Bowl season is winding down.
But the two biggest games of the season are approaching kickoff.
Here are the 10 storylines that could determine who will meet in the National Championship game.
TCU (12-1) vs. Michigan (13-0)
Can Max Duggan and company find success against the Michigan defense?
Heisman finalist Max Duggan led one of the nation’s top offenses this season. TCU averaged 40.3 points per game this season, ranking sixth in the nation, and they averaged 473 yards of offense per game, ranking 15th. For his part Duggan ranked seventh in the nation with 9.0 Yards per Attempt, sixth in the nation in Adjusted Yards per Attempt, and he threw 30 touchdown passes against just four interceptions?
The problem? Duggan and the TCU offense have not seen a defense like Michigan’s yet this season. The best defense the Horned Frogs faced this year, at least in terms of scoring defense, was Kansas State, who tied for the 19th-best scoring defense in the FBS, allowing 20.03 points per game.
TCU beat the Wildcats during the regular season, but lost to them in the Big 12 Championship game.
Michigan? The Wolverines enter the Fiesta Bowl with one of the top scoring defenses in the nation, allowing just 13.38 points per game, tying the Wolverines with Air Force for fourth-best in the nation. Michigan also allowed just 277.1 yards per game, third-best in the nation.
TCU fans looking for a silver lining will point to Iowa State. The Cyclones ranked sixth in the nation, allowing just 285.6 yards per game this year. But back in November, the Horned Frogs hung 62 points on Iowa State, and gained 377 yards of offense in the 62-14 rout.
How does the Michigan secondary hold up against Quentin Johnson?
Not to get too far ahead of ourselves, but the 2023 NFL Draft class at wide receiver might be thinner at the top than we have seen in years past. But a receiver that could be near the top of not just the receiver class, but the entire class, is TCU’s Quintin Johnson. Johnson is a prototypical X receiver, with the size, athleticism and ball skills to be a featured target in an NFL offense.
You see those traits on this touchdown against Kansas State, as he run a vertical route along the left sideline against a press-aligned defender:
Johnson gets up to speed immediately, putting the cornerback in chase mode. As the defender tries in vain to catch up, the receiver accelerates away from the defense for the touchdown.
How might Michigan handle Johnson? An answer could be found in their win over Ohio State. In that game, the Wolverines secondary was tested by Marvin Harrison Jr., the talented Buckeyes receiver. Harrison also has the combination of size, route-running, speed, and ball skills ideal for an X receiver role at the next level.
Harrison caught 7 passes for 120 yards and a touchdown against Michigan, so it is not like the Wolverines completely kept him quiet. But they found a way to limit the damage through a combination of off-coverage, and press-man. They also used a few different defenders against Harrison, instead of having a dedicated cornerback travel with him. Both freshman Will Johnson and senior D.J. Turner snaps against him, as did Mike Sainristil when Harrison aligned in the slot.
That might be something to watch Saturday: How often the Horned Frogs use Johnson out of the slot. The Buckeyes had success using Harrison out of the slot against Michigan, and as for Johnson, he had 68 snaps this season out of a slot alignment. That includes long touchdowns against both West Virginia and Kansas.
Can TCU stop the run?
Any team that has faced Michigan this season has gone into the game with a singular focus: Stopping the run. The Wolverines sport one of the best rushing attacks in the nation, averaging 5.64 yards per carry — ranking fourth in the nation — and 243 yards per game, ranking fifth.
So while teams have tried to slow down that rushing attack, they have met little success in the attempt.
Still, TCU head coach Sonny Dykes made it clear recently, that stopping the run is their focus on the defensive side of the football. The coach told Colin Cowherd that the Michigan run game is their chief concern:
“Yeah, honestly, I think everybody that plays Michigan probably is a little bit concerned with that.
“They’ve got a really good offensive line — I think it’s the strength of their football team. They’re big up front on both lines of scrimmage. They’ve got three tight ends that can jump into some 13 personnel and do some interesting things from a run-game perspective; they’ll play with six, seven offensive linemen at different times. So you can tell that they want to run the ball.”
The Wolverines throw a lot at a defense in the running game, from zone designs to gap and power concepts that test the eye discipline of the linebackers, and the strength and power of the players along the defensive front. Plus, they bring the Joe Moore Award winners — given to the nation’s best offensive line — to the table.
Finding a way to slow down the Michigan run game will be a huge task for TCU.
But here’s the thing.
Doing that is just part of the battle.
If they do, will J.J. McCarthy make them pay?
Ohio State stopped the run game Michigan run game in the first half.
The Buckeyes held Michigan to just ten rushing yards in the first half of their meeting. But the Buckeyes led by just three at the halftime break, because Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy created some big plays in the passing game.
