to find the right balance on offense to keep opposing defenses on their toes.
Michigan has been able to break teams down throughout the game, and the run game has particularly come alive during the second half. Find this balance in the Fiesta Bowl and the offense should continue to click.
Keep the bend don’t break mentality of defense
The Wolverines’ defense has done an amazing job keeping teams out of the end zone the past two games. Purdue outgained the Wolverines in the Big Ten Championship, yet Michigan won the game by three touchdowns. The difference: the Wolverines finished drives with touchdowns while the Boilermakers had to settle for field goals.
Finishing drives are huge in big games like this, and the defense has been doing a great of getting stops when it’s needed most. That will again be crucial against TCU. If Michigan is holding TCU to field goals on the Frogs’ big drives, the Wolverines should be in good shape.
Make things difficult on Max Duggan
TCU’s offense is the most dangerous thing about the Frogs, and the leader is quarterback Max Duggan, a Heisman finalist.
Duggan is 239-for-368 through the air for 3,321 yards, 30 touchdowns and four picks. He has also done some work on the ground with 404 yards on 112 rushes and six touchdowns. He makes plays and doesn’t turn the ball over often.
Making life difficult for Duggan will be crucial. Last year, the Wolverines didn’t get good pressure on Stetson Bennett and the Bulldogs moved the ball easily and pulled away quickly.
Michigan has been without Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year Mike Morris the past couple games, so getting him healthy for this game would be massive for generating pressure on Duggan. No matter who the Wolverines have for the game, the unit needs to do a good job of getting in the backfield and making plays to have a different result than last season.
If the Wolverines can put all of these things together, we may just be watching Michigan play in the National Championship on Jan. 9.