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Before a Rematch With You-Know-Who, Georgia Has to Get Past Michigan

Michigan’s Hassan Haskins leads the nation in rushing touchdowns. Credit: Bryan Fuller

Don’t even think about a rematch. Put it out of your head. Instead, focus on what’s at hand: the Orange Bowl in Miami on New Year’s Eve and a College Football Playoff semifinal date between the Georgia Bulldogs and the Michigan Wolverines.

This is the kind of postseason matchup a college football romantic dreams of. It’s two of the most storied blue-blood programs in the country with two diehard fan bases facing off for the first time since 1965. It’s blue vs. red. It’s North vs. South. It’s the platonic ideal of a big-time college football bowl game.

You can admit it. You didn’t give a second thought to the Wolverines until after they beat Ohio State in The Game in November. I didn’t. Well, give them some thought now. They’re very capable of beating the Dawgs and ending our season with two straight losses, no SEC title, no bowl win and, of course, no national title.

Look at what Michigan has accomplished this season. The Wolverines defeated Ohio State 42-27. Their first win over the Buckeyes since 2011 was so emphatic it seemed to erase a decade of emotional baggage in one fell swoop. From there, they dog-walked Iowa 42-3 in the Big Ten Championship Game. The only blemish in their 12-1 record was a four-point loss on the road to a 10-2 Michigan State team. These dudes are the real deal.

But, unlike what happened in the SEC Championship Game, the Dawgs can beat Michigan the same way they beat every regular-season opponent. On defense, they have to stop the run and not allow the quarterback to make big plays. On offense, they have to establish the run and have a mistake-free outing from the quarterback—whether that be Stetson Bennett IV or JT Daniels. In short, Kirbyball.

This strategy won’t be as easy against Michigan as it was against most of the teams we faced this season, because Michigan is better than most of the teams we faced this season. The Wolverines are in the upper echelon of teams Kirbyball can actually work against. Unless Kirby Smart had an epiphany and changed the way his team operates in the span of a month, we’ll need to execute much better than we did last time out.

In many ways, the team we face down in Miami should be familiar: This is Michigan’s version of our 2017 team that won the Rose Bowl and lost in the National Championship Game. The Wolverines came into the season unranked and have surprised everyone with their run to the CFP. They are a senior- and junior-heavy team anchored by leadership and experience. They can run the ball. Michigan ranks 10th nationally in rushing yards per game (223.8). Senior tailback Hassan Haskins ranks ninth in total rushing yards (1,288) and first in rushing touchdowns (20). At quarterback, they have a game manager. Junior Cade McNamara has 2,470 yards passing, 14 touchdowns and four interceptions. It’s a stat line like Bennett’s this season and Jake Fromm’s in 2017, albeit with fewer touchdowns.

Defensively, they have a pair of the most dangerous edge rushers in college football. Linebacker David Ojabo has tallied 11 sacks this season. Coming off the other side, defensive end Aidan Huticnhson has 14 sacks and was a Heisman finalist. Our offensive linemen better have their heads on a swivel, because these dudes can make a quarterback’s life hell for 60 minutes.

You’re starting to get the picture. But the biggest point of comparison between the 2021 Wolverines and the 2017 Bulldogs are the fans. Just like we were in 2017, these Michigan fans are tasting success at the highest levels of the sport for the first time in a long time. Were you in Pasadena for the Rose Bowl in 2017, or did you hear the stories about how everywhere anyone went in L.A. that week, they saw fans in red and black? That’s what’s about to happen on South Beach, except it’ll be maize and blue.

They’re not taking this moment for granted, and you shouldn’t either. If we handle our business against the Wolverines, then we can think about what—and who—comes next.