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Michigan vs. Alabama: Big Ten coaches predict tough battle for Wolverines in CFP semifinal

Despite a dramatic regular season punctuated by an investigation over alleged sign-stealing, No. 1 Michigan rolled to a 13-0 record heading into the College Football Playoff matchup in the Rose Bowl against No. 4 Alabama. But college football coaches The Athletic spoke to for this scouting report are convinced Michigan hasn’t been the same team since the NCAA’s investigation became public.

“They’re different now,” said one Big Ten head coach. “It makes a huge difference to know when blitzes are coming, so when you pick it up, you can really attack it. After that (investigation and resignation of staffer Connor Stalions), they weren’t always at the right place at the right time.”

The Athletic interviewed 10 Big Ten coaches, scouts and analysts to break down Michigan and how it matches up with a late-blooming Alabama team. They were granted anonymity to provide candid observations about the Wolverines.

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Scouting QB J.J. McCarthy: Still the guy?

Coaches mused on whether the decline in J.J. McCarthy’s production since the NCAA investigation became public was due to the sign stealing (or lack thereof), injury or Michigan’s backloaded schedule — or a combination of all of the above, the latter being most significant.

McCarthy threw 14 touchdowns in the first seven games and averaged 10.6 yards per attempt; in the last six, he threw five touchdowns and averaged 7.7 yards per attempt. In the Wolverines’ final five games, McCarthy only threw one touchdown pass.

“It does make you wonder,” said one defensive analyst whose team faced Michigan in the last month of the season. “Going into our game, I thought he was among the best in the country. Afterward, I didn’t think the same. Once all that stuff happened, he just doesn’t look the same. I don’t know if he’s hurt. I thought he was a Heisman candidate. Heisman quarterbacks don’t throw only eight passes in a game. I think before, he was ready for it and he was confident.”

“I don’t know what’s causing him to be hesitant and not as decisive as he was earlier,” said a Big Ten head coach who played Michigan. “He seems out of sync lately.”

One of the head coaches was adamant that the Wolverines had a significant advantage with signal-stealing intel, but he also pointed out that Michigan’s schedule was backloaded. The Wolverines faced the nation’s top three defenses (by yards allowed per game) in their last four games — and their other opponent was Maryland, which ranked No. 20 in the country in yards per play allowed. Coaches also buy that McCarthy has been bothered by a leg injury.

“I’ve heard he’s been banged up since the Penn State game,” said a Big Ten head coach. “He will have to make plays with his feet if Michigan’s gonna have a chance against Alabama. You ain’t gonna big boy Alabama (by just relying on your running backs). I think Alabama is way more talented. Michigan’s offense is not dynamic enough at the skill positions. Alabama’s gonna get heavy-handed with them. If Alabama can stop the run, Michigan has no chance. None.”

McCarthy has had some big performances in tough spots. The Wolverines were depleted last year at Ohio State, and he led them to a 45-23 comeback win when he threw three touchdown passes and ran for a fourth.

“I do think J.J. is very talented,” said one of the head coaches. “If he’s healthy, they’re gonna have to let him run more. When you can run like that, it puts so much pressure on your defense.”

“That’s the biggest thing he adds — it’s the unscripted scrambles,” a Big Ten defensive coordinator said. “If everything’s covered, he can get the first down and move the chains for them.”

The majority of the coaches interviewed said they believe McCarthy must play his best game of the season — and probably his life — for Michigan to beat Alabama.


The Wolverines have an explosive weapon in Donovan Edwards (right) but will miss Zak Zinter, who broke his leg in November. (Rick Osentoski / USA Today)

Scouting the O-line: The best in the Big Ten

In the previous two seasons, Michigan led the Big Ten in rushing behind an offensive line that won the Joe Moore Award. This year, Michigan ranks sixth in the league in rushing, averaging 162 yards per game — a decline of 77 per game from 2022.

“That O-line looks pretty. They’re like three deep of pretty guys, but you watch the film and Indiana stuffed them,” one of the defensive analysts said. “They’re not moving you off the ball like you’d think.”

