We are all guilty of recency bias. Our teams are only as good as the last time we saw them. That’s why No. 2 Michigan, in this College Football Playoff semifinal, resembles those side mirrors on your car. You know, the ones that warn, “Objects may be closer than they appear.”
That’s the Wolverines, who enter the Orange Bowl as a 7.5-point underdog, according to Caesars Sportsbook. That just happens to be half a point more than Ohio State was favored against Michigan five weeks ago in Ann Arbor.
We all know what happened there.
This is set to be the better of the two semifinals. There’s some sizzle to it. Two traditional powers trying to rid themselves of past failures. No. 1 Alabama is a prohibitive favorite against No. 4 Cincinnati in the Cotton Bowl and, well, meh. If chalk holds, we’ll have our second Alabama-Georgia game in slightly over five weeks.
That’s looking ahead. For now, we have a game that has only been played twice before in history, the last time back in 1965. Georgia is trying to find itself defensively. Who would have thought those words would ever be written after the Bulldogs’ start to the season? Michigan is on a roll, playing its best in Jim Harbaugh’s seven seasons.
Michigan has the most wins in history (976). Georgia is looking for its first national championship in more than four decades. To get there, the Dawgs must go through the suddenly formidable Wolverines.
Even a month ago, this matchup didn’t look as daunting for Georgia. Then the Dawgs face planted against the Crimson Tide. Meanwhile, Michigan hung 40 on both Ohio State and Iowa.
We told you there was sizzle. Here’s five keys to the Orange Bowl, which will serve as the playoff nightcap Friday night.
1. Georgia pride
Well, it’s wounded for one thing along with some other body parts. The imprint left on the Dawgs backside from the Alabama game rhymes with “gas sticking”. It was that bad for a generational defense that had given up only nine touchdowns all season until the Tide scored 41 points (including five touchdowns) in the SEC Championship Game. Worse, UGA was pushed around along the defensive line, the most talented position group in the program.
“It does give you a little bit of confidence,” Michigan offensive coordinator Josh Gattis said of the Alabama result.
Georgia has to win this game. It has to win the national championship. It’s been too long. Its fans demand it. This is its destiny. Anything less and the season is a failure.
It starts with the defense. Michigan has made this a game to be decided in the trenches. That’s basically challenging Georgia. If the Dawgs don’t perform in the line, they lose. The Wolverines have enough firepower to score if the D-line doesn’t show up again. More than that, Michigan is stout enough defensively to hold down Georgia.
“They play physical,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “They like to bludgeon.”
If Michigan is allowed to hang around late, this will have to play on the minds of the Dawgs. They led the country in point differential until being exposed by Bama. Has Georgia completely flushed Alabama, or is there lingering self-doubt?
2. The Stetson Bennett Situation
The question of who would start at quarterback for Georgia was answered quickly this week by offensive coordinator Todd Monken. “There’s no doubt in my mind we can win the national championship, and … there’s no doubt in my mind we can win it with Stetson Bennett. There’s no question,” he said.
There’s been speculation that JT Daniels will ride in from the bullpen this week and rescue the Dawgs after Bennett’s sketchy performance against the Tide. Whether that comes to fruition at some point during the game remains to be seen. Either way, expect Bennett to be the guy at kickoff.
A lot of Georgia fans won’t be happy with that. They think (a healthy) Daniels gives the Dawgs the best chance to win. The question is how Bennett held onto the job when Daniels began the season as the starter, got injured a couple of times, came back healthy and never took the reins back.
“Sometimes opportunity leads to things that end up going in your direction,” Monken said. “I don’t know if I said that exactly right, but it never went back the other way where JT got a chance to get in there.”
Read between the lines, and you can conclude this about the quarterback conundrum: Bennett is more reliable than Daniels both on and off the field. Daniels has been injured several times in his career. Bennett doesn’t turn the ball over (as much) and is more trustworthy when plays break down.
Does it even matter if neither can avoid Heisman Trophy runner-up Aidan Hutchinson? Big pressure will be on Georgia tackles Jamaree Salyer and Warren McClendon. Meanwhile, Bennett doesn’t give a damn what the critics think.
