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Giving Away Money College Football Playoff Edition: Michigan-Alabama Point Spread Pick and Analysis

Why exactly is Michigan favored here?

<p zoompage-fontsize="15" style="">Pasadena Prepares For The Rose Bowl

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Michigan -1.5 vs. Alabama

On paper, this number looks great. You can make a defensible case for the spread, at least.

Michigan doesn’t turn the ball over much; they force a ton of mistakes; they rarely draw flags; they have a deep and versatile running game; their passing game has been efficient; and they have a defense that has been the tits...until you go too granular. Because, once you delve a bit deeper, you see why the casual money and greater volume of action has been on UM, but the large money has been on Alabama — The Tide are at 64% of all wagers collected.

And that granularity matters, because it’s the microscope view that kills this one.

TALE OF THE TAPE

When you don’t do opponent adjustment metrics (and most lines do not), you generate UM at -1.22, which is pretty close. However, these teams did play opponents of varying quality, and UM’s best win (vs. tOSU), would be the the 3rd best one on Alabama’s kill sheet. And despite being at home, facing a substandard QB, that was still a very close game for the Wolverines. In fact, almost all of Michigan’s “hard” games were close: Maryland, OSU were one score affairs. PSU was one-score until a late FG pushed it to 9. Even the beating of Iowa, where the Hawkeyes gacked it up five times, had some nasty shocks in there: 3.3 yards per play.

All of these teams had one common denominator too: they forced Michigan to throw the ball. And it was actually a bit easier than you’d think. Because, even against a far easier schedule, the 2023 UM rushing attack simply is not the same one that terrorized teams last season. The wear and tear on Blake Corum is noticeable; those giant chunk plays he ripped off last year are way, way down. He’s down over a full YPC vs. last season. His backup, the once-dynamic Donovan Edwards, has lost fully four YPC over last season’s fearsome change of pace: following his injury, he’s down from nearly 1000 yards to just over 300. There is the promising freshman Hall, sure; but don’t expect him to change a game — or even get many looks. And even 3rd teamer Kalel Mullings has seen his usage cut way, way down.

It’s ride or die with Corum...and a lot of teams made the Wolverines get out of their comfort zone. In five contests, in fact, UM ran for fewer than 160 yards. In fact, it is Alabama who has rushed for more yards, more yards per carry, and more yards per game than the Wolverines...on top of a far more explosive passing attack. And, against several good run-stuffers UM played, they were downright putrid: 1.9 yards per carry against Iowa; 3.3 yards per tote vs. Maryland; 3.5 vs. Sparty. They got to 5 YPC vs. Penn State, and just about 4 vs. Ohio State. But those are remarkably mortal numbers for a rushing team.

And why does it matter? Because when UM is forced to throw the ball 23 times or more, their completions drop by over 10%, and they lose over a yard and a half per attempt. In other words: almost no team is as wedded to winning with the ground game as are the Wolverines.

But, it just also happens to be a bad matchup. The offensive line is weaker this year, being fairly average in allowing negative plays, being over a yard worse on 1st and 3rd down vs. Top 25 teams, and in allowing pressures. They’ve not surrendered many sacks, but they also do a lot of dump offs. And the lack of PA passing also means that UM have plenty of safety valves to avoid those negative plays.

They’ll be pressured here for sure, as teams that could pin their ears back made life miserable for McCarthy. There is a very good reason he only attempted 8 passes vs. Penn State, the only team UM has faced with a comparable front seven. You can’t expect that Steele will do anything but dial up pressure.

The key, then, it to get there. And the Tide will have to do so by getting stops in the ground game.

You can fully see UM out-executing Alabama a few times in that respect. Lawson overpursues, Tim Smith downs are a gamble. But is that enough to carry the Wolverines to through a whole game? Adjusted numbers don’t think so, especially once a QB who doesn’t like to throw, has to put it in the air with receivers who scare no one, against the best corner tandem in the country, and with the nation’s best pass rusher coming every down.

In opponent-adjusted terms, UM’s offense is well behind Georgia, and even a step behind Ole Miss. They won’t beat themselves, and neither of these teams are going to put the ball on the ground much, but McCarthy will be asked to do something he’s not had to so far: win a game with his arm; not just move chains. Can he do it? Seeing that Michigan took the ball out of his hands more often than not, one can be dubious: In nine of UM’s contests, he attempted fewer than 24 passes. In fact, he rang up bad teams; he threw more than 24 passes against outmatched UNLV, pitiful ECU and Sparty, woeful Purdue, and then in a must-win against the depleted and turnover prone Hawkeyes. There’s never really been a game out of the gate where the gameplan has made him the man. But the odds are good he’ll have to be the man in the Rose Bowl. And he has to somehow do this with one of UM’s more average lines of the past few years that also is missing All-American Zak Zinter.

