While doing research for the Sugar Bowl matchup between the Texas Longhorns and the Washington Huskies, I came across some interesting trends for Rose Bowl game featuring the Michigan Wolverines and the Alabama Crimson Tide. Below is sort of a viewing guide to for the other College Football Playoff semifinal this year.
Michigan quarterback JJ McCarthy has a 74.2 percent completion rate on the season, tallying 19 touchdowns, four interceptions, and 18 sacks. Michigan uses play action in 22.4 percent of their passing dropbacks and McCarthy’s performance drops off. While it grants him access to more big-time throws on a higher depth of target (11.1 vs 9.5 yards), he also has created twice as many turnover-worthy plays as well. He does have a knack for being able to find new openings for his receivers while on the move. He doesn’t have a registered ball that’s been thrown away this season, as he can scramble well even when pressured. Below is a visual to understand where McCarthy targets the most, with the size of the bubble indicating the number of attempts in that region and the number inside representing his completion percentage.
Michigan loves using X receiver Cornelius Johnson as a deep threat out wide to keep defenses humble, as well as slot receiver Roman Wilson, who is efficient at every depth level. Their average depths of target are both over 12 yards and they have great contested-catch rates as well. Johnson’s best ability might be finding gaps in zone coverage as the bulk of his highlight reel is knowing where to sit down and having the situational awareness to make the first DB miss.
Zone coverage also allows running backs Corum and Edwards move out of the backfield for easy check-down routes. Tight end Colston Loveland really utilizes the most out Michigan’s scheme. Opposing linebackers must respect the Michigan run game and the use of play action really helps open space for Loveland to find right before the first down marker and he can hold his own once the ball in his hands too. Below are the PPA metrics and box score statistics for their offense.
For Alabama, they have some stout players in the run stopping game, led by defensive end Justin Eboigbe (59 total tackles, 7 sacks). Edge rushers Dallas Turner (50, 9) and Chris Braswell (41, 8) also rank decently well, along with Will linebacker Diontae Lawson (61, 3). In the pass rush, the two most dominant contributors are edges Turner and Braswell.
Their secondary can crash effectively where they are needed and possess some of the best run blocking grades in the nation. This is composed of cornerbacks Terri Arnold (11 pass breakups, 5 interceptions) and Kool-Aid McKinstry (7, 0), strong safety Caleb Downs (3, 2) and the star (safety/linebacker hybrid) Malachi Moore (4, 1). These four are also among the best in coverage, in addition to cornerback Trey Amos (4, 0), free safety Jayden Key (1, 1), and weak linebacker Jihaad Campbell (3, 1).
For the Crimson Tide’s offense, Jalen Milroe found his footing after being benched in Week 3. He’s racked up 23 passing touchdowns and 12 rushing and been arguably the most dangerous mobile quarterback after LSU’s Jalen Daniels. He has taken 19 sacks each when blitzed and when not, but he can scramble much more easily than other quarterbacks when under pressure. His throw time grows to 4.4 seconds when under pressure, and he can get the ball to his receivers while retaining average depth of target. Below is his passing depth chart.
By far the most insane number is the average depth of target for their top receivers. Isaiah Bond at 13.2 yards, Jermaine Burton at 21 yards, Amari Niblack at 16.9 yards, and Kobe Prentice at 16 yards. They can stretch opposing defenses thin, forcing them to only rush four which is quite the gamble with Milroe’s ability to easily get 10 yards on the ground. Milroe does seem to still have a tendency to run more than he needs to, and it can create some turnover-worthy scenarios. Michigan’s secondary is disciplined to handle them downfield, but the big question will be whether their defensive line can contain them. Below are the offensive stats for the Crimson Tide.
Michigan’s run blocking is led by edges Josiah Stewart (26 total tackles, 4.5 sacks) and Derrick Moore (32, 4), interior lineman Mason Graham (28, 3) and Kris Jenkins (33, 1.5), will linebacker Michael Barett (52, 2), and mike linebacker Junior Colson (79, 0). None of them are top 10 exactly in their position but they all consistently produce solid numbers. In the pass rush, standouts Graham and Moore are aided with edge rusher Jaylen Harrell (28, 6.5).