What figures to be more problematic for Michigan is losing standout right guard Zak Zinter, who broke his leg during the Ohio State game. Right tackle Karsen Barnhart shifted inside to replace Zinter, and Trente Jones, who had played a lot this season as a jumbo tight end in 13 personnel sets, has become the right tackle.

“They’re not as good as they were up front last year,” said another defensive analyst. “The center (Olu Oluwatimi) was a lot better. This kid (Drake Nugent) is solid, but not as good. Zinter is very good, but now they don’t have him. (Trevor) Keegan is tough, but we thought they were better at tackle last year. Barnhart has been struggling. He’s probably better suited at guard.”

“I think Alabama will give them trouble with their front,” a Big Ten head coach added.

Despite this decline, most of the coaches still viewed Michigan’s offensive line as the best in the Big Ten. “They’re big and very sound fundamentally and disciplined,” said one of the head coaches. “They’ll check Alabama’s oil.”

Scouting the run game: On Corum and Edwards

The biggest star on offense has been running back Blake Corum, who had his 2022 season cut short by an injury to his left knee that required surgery. The 5-foot-8, 215-pound senior has run for 24 touchdowns this season, but his yards per carry are down from 5.9 last year to 4.7.

“Blake doesn’t look like he did last year,” one of the defensive analysts said. “He doesn’t have the juice. He’s getting chased down.”

In 2022, Corum had 15 runs of 20 yards or longer in 12 games. This year, he has seven in 13 games.

“I think Corum is really good,” said a Big Ten head coach. “He’s just so powerful. I don’t think he has the speed that some SEC guys have, but I do think he’s gotten better. He makes them go.”

“(Michigan) plays to his strengths,” said a Big Ten defensive backs coach. “(Corum) can’t take the 30-yard run and go 60. But he is a bull. He’s a one-cut guy. Not a home-run threat, but he is really, really good in the red zone and really good on check downs. ”

Donovan Edwards is more of the big-play threat. In 2022, Edwards blew the Ohio State game open by rushing for 216 yards (most of them on two long runs). But the former five-star recruit hasn’t been as effective this year. He’s averaging 3.5 yards per carry, down significantly from 7.1 a year ago.

“He has elite speed,” said a Big Ten head coach. “I don’t think he has great vision or great feel, but if he has a crease he can go. He’s just more of an athlete (than Corum). I don’t think he has the patience.”

“I was really scared of (Edwards), especially on third down,” said the Big Ten defensive backs coach. “They have a really good package with him.”

Scouting the pass game: Michigan’s biggest weakness?

Edwards’ versatility (30 catches) gives more punch to a passing attack that lacks big-time threats at wide receiver. According to the coaches interviewed, the receiving corps is the weakest position group. Roman Wilson is the leader in yardage (662 on 41 receptions with 11 touchdowns) while Cornelius Johnson is tops in catches (42 for 567 yards and one TD). Sophomore tight end Colston Loveland has 40 catches for 572 yards and four TDs.

Said another Big Ten defensive backs coach: “(Wilson) is a good player, but we didn’t fear him. When you watch the tape, he’s running a bunch of over routes. He plays hard. We thought (Johnson) was average. He’s tall and looks pretty out there, but he’s stiff and not great in and out of his breaks. (Freshman Semaj Morgan) is wiggly and even more dynamic than Wilson, but he’s not very polished.

“Loveland is a really good route runner, but he can’t block. (AJ Barner) is a complete tight end. He can’t run like Loveland. I like him. (Backup tight end Max Bredeson) is good. You know they’re running the ball when he’s in the game.”

“Roman Wilson is the only one we were worried about,” said a Big Ten head coach. “We thought we had to double him. He’s really good at getting in and out of his breaks. We didn’t think we could play man on him. Barner is very solid. He’s big and a good blocker. Loveland is elite. He runs like a wide receiver.”


Kris Jenkins (left) could be a top NFL Draft pick, coach Jim Harbaugh says. Jenkins’ agility is remarkable. (Steven Branscombe / Getty Images)

Scouting the defense: There will be pressure to step up

Michigan ranks No. 4 in the Big Ten in yards per play allowed, but that’s also good enough to rank No. 4 in the nation. (Yes, it might be an indicator of the caliber of offenses in the conference this season.) But one thing is certain: The Wolverines haven’t faced a quarterback who can run like Alabama’s Jalen Milroe. The last really good running quarterback Michigan faced was in last season’s CFP semifinal against TCU when Max Duggan ran for 57 yards and two TDs in a 51-45 shootout.

