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Orange Bowl: A look at Michigan vs Georgia playoff semifinal

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Georgia Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart is greeted as he gets off a plane at Miami International Airport on Sunday, Dec. 26, 2021. Georgia will face the Michigan Wolverines in the Orange Bowl for a College Football Playoff semifinal.

Courtesy of the Orange Bowl

Jim Harbaugh and his Michigan Wolverines touched down at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport and were greeted by temperatures in the mid-70s and a slight breeze.

“Blue skies,” Harbaugh said Saturday. “Very nice.”

One day later, Kirby Smart and his Georgia Bulldogs landed at Miami International Airport. It was almost 80 degrees Sunday afternoon when they stepped off the plane.

“Very unique,” Smart said. “Right now, across the country it’s not the same kind of weather you got in sunny South Florida.”

Two of college football’s top teams have officially made it to South Florida, with the No. 2 Wolverines and No. 3 Bulldogs facing off in the Orange Bowl on Friday in one of two College Football Playoff semifinal games. Kickoff from Hard Rock Stadium is set for 7:30 p.m.

They’re enjoying the weather for now, but the focus will quickly shift to the football field when practices begin on Monday.

Here’s what you need to know about the matchup.

Defense is both teams’ strength

Both Georgia and Michigan have been defense-first teams en route to their spots in the playoff this year.

The Bulldogs are the top-ranked scoring defense in the country, holding opponents to an average of 9.5 points per game with three shutout victories although they did give up 41 points in their SEC Championship Game loss to now-No. 1 Alabama. The Wolverines are tied for fourth nationally allowing an average of 16.1 points per game and holding five of 13 opponents to 10 points or fewer.

Each team has an All-American defensive lineman.

For Michigan, it’s senior defensive end Aidan Hutchinson, ranked by ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. as the No. 1 prospect for the 2022 draft in his latest big board. Hutchinson, 6-6 and 265 pounds, leads the Wolverines with 15.5 tackles for loss and ranks third in the country with 14 sacks while finishing second in Heisman Trophy voting. Junior linebacker David Ojabo (12 tackles for loss, 11 sacks) also brings pressure in the backfield.

For Georgia, it’s senior Jordan Davis, a 6-6, 340-pound defensive tackle who has 28 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and nine quarterback hurries from the interior of UGA’s defensive line. He’s surrounded by more playmakers as well, including sophomore Jalen Carter (8.5 tackles for loss, 22 quarterback hurries) and senior Devonte Wyatt (seven tackles for loss, 19 quarterback hurries). Bulldogs junior linebacker Nakobe Dean (61 tackles, five sacks, two interceptions, five pass breakups) all earned consensus All-America honors.

What about the offense?

Both teams rely on the run game to set up their offensive success.

The Wolverines are paced on offense by a one-two running back punch in senior Hassan Haskins and sophomore Blake Corum. Haskins, one of two first-team All-Big Ten running backs this year, has run for 1,288 yards and 20 touchdowns this season, while Corum has 939 yards and 11 touchdowns of his own.

Georgia meanwhile has three capable runners in junior Zamir White (718 yards, 10 touchdowns, 5.3 yards per carry), senior and Miami Central alumnus James Cook (619 yards, seven touchdowns, 6.1 yards per carry), and junior and University School alumnus Kenny McIntosh (319 yards, three touchdowns, 5.9 yards per carry).

Both teams playing with something to prove

Georgia was far and wide the top team in the country this season until Alabama ran away against the Bulldogs in the conference championship. UGA, seeking its first national championship since 1980, looks to prove the lopsided 41-24 loss was a fluke and potentially get a rematch with the Crimson Tide in the national championship game (Alabama faces No. 4 Cincinnati in the other semifinal match at the Cotton Bowl).

Michigan, meanwhile, finally got past Ohio State and won its first Big Ten championship with Harbaugh as coach. The Wolverines went 3-1 against ranked opponents this season, including scoring 42 points in back-to-back matchups against Ohio State and Iowa heading into the playoffs. Michigan hopes this is the year it wins its 12th national championship and first since 1997.

Rare meeting

This is just the third time Georgia and Michigan have played each other in football and the first time since 1965. The teams split their two previous contests, with Michigan winning the first game 26-0 on Oct. 5, 1957, and Georgia tying up the series with a 15-7 win on Oct. 2, 1965. Both of those games were played in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

As for their Orange Bowl history…

Georgia last played in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 1, 1960, a 14-0 win over the Missouri Tigers. The Bulldogs are 2-1 all time in the Orange Bowl, beating TCU 40-26 in 1942 and losing to Texas 41-28 in 1949.

Michigan has also only played in the Orange Bowl three times, but two of its three matchups took place this century — and both of those were decided by one point. The Wolverines lost 33-32 to Florida State in 2016 and beat Alabama 35-34 in 2000. Michigan’s only other Orange Bowl game was a 14-6 loss to Oklahoma in 1976.

Jordan McPherson covers the Miami Marlins and high school sports for the Miami Herald. He attended the University of Florida and covered the Gators athletic program for five years before joining the Herald staff in December 2017.





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