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College Football Playoffs: The Three Things That Alabama Must Do to Beat Michigan in the Rose Bowl

This is the matchup that Alabama wanted and that the College Football Playoff needed.

<p zoompage-fontsize="15" style="">NCAA Football: SEC Football Championship-Georgia at Alabama

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

As part of our ongoing 2023-2024 CFP coverage, here are three things that must happen for the Alabama Crimson Tide, 1.5 point underdogs per DraftKings Sportsbook, to defeat the No. 1 Michigan Wolverines and advance to the National Championship game on January 8th.

No. 1 — Alabama Must Aggressively Use All Of Jalen Milroe’s Skills

The Alabama Crimson Tide offense entered the 2023 season among the least experienced in the country, losing 89% of their production. To that, the Tide also lost their offensive coordinator from the previous two seasons, brought in a very young one with a mixed track record, was already staring down a four-way QB contest before even adding a fifth to the mix. Then there’s the issue of penalties and the lack of a game-changing WR1...and all of those drops among the rest of the wideout corps.

But what this team has done, after a very unsteady first 5-6 games, has been remarkable. Jalen Milroe went from a benched man who could not make reads and deliver the ball decisively to the 6th overall Heisman vote-getter. He grew from an athlete into a blossoming quarterback that happens to be an athletic freak. He went from taking an ungodly 27 sacks to just 11. He grew more confident in his keys, more confident in his throws, leaned strategically into his running ability, and absolutely dominated many games down the stretch. His coaching staff learned how to use him; and Rees in particular learned to be more creative and confident in his playcalling.

he Tide went from calling plays (as we saw vs. Texas and USF) to actually scheming for opponents — as we saw vs. the Georgia Bulldogs, when ‘Bama backed off its aggression, challenged the Dawgs mano e mano, and dominated up front in a game of patient deliberation and old school football.

And while Tide fans will forever remember 4th and 31, but the zenith of the season was Jalen Milroe outdueling Heisman-winner Jayden Daniels in an absolute treat of a contest between two gifted players.

So, it will come as no surprise that the first thing Alabama needs to do is reestablish the rapport that Milroe and Rees had going for the last half of the year. That means ‘Bama needs to get Milroe going. But that does not mean that he needs to go off for 400 yards and five scores; rather, Tommy Rees must strategically use all of Milroe’s talents, mindful also of JM4’s weaknesses, and get him into a confident rhythm early. Manageable throws, quick throws. Ones that allow him the option to tuck and run. Bait for an overpursuing linebacking corps that has also suffered injuries to its leading tackler.

It has been remarked by several coaches that there simply is no one like Jalen Milroe in the Big 10. And that is fair. There are very few athletic specimens with his arm strength, speed, elusiveness, and raw power anywhere in the country. So don’t limit him to designed QB power runs and quick-outs. Establish a rhythm early, take the top off of the defense, be creative with down and distance, and give Jalen the green light — indeed, the encouragement — to take off if those linebackers turn their back to the play. Michigan’s LB corps overpursues against the run, but they are very active in pass defense. That means they often have their backs to the LOS; take advantage of that, just as Joe Burrow did all throughout the 2019 season.

It will be a game won and lost at the line of scrimmage, but that does not mean that it has to be a conservative slugfest either. Punish Michigan for its lack of elite defensive depth — notably in that second-level.

Milroe is a player that is at his best in a rhythm and when the playcalling wrongfoots defenders. The tarantella between Milroe and Rees that furthers that goal, especially early, will set the tone for the rest of the game. And above all, stay aggressive.

In fact, UM is at its best when teams try to nickel and dime the secondary. However, opponents that wanted to go over the top found plenty of space to do so, particularly as part of a play-action attack: Maryland, Ohio State, Rutgers, Nebraska were all well north of 8 YPA, and the two best passing attacks (UMD, OSU) threw for 4 scores to just 2 INTs. This team can be had deep. Milroe loves to chuck it. Let him do so.

<p zoompage-fontsize="15" style="">NCAA Football: SEC Football Championship-Georgia at Alabama

John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

No. 2 — The Crimson Tide Must Make JJ McCarthy Throw

The Michigan Wolverines are a team that don’t make many mistakes. We can (and should) debate the soft schedule they played that left them a bit less prepared than other teams for the high stakes and close games of the playoffs, but at the end of the day, in their biggest contests, the Wolverines made fewer mistakes than their opponents. However, they were hardly flawless doing so. And, against the four best teams UM played, they were in one-score dogfights till the end. Hell, even against an aggressively average Iowa team without an offense, UM’s offense was stuck in the mud. Just 3.3 yards per play.

What was the secret sauce in those games? Making JJ McCarthy throw — in fact, we even have a magic number for it. When he is asked to throw the ball 23 or more times per game, his completions have dropped by at least 10%. That hyper-efficient passing game? Turns into a bog standard, 7ish YPA / 64%ish percent attack. Very, very mortal in other words.

The way to get there is to stop the ground game, to win up front, of course. But whereas that is always a goal against other elite teams, it must be the number one priority for Alabama. The Crimson Tide cannot let Blake Corum et al tee off for 4-5 YPC. That is going to take a lot more discipline than the Tide’s ILBs have shown, too. Seemingly every game, Lawson has been good for one bust; Tim Smith has gotten turned around or stoned, and it has resulted in the Tide giving up huge gainers, scores, and almost got them beat a few times. If that means Keenan and Oatis are in there every play, so be it. If that requires benching the more athletic Lawson for fire plugs, so be it. Alabama cannot handle a reprise of the Auburn game.

Because, if Alabama can morph these Wolverines into a passing team, they get UM out of their comfort zone; they wear down a plodding OL designed for grinding; and they expose a fairly average passing attack to the best corners and best pass rush they will have seen all season. My money is on Alabama running them out of the building if that happens too.

But, to get there, you have to stop the run. Fortunately, when pressed with a specific challenge, this team has risen up to it: be that stopping Judkins and Dart, limiting Jayden Daniels, or keeping Georgia’s running game bottled up. Call me an SEC supremacist, but the Wolverines don’t have an individual player as good as Judkins and Daniels, nor are they as physical and dominating as Georgia’s offensive line. They can do to this.

<p zoompage-fontsize="15" style="">NCAA Football: Mississippi at Alabama

Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports

No. 3 — Make Michigan Know Fear

When the Crimson Tide were selected as the fourth and final team in this year’s field, there was a collective gasp that arose from the University of Michigan training table, following by murmurs and mumbles. A few seconds elapsed, then one of the staff realized this was on camera, and led the team in a less-than-convincing hootin’ and hollerin’.

They’ll deny it to their dying breath (and many are still in denial that it happened), but if it was not outright fear, what you heard in that brief, unguarded moment was a collective “oh shit,” as a team that truly believed they could bag a second-rate opponent instead drew a terrifying one instead, one that did what Michigan had been unable to: seal-club Georgia.

Not that you’re scared, but it is — the situation with Jordan Travis, it probably would have been an easier matchup.

MICHAEL BARRETT: Definitely.

Q. Is that a little bit of a letdown when you’re looking at it?

MICHAEL BARRETT: I feel like that probably was the biggest one. FSU, they’re missing one of their best players. Who wouldn’t want to play a team who was missing their starting quarterback for a chance to go to a National Championship Game?

Yeah, I feel like that’s kind of what that shock was. Like, oh, dang, we probably could have caught them slipping or whatever, whatever. At the end of the day, we’re here now. We have who we have, and we’re about to go handle business.

We are now about 72 hours away from the semifinal, and Michigan is still on about how they’re not scared, how they were offended for Florida State’s alleged snub, how they were just shocked — promise.

But, dear reader, you have ears, and methinks the lady doth protest too much. Does this sound like distress on behalf of a snubbed opponent to you?

They have approached this game in the most resigned fashion I’ve ever seen from a playoff team. There’s no excitement, no confidence, no juice...just resignation. And they may not be consciously scared, but this is not the vibe of the putative No. 1 team in the nation, nor the favorite in this game. This is the energy that someone like Cincinnati should have oozed, not the winningest program in college football history.

It’s time to show Michigan why they gasped on December 3rd, 2023 — time for old-school Alabama football. Forty minutes of punishment, execution, and domination. The Crimson Tide have won half of the game already; the mental one that this battle-hardened, scarred team and a two-decade Saban mystique dragged to the party despite the loathing of America.

Embrace that hate. Play with an edge. Make every down a business decision. Bring a broken bottle to the bar fight. Make them realize that Alabama was not doing Michigan’s dirty work for them by stomping Georgia; they were staking their own claim to the prize.

In other words, make their ass quit. Because Michigan so clearly does not want to be playing this team, at this moment...even if they only let it slip for a moment.


Admittedly, we’re homers here. So some of this may have seemed a bit dismissive: it’s not. Michigan is a remarkably talented team, disciplined, and well-coached. Michigan just doesn’t have this kind of talent. There’s literally not a single Michigan player that I would pencil in as a starter over Alabama’s two-deep (okay, maybe Center). Nor has it played a schedule that has permitted it to grind for 120 minutes in a playoff environment. But poorly-coached crappy teams that make tons of mistakes and turn the ball over promiscuously don’t win 35 games in three years. Nor do they plow through a Big 10 schedule with relatively few scuffs: at the end of they day, those are still physical contests — and Michigan has done both.

That said, this is also the best possible matchup for the Crimson Tide. In terms of scheme and personnel, it’s not going to be a gala of trickery: just old school football, between two of the three all-time winning programs in CFB history. Man on a man, who hits hardest, who executes better, who wants it more and who can marshal the athleticism to impose their will on their opponent.

Alabama also has the chance to stamp an imprimatur of legitimacy on its playoff appearance. Should the Tide upend Michigan, it will have proven to the numerous haters and doubters that Alabama more than earned their spot. Also, whether the Committee will ever admit it, it’s the matchup that the playoffs — indeed, college football in general — needed given Michigan’s own, far more substantive legitimacy concerns. Alabama can make a lot of the bad feelings about Michigan’s systemic cheating scandal evaporate; and a Crimson Tide win prevents a lot of embarrassment and tough questions next week.

After the SEC Championship Game, Alabama didn’t need a breezy affair against an undersized finesse team. It needed to stay on the grind and pop some pads. Luckily for them, they will get exactly that. No shortage of physicality will be had here: the best team will have to go out and take it from the other guy. Yet, in a sport of matchups, it just also happens to be the worst possible one for Michigan.

Roll Tide.

Poll

Do you believe Michigan when they say that they were really just shocked for FSU’s omission?

This poll is closed

  • 19%
    Not for a second. They skurred
    (385 votes)
  • 55%
    They’re Michigan. They’re not scared of anyone. They were just genuinely surprised because precedent indicated FSU should be in..
    (1096 votes)
  • 23%
    There was probably some shock there, but there was also plainly some trepidation at playing ‘Bama
    (471 votes)
  • 1%
    Unknown
    (37 votes)
1989 votes total Vote Now