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Five Wolverines who will be X-factors against TCU

These guys will play pivotal roles in the College Football Playoff semifinals.

Big Ten Championship - Purdue v Michigan Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Michigan’s semifinal match-up with TCU is fascinating on several individual fronts because of the extreme stylistic differences between the two teams. The Horned Frogs want to capitalize on chunk plays offensively, and their defense wants to create turnovers. Offensively, Michigan wants to wear teams down for four quarters and make opposing offenses sustain long drives to earn points.

Two teams founded upon polar opposite principles, but two teams that share the same common thread of winning. Both teams resemble the identities of the men leading their respective teams, but the battle of their assistant coaches is the one stealing the headlines.

Broyles Award finalist, Michigan defensive coordinator Jesse Minter, versus Broyles Award winner, TCU offensive coordinator Garret Riley, is a heavyweight showdown between two rising stars in the coaching world. Michigan’s offense and TCU’s defense will each have their say, but the game changers in this one will largely come on the strings of Minter and Riley.

Here are five X-factor players for the Michigan Wolverines that could swing the game against TCU and send them to the National Championship.

LB Michael Barrett

Michael Barrett has been one of the most important Wolverines all season. He was simply supposed to be a utility linebacker to spell Nikhai Hill-Green and offer the linebacker position some much needed versatility and depth, but Hill-Green has not played all season and Barrett has stepped up and excelled in his absence.

On the season, Barrett is second on the team in tackles (67) and has added four tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, two interceptions and one defensive touchdown. The fifth-year senior will need to flash his full range of skills against TCU as a coverage player, run stuffer, blitzer and quarterback spy to slow down the Horned Frog offense.

No single defender will be asked to do more against TCU than Barrett, and expect Riley to test him early and often to see if he is up to the task.

QB J.J. McCarthy

The lone offensive player on this list has to be quarterback J.J. McCarthy. His abilities to run, stretch the defense with his arm and take care of the football will dictate how quickly Michigan’s brick-and-mortar running attack gets going and wears down the TCU defense.

McCarthy will have to be sharp against Thorpe Award-winning cornerback Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson, and this TCU defense that is reliant on turnovers. The Horned Frogs have played only two games this year without forcing a turnover. One was against Colorado, one of the worst teams in the power five, and the other was Kansas State in the Big 12 Championship, TCU’s only loss of the season.

If McCarthy and Michigan can protect the ball, they will have a great chance to win. If McCarthy can protect the ball and continue to display the dynamic play-making abilities he flashed in the last two games (23-of-41, 424 yards, six touchdowns (one rushing), one interception) the Wolverines could be national champions.

DT Mazi Smith

The catalyst of chaos! Mazi Smith’s numbers will not blow you away (45 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 0.5 sacks), but he is vital to all of the success of Michigan’s front seven. Smith absorbs multiple blockers to set up one-on-one edge rushers on the outside and opens up clear lanes for the linebackers to make plays.

The Wolverines want to make every opponent they face one-dimensional, and Smith is the key to slowing down the rushing attack. TCU’s lowest rushing total in a single game this season (115 yards) came against Baylor in a nail-biting victory. If Smith can clog up the interior and force TCU to abandon the run, the Horned Frogs will have a difficult time exclusively beating the Wolverines through the air.

Furthermore, Smith and the pressure generated from the defensive interior will collapse pockets and make scrambling nearly impossible for star TCU quarterback Max Duggan.

CB Will Johnson

True freshman Will Johnson has grown up before our very eyes. Currently tied for the team lead with three interceptions, he has slowly become Michigan’s true No. 1 boundary corner and has proven himself in back-to-back weeks against two of the best receivers in the country.

Against Biletnikoff Award finalist Marvin Harrison Jr. from Ohio State (72 catches, 1,157 yards, 12 touchdowns), Johnson was physical, fearless and even had the Buckeyes moving MHJ away from him. The following week, Johnson drew the nation’s leading receiver Charlie Jones (110 catches, 1,361 yards, 12 touchdowns). Once the Wolverines changed primarily to man-to-man coverage, it was Johnson keeping Jones from the end zone and picking off two passes.

Against TCU, Johnson will again draw a tough No. 1 assignment against projected top 10 NFL Draft pick Quentin Johnston (53 catches, 903 yards, five touchdowns). He is a big bodied, 6-foot-4 wide receiver who has a knack for the big play and is the leading receiver for the Horned Frogs by more than 300 yards.

Whoever wins that battle will go a long way in determining who wins this game.

Edge Mike Morris (or Jaylen Harrell, Eyabi Okie, Braiden McGregor, Derrick Moore)

Michigan must have an edge presence against Duggan. If he can sit back in a clean pocket, it will be a long afternoon for Minter’s defense. But if the Wolverines can generate pressure or, more importantly, set an edge to contain Duggan’s scrambles, they will frustrate the Davey O’Brien Award winner.

Mike Morris — if healthy — has to be the guy. The team captain and Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year is eager to get back on the field. He has not played more than a couple of series in a game since sustaining an undisclosed injury against Nebraska on Nov. 12.

But if Morris is unable to suit up, this is a chance for several others to not only make a name for themselves, but to cement their legacies in a game of this magnitude. Mazi Smith will create winnable opportunities for the edge group to wreak havoc and pressure Duggan into uncharacteristic mistakes.

If Duggan struggles, Michigan wins.