Duggan ran a 4.52 40 at the 2023 NFL Combine. And Milroe is even faster.

When Michigan made the CFP two years ago, it featured a superstar on defense: edge rusher Aidan Hutchinson. The Wolverines don’t have a player like that this year, but coaches believe this is a better unit overall.

“I like that D-line a lot,” said a Big Ten head coach. “They’re really, really deep. (Kris) Jenkins and (Jaylen) Harrell are very good players.”

Head coach Jim Harbaugh predicts Jenkins, a 307-pound senior, will be a top-10 pick in the 2024 NFL Draft. The son of the former NFL star with the same name has remarkable agility, clocking a 4.33 short shuttle and vertically jumping 34 inches.

Harrell leads the Wolverines with eight TFLs and 6.5 sacks. The other edge rusher, Braiden McGregor, is next with 7.5 TFLs, and Mason Graham, Josiah Stewart, Rayshaun Benny and Derrick Moore all have at least five TFLs. Kenneth Grant, a freakishly athletic 340-pound sophomore, has four TFLs and has impressed rival coaches.

Said one Big Ten head coach: “They’ve pushed the right buttons on that dude. He’s got freaky athleticism for 340. Holy smokes!”

Linebacker Junior Colson is Michigan’s leading tackler with 79. He and Michael Barrett (52 tackles) are very experienced, solid players. None of the coaches interviewed would describe either as elite, but both were considered smart and good scheme fits. The headliner of Michigan’s back end is nickel Mike Sainristil, an undersized 5-foot-9, 180-pound converted wideout who’s become the emotional leader of the defense.

NFL scouts may be leery of Sainristil because of his size, but Big Ten coaches are believers. Sainristil, the MVP of the Big Ten Championship Game, leads the team with five interceptions to go with 30 tackles, four TFLs, six passes broken up and two forced fumbles.

“He’s their most dynamic guy,” said another Big Ten head coach. “He’s great with the ball in his hands. He’ll keep proving people wrong. He’ll be a good NFL player, I promise you.”

“I love that kid,” said an offensive coordinator who faced Michigan in the first half of the season. “He scares you out there because he has that knack for making the big plays.”

Sophomore Will Johnson, a former five-star recruit, is second on the team with three interceptions and also drew praise.

“He’s a big-time talent,” said the OC. “We didn’t want to (mess) with him.”

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Who wins: Michigan or Alabama?

Michigan opened as a two-point favorite over Alabama, but the line is down to one in some places. Alabama being the underdog didn’t seem right to most of the coaches, and the majority believe Alabama will beat Michigan. Some of that might be due to the fact that Michigan has lost each of its two Playoff semifinal games, and Harbaugh’s six consecutive losses in bowl games is glaring.

“What has Jim learned?” a Big Ten head coach asked. “Are his guys gonna be fresh and ready to go or worn down?”

“I think it’s the same old thing with Michigan,” said a Big Ten secondary coach. “They’re extremely talented, but if someone can hold up up front with them, I think they’re just too one-dimensional. … They’ve got to get explosive plays on the perimeter somewhere, and those are gonna be hard to come by because Alabama can match up with them outside and still be stern enough against the run.

“Michigan is going to have to play such a clean game.”

One head coach said he wouldn’t be shocked if Michigan won — but he’s picking Alabama. “If Milroe plays like he has lately, I think that’ll be too much for Michigan. There’s nobody like him in the Big Ten. (Alabama) has figured out how to use him, and that’s scary.”

Another head coach did point out that Michigan has the “kind of stuff” that keeps the Wolverines winning — after all, Michigan is 13-0 despite its head coach being suspended for almost half of the season, including during its toughest stretch.

“They don’t have any superstars, but they’re strong and they’ve got a bunch of really good college players,” he said. “They have a really good culture. None of them gives a s— who gets the credit. These guys clearly love playing with each other. They have the chemistry to win a championship.”

(Top photo: Justin Casterline / Getty)

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