UM will almost certainly make some plays in the seams in the passing game. The lack of PA passing allows McCarthy to get the ball out of his hands quicker. And the Wolverines line just doesn’t collapse too often. But the pocket is going to be a lot less secure than usual, and those big gainers that UM’s efficient passing contest relies upon just aren’t going to be there enough. There’s not a single player on the outside that scares you, if you’re Kevin Steele; just as there is no single running back that scares you like Judkins did; just as there is no mobile threat under center like Jaxson Dart posed; nor is the offense as terrifyingly efficient as the Georgia Bulldogs were.

And, yes, Michigan’s running game will win their share of battles and force some busts; they’ll get ‘Bama’s front seven caught up in their share of mismatches and gobbled up on occasion. But they have to do that for sixty full minutes to keep the ball out of McCarthy’s hands with regularity, and away from the First Round tandem of Terrion Arnold and Kool-Aid McKinstry. If Michigan has to throw the ball 30 times, it’s safe to say, that Alabama is handily beating them.

SPREAD HISTORY

Both of these teams have been good vs. the spread this season. UM is 7-5-1 vs. the number. But Alabama has been outstanding. Uncharacteristically for a Nick Saban team, the Crimson Tide are the 6th best team in the nation against the number, going 9-4 ATS. And as an underdog, they are 1-0 this season. In fact, since 2008, Alabama has been an underdog just eight times times, are 6-2 against the number, and outperforming the spread by an ungodly 14.6 PPG — no one weaponizes disrespect like Nick Saban.

And he’s positively loved staring down the Big 10 too. Aside from the collapse in 2014, where Alabama choked away a 24-3 lead, Nick Saban has been sterling against the Big 10. He’s lost just once — to those national champion Buckeyes — and he’s covered the spread in every other single game.

Michigan’s spread record vs. the SEC under Harbaugh...well, let’s just say that Jimmies and Joes matter, and it has shown up on the scoreboard and the balance sheet in a most mixed manner. And nowhere has that been on display more than in these neutral site games, where UM is among the worst in the B1G — just 5-6 away from Ann Arbor and undershooting the number by 1.7 PPG. Alabama, meanwhile, is 26-16-2 ATS at neutral site games under Nick Saban, and overperforming Vegas by almost a TD...the second-best such record in the SEC.

You have to like Alabama here, if you’re a trend bettor.

INTANGIBLES

1. The Michigan Circus

It is almost impossible to discuss this game without mentioning the circus of self-inflicted wounds that Michigan has endured at the hands of its head coach, Jim Harbaugh. I have tried not to delve too much into the personal, but he is that which Wolverine Fan long-accused Ohio State of, and what rivals tried to pin on Nick Saban for a decade: the prototypical mercenary who will, indeed has, flagrantly cheated to win games.

Nick Saban loathes him, and has loathed him, since the day Dad Pants arrived in Ann Arbor, pinned a target on Alabama’s chest, and started firing shots towards Tuscaloosa. Oh, sure, Saban is a consummate professional, and he’ll never let his feelings get in the way of a game, or let it affect his coaching...but he’s not above being extra spicy when the situation dictates or the opponent fires him up. And from the three-ring Barnum act of the satellite camps to cheating during Covid to infiltrating Catapult’s game film system to Connor Stalions, everything about Michigan under Harbaugh has rubbed him raw. And you don’t give Nick Saban a month to sit there and stew in his own juices.

2. Play styles

There’s also the matter of styles. If there were any team in these playoffs that Nick Saban would most want to play, it is the Michigan Wolverines. Since 2008, name the number of teams that have played a standard pro-set offense and that have been able to beat a healthy Alabama squad, much less plow them over?

I’ll do it for you — exactly once, a dozen years ago, in a game that went into overtime, required three Alabama FG misses, and a contested interception. And even then, Alabama exacted revenge two months later in a game where they did not shoot themselves in the foot repeatedly.

Alabama has been beaten by spread teams; they’ve lost plenty of times when banged up; they’ve lost to HUNH teams and squads with dangerous dual-threats under center. They’ve been scorched a few times by the Air Raid. But you’re not beating a Nick Saban team by lining up yours and hoping to out-muscle his when Alabama has its complete complement of players.