In pass coverage, cornerbacks Will Johnson (4 pass breakups, 3 interceptions) and Josh Wallace (4, 0) plus nickelback Mike Sainristil (6, 5) have been tremendous all season. Following them are strong safety Quentin Johnson (4, 1), along with linebackers Barrett (2, 0) and Colson (2, 0).
Eckel rate allows us to examine how teams perform outside of the red zone. An Eckel is defined as a possession that results in a big-play touchdown from outside the opponent’s 40-yard line or gaining a first down inside the 40, thus Eckel rate is the percentage of possessions this occurs in. We can then compare that to red-zone efficiency by using points per Eckel. Teams who are great at moving the ball down field as well as scoring from inside the red zone should float towards the top right.
Unlike the Texas–Washington matchup, both teams are equally pressed when facing each other’s defenses in terms of Eckel rate and points allowed. Michigan’s defense allows an Eckel rate 24 percent less than what Bama generates on offense, and Bama’s defense allows a rate 26 percent less than what the Wolverines generate. The kicker might come down to red-zone efficiency as Michigan allows just 2.49 points per Eckel, which leads the nation.
The chart below shows the success rate above expected against all of Michigan’s opponents. A reminder a successful play is one that results in one of the following:
- 50 percent or more needed yards gained on first down
- 70 percent or more needed yards gained on second down
- A third- or fourth-down conversion
- A touchdown
I attempted to simplify this with any positive bar meaning Michigan was a tougher game in that category than other teams that opponent faced throughout the season. For instance, Rutgers was not ready for Michigan’s rush defense, but they were barely phased by the Wolverines passing defense. Bars trending downwards meaning that on that given Saturday, Michigan was an easier team to play in that category.
Michigan is a bit like Texas in that their most consistent areas are their running offense and defense. In almost every game, they have been dominant and possibly their opponent’s most difficult matchup for the season. Where they waver is in their passing game, with Wilson and Loveland being the biggest targets for McCarthy. If those options get taken away, Bama could force McCarthy into difficult scenarios and Michigan might as well turn back to handing the ball off twenty times in a row.
The same success-rate-above expected chart is shown for all of Bama’s games.
I standardized the axes for all the success rate graphs and the standout when looking at them side by side as that Alabama might not be the toughest opponent a team faces, they aren’t blowing them out in these margins, but they deviate below average the least. And nothing indicates a Saban-led team more than that. Even when looking at the passing defense against Mississippi State, they still had three interceptions and limited them to 107 yards passing which really just explains how bad the Bulldogs were this year.
It has been proven in recent years that the top echelon of teams in college football are great in developing talent in the trenches. Bama and Michigan have award winning members in their lines and a history of first round draft picks to show for it as well. I constructed a scatter plot showing how they performed against their opponents with a similar methodology but focusing on the line yards gained this time. An example interpretation here is that both sides of the Michigan team performed well against UNLV. Michigan’s offensive line gained 0.6 line yards per rush than what UNLV typically allows and they allowed 1.1 line yards less per rush than what UNLV typically gains.
Michigan comes out as the favorite in the trenches for a couple of reasons. Apart from the game against Georgia, Bama’s line struggled against mediocre teams in Kentucky, Auburn, and Texas A&M. Their most dominant performances came against LSU and Middle Tennessee state which aren’t really marks to be proud of.
Defensively, Bama should also have some concern. A&M, Auburn, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Tennessee, Middle Tennessee, and LSU, all seemed to face more difficult opponents than the Crimson Tide. Michigan is built off this beat-them-to-death run game. They might not beat you over the top, but they can grind it out, waste the clock, and tire the defense out with painstakingly long drives as they did against Penn State and Ohio State. Alabama does improve a lot when they load the box for third and short and it was a big reason in how they stopped Georgia’s run game. They will have to bring that same energy in this matchup to force Michigan to figure out how to pass against what has been an amazing secondary.