It doesn’t get much better than what college football fans will get at the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day. 

The Michigan Wolverines (No. 1) and Alabama Crimson Tide (No. 4) will play a CFP national semifinal in Pasadena that afternoon (on ESPN), on the same day No. 2 Washington and No. 3 Texas vie for the other spot in the national championship game (set for Jan. 8 in Houston).

Alabama’s inclusion in the field was the most controversial move in the 10-year history of the Playoff, as the selection committee bounced 13-0 Florida State to include the Tide. The selection committee’s decision to bounce an unbeaten Florida State in favor of Alabama was galling for what it said about the evaluation of the regular season, but it did result in an absolute humdinger of a Rose Bowl between two programs that look capable of winning the whole thing. 

Our supercomputer gives Michigan a 70.5% chance to win, though sportsbooks have the Wolverines as just 1.5-point favorites. Michigan and underdog Alabama have similar identities, and their clash is power on power.

Here are four critical subplots to track as they vie for a spot in the title game. 

A Different Test for Michigan 

Most of Michigan’s opponents have tried to beat the Wolverines with an underneath and intermediate passing game. All have failed. Alabama, which knocked off Georgia in the SEC Championship, will likely try a different approach, because the Tide play a fundamentally different style than the typical Michigan opponent.

Alabama quarterback Jalen Milroe loves to lob the deep ball to talented receivers Jermaine Burton and Isaiah Bond, and that tandem will give the Wolverines a more vertical test than they’re used to seeing in the Big Ten.

Jim Harbaugh’s squad saw some of it when it beat Ohio State (and star receiver Marvin Harrison Jr.) in the final game of the regular season, but they’ll get it in bulk against a ‘Bama offense that puts more air under the ball than most. Milroe’s 13.7 air yards per attempt were the third most among FBS QBs with 100 adjusted attempts or more. 

Well-thrown% vs Air yards per attempt

Milroe’s legs are just as pressing a concern for defensive coordinator Jesse Minter. The Wolverines’ Big Ten schedule did not present them with a QB who has anything remotely near Milroe’s ability as a runner.

The Wolverines only faced two quarterbacks (Nebraska’s Heinrich Haarberg and Rutgers’ Gavin Wimsatt) who made the QB run an important part of their repertoire. Milroe is miles more potent than either.

Team after team in the SEC tried and failed to design a QB-spy strategy that contained Milroe without opening up yawning passing lanes, and team after team failed. (Most glaringly, Auburn had a QB spy simply standing around watching when Milroe threw the touchdown pass of the season on a fourth-and-31 in the final minute to beat Auburn in the Iron Bowl).

Michigan will need a superior plan. 

Alabama’s Pass Protection Problem

One thing working in Michigan’s favor as the Wolverines work to limit Milroe: Alabama’s offensive line has some problems. The Crimson Tide allowed a sack on about 11% of their drop backs, one of the handful of worst marks in FBS, and only 13 teams had a worse pressure-allowed rate than their 38.3% mark.

Milroe, like any quarterback, was more vulnerable in obvious passing downs. Alabama converted a lousy 34.0% of its third downs, and Milroe tended to get sacked on those downs. In fact, Alabama QBs got sacked on nearly 20% of their passing-down drop backs – the worst mark out of 133 FBS teams through conference championship weekend.

Of course, the problem is only partially on the ‘Bama line: Milroe holds the ball for an eternity and takes a lot of sacks as a result. His 3.04 seconds to release were the slowest time to throw among FBS passers. 

slowest release times

None of this suggests anything great for a team that’s about to go up against a brutal Michigan defensive front. The Wolverines do not have the kind of game-wrecking edge rushers that they enjoyed in 2021, when Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo were a singularly impossible pass-rushing duo.

But they have a deep defensive line that generates pressure from the interior, solid edge defenders in Jaylen Harrell and Derrick Moore, and a bunch of linebackers and secondary players who have proved adept at flying into the backfield to cause havoc.

The Wolverines, who rank fourth nationally in defensive TRACR and fifth in pressure rate, look suited to get after Milroe all afternoon. Nick Saban and offensive coordinator Tommy Rees will need an answer. 

Michigan’s Consequential Line Injury

The Tide aren’t the only team with a potential matchup nightmare on the offensive line. Michigan All-American right guard Zak Zinter broke his leg in the Ohio State game, so the Wolverines will ride a different alignment against Alabama.

If it’s the same as in the Big Ten Championship, they’ll shift right tackle Karsen Barnhart inside to Zinter’s guard spot, while backup Trente Jones, who looked fine against Iowa, will take Barnhart’s tackle spot. 

Michigan is a good developmental program for offensive linemen, the position group that’s been the responsibility of offensive coordinator and frequent interim head coach Sherrone Moore. The line blocked up a 22-yard Blake Corum touchdown run on Zinter’s first play out, and Michigan had no problem running the ball against an outmatched Iowa in the Big Ten Championship.

Plus, the Alabama defense doesn’t have the impossible-to-block defensive tackles it’s often had under Saban. There’s no Da’Ron Payne or Quinnen Williams set to go up against the middle of Michigan’s line, and ‘Bama’s rush defense was more “good” than “great” at 57th in defensive TRACR against the run. Many of the Tide’s best run-stoppers come from the second and third levels.   

But the Tide are still mean, and we can assume that defensive tackles Jaheim Oatis and Tim Keenan III will give the Wolverines a lot to handle. Michigan’s offense relies heavily on Corum and Donovan Edwards keeping the sticks moving on the ground. Any interior weakness would jeopardize that. 

McCarthy’s Moment … Maybe? 

If Michigan does struggle on the ground without Zinter punching open holes, it will put more on the plate for UM quarterback J.J. McCarthy. The sophomore had a fine year; his well-thrown ball rate was 80.8% – well above the NCAA average of 76.4% – and he was not turnover prone with a better-than-average 3.2 pickable pass percentage. But most of his gaudy numbers came against opponents below Michigan’s weight class. 

When the Wolverines needed to put away Penn State, they did not record an official passing attempt in the second half. When they had to scrap to avoid an upset loss at Maryland the next week, Moore called run plays on passing downs and relied on Michigan’s defense to keep the Terrapins on the mat.

And in the win over Ohio State, McCarthy played fine but again didn’t do much heavy lifting. Two Michigan interceptions and a Corum-led run game were the difference against the Buckeyes. 

It’s not as if McCarthy hasn’t shown anything all year. Against the softer part of Michigan’s schedule, McCarthy kept the Wolverines on schedule and was a savant on third downs. Maybe Michigan can win two more games without McCarthy needing to exert himself as a passer in crunch time. But the Wolverines probably aren’t betting on getting off that easy, and Saban is famous for forcing opposing offenses to play a hand they may not prefer.

McCarthy, eventually, may have to be Michigan’s man. 

Projected Winner: Michigan

Win Probability: 70.5%

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