For the first time under Jim Harbaugh, the Michigan football team conquered Ohio State and secured a Big Ten title this fall. After getting over the proverbial “hump,” the second-ranked Wolverines clinched the program’s first College Football Playoff berth. On the other side of that hump awaits No. 3 Georgia, which occupied the AP Poll’s top spot for most of this season before losing to Alabama in the SEC Championship Game. Michigan and the Bulldogs enter Friday’s clash with identical 12-1 records.
With the Orange Bowl set to kick off in Miami Gardens on New Year’s Eve, The Daily’s football beat offers their predictions:
Throughout this week, you’ll hear the term “strength on strength” often. Led by 6-foot-6, 340-pound nose tackle Jordan Davis, Georgia boasts the nation’s third-best rush defense, allowing just 81.7 yards per game. On the other side, the Wolverines boast the second-most rushing yards per game (223.8) among Power Five teams.
Expect a war at the line of scrimmage on Friday night: A Michigan offensive line that won the Joe Moore Award versus a Bulldogs’ front seven loaded with NFL talent.
But even if the Wolverines have success in the trenches against Georgia, it may not be enough. Michigan will have its hands full covering Bulldogs’ tight end Brock Bowers, who earned a first team All-SEC selection as a true freshman this year, and wideout George Pickens, a former consensus five-star recruit who recently returned from an ACL injury. Though Georgia has seen inconsistency at the quarterback position throughout this season, both Stetson Bennett and J.T. Daniels are capable of giving the Wolverines’ secondary fits.
Michigan’s defensive backs have taken a massive stride forward this season, but they could be ill-equipped to cover the Bulldogs’ explosive crop of weapons. That’s going to be especially true if the pass rush doesn’t live in the backfield the way it did against Ohio State last month.
That said, I’m fairly surprised the Wolverines are underdogs by a touchdown. Expect a close game, but I believe Georgia’s advantage through the air gives them the edge.
Georgia 24, Michigan 23
Amongst the myriad of players and coaches who have spoken in advance of Friday’s game, one theme has held constant: both sides are embracing physicality.
Michigan offensive coordinator Josh Gattis anticipates the game being a “train wreck inside.” On the flipside, Georgia defensive coordinator Dan Lanning noted that the Wolverines run “hard mouth, smash mouth” football — and then added that it’s a style of football that the Bulldogs appreciate.
The same physical pattern holds true for Michigan’s defense against Georgia’s offense, but it’s the matchup with Michigan’s offense and Georgia’s defense that will dictate the outcome of this game. The Wolverines’ offensive line, this year’s recipient of the Joe Moore award, is famously stout and Michigan’s play calling revolves around it. Everything — from their penchant for explosive plays to the bruising success of senior running back Hassan Haskins — is predicated on dominating the line of scrimmage.
The Bulldogs, like Lanning said, pride themselves on a physical style of football, too. On a roster flush with talent — scouts peg up to 17 Georgia defenders as “draftable” — it’s that willingness to make the extra effort that separates them from other units across the nation.
If this remarkable season has taught us anything, though, it’s a fool’s endeavor to doubt this iteration of Wolverines. Ad nauseum, they’ve risen to the occasion in the season’s most pivotal moments. I suspect that will continue, at least for another game.
Michigan 30, Georgia 23
At the end of the regular season, the general perception around Georgia was that the Bulldogs were unbeatable. Their defense — led by Davis and an impenetrable front seven — hadn’t given up more than 17 points all season, while their punishing offense scored at least 30 points in all but one game.
Alabama shut that theory down, scoring 41 points in the SEC Championship Game behind a 421-yard, three-touchdown performance from Heisman-winning quarterback Bryce Young. Georgia’s defense is still historically strong, but the Crimson Tide showed that it isn’t invincible.
Michigan isn’t Alabama — nobody is — but it also doesn’t have to be to win this game. Relative to the Wolverines, the Bulldogs have played a fairly easy schedule. Outside of the Crimson Tide, Georgia’s toughest opponent has been … Clemson? Maybe Arkansas?
This isn’t meant to take anything away from what the Bulldogs have accomplished this season. They’re an incredible team and have compiled one of the best college defenses in years. At the same time, Michigan is playing its best football right now, and in the Big Ten Championship, it put up 42 points against the 10th-best defense in college football at the time.
This will be a tough, physical battle, and likely one of the best games of the year. With the way the Wolverines’ offense is playing right now, I’ll give them an edge.
Michigan 27, Georgia 24