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Citrus Bowl Preview: When Alabama Has The Ball

Can the Michigan defense slow down the high-flying Alabama offense?

NCAA Football: Tennessee at Alabama
Najee Harris
Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan ranks #7 in the country in total defense, allowing 292.9 yards per game and 19.5 points per game. They are allowing 173.8 yards through the air, 119.1 yards on the ground, and 4.44 yards per play. The Michigan success rate on defense is #23 in the country, with their rush success rate coming in at #27 and their pass success rate coming in at #30 - a solid and rather balanced, if unspectacular - defense. As far as the total yards, the Wolverine defense is the highest ranked that Alabama has played all year. But yards aren’t everything, and they do allow more points per game than several of the teams Alabama has played in 2019.

The Michigan defensive coordinator is Don Brown, he has held the position since 2016. In each of his seasons as the Michigan defensive coordinator, Michigan has ranked in the top-10 in total defense. Brown’s defense typically sets up in a 3-4 base, and in the more traditional Big 10, they actually use base defense quite often. It’s a very aggressive scheme that’s both blitz heavy and reliant on press-man coverage. When things go well, they go really really well. And when they don’t, things fall apart in a hurry.

The linebackers for the Wolverines are led by Khaleke Hudson, Jordan Glasgow, Josh Uche, and Cameron McGrone. Hudson, a senior, is an All-Big Ten honoree and three-year starter for Michigan. He leads the team in tackles this season with 97 total tackles. Glasgow, a senior, was a Butkus Award semifinalist this season. He is second on the Michigan defense in total tackles with 79. Uche, a redshirt junior, declared for the 2020 NFL Draft and is playing his final collegiate game in the Citrus Bowl. He is an All-Big Ten honoree and leads the team with 8.5 sacks. Cameron McGrone is the youngest starting linebacker for the Michigan defense as he is only a sophomore. He is an All-Big Ten honoree that has 60 total tackles and 4 sacks this season.

The defensive backs for Michigan are led by Lavert Hill, Josh Metellus, Brad Hawkins, and Ambry Thomas. Hill, a senior corner, has started since his sophomore year. He has 28 total tackles, 3 pass deflections, and an interception this season He was a third team All-American last season for the Wolverines. Metellus, a senior safety, has 63 total tackles, 2 interceptions, and 5 pass deflections this season. He has been a starter on the Wolverine defense since his sophomore season. Brad Hawkins is a junior safety for Michigan. He is an All-Big Ten honoree this season and has 53 total tackles and 1 pass deflection. Ambry Thomas is a junior corner and All-Big Ten honoree. He has 3 interceptions and 34 total tackles for the Wolverine defense this season.

The Michigan defensive line is led by Aiden Hutchinson, Kwity Paye, and Carlo Kemp. Hutchinson, a sophomore defensive end, is a first-year starter that has appeared in every game so far in his Michigan career. He has 63 total tackles, 4.5 sacks, and 6 pass deflections this season. Kwity Paye is a two-year starter at defensive end for the Wolverines. He is a junior with 49 total tackles and 6.5 sacks this season. Carlo Kemp is a senior defensive tackle that has been a starter since his junior season for Michigan. He has 40 total tackles and 2 sacks this season for the Wolverine defense.

The biggest area to note here is that Michigan’s defense is tops in the country at limiting explosive runs, but a mere 40th at limiting explosive passes. Well, jokes on them, Alabama doesn’t get explosive runs anyway, and explosive passes are the entire nature of Tide offense.

As such, I expect the impressive linebacker unit to be able to keep Najee Harris from springing a bunch of huge runs, but their defensive line won’t be able to keep him from moving past them and picking up first downs all game long. Meanwhile, they’ll likely get home to Mac Jones a few times to force some sacks or bad throws (and it’ll be unbearably annoying if safety Dax Hill gets an interception), but Alabama’s receiving group is going to toast their corners in 1-on-1 more than just a couple of times for huge plays.

Overall, Michigan has a pretty solid defense this season. However, nobody has been able to really slow down the Alabama offense in 2019. Alabama is averaging 48.2 points per game this season. I think that Najee Harris will have a good day against the team he picked Alabama over. These last few games he has really showed out and I expect him to continue doing so. The Alabama receivers and Mac Jones will get their yards as they always do. Alabama has showed that they can score on anybody offensively. The only real question mark for this game is how the Alabama defense will play. Alabama’s offense will put up pretty good numbers on the Michigan defense, and score somewhere in the range of 35-42 points.