Jim Harbaugh’s tenure at Michigan was looking a bit murky with no victories over rival Ohio State and no bowl victories since his first season on the job.
However, Year 7 has been the breakthrough season, and No. 2 Michigan will make its College Football Playoff debut when it faces No. 3 Georgia in the Orange Bowl on Dec. 31 at Miami Gardens, Fla.
The Wolverines (12-1) got that first win over Ohio State in the Harbaugh era by a 42-27 score and then steamrolled Iowa 42-3 in the Big Ten title game to land the national semifinal spot against the Bulldogs (12-1).
The winner will face either top-seeded Alabama or fourth-seeded Cincinnati in the national championship game on Jan. 10.
“The goal wasn’t to get this far, right?” Wolverines running back Blake Corum said. “The goal was to keep going. So our focus is the same. The goal is the same.”
Michigan features the top defensive player in the nation, defensive end Aidan Hutchinson, the runner-up for the Heisman Trophy. Yet how the offense fares against the ferocious Georgia defense might be the key element.
The Wolverines rank 12th nationally in scoring offense at 37.7 points per game and topped 30 points on 10 occasions. But Georgia leads the nation in scoring defense (9.5 points allowed per game) and ranks second in total defense (254.4 yards per contest).
The Bulldogs gave up 10 or fewer points nine times, pitching three shutouts.
In fact, the Bulldogs allowed nearly one third of their point total — 41 of 124 — in a 17-point loss to Alabama in the Southeastern Conference title game.
Though Georgia extended its bowl streak to a nation-leading 25 in a row, the bitter loss to the Crimson Tide is serving as motivation.
“It is new life, it is one game and you have to win to advance,” outside linebacker Nolan Smith said of the national semifinal. “A lot of people watch Georgia football for a long time and a lot of people didn’t get this opportunity that we have had, and now that we have it, we have to seize it.”
Bulldogs defensive coordinator Dan Lanning became Oregon’s head coach, but he is assisting Georgia in the playoffs. Will Muschamp and Glenn Schumann are co-coordinating the defense.
Georgia ranks seventh in scoring offense (39.4) and scored at least 30 in 11 straight games prior to the Alabama setback.
Quarterback Stetson Bennett passed for 2,325 yards, 24 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Stetson is the starter because JT Daniels sustained two different injuries — first to an oblique, the second a lat strain.
Daniels reportedly tested positive for COVID-19 shortly before Christmas, and it was unknown if he would be available to face Michigan.
The Bulldogs will have to deal with Hutchinson, who had 14 sacks and is a strong candidate to be the first player selected in the 2022 NFL Draft.
Georgia coach Kirby Smart said he got his first scouting report of Hutchinson from his 9-year-old son. Then he did his own legwork and said the Bulldogs haven’t faced a player like him.
“There’s not going to be anything casual about this game,” Smart said. “There’s going to be a bunch of strain and physicality, which (Hutchinson) prides himself on and does a tremendous job. It’s an incredible opportunity for our offense to go up against the likes of their defense.”
Meanwhile, Michigan quarterback Cade McNamara isn’t flashy but is efficient with 2,470 yards and 15 touchdowns against four interceptions.
The Wolverines see no reason to alter their blueprint no matter how dominant the Georgia defense has been.
“Not trying to change or do anything different,” Michigan receiver Cornelius Johnson said, “but just play our brand of football.”
The teams split two previous meetings with the Wolverines prevailing in 1957 and Georgia winning in 1965.
–Field Level Media