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What Went Wrong Part 2: Revisiting Michigan’s 2021 Orange Bowl loss to Georgia

We continue to dive into each of Michigan’s three losses over the last two seasons to better understand what happened and how Michigan can prevent it from happening again.

NCAA Football: Orange Bowl-Georgia at Michigan Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

When the Michigan Wolverines took the field on New Year’s Eve for the 2021 Orange Bowl, the moment felt surreal. How had Team 142 reached this point? This time the year prior, the sky was falling around the program and 95 percent of the fanbase wanted head coach Jim Harbaugh fired following a disastrous 2-4 season. Admittedly, I was one of them.

The program had no direction or hope six years into Harbaugh’s tenure and a turnaround at this point was unprecedented in college football. But week by week, Harbaugh swung the narrative and defied expectations.

Standing tall after a 12-1 season, Harbaugh was awarded AP Coach of the Year, defensive end Aidan Hutchinson finished second in the Heisman, and the offensive line earned the Joe Moore Award.

The Wolverines were riding a tidal wave of momentum into their first College Football Playoff appearance and an intoxicating feeling of belief had inundated the fanbase. “Why not us?”

Georgia — Michigan’s opponent — was coming in with an identical record, but a different mindset. The Bulldogs had been dominant during the regular season, holding every opponent to 17 points or less and maintaining the No. 1 national ranking the entire second half of the season; at least until the SEC Championship.

Alabama withstood Georgia’s initial push and overwhelmed the Bulldogs with an explosive passing attack. An opponent had finally punched back and Georgia collapsed in the face of adversity, 41-24.

Following the loss, Georgia head coach Kirby Smart preached optimism to reporters by saying, “It didn’t do any damage. What it did was reinvigorate our energy.” Georgia had been embarrassed, but with revenge on the mind, the Bulldogs were more dangerous than before.

As the smoke settled on Georgia’s loss and the rose-tinted view of the Wolverines cooled, predictions for the upcoming Orange Bowl began to pour in in favor of the SEC powerhouse. Pundits across the country pontificated about the matchup:

“Michigan can’t handle Georgia’s size.”

“Michigan can’t handle Georgia’s speed.”

“Michigan can’t handle Georgia’s talent.”

Sadly, they were right.

To put it bluntly, Georgia kicked Michigan’s ass. We will get into the nuances of why this happened, but the genesis of every problem for the Wolverines started at the line of scrimmage.

For the first time all season, Michigan was hammered on both sides of the ball at the point of attack. Over their first 13 games, the Wolverines on average held a +6.7 advantage over each opponent in terms of sacks + tackles for loss + forced fumbles + QB hits, and were never once at a disadvantage. Against Georgia, Michigan was at a -11 disadvantage, and it felt worse in the moment.

How did this happen? How was the award-winning offensive line manhandled? How was Hutchinson neutralized?

Offensively, Georgia dominated first down. In total, the Bulldogs ran 28 first-down plays and averaged more than eight yards per play. Staying ahead of schedule allowed offensive coordinator Todd Monken to operate with the full playbook at his disposal and dictate each series. His play of choice? The run-pass option.

Monken and Georgia RPO’d the Wolverines to death in order to negate their potent pass rush and use their aggression against them. Georgia’s offense repeatedly RPO’d its way down the field and secured points on each of its first four drives. This was the first time U-M allowed points on the first four drives of a game since 2010.

With the offense setting the tone early, Georgia’s top-ranked scoring defense could play with its ears pinned back. Much like the offense, the Bulldogs’ defense dominated the initial down in order to take control of each series.

Michigan ran 24 first-down plays and averaged an anemic 2.4 yards per play on 23 of them, with the other play resulting in an interception. Play after play, the exposed talent gap in the trenches grew wider as Michigan’s vaunted offensive line met an opponent that was simultaneously an immovable object and an unstoppable force.

Georgia’s defense featured seven future first-round draft picks, six of whom played in the front seven. The only player in the front seven that was not a first-rounder was the Butkus Award winner and the most important player on the entire defense, linebacker Nakobe Dean.

All respect for what center Andrew Vastardis meant and contributed to Michigan, but there was simply no way he could hold up against the rotating Georgia interior of Jordan Davis, Jalen Carter and Devonte Wyatt. The Wolverines had built this team from the inside out, but crumbled in defeat in the same way.

Going beyond schematics and on-the-field execution, this game was lost long before it was played. Before the season, 15 pundits close to the program were asked for predictions, and on average, the team was predicted to finish 8-4, lose in the Outback Bowl and lose to Ohio State.

No one believed this team could even reach the CFP, let alone win a championship in August. A national championship was not a team goal; the main goals were to win a Big Ten Championship and to “beat Ohio State or die trying.”

Michigan’s program hit a 24-year high when the Wolverines vanquished Ohio State after a 10-year losing streak and won the Big Ten Championship against Iowa merely served as a three-hour coronation for a team that no one believed could make it that far. Mission/goals accomplished, but not in the grand scale of things.

After a month of awards and praise, a month of glad-handing and banquets, Michigan played slow, flat, and looked overwhelmed from the opening kick. With each frustrating moment piling up on top of the next, the prevailing aurora emanating from the Wolverines was they were out of place. As if this team had crossed the finish line a month ago, celebrated and were told a day before the Orange Bowl the season wasn’t over yet and they had to cancel New Year’s Eve plans.

Much like Dante in Clerks, the Wolverines weren’t even supposed to be here today!

Following the loss, I wrote:

“While this is the end for Team 142, this season of alchemy can only be described as the beginning. The Wolverines fell short of the destination, but the journey and the restoration of Wolverine ethos will be felt for seasons to come.”

So, next time the two teams face each other and pundits are pontificating:

“Michigan can’t handle Georgia’s size.”

“Michigan can’t handle Georgia’s speed.”

“Michigan can’t handle Georgia’s talent.”

They’ll be wrong.

The Wolverines now have a “Beat Georgia” drill to make sure they always have their eyes on the crown. However, perpetually looking up can lead to overlooking what is in front of you.

More on that in Part Three next week.