FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Georgia and Michigan, two storied and powerful football programs, will do battle in the Orange Bowl on Friday night. The stakes couldn’t be higher: The winner advances to the College Football Playoff Championship game in Indianapolis; the loser goes home.
Their routes to Hard Rock Stadium are decidedly different. The No. 3-ranked Bulldogs (12-1) opened the season ranked No. 5 and spent seven weeks as the nation’s consensus No. 1 team. In contrast, the No. 2-ranked Wolverines (12-1) opened the year unranked with coach Jim Harbaugh’s backside squarely on a very warm seat.
In the end, Harbaugh’s team won the Big Ten championship, Georgia lost in the SEC title game, and both still have a chance to win the 2021 national championship in football. That depends on what happens Friday night (7:30 p.m., ESPN).
“Being able to play in this playoff game is something that everyone on this team has always dreamed of doing,” Georgia junior receiver Kearis Jackson said. “We’ve come up short the past couple of years. But now we’re actually living the dream that we always wanted to do. So, now we don’t want to make it too big of a moment. We understand what we’re here for and what we’re fighting for.”
It feels as though the pressure is on the Bulldogs’ sideline. Not only have they been posted in Las Vegas as touchdown favorites, they’re the team that everyone expected to be here from the jump. The College Football Playoff has been a stated team goal since preseason camp opened in early August.
Conversely, Michigan is making its first CFP appearance. Picked to finish fourth in their division, the Wolverines instead knocked off rival Ohio State and rolled through all but one opponent.
The vibe in the Wolverines’ camp feels similar to the one Georgia experienced at the Rose Bowl in the 2017 season. The Bulldogs were the unexpectant SEC champions and posted as underdogs to an Oklahoma team with an impatient fan base that was weary of coming up short. With a hyperventilating fan base in tow, Georgia won in a double-overtime shootout.
Of course, Georgia lost in overtime to Alabama in the national title game a week later. The onus ever since has been on getting another shot.
For the first time since, the Bulldogs finally do.
“It’s not about the expectations,” said Kirby Smart, in his second CFP as Georgia’s sixth-year coach. “That’s part of what comes with being at the University of Georgia, but that’s not what I concern myself with. I concern myself with guys having fun, competing at a high level. When you do those things right, you can coach guys tough and they can have a chance to be successful. We’ve had a chance to be successful every year. I’m certainly happy and honored to be in the College Football Playoff.”
The Wolverines aren’t just happy to be here, but their joy about the place and the situation feels more genuine.
Typically stoic and unexcitable, Harbaugh seemed borderline giddy when asked to assess Michigan’s state of mind on the eve of the national semifinal.
“We’re happy. We’re really happy to be here,” Harbaugh said during a joint press conference with Georgia’s coach Thursday. “… There’s a great joy. There’s a great joy around the team, the locker room, practices. It would almost be like if you weren’t happy about that, then there would be something else we’ve got to look into. Why wouldn’t you be happy?”
The Bulldogs have had to continually answer questions about what happened against Alabama in the four weeks that have passed since the SEC Championship game. Undefeated and favored coming in, Georgia was overwhelmed in the second and third quarters of a 41-24 loss, its seventh in a row to the Crimson Tide.
Based on pregame odds, the Bulldogs are expected to meet Alabama again Jan. 10 in Indianapolis. But while they are a touchdown favorite against Michigan, there virtually is nothing about this game that resembles what Georgia was facing in the last game.
Old-fashioned power football will be on display at Hard Rock Stadium on Friday.
Led by running backs Hassan Haskins (1,288 yards, 20 TDs) and Blake Corum (939-11), the Wolverines average 223 yards on 42 rushing attempts per game. Based on a play-action game created off that ground-oriented success, Michigan also leads the nation in plays of 50 yards or more.
“We’re always striving to be really good at that at the phase of running the football and, on defense, being able to run and hit and wrap up and make tackles and pursue. It’s a physical sport. So, yeah, you always strive to be as good in that area as you can.”
At 36.9 attempts per game, Georgia doesn’t run the ball as much as Michigan (42.1), but still rushes more than most of the SEC brethren. And it will need to Friday against Michigan’s stout, big-play defense.
“Being physical is part of the sport,” said Smart, echoing Harbaugh’s sentiments. “If you’re not going to be physical, you’re probably going to struggle. That starts with the line of scrimmage. There comes a point in almost every game where you have to be able to run the ball, whether that’s four-minute, end-of-game stuff or that’s short yardage. There has to be a commitment to moving forward and putting your hat on people.”
Meanwhile, the Wolverines feature the best pair of edge-rushers Georgia has faced all season. Senior outside linebacker Aidan Hutchinson (6-foot-6, 265 pounds), the Heisman Trophy runner-up, gets the majority of publicity and it’s well-deserved. But opposite of Hutchinson is junior David Ojabo (6-5, 250), and he has recorded 11 sacks to Hutchinson’s 14.
David Pollack, Georgia’s Hall of Fame edge rusher and now an ESPN “College GameDay” analyst, said Thursday he believes both players will be NFL first-round picks, with Hutchinson very likely going No. 1 overall. He also expects them to be a big problem for Georgia’s offensive tackles, Jamaree Salyer and Warren McClendon.
“If Georgia gets into predictable third-and-long passing situations, they will not hold up against those guys,” Pollack stated flatly. “Those guys are too good to put on an island and say, ‘All right, McClendon and Salyer, go ahead and hold up against these guys on the outside.’ I think they’ll lose those matchups. That’s why I think Georgia has to run the football and have balance.”
For once, there appears to be little mystery about who will play quarterback for the Bulldogs. Senior Stetson Bennett is expected to make his 10th start in a row and 11th overall this season. That’s despite coming off a subpar performance against Alabama in which he threw two interceptions, including a pick-six.
Any thoughts of going with JT Daniels instead likely ended with the junior quarterback being sidelined with COVID-19 before the holiday break. Daniels and junior wideout George Pickens traveled to Miami separately two days after the rest of the team arrived. Smart said both will be available to play, however.
Meanwhile, there was rampant speculation on the eve of the game about whether one of Michigan’s best players will be available. Daxton Hill, an All-Big Ten safety and the team’s second-leading tackler, was not even in Florida as of Thursday morning. But Harbaugh, speaking to reporters for the first time since the Wolverines have been in Miami, remained cryptic and dodgy in answering questions about it.
“His status is going to be questionable,” Harbaugh said while sharing a Zoom call with Smart. “He’s working through something right now. We’ll know more today whether he’ll be able to play. ... He could be here today. He may not. But (he’s) not currently in Florida, no.”
Being cryptic about injuries and player availability is another similarity between Harbaugh and Smart. So is wanting to win in the worst way Friday.
Both coaches are seeking to become the first since Tennessee’s Phillip Fulmer in 1998 to win a national championship for their alma mater. The pressure to do that is beginning to ramp up on Georgia’s Smart.
He claims to be taking it all in stride.
“I’ve been able to be a part of a lot of big games like this on the CFP stage and then back in the BCS stage,” said Smart, who spent 10 years as Alabama’s defensive coordinator. “Just watching the guys play, it’s memories for a lifetime as a coach. You hope to be back. As a coach, you’ve been here before, but it’s the players that it’s really about. It’s about these guys enjoying it and going out and competing and making memories of a lifetime.”
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