The Post’s Ethan Sears breaks down the Orange Bowl (Friday, 7:30 p.m., ESPN) between No. 2 Michigan and No. 3 Georgia in Miami Gardens, Fla.
When Michigan has the ball
The matchup that will decide the game is in the trenches: Michigan’s Joe Moore Award-winning offensive line versus a Georgia front seven that might be the best in the country. The Wolverines’ offensive identity is based around running the ball and being more physical than their opponents. That’s how they got here — by beating Ohio State and Iowa into submission. The Bulldogs didn’t give up more than 17 points in a game all season until the SEC title game, when Alabama’s Bryce Young picked them apart for 42. Michigan quarterback Cade McNamara is far from a liability, but he’s not going to beat the Bulldogs the same way. This will come down to the line of scrimmage.
When Georgia has the ball
Georgia can run the ball, too — James Cook and Zamir White are no slouches — and Brock Bowers is a matchup nightmare at tight end. But there’s a bright spotlight on quarterback Stetson Bennett IV, who was intercepted twice in the SEC championship game, against the stalwart Michigan defense. Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo are two genuine game-wreckers on the edge for Michigan, and if the Wolverines can get Georgia into third-and-long situations, it’s a question as to whether Bennett can get them out of it. Michigan defensive back Daxton Hill’s status is in doubt, so that’s something the Bulldogs could exploit, but there’s still a lot on Bennett’s shoulders.
Michigan’s Jake Moody won the Lou Groza Award as the nation’s best kicker, making every one of his extra point attempts and 22 of 24 field goals. Georgia shouldn’t have issues there either — Jack Podlesny hasn’t missed a field goal since Oct. 30 against Florida. Michigan’s returners, Blake Corum and A.J. Henning, have a statistical edge on Georgia’s Kearis Jackson and Kenny McIntosh as well.
For once, Jim Harbaugh isn’t the coach coming into a big game facing question marks and pressure. All that’s on Kirby Smart this time around. Harbaugh won the AP’s Coach of the Year Award for turning Michigan around after a 2-4 2020 season that resulted in his salary being cut in half. In a coaching career that spans nearly two decades, what he has done with this Michigan team is the most impressive item on his résumé. Expect the Wolverines to be well-prepared, and don’t be shocked to see a fake punt at some point. As for Smart, he has a lot riding on a quarterback controversy that harkens back to 2018 — when he kept Jake Fromm as the starter over Justin Fields, resulting in Fields transferring to Ohio State and lighting the world on fire. Smart’s team just got punched in the mouth by Alabama, and another year without a national title will mean some unhappy boosters in Athens.
Players who could decide the game (non-quarterbacks)
Hassan Haskins, Michigan RB
That physical, wear-you-down offensive identity for Michigan? That’s Haskins. The senior from Eureka, Mo., has a penchant for running through contact and rushed for a whopping 169 yards and five touchdowns in the Wolverines’ win over Ohio State. Georgia will be his biggest test yet, but he has passed every other one so far with flying colors. The Wolverines will also have No. 2 back Blake Corum fully healthy after an ankle injury limited him late in the season. Expect him to factor into things as well.
Jordan Davis, Georgia DT
On the other side, we’re going with Davis from the grab bag of Georgia defensive linemen. The 340-pound senior will see the field only on first and second down, but that’s where the Bulldogs can win this game. Keep Michigan off schedule, get the Wolverines in third-and-long and see if they can’t force McNamara to make a play or two. That still may not be enough, but Georgia won’t win this game unless Davis and company can win up front.
Aidan Hutchinson, Michigan DE
Hutchinson’s 15.5 sacks this season understate his impact. Against Big Ten competition, he made a tangible impact on almost every play, whether it’s affecting the quarterback, plugging rushing lanes or opening up opportunities for teammates. He has been the best defensive player in college football this year, and he finished second to Bryce Young in Heisman Trophy voting. He’ll have his say on this game.
Georgia’s defense is more talented than any Michigan has faced this season. But time and time again, the Wolverines have proven themselves, including a win over Ohio State that’s better than any victory on Georgia’s schedule. The Bulldogs disappeared in the second half once Alabama proved it could compete with them — something that doesn’t seem to be in the character of this Michigan team — and their quarterback issue is hanging over this game. Michigan, in a close one, makes the national title game.
Michigan 27, Georgia 21