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CFP preview: Defenses clash in Michigan-Alabama, red zone key in Texas-Washington

Jan 1, 2024, 7:15 AM

Jim Harbaugh, Michigan football...

Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh watches from the sidelines during the first half of the Big Ten championship NCAA college football game against Purdue, Saturday, Dec. 3, 2022, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

(AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

The final four-team College Football Playoff promises to be one of the closest in the 10-year history of the event.

The combined spread of the two New Year’s Day semifinals sits at six points, according to FanDuel Sportsbook. No. 1 Michigan is a 1 1/2-point favorite against fourth-seeded Alabama in the Rose Bowl. No. 3 Texas is a 4 1/2-point favorite over No. 2 Washington in the Sugar Bowl.

That’s the smallest combined line for the CFP semifinals since the 2017 playoff, when Georgia beat Oklahoma in overtime at the Rose Bowl as a 2 1/2-point favorite and Alabama was favored by 3 1/2 against Clemson in the Sugar Bowl and rolled over the Tigers.

The matchups that will decide each CFP semifinal, with the winners advancing to the Jan. 8 championship game in Houston.

ROSE BOWL

Alabama’s offense and quarterback Jalen Milroe have been a work in progress this season. Recent Crimson Tide teams have paired eventual first-round draft pick quarterbacks with a bevy of star receivers to create explosive offenses.

This isn’t that. Alabama is 30th in the country in yards per play (6.36) and has allowed 43 sacks, a woeful 123rd nationally, while throwing only 302 passes (122nd nationally).

“The big question will be which Alabama offensive line shows up because the one we saw against Georgia (in the SEC championship game) was dominant. There have been times this year where they have been a flat-out liability,” Cole Cubelic, who works as an analyst for ESPN and the SEC Network, said on the AP Top 25 College Football Podcast.

Michigan doesn’t have one player up front defensively that stands out as a star — the way Alabama All-America edge rusher Dallas Turner does — but they are deep and committed to stopping the run, often with eight players close to the line of scrimmage.

Michigan will want to put the game in Milroe’s hands. Early in the season that seemed like the way to beat Alabama, whose only loss was by 10 points at home to Texas. Now, less so.

Milroe is 6-foot-2, 220 pounds with speed and a powerful arm. He is a player with difference-making skills, but his game has holes, especially as a mid-range passer. Milroe will miss some open throws, but he has thrown only six interceptions and Alabama has lost only four fumbles.

Tide offensive coordinator Tommy Rees doesn’t call many designed runs for Milroe. He might need to dip into the bag in the Rose Bowl.

“They’re going to have to do that to have some success on the ground,” said Mike Kuchar, the co-founder of the X&O Labs football research company. “I don’t see them lining up and coming downhill on Michigan’s defense at all.”

Michigan allowed 4.28 yards per play, fourth in the nation. The numbers suggest an elite defense, but beware: The Wolverines saw few potent offenses in the Big Ten.

On offense, Michigan is run-heavy and mistake-free. The Wolverines have committed only seven turnovers.

But the Wolverines’ running game fell off this season. After averaging well over 5 yards per carry the last two years, they are down to 4.27. Blake Corum scored 24 touchdowns, tops in the nation, but his average per carry was 4.72 yards after being over 5.0 the previous two season.

Michigan will also be without All-American guard Zak Zinter, who broke his left leg during the Ohio State game. The Wolverines have had some pass protection issues off the edge, too.

What coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore’s team has shown is a knack for being able to run when they needed to most in big games against Penn State and Ohio State.

Alabama hasn’t locked down the run as well as most of Nick Saban’s best teams (3.7 yards per carry against, 31st in the country), but nobody is going to bully the Crimson Tide.

“It’s going to take some creativity. It’s going to take some pre- and post-snap movement, whether that’s split-zone, jet-motion, different things like that,” Cubelic said. ”And Michigan carries some of that, but they don’t really make a living on that. What they do extremely well is formation you.”

Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy is rarely asked to carry the offense. The third-year player has NFL tools, both with his arm and legs.

In a game where yards are likely to be hard to get and points at a premium (the over/under is 44.5), he will need to be at his most efficient against an Alabama secondary that features two All-America defensive backs in Kool-aid McKinstry and Terrion Arnold.

PREDICTION: Alabama 23-20.

SUGAR BOWL

The nightcap of the CFP semifinal doubleheader figures to a very different game than Alabama-Michigan.

Washington and Texas both have top-15 offenses, talented quarterbacks in Michael Penix Jr. and Quinn Ewers, multiple future NFL draft picks to throw to and problems stopping the pass.

That’s a recipe for points.

The one group that stands out on defense: The Texas defensive line, which features All-American T’Vondre Sweat and second-team All-American Byron Murphy II.

“There’s not a lot of teams in the country that have the interior guys like Texas has, specifically Murphy and Sweat,” Cubelic said.

Part of the reason teams attack the Longhorns secondary, especially their inexperienced safeties, is because they mostly give up on the running game. Texas is allowing 80.5 yards per game and 2.87 per carry, top-five in the country in each.

Washington counters with an offensive line that was underappreciated much of the season, but ended up winning the Joe Moore Award as the best in the country. Led by second-team All-America tackle Troy Fautanu, the Huskies allowed only 11 sacks while throwing the ball 37 times per game.

Washington doesn’t run it in volume, but coach Kalen DeBoer and offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb seemed to evolve as opponents adjusted to try to take away the deep throws the Huskies love. Running back Dillon Johnson’s role in the offense expanded later in the season, with Penix often lining up under center.

“They have relied on (Johnson) the last few weeks, and he’s been very good downhill,” Kuchar said. “And I think their confidence is growing every week. I think he’s taking a lot of pressure off Penix.”

Stops could be hard to come by for the Huskies, but Texas coach Steve Sarkisian’s red-zone offense has been a problem much of the season. The Longhorns have scored touchdowns on 49% of their opportunities, 120th in the country.

Then again, tightening up near the goal line hasn’t been a strength for Washington’s defense. The Huskies have allowed 31 touchdowns in 44 red-zone trips (70.45%).

Washington has scored touchdowns on 70% of its red-zone trips, 19th in the country. But when the field shrinks, Sweat and Murphy become even tougher to handle. Texas is 10th in the nation in red-zone defense, allowing touchdowns on only 46% of opportunities.

PREDICTION: Texas 35-28.

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CFP preview: Defenses clash in Michigan-Alabama, red zone key in Texas-Washington