The Big 10 is a tough conference; I have deep respect for it. I love football and college football history. But where it matters the most, where the games are won and lost — along the lines, our Northern kin remain a step behind, a step slower, and lack elite NFL-quality depth, particularly on the defensive side, to really compete with an elite SEC team. And in this type of game, with this roster, Nick Saban could not be happier to line up and play a game of who’s tougher. A lot of teams have tried, and all-but one of them over the past 15 years have failed. You’re not going to goon up Alabama and win.

The Big 10 loves to tout its toughness, but Alabama and Georgia have been the rare programs to consistently back it up once they step outside of their backyard, even in a league that has dominated its inter-conference opponents for the better part of two decades.

3. It’s really hard to shake this one...

Look, no one seriously thinks a team gets to this level of play, individually or as a team, by being scared of challenges or shying away from big boys. But sometimes that mask of bravado slips, and in an unguarded moment trepidation can peek through the cracks.

And it’s really damn hard to shake this moment, when Michigan discovered that they would be playing Alabama.

In the mental war, Alabama struck the broadside of the Wolverines without even firing a shot. Can UM regain that swagger and juice that they had after beating down Iowa? Winning again versus the Buckeyes? I don’t know. But I do know that in the mental war, Alabama struck the broadside of the Wolverines without even firing a shot.

4. Legitimacy

No one outside of Tuscaloosa wants Alabama here. The Crimson Tide know it too. But they have embraced the role of the villainous spoiler, the team told that they were not good enough who has been good enough. The team who won a dozen games, hoisted the SEC Championship trophy, avenged last season’s losses, is still playing with a chip on their shoulder, and trying desperately to run away from their own past.

They’re not the same team that suited up the second week of the season. They know that; honest observers will admit that. Yet, they are being compared to that group rather than being judged on what they are now: the team that ended UGA’s 30+ game winning streak, ended Kirby’s dreams of a three-peat, and seated a once-laughably mid Jalen Milroe among the nation’s Heisman finalists.

They’ll keep playing for that legitimacy too. They’re the underdog — and even when favored, they have played with that grudge. It is an attitude that has even trickled down to the staff, particularly the 31-year-old Offensive Coordinator who came into this season with far too many questions...and for half a year looked every bit the disastrous hire many feared he would be. But he too has grown. Tommy Rees has also found his way; and like the men under his watch, he’s coaching with something to prove.

No one, and I repeat no one, weaponizes disrespect like Nick Saban. Often times he was the only one who seemingly believed in this team, and don’t think for one second that “Michigan -1.5” isn’t above every Hammer Strength machine or stack of plates in the weight room.

Michigan is here and was supposed to be here. Alabama was never supposed to be here, and until Sunday December 3rd, 2023, they didn’t even know if they would be.

I wouldn’t bet against that kind of battle-hardened team losing a knife-fight, would you?

5. Jimmies and Joes

Alabama will have the single best player on the field at all times: be that Will Reichard, James Burnip, Dallas Turner, Terrion Arnold. Kool-Aid McKinstry, or Jalen Milroe.

Michigan can survive being out-talented by someone like Marvin Harrison, Jr. But they can’t survive in all three phases of the game.


BOTTOM LINE

It may not seem like it at times, but I do respect this Michigan team. I’d put money on them in literally any matchup not involving Alabama or Georgia. And, with Georgia left out of the picture, there’s really just one other team in the country who could probably line up and bully the Wolverines. Unfortunately for them, that is exactly who they drew.

Football is, at its heart, a game of matchups — taking ‘his’n and beat your’n,” as Bum Phillips memorably said. And this just is a bad matchup for the Wolverines.

It’s that simple.

I do not bet my feelings. I separate my wallet from my heart. And, I’ve bet against the Tide covering on many occasions — and usually been right. The math never lies.

But this isn’t a contest where I can even remotely make a case for betting against my alma mater. In fact, the only way I can even get there is to ignore a lot of stuff. Ignore opponent-adjustment. Ignore strength of schedule. Ignore coaching and experience. Ignore depth. Ignore elite top-end talent. Ignore betting trends. Ignore data modeling. Ignore injuries. And, failing all of that, ignore my own eyeballs.

That, I’m not willing to do.

Take the Tide in an upset, that’s not really an upset at all
Alabama -7.652

Poll

Who ya’ got?

This poll is closed

  • 49%
    Michigan -1.5 — They’re favored for a reason
    (524 votes)
  • 50%
    Alabama +1.5 — This is the mother of all sucker bets
    (541 votes)
1065 votes total Vote Now