The first was a 3rd and 9 catch-and-run touchdown from Cornelius Johnson, when Ohio State brought pressure and McCarthy hung in the pocket just long enough to make a throw:
The second came on Michigan’s next offensive snap, with McCarthy hitting Johnson on a deep post route after doing a great job of climbing the pocket:
A third touchdown pass, coming early in the second half to tight end Colston Loveland, gave the Wolverines a 24-20 lead. Their passing game kept them in the contest, and then in the second half the running game took over, as backup running back Donovan Edwards — taking over for the injured Blake Corum — had a pair of long touchdown runs to help Michigan salt away the win.
So even if TCU can stop the run, as the Buckeyes did in the first half, McCarthy might make them pay.
Is this a Big 12 game, or a Big Ten game?
Ultimately, who wins this game might come down to that question.
Is this a Big Ten game, or a Big 12 game?
Michigan wants to play “bully ball,” as Dykes talked about earlier this month. They want to beat you up in the trenches, bringing the back-to-back Joe Moore Award winners to the fight.
And as Dykes said, this game is a contrast in styles. “A little big of contrasting styles. We’re a little bit more of a team that relies on speed.”
Which style wins out might very well determine the course of this game. Does it end up like a Big Ten battle of the bullies, or a Big 12 track meet?
Ohio State (11-1) vs. Georgia (13-0)
Can OSU match the physicality of Georgia?
The last time we saw Ohio State on the field, they were getting pushed around by Michigan to the tune of 252 yards rushing on 7.2 yards per carry as they lost gas in the second half. Now, you could say that’s due to the Wolverines having a deep stable of running backs and an offensive line that won the Joe Moore award for the best offensive line unit in college football.
Well, here’s the thing: Georgia also has a deep stable of RBs and an offensive line that finished second to Michigan, and when Georgia wants to they can absolutely crush teams on the ground—like running for 255 yards on 5.8 yards per carry against LSU in the SEC title game.
If Ohio State is going to make this game competitive enough to complete the upset, they need to match the physicality of Georgia, especially defensively.
Can CJ Stroud make plays with his legs?
Think about all the guys that have given Kirby Smart’s Georgia team problems: Bryce Young, Baker Mayfield and to some extent Desmond Ridder. All of those guys made enough plays with their legs to either make the game close or pull off the upset. Last year, Young only ran for 40 yards, but it was his ability to extend plays with his feet that gave Georgia problems.
CJ Stroud is a little more like Hendon Hooker in their ability to dice you from the pocket. Stroud is a good operator post snap and has the accuracy to hit at all three levels. However, one thing CJ Stroud doesn’t do is run the ball or extend plays with his legs as often as Young. Let’s use the Hooker example. Hooker is more of a runner than Stroud, but in their loss to Georgia he had 18 carries for 17 yards and was confined to the pocket. Stroud is going to have to use his legs to create windows for himself in this game, or the offense will sputter out.
Can Georgia establish dominance up front early?
Georgia has been a really interesting team all season. When they’ve wanted to, they’ve been able to dominate up front and turn games into slugfests, or win in shootouts. This year’s Georgia team does have a propensity for starting slow, however. You think back to the Missouri game, where Georgia was down 19-12 going into the fourth quarter before eventually winning 26-22. To their credit, when the lights are the brightest they step on the gas, but the Bulldogs can’t afford to start slow against a team like Ohio State, who can score on every possession. Dominate up front early and often, and make this game get out of hand early.
Will Stetson Bennett make enough plays through the air?
In every big game that Georgia has played this year, there has been one constant: Stetson Bennett has the game of his life. Against Oregon in week one, Bennett threw for 368 yards and two TDs in a 49-3 beatdown. In the win against Tennessee, Bennett threw for 257 yards and two TDs and ran in a TD as well. In the SEC title game, Bennett threw for 274 yards and four TDs in the 50-30 win.
Ohio State is much better against the pass than they are the run (14th in passing yards allowed per game, 24th in rushing yards allowed per game), but Michigan had some success hitting them with big plays in the passing game. Can Bennett have the same success?
How will OSU solve the Jalen Carter problem?
Yeah...uhhh...if Ohio State wants to win they have to slow down this guy:
2. Bears- Jalen Carter, IDL— WalkTheMock (@WalkTheMock) December 26, 2022
I don't care what Todd McShay says. If Carter falls outside the top 5, it'll be criminal. The combination of size, speed, strength, agility, and explosiveness this guy has is insane. Bears need help everywhere. To me, this is BPA pic.twitter.com/BWkuY5lsOK
A guy that can lift opposing QBs with one arm like a father carrying his toddler to bedtime:
My god Jalen Carter picking up Jayden Daniels like a father picking up his son pic.twitter.com/o9xcaoLOmq— Mike Renner (@PFF_Mike) December 3, 2022
Jalen Carter is a massive headache for any defensive coordinator due to his burst, power and technique, and he’s going to be an issue for Ohio State. If the Buckeyes want to make this a competitive game, they need to limit Carter’s impact to a minimum.