Breaking down Michigan-TCU, Georgia-Ohio StateESPN PLUS $ MATERIAL
This year's College Football Playoff is evidently brought to you by the number two.
Georgia is attempting to win title No. 2 under boss Kirby Smart a year after ending a four-decade title drought. Michigan is in its second straight CFP after winning Big Ten title No. 2 under Jim Harbaugh (and with a second starting quarterback). Ryan Day and Ohio State are attempting to take advantage of a second chance after thinking they had lost their playoff opportunity thanks to what is now a two-game losing streak to Michigan. TCU is finally in the playoff, having come so close in 2014 and waiting eight long years for a second chance. It has gotten to the promised land under Sonny Dykes, who had to wait six years for a second power conference gig.
All of this in the year 2022, no less!
The storylines are legion and the matchups are weird and interesting. Here's everything you need to know about college football's two biggest games of the season.
No. 2 Michigan vs. No. 3 TCU
CFP semifinal at the Vrbo Fiesta Bowl
at State Farm Stadium, Glendale, Arizona
Saturday, 4 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App
How they got hereMichigan: Michigan indeed rolled to its second straight conference title, escaping close calls against Maryland and Illinois but walloping Ohio State and Penn State by a combined 86-40. Over the past 19 games, the Wolverines are 18-1 with a loss only to Georgia in last season's CFP.
TCU: Dykes' first Horned Frogs team was the master of the close game. In a deep Big 12, TCU went 12-1, winning five one-score games with timely offensive flurries and excellent pass defense. The Frogs tripped up against Kansas State in the Big 12 championship game, but their playoff résumé was already set.
SP+ rankingsMichigan: Second overall, 18th offense, fourth defense, sixth special teams
TCU: Sixth overall, sixth offense, 33rd defense, 31st special teams
Key injuries and absencesMichigan: Out -- RB Blake Corum (knee); probable -- DE Mike Morris (lower body), DT Mazi Smith (legal troubles), WR Andrel Anthony (ankle)
Corum, Michigan's biggest star, is officially out but Morris and Smith are awfully influential upfront for the Wolverines. Meanwhile, the Frogs appear to be the healthiest team in the CFP.
Active statistical standoutsMICHIGAN
• QB J.J. McCarthy: 2,376 passing yards, 65.3% completion rate, 7.8 yards per dropback, 20 touchdowns, 3 interceptions; 254 non-sack rushing yards (4.2 per carry); 79.1 Total QBR (15th)
• RB Donovan Edwards: 874 rushing yards (7.5 per carry), 7 touchdowns; 192 receiving yards (11.3 per catch)
• WR Ronnie Bell: 754 receiving yards (13.5 per catch, 8.3 per target), 62% catch rate (77% on catchable targets)
• C Olusegun Oluwatimi and RG Zak Zinter: 0.8% blown block rate, 1 combined sack allowed, 8 combined penalties
• Edge Mike Morris: 7 sacks (29 pressures), 3 run stuffs
• CB Will Johnson: 3 interceptions, 1 TD allowed, 48% completion rate allowed, 17.3 raw QBR allowed
• K Jake Moody: 18-for-19 on FGs under 40 yards, 8-for-13 over 40 yards, 66% kickoff touchback rate
• QB Max Duggan: 3,321 passing yards, 64.9% completion rate, 8.0 yards per dropback, 30 touchdowns, 4 interceptions; 404 non-sack rushing yards (3.6 per carry); 79.9 Total QBR (13th)
• RB Kendre Miller: 1,342 rushing yards (6.2 per carry), 17 touchdowns, 3.0 yards per carry before contact and 3.2 after; 116 receiving yards (7.3 per catch)
• WR Quentin Johnston: 903 receiving yards (17.0 per catch, 10.5 per target), 62% catch rate (79% on catchable targets)
• WR Taye Barber: 593 receiving yards (17.4 per catch, 12.4 per target), 71% catch rate (100% on catchable targets)
• LBs Dee Winters and Dylan Horton: 13.5 sacks (53 pressures), 21 run stuffs
• CB Tre'Vius Hodges-Tomlinson: 3 interceptions, 1 TD allowed, 28% completion rate allowed, 8.5 raw QBR allowed
• K Griffin Kell: 8-for-9 on FGs under 40 yards, 8-for-9 over 40
Ground-and-poundThe 3-3-5 defense is having a moment. More than half of the FBS lined up with three or fewer defensive linemen at least 75% of the time, and 39 teams lined up with five or more defensive backs at least 70% of the time. Sacrificing size for speed is the norm.
