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Many experts thought there would be a Big Ten team represented in the College Football Playoff, prior to the season few thought it would be Michigan.
This was supposed to be the year the Georgia Bulldogs and Kirby Smart were able to slay their demons and bring home their first National Title in over 40 years. It was all coming into focus until the SEC Championship, where Bama shattered their dream season.
Yet, both teams are in the playoff and are vying for the right to bring home the hardware. Georgia is currently a 7.5 point favorite but will need to play a clean offensive game to win. Michigan with the points seems to be the wise bet for what should be a low scoring affair (O/U set at 45.5). Michigan has a great chance to win straight up, but they have narrower path to victory than the Bulldogs.
Here are the 4 key areas that will determine the champ.
Both Stetson Bennett and Cade McNamara were never seen as the long term solution to their teams’ quarterback issues. Yet, as the season progressed, both players continued to improve and both have displayed commanding presence of their offense.
Usually, the quarterback who wins is the one who delivers the most big plays. However, in this matchup, it will be the signal caller who makes the fewest mistakes. Neither team has an overly explosive offense, but if either team is given a short field, they can find a way to get in the end zone. Bennett has 24 TDs and 7 INTs this season, McNamara has 15 TDs and only 4 INTs. Neither of them have the eye popping stats, but in a game predicated on defense and running the ball, neither can afford a misstep.
Home Run Hitters
It’s incredibly tough to drive the football 80 yards against a great defense in small 4-5 yards gains. One penalty or negative yardage play will paralyze the drive and lead to a punt. So the few big chunk plays will make the difference on the scoreboard.
Michigan’s home run threat comes out of the backfield. Running back Blake Corum is the lightning to Hassan Haskins’ thunder. Corum has been explosive all season, and now that he declares his ankle “100 healthy,” he will need to be so again. Look for OC Josh Gattis to try and get him to the perimeter in space where he can thrive.
Wide receiver George Pickens has been injured most of the season, but in the SEC Championship Game, he reminded everyone what he can do. His 37 yard reception helped temporarily loosen the Bama defense against the Bulldogs’ running game. Pickens was dynamic in last year’s Peach Bowl against the Cincinnati Bearcats. He will need to turn in that same performance this year.
Pressure makes diamonds and breaks quarterbacks. Few have done it better this season than defensive end Aidan Hutchinson and linebacker David Ojabo. Both have done a fantastic job harassing quarterbacks, and the performance Hutchinson turned in against Ohio State was one for the ages. Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett is a viable runner and does a great job moving in the pocket. The Wolverine defensive front will need to bottle him up.
For Georgia, their two most dynamic front players come in the form of linebackers Nakobe Dean and Nolan Smith. Both are athletic players who do a great job playing in their opponent’s backfield. Dean has 5 sacks to his name this season, and Smith adds another 1.5. Since Michigan quarterback Cade McNamara isn’t the most fleet of foot, look for Kirby Smart and DC Dan Lanning to turn up the heat with these two.
From the Bench
Both teams have had questions surrounding their starting quarterback position all season. Neither Cade McNamara nor Stetson Bennett seemed dynamic enough to make the plays in the biggest moments, but both were still able to govern their teams this far.
Jim Harbaugh has worked in freshman quarterback JJ McCarthy throughout the entire season, and it has paid dividends. McCarthy has provided an offensive spark and forced defenses to prepare for both his legs and his arms. Outside of the Michigan State loss, he has managed to play relatively mistake-free football. Michigan must get him in the mix to keep Georgia on their heels. His athleticism provides an element that defenses have trouble accounting for, so how and when Harbaugh deploys him will be critical.
This was supposed to be JT Daniels’ football team, but injuries and inconsistent play from the wide receivers conspired against him. Once he was healthy it was Bennett’s team, and the Bulldogs were off to the races. However, against Bama the weakness of Georgia’s passing game was uncovered. This shouldn’t be a high scoring game, but will Daniels provide the necessary offensive boost should the Bulldogs get bogged down? Or will he just need to stand on the sideline and not provide any offensive interruptions?