ORLANDO, Fla. — To hear Don Brown talk about Alabama’s offense is to hear a laundry list of accolades and praise.
Wideout Jerry Jeudy? Won the Biletnikoff Award last year for the nation’s best receiver. Running back Najee Harris? “The best jump cut guy I’ve seen.” The receiver room as a whole? The top group, across the board, he says he’s ever faced.
Last month, Brown’s defense got torched by Ohio State. Whether it was scheme or talent or in-game coaching or all three, the gap between Michigan’s defense and the Buckeyes’ offense was crystal clear. For that, the Wolverines’ consolation prize was … a bowl game against one of the few units in the country that’s maybe even better.
Michigan no doubt knows the challenge that’s facing it. But whether the Wolverines are up for it is an entirely different question, especially with the loss in their last game likely still in the back of their minds.
“Obviously, you can’t let a significant loss like that linger,” Brown said. “If you let it linger, then one loss leads to two losses. And I think our guys have done a good job of just putting that behind us and focusing on what’s in front of us. We’ve got a great challenge coming up here next Wednesday and that’s our 100 percent focus.”
And the mental aspect is only part of it. The Buckeyes loss cast doubt on whether the two teams — and, by extension, a team like Michigan and a team like the Crimson Tide — are even in the same ballpark. There’s been no evidence so far that they are.
In his press conference Sunday, Brown preached the importance of maintaining the defense’s previous identity, the one that went through an eight-week stretch allowing an average of 13 points a game, while adjusting to Alabama’s strengths. The plan sounds normal enough, except that the Crimson Tide’s strengths are, well, everything.
“We understand the challenge that’s in front of us,.” Brown said. “We’re confident in our ability. You know you’re not going to beat them one way. You’re going to have to play a number of different coverages.”
That’s not to say that Alabama’s offense is overlooking what was objectively one of the top defenses in the country all year. All-American wideout DeVonta Smith complimented the secondary’s ability to keep people guessing, a constant stream of, OK, what is he gonna do this time? Crimson Tide offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, too, complimented the Wolverines’ ability to play various coverages, an adjustment Michigan largely made after last year’s Ohio State debacle.
“They’ve got a lot of man-to-man principles they play and … they’re crafty at corner,” Sarkisian said. “(Senior Lavert Hill and junior Ambry Thomas) are both crafty in their man-to-man skills but they do a really good job in their scheme of mixing it up and mixing up different zone coverages, zone covers that match up into man covers so I think the challenge for the wideouts is their releases and how they’re running specific routes and then also for the quarterback, because of the variation of coverages. The quarterback’s gotta be on point of where his progression and where his reads need to go.”
Craftiness won’t win Michigan the game. Alabama has lost just six games in the last five years for a reason. Just like with the Buckeyes, there’s a talent gap; that’s undeniable.
And the Wolverines know that.
The question now is to what extent Michigan can play above its head, and whether it can sustain that long enough to pull the talent-gap upset it hasn’t in the past.