Few are more orthodox in the ways of the 3-3-5, however, than TCU defensive coordinator Joe Gillespie. The former Tulsa DC came to Fort Worth with Dykes, and unlike many, he doesn't use the 3-3-5 situationally. TCU lined up with exactly three linemen 99% of the time, exactly three linebackers 94% of the time and exactly five defensive backs 94% of the time. Whatever the question, the 3-3-5 is the answer, and after collapsing to 116th in defensive SP+ in 2021, Gary Patterson's final season in charge, the Horned Frogs have hopped back to 33rd.
TCU ranks eighth in completion rate allowed and 21st in raw QBR allowed. Gillespie doesn't blitz much, but the Frogs clog the field with speedy defensive backs and prevent easy looks. Per Sports Info Solutions (SIS), 39% of opponents' passes were "contested" by a defender, second-most in the FBS. Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy came up big down the stretch of the regular season, and players such as Ronnie Bell and Cornelius Johnson have had explosive moments, but if the Wolverines have to pass, that probably favors TCU.
That's if Michigan has to pass.
The Wolverines haven't faced all that many 3-3-5 looks this season, in part because it's not as common in the Big Ten and in part because sacrificing size against them seems like a bad idea. Their offensive line isn't incredibly big, but it might be the best in college football. Michigan ranks sixth in rushing success rate, and while Blake Corum was responsible for a lot of its ground success, Donovan Edwards has been immense in his absence. He averages 7.0 yards per carry outside the tackles and 7.6 inside, and he hung a combined 401 yards on Ohio State and Purdue in Michigan's last two games. The former top-70 recruit overcame a late-season hand injury to shine when needed.
TCU has faced some solid ground games this year, but few are as committed to mauling the opposition as the Wolverines. They run 66% of the time on standard downs* (national average: 58%) and 43% of the time on passing downs (34%). They use at least two tight ends on more than half their snaps, and they do a brilliant job of both staying on schedule (sixth in standard downs success rate) and avoiding setbacks (seventh in offensive line penalties per game, 23rd in stuff rate**).
* Standard downs = first downs, second-and-7 or less and third- or fourth-and-4 or less.
** Stuff rate = percentage of non-sack rushes that are stopped at or behind the line
After getting a sobering look at all of their remaining limitations against Georgia in last season's CFP, and after losing both coordinators to other jobs, Jim Harbaugh's program refused to reinvent itself. Instead, the Wolverines made their strengths stronger. The addition of Virginia transfer Olusegun Oluwatimi brought the offensive line to a different level, and changing from Cade McNamara to McCarthy at quarterback raised Michigan's overall offensive upside. McCarthy wasn't asked to do a ton for much of the season, but in those two late games without Corum, he threw for 424 yards, 6 touchdowns and 1 interception and averaged 18.4 yards per completion. Michigan doesn't bother with a horizontal passing game to complement the run game and doesn't seem to need to. It just does what it does really well and really physically.
TCU certainly hasn't been bad against the run. Just ask Bijan Robinson. The Horned Frogs held Texas' All-American back to just 29 yards on 12 carries in a 17-10 win in Austin, an offensively limited game that proved they are capable of winning in a few different ways. While the linemen are mainly there to occupy blockers, linebackers Jamoi Hodge, Johnny Hodges and Dylan Horton and safety Mark Perry have all reached double digits in the run stuffs department.
Still, the ground defense hasn't been amazing on average. The Texas game was more exception than rule. TCU ranks 69th in rushing success rate allowed and 61st in standard downs success rate. Once their opponent is behind schedule, the Frogs pounce, but we'll see if or how frequently they can push Michigan behind the chains.
This is an extremely Big 12 vs. Big Ten matchup. Just as it was the first major conference to wholly succumb to the spread offense revolution 15-20 years ago, the Big 12 has now become the source of quite a bit of defensive evolution and experimentation. While Oklahoma State and Baylor fell off defensively in 2022 after major attrition, Iowa State (seventh in defensive SP+), Kansas State (16th) and TCU boast effective 3-3-5 renditions, and Texas (14th) uses more varied looks but is still effective. On average, the 3-3-5 can probably stand up to the typical manball routine, but Michigan's version is ridiculously good.