“I wouldn’t listen to myself if I was giving a speech on heart surgery,” he said. “Not comparing football to heart surgery, but it’s the same kind of gist. So, why would I listen to somebody who doesn’t do this for a living and just watches it happen?”
Maybe Daniels throws a better ball. Bennett has become a more consistent overall player. The film doesn’t lie. Daniels was first surpassed by Kedon Slovis at USC (himself a transfer to Pittsburgh) and now Bennett at Georgia. Again, reading between the lines, Monken said this week that not all five-stars live up to their hype.
“We went into the [SEC] Championship Game with Stetson Bennett as our quarterback as a favorite over a team that hasn’t been an underdog in over five years,” he said. “That ought to tell you about our quarterback and how he played, and some reason we get into this stereotyping of players based on where they were at some point. OK, at some point — be it one was a walk on, one was a five-star, whatever — if you just look at the production and what he’s done for our football team, it’s impressive.”
3. Harbaugh is ascending
It took seven years, but Harbaugh has fulfilled his destiny at his alma mater with a Big Ten championship and playoff berth. The Wolverines are playing the way Harbs always expected them to play — with a physical defense and run-based offense. Bo Schembechler would be proud.
After a season of coaching churn, Harbaugh has turned out to be one of the best bargains in the game. Athletic director Warde Manuel made the call in the offseason, extending his coach with a lot of incentives while cutting his salary in half. The players didn’t pay attention to the increased barking of hounds after Harbaugh went 2-4 in 2020.
“We always knew since day one it was Michigan versus everybody,” said cornerback D.J. Turner.
The Wolverines are playing with house money at this point. They’re here for the first time. At least two CFP teams are considered better (Alabama, Georgia). They’re expected to lose. That’s why it would be unwise to dismiss Harbaugh and what he has built this season.
“You can’t pay attention to anybody outside of the building,” defensive end David Ojabo said. “They’re not going through the grind we do. They’re not waking up at 6 a.m. running hills. They’re just watching us on TV. What they’ve got to say don’t really mean anything for real.”
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4. Michigan’s sneaky good offensive attack
We just told you above how Bo would be proud, but Bo never approached things like Gattis. Yes, Michigan has a top-10 running game. Not a surprise. But it also leads the country in gains of at least 50 yards. That’s more than Oklahoma, more than Alabama and more than Ohio State.
That’s because the offense is sneaky good under Gattis.
Running back Blake Corum has been a part-time contributor recovering from a leg injury, but he still dropped a big 55-yard run on Ohio State and a 67-yard touchdown run against Iowa. Gattis — and by extension Harbaugh — likes to set up opponents by pounding the rock then working play-action, end arounds, reverses, etc. when defenses stack the box.
While taking extra time to extend plays may not work against an elite defense that can pursue, it has worked for Michigan to this point.
Watch wide receiver A.J. Henning (18 yards per rush), WR Cornelius Johnson (third in the Big Ten in yards per reception) and Corum, who is now 100% healthy. While Corum (fourth in Big Ten yards per rush) once led the Big Ten in rushing this season, Hassan Haskins (20 rushing touchdowns) has become the key to the attack, if not Michigan’s most explosive player.
5. Hello, goodbye Dan Lanning
With Georgia’s defensive coordinator having one foot out the door for Oregon, Smart elevated assistants Will Muschamp and Glenn Schumann to co-coordinators. For now, the 35-year-old Lanning is making a dramatic exit, still calling plays in the Orange Bowl. Dramatic in that the defense he built into one of the best in the last 20 years will be his last at Georgia.
Will he depart with a championship ring on his finger? If not, how does this defense go down in history? As a footnote? Is it possible Lanning enters the game distracted while trying to serve two programs?
“West Coast being three hours behind us has given us the opportunity to be able to really focus on Georgia early on during the day, and then later on at night, able to get a lot of things accomplished there with our team in Oregon,” Lanning said.
So, how late is Lanning working for the Ducks?
“I don’t clock in and clock out,” he said. “We work until the work is done. Sometimes that’s later than other nights. We’ve had a couple late nights but no lack of energy or ability to roll here.”