Georgia and Michigan reached their College Football Playoff semifinal in the Orange Bowl going in different directions. The question is whether that positive or negative momentum plays a significant role as the teams fight to reach the championship game in Indianapolis on Jan. 10.
The Bulldogs strutted through almost the entire regular season, bullying every opponent along the way, from Clemson through Georgia Tech, behind a defense quickly placed alongside the best in recent Football Bowl Subdivision history. Then came the SEC championship game, and Alabama just as quickly put a dent in the Bulldogs’ sense of invincibility with a convincing victory.
The Wolverines are feeling quite differently after breaking an eight-game losing streak to Ohio State on their way to their first Big Ten title since 2004. They’ve won five in a row, taking the pressure off coach Jim Harbaugh and giving belief to the team that they can finally live up to the program’s lofty expectations.
This will be only the third meeting between the schools from the SEC and Big Ten, with the most recent coming in 1965. One thread linking the two historically successful programs is an extended dry spell: Michigan hasn’t won a national championship since sharing the crown with Nebraska in 1997, while Georgia hasn’t stood atop college football since 1980.
One good thing that Georgia has going for it is that Michigan’s offense isn’t in the same class as Alabama’s. So the nation’s top-ranked defense can load up on the run and force Michigan quarterback Cade McNamara to beat them through the air. If the Wolverines’ rushing attack, which ranked 10th in the nation this season, can’t get going, it could be a long night for Harbaugh and his crew. Georgia 31, Michigan 10.
When we last saw the Georgia Bulldogs, their historic defense was getting torn apart by Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young in Atlanta. The showing understandably left a bad taste in people’s mouths, but it’s also obscured the fact that Georgia was the best team in college football for the first 13 weeks of the season. Michigan’s breakthrough campaign under Harbaugh has been an incredible story – but the Wolverines’ run-first style plays right into Georgia’s hands. Without a game-breaking quarterback, I don’t think Michigan will be able to muster enough points against Georgia to win (even if the Bulldogs’ own offense struggles against the stout Wolverines). Georgia 24, Michigan 13.
The matchup of strength against strength seems to favor Georgia. But don’t overlook the fact that Michigan is the hottest team in the playoff field, having just cleaned up against Ohio State and Iowa. A low-scoring game could flip on a single play. Georgia 20, Michigan 17.
Georgia can go two directions after its loss to Alabama. Either the Bulldogs learn from the disappointment or those flaws get exposed against Michigan. While the Wolverines are more run-dominant than the Crimson Tide, they can still hurt the Georgia secondary that was picked apart by Bryce Young. Michigan’s defense is stout enough to slow down the Bulldogs in what should be an old-school semifinal that resembles a slugfest that comes down to the fourth quarter. Georgia 21, Michigan 16.
There are a lot of similarities between these teams. The biggest difference is Michigan can throw it if it has to. I’m not convinced Georgia can. The Wolverines also can find some yards on the ground on the outside. It won’t be a track meet, but Michigan will make more big plays. Michigan 27, Georgia 17.
This game is strength-on-strength, and it will be interesting to see what Michigan offensive coordinator Josh Gattis comes up with to deal with the obvious problem of trying to run the football on Georgia’s defense. The likely scenario is that Michigan runs into a brick wall and can’t generate quite enough points to get over the finish line. Georgia 17, Michigan 13.
Who has the edge?
When Georgia runs
The Bulldogs’ running game went absent against Alabama but had been very consistent throughout the regular season. As many as four runners – five if you count quarterback Stetson Bennett – could play a role against the Wolverines. Michigan hit a low against Kenneth Walker III and Michigan State but has played well since. EDGE: Georgia.
When Georgia passes
Michigan wants to get Georgia into clear passing situations and send Hutchinson and the rest of the pass rush howling into the backfield. It’ll be a long day for the Bulldogs if Bennett is forced to beat the Wolverines with his arm. But the offensive line has been solid and there are options at receiver, so the potential is there for the Bulldogs to strike it big downfield if given the chance. EDGE: Michigan.
When Michigan runs
Michigan has drawn a great season out of Haskins and Coburn but has not faced anything like Georgia’s front seven. The Bulldogs are allowing 2.6 yards per carry and have given up just three rushing touchdowns all season. Even if it won’t be easy, look for the Wolverines to still attack the Bulldogs with a dedicated running game. EDGE: Georgia.
When Michigan passes
Take away the Alabama loss, and Georgia is giving up 150.8 passing yards per game with 12 interceptions against just five touchdowns. But how can we ignore what the Tide did to this secondary? McNamara and the Wolverines will have chances through the air, but the line must continue to protect the pocket. Michigan allowed just 10 sacks during the regular season. EDGE: Georgia
Michigan has missed just two field goals all season. The Wolverines also have the top coverage units in the nation. Combine those and you have the best special teams units in the playoff and a potential advantage if the game is close. EDGE: Michigan.
Kirby Smart has been on this stage before and knows how to prepare a team for the semifinals. But Jim Harbaugh has done a remarkable job rescuing his tenure from the brink and has the Wolverines firing on all cylinders heading into New Year’s Eve. EDGE: Michigan.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Michigan, Georgia meet in Orange Bowl: Predictions, game analysis