How does a Frog, even a Horned one, beat a Wolverine?In eight seasons since the introduction of the CFP, we've seen 11 games with a spread of more than seven points. We got an upset right out of the gate (Ohio State over Alabama in 2014), but in the nine such games since 2015, favorites are 9-0 with an average score of 38-14. The average spread in these games was favorite -12.2, and they've basically doubled that.
The TCU-Michigan spread quickly settled into the Michigan -7.5 range, where it has remained through December. If you fear a "Michigan rushes for 300-plus yards and rolls" scenario, that's certainly on the table. Still, over the past decade teams favored by 7.5 points have won only 74% of the time. SP+ projects Michigan's win probability at 70%, FPI has it at 67%. There is a 1-in-3 or 1-in-4 chance of a TCU win, despite the CFP's blowout history, and beyond the Frogs stopping Donovan Edwards the way they did Bijan Robinson, there are three main keys to a TCU upset.
1. Max Duggan > J.J. McCarthy
This one is a must. Duggan was asked to carry a heavy playmaking load for TCU (and finished second in the Heisman voting because of it), but for the season these two quarterbacks' stats were almost identical. McCarthy took Michigan's offense to a new place with his sudden late-season verticality -- seven of his 23 completions against Ohio State and Purdue went for at least 20 yards, four for at least 40. TCU absolutely must make more big plays than the Wolverines. And while Edwards and TCU's Kendre Miller and Emari Demercado can all hit home runs in the run game, big plays typically start at the quarterback position.
TCU's passing game is a wonderful combination of scheme and pure playmaking.
The Frogs dominate in the receiver screen game. TCU ranks fifth nationally with 36% of its passes thrown to targets at or behind the line, and these passes have averaged a solid 5.8 yards per attempt. This serves as an extension of an already dangerous run game. Plus, 28% of TCU's passes were thrown to what SIS defined as wide-open targets, 16th in the FBS. TCU receivers, led by Quentin Johnston and Taye Barber, can take short, open targets and turn them into huge gains. When opposing defenses don't have the right numbers in the right places, Duggan takes full advantage.
Great scheme or no, sometimes you just need someone to make a big play, and TCU does that too. On second- or third-and-7 or more, Duggan completed 59% of his passes, over half of which moved the chains or scored. Plus, while the offense produced plenty of wide-open passes, TCU receivers also caught 40% of their contested targets, 14th in the FBS.
Michigan has faced only one receiving corps this talented in 2022 (Ohio State's), and the battle between Johnston & Co. and Michigan corners DJ Turner and Will Johnson will be popcorn viewing.
2. Turn contested passes into picks
For all of his obvious upside, McCarthy will make some throws that remind us he's still a true sophomore, and he has perhaps been a bit lucky that those throws haven't been more costly. Opponents have defensed (intercepted or broken up) 38 Michigan passes this season, and while national averages would typically dictate that about eight of those would turn into interceptions, opponents reeled in only four of them, three from McCarthy.
TCU indeed contests and disrupts more passes than most, and McCarthy was mediocre against two defenses that are particularly disruptive. Against Penn State and Illinois, he averaged just 6.1 yards per pass and 10.1 yards per completion with no touchdowns and a pick-six. This game could flip quickly if TCU reels in a couple of ill-advised throws.
3. Break even in the red zone
It feels like I write about Michigan's red zone troubles every time I write about Michigan. But for the second straight year, the Wolverines ironed out issues as the year progressed. Their red zone touchdown rate was just 64% over the first two months of the season (the national average is 62%), but improved to 75% after Nov. 1. Red zone failures nearly cost them the Illinois game -- they made four trips inside the 20 and eight into Illini territory but scored only one touchdown -- but they responded by converting every red zone chance into a TD against Ohio State and Purdue. It's hard for a team to lose when it does that, especially when paired with a defense that dominates the red zone (38% TD rate, third in the FBS).
Michigan appears to hold the edge in this department, but unless TCU is scoring on big plays -- a distinct possibility! -- this is an area in which the Frogs simply can't afford to fall behind.
ProjectionsCaesars Sportsbook: Michigan 33.0, TCU 25.5 (Michigan -7.5, over/under: 58.5)
SP+: Michigan 32.3, TCU 23.3
It's clear that Michigan holds more of the edges, but TCU will have its chances.
Chances for either team might come later on, as both Michigan and TCU are second-half teams. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Michigan's plus-206 second-half scoring margin is the second-best of the past 15 seasons (Florida State was plus-243 during its 2013 national title run). TCU, meanwhile, has won five games when trailing in the second half. The Frogs rely on scoring flurries, and those sometimes don't arrive right away.