In three weeks, the Michigan Wolverines and TCU Horned Frogs will face off in a loser-leaves-town game with a National Championship berth on the line. The College Football Playoff (CFP) clash in the Fiesta Bowl between these two teams is one of the more drastic stylistic matchups of any game this season.
Michigan is a physical ground and pound team that wants to dominate on both sides of the line of scrimmage; TCU is a knockout artist that lives and dies off big plays created by its Heisman Trophy finalist quarterback Max Duggan.
The physicality of the Big Ten versus the explosion of the Big 12 — it is an intriguing matchup, and a favorable one for the Wolverines.
Here are five reasons why Michigan is going to beat TCU.
TCU is overly reliant on big plays
TCU has undeniably one of the best and most explosive offenses in college football. Currently, the Horned Frogs are the sixth-ranked scoring offense in the country (Michigan is No. 7), and rank in the top-five nationally in 20-yard, 30-yard, 40-yard, 50-yard, 60-yard and 70-yard plays.
However, TCU’s offense is overly reliant on the big play and can struggle when tasked to sustain drives and capitalize in the red zone. The Horned Frogs are No. 52 in the country on third down and No. 80 in red zone scoring.
One of the foundational pillars of Michigan’s defense the last two years is taking away the big play. Defensive coordinator Jesse Minter is going to force TCU to earn every drive and finish in the red zone, where the Wolverines have only allowed 11 touchdowns all season.
TCU is built to stop the pass, not the run
The Horned Frogs have a good Big 12 defense, which nationally means they aren’t very good. TCU ranks outside of the top 50 in most defensive categories and play a high-risk, feast or famine style.
Defensive coordinator Joe Gillespie designed a unit to slow down big passing attacks — which largely comprise their conference — and strive for turnovers to get the ball back. But the Horned Frogs are vulnerable in their front with increased emphasis on the back end, especially considering they mostly play with three defensive linemen.
The Horned Frogs will have to play outside their comfort zone and commit extra resources to slowing down Michigan’s vaunted rushing attack. TCU has demonstrated an ability to do so against Texas, so it is not out of the realm of possibilities. Gillespie wants to force J.J. McCarthy to win this game and, unlike a month ago, the first-year starter appears more than capable of doing so.
Michigan is peaking at the right time
Speaking of McCathy, the last two weeks (the two biggest of the season) have seen the young quarterback take leaps on the field. McCarthy’s deep ball has been consistent, his decision-making on zone-reads and RPOs has been decisive and he has an unbreakable confidence to his game that is rare for teenage starters.
Aside from the quarterback, a myriad of players across Michigan’s entire team are playing at a high level. Running back Donovan Edwards has been on a tear the last two weeks, averaging more than 200 yards per game. Freshman tight end Colston Loveland has scored a touchdown in each of the last two games, and freshman defensive tackle Mason Graham has asserted his presence along the defensive interior.
But neither have outshined freshman cornerback Will Johnson, who had a pair of interceptions against Purdue and played lights out against Marvin Harrison Jr. of Ohio State.
Even older players like wide receiver Cornelius Johnson, edge Braiden McGregor, running back Kalel Mullings, edge Taylor Upshaw, linebacker Michael Barrett and defensive tackle Kris Jenkins are playing the best football of their lives and appear to still be ascending.
Stars are going to be stars but when role players can have star-like moments, a team is incredibly difficult to beat.
Michigan’s best defense is the offense
Michigan’s offense is predicated around a simple mantra: “Get ahead, stay ahead.” The Wolverines are fourth in the country in average time of possession and among teams that have played 13 games, Michigan is first.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh wants to squeeze the air out of the game and continuously run the ball to chew up the clock and limit offensive possessions. If Duggan is on the sidelines for TCU, he can do no damage in the game. Furthermore, because of Michigan’s ball control style, the Wolverines’ defense is afforded more time to rest and can get stronger throughout the game.
Maybe that is the secret to the best second-half defense in college football.
Michigan’s recent CFP experience
The college football bowl system is weird. One month off between the conference championship weekend and the start of the CFP is overkill, and having the semifinal games on New Year’s Eve is just anti-American. Teams have 15 practices to prepare and an inordinate amount of down time between games compared to the rest of the season.
How do teams manage and allocate their time most efficiently? How do coaches thoroughly prepare their teams without inundating them with too much information? How do players and coaches handle the stress and obligations of award season?
There are thousands of questions like this surrounding every CFP team but unlike last year, the Wolverines understand what worked and what didn’t. Alabama and Georgia were the two best teams last year, but they were also the only two teams in the CFP with prior experience. While Michigan and Cincinnati were playing it by ear, the two SEC teams had the tune memorized.
This season, the song remains the same for the Wolverines, and they will have a much better grasp on how to handle their preparations.