June 21, 2024

On the plane ride back from Michigan’s crushing 51-45 loss to Texas Christian in last year’s College Football Playoff semifinal, defensive coordinator Jesse Minter began jotting down his thoughts as he watched the film.

“Looking at myself, how did we prepare,” Minter said. “Did we take the right angles to the ball, are we playing like our hair is on fire, were we doing too much, were we not doing enough, were we going after the football at times that that was there, were we communicating at a level we needed to?”

Minter used those reflections to set the tone for the Wolverines’ defense this season, and Michigan edge rusher Jaylen Harrell has noticed the difference.

“After that game last year, that’s when we kind of saw the pillars of our defense, stuff like that, kind of come back to the basics,” Harrell said. “Last year when it was needed, we didn’t have it. Communication wasn’t there, our angles and tackling wasn’t there. So we really took it to heart this offseason and really focused on that and made it an emphasis to get back to where we wanted to be, which is right now.”

One year later, Michigan is back in the CFP semifinals for the third year in a row, as it hopes to change its fortunes after semifinal losses during each of the past two seasons. That isn’t lost on Wolverines linebacker Michael Barrett, especially compared to the team he’ll be lining up against during the Rose Bowl on Monday.

“[Alabama’s] had success here over the years, especially the SEC,” Barrett said. “They’ve had a lot of success on these stages over the years. The Big Ten hasn’t.”

The contrast is plain to see: While Michigan is 0-2 in the CFP era, the Crimson Tide are 9-4 with three titles and five appearances in the national championship game. This year’s path was a bit muddier than Alabama has been used to in the past, with inexperience on offense dooming the Tide during a loss to Texas in Week 2 and struggling the following week against USF.

For Alabama offensive lineman Tyler Booker, the goal to win a national championship was never in doubt, even after his team’s slow start to the season.

“We knew people counted us out after losing Bryce [Young,] Will [Anderson Jr.,] Jahmyr [Gibbs,] people really were like, ‘Oh, my gosh, what is this Alabama team going to look like?’” said Booker. “Now being back to where we are, we just got to finish that job of proving that we’re the standard. … Being the standard, it really means a lot because that’s why I came to Alabama.”

It was a standard that became apparent as the season went on, especially at the end of November with signature wins over rivals Auburn and Georