A big shout out to Nick Durand of Maize N’ Brew for taking the time out of the Christmas holidays to answer my prying questions about the Wolverines (including the annoying ones about sign-stealing and Jim Harbaugh).
1) I’m going to rip the band-aid off and ask this question early. As an actual Michigan fan, what are your opinions on the whole sign-stealing situation? From an outside perspective, we’ve all gotten a good laugh out of Connor Stallions becoming a meme and the soap opera drama of it, but mostly don’t believe it amounts to much of anything. This is fairly open-ended, so just answer however you want to talk about it.
Glad we’re getting this one out of the way early. In my opinion I don’t think too much of the sign-stealing situation anymore since it’s kind of run its course in the national media. I was never really of the mindset that it could’ve been something that provided a big competitive advantage. After all, this is college football and 99.9% of teams are doing something to try and gain a competitive advantage. It’s certainly possible that something nefarious was going on, but I don’t think it’s anything more egregious than what any other teams could’ve been doing. Additionally, Michigan was still able to win when they were under the microscope for sign-stealing, indicating that it might not have been making a huge difference.
2) Jim Harbaugh has had Michigan back at the top of the Big 10 ever since 2021. That said, the last two years have been bookended with pretty disappointing playoff exits. Is this something you think is a concerning trend, or something that’s more of just a small sample size with variance going against the Wolverines?
I think for right now it could be chalked up to small sample size, but I also think it’s important to note that the context surrounding both of Michigan’s playoff games was vastly different. In 2021, there seemed to be a consensus that Michigan fans were just happy to be there. It wasn’t necessarily a huge surprise that Georgia won that game in the fashion that it did either, so I don’t really think it’s fair to indict Harbaugh or Michigan based on that performance. 2022 though is a different story, as Michigan should’ve beaten TCU with ease and came out flat, ultimately leading to a loss. This year’s game though could give us a verdict on how Michigan performs in the playoff. While losing this game wouldn’t be a surprise (Alabama is a very good team after all), it’ll be important to assess Michigan’s performance as a whole and see if they’re able to compete for 60 minutes.
3) Let’s talk a little offense. JJ McCarthy has one of the best (the best?) completion percentages in the nation, but his overall yards, YPA, and TDs are fairly low. For the most part, I assume that Michigan has been mostly winning by the rushing game. If things get tense, can McCarthy and his crew of pass catchers take over and win the game?
McCarthy’s improvement has been fun to watch this year for sure. He is one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the nation, and despite his YPA and touchdowns being down, I think that’s more of a product of Michigan not asking him to make a lot of big-time throws. He has all the arm talent in the world and the ability to make any throw on the field, Michigan just prefers to use a more methodical approach to move down the field. I think he has the ability to take over a game with his arm (and his legs) if need be, but I’m not so sure about his supporting cast. Roman Wilson has been good this year, but he hasn’t faced the likes of Terrion Arnold and Kool-Aid McKinstry yet. Look for someone like tight end Colston Loveland or gadget receiver Semaj Morgan to make some plays though on offense.
4) If you didn’t address this above, can you take a minute to talk about your main pass catchers and what threats they pose to Alabama? None are national household names yet, so our readers could definitely use a quick synopsis.
Roman Wilson is the best pass catcher Michigan has and showed his chemistry with J.J. McCarthy early in the season. Wilson wins with his speed and has been good at picking up yards after the catch this season. He’s a little undersized for a WR1 (6 foot, 192 pounds) and hasn’t faced elite defensive back play this year, but if there’s a receiver that’s gonna take over the Rose Bowl for Michigan, it’s Wilson. Colston Loveland is Michigan’s second leading receiver at tight end. He’s a sophomore and someone that got plenty of hype in the offseason after a big finish to his freshman year. He came out of the gates a little slow in 2023 but has been emerging more and more down the stretch. He’s a big threat over the middle for Michigan and has plenty of athleticism at his size. Other names Alabama should look out for will be receivers Cornelius Johnson, Tyler Morris, and Semaj Morgan, as well as tight end A.J. Barner.
5) Speaking of household names, Blake Corum was one of the most impressive running backs in college football in 2022. However, his yards per carry have tanked from 5.9 to 4.7 this season. What’s the story there?
Corum certainly hasn’t been the elite running back that we saw in 2022, but he’s still been solid this season. I think the regression this year could be chalked up to his injury at the end of 2022 and the overall wear and tear that last season must have generated. If you’ve watched the last two seasons of Michigan football, the biggest difference seems to be that he’s not getting those big 40, 50, and 60 yard runs that were so common and certainly make a difference in the stat sheet. He still showcases good vision and cutting ability that helps him pick up good chunks of yards on early downs. He’s also got some power despite his small stature that has played a role in him being nearly automatic in short yardage situations this season. I don’t think he’ll pop off for 150 yards in the Rose Bowl like he was doing in nearly every game in 2022, but he’s still a valuable weapon in Michigan’s rushing attack.
6) Moving to the defense, Michigan looks to be darn near unbeatable. At 9.5 points per game, they’re currently ahead of 2021 Georgia for the best college football defense since Alabama in 2011 in a different era of college football. What’s been the secret to being so overwhelmingly dominant?
I think Michigan’s defensive dominance is largely due to its defensive front. In my opinion the defensive line is the strongest position group on Michigan’s team with guys like Kris Jenkins, Mason Graham, and Kenneth Grant leading the charge. They’ve also got some depth up front with guys like Cam Goode and Rayshaun Benny rotating in on occasion. The pass rush also has talent, versatility, and depth. Michigan features four edge rushers in Jaylen Harrell, Josaiah Stewart, Braiden McGregor, and Derrick Moore, who each have unique skillsets and the ability to rush the passer. Pressure and the ability to dominate the line of scrimmage by the defensive front have allowed the linebackers and secondary to feast all year. The defense should have its hands full though, as Alabama is going to be the best offense that Michigan will have faced all season.
7) And on the flip side, are there any parts of the UM defense (personnel groupings, specific matchups, schemes, etc) that you think Alabama has a chance to exploit?
I don’t really think that Michigan’s defense has a major weakness, but I think if Alabama has success, it’ll be because of Jalen Milroe’s mobility. Michigan hasn’t faced any quarterbacks this year with the rushing prowess of Jalen Milroe, so it’ll be interesting to see how this game goes when they face him. It’s a small sample size, but Michigan did seem to have some trouble with Maryland’s Taulia Tagovailoa. Tagovailoa and the Maryland offense were able to move the ball regularly against Michigan, and Tagovailoa’s legs were a big reason why as he was able to scramble and keep plays (and drives) alive. It’ll be interesting to see how Michigan gameplans for Milroe in terms of spying and I think that Michigan’s defense of Milroe will go a long way in determining the outcome of this game.
Ed. Note: I keep seeing Michigan fans and even Michigan players/coaches referencing Taulia as their best reference for a mobile QB. Hooo boy are they in for a rude awakening. Taulia ran a 4.91 forty as a high school recruit - This is not even in the same stratosphere of rushing ability.
8) Have there been any true freshman get playing time this year that looks like they might be future All-Americans we’ll know in the next few years?
I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say he’s a future All-American, but one true freshman that’s made a big impact this season is receiver Semaj Morgan. Morgan has been primarily used as a gadget guy this year for Michigan and hasn’t exactly stuffed the stat sheet (17 receptions for 183 yards), but every time he gets the ball, he seems to make a big play. He has the ability to be a big-time threat with his ability to run after the catch and make plays on screens and sweeps. He’s also made an impact on special teams with limited reps. He’s been Michigan’s primary kick returner, and has been fine in that role, but got a chance to return his first punt of the season against Iowa in the Big Ten Championship. How’d he do? He shook some tacklers and took it 84 yards, nearly to the house before being pushed out of bounds. He could be a game breaker in the Rose Bowl depending on how Michigan uses him and will become a more well-known name in the future.
9) If Michigan beats Alabama, do they go on to win the entire Natty?
I’ll be honest, I haven’t looked that much into the Texas-Washington matchup, but from what I know, I think that Monday’s Rose Bowl will be the de facto National Championship game. I don’t think that Washington’s defense has the ability to stop either of Michigan or Alabama’s offense, and I think that either of these teams could beat Texas too. Even though Alabama already played and lost to Texas this year, I think that this is not the same Alabama team that was on the field in Week 2. From a Michigan standpoint, I think that this is the best shot they’ve had in three years to win a title. They’ve got the depth, they’ve got the talent, they just have to pass this tough test in the Rose Bowl.
10) Ok, I can’t help but ask... Is there anything to the rumors that Harbaugh may be going to the NFL? (And I ask this with full empathy as a fan who had to field this question all the time for years before people finally gave up wanting Saban to go pro and now just hope he retires)
Michigan fans play this game every year and it always ends up with Harbaugh staying in Ann Arbor. I think the circumstances are different this time though. NFL teams will line up for Jim Harbaugh this hiring cycle, it will ultimately come down to if he wants to take their offers. Michigan has already played six (six!) games without Harbaugh this season and won each of them, including a road game against Penn State and a game against Ohio State. There are still NCAA investigations swirling relating to “Burger-gate” and the sign-stealing saga that could push Harbaugh out the door, and on top of it all, Michigan has his successor (nothing official, but it seems like a good bet) in Sherrone Moore on the staff already. I think that if Michigan wins a National Championship this season, then Harbaugh will have accomplished his main goal and won’t have any reason to stick around. It would certainly be tough to see him go given both his acumen as a coach and just how well he fits the University of Michigan community, but if he were to leave Michigan could still have a bright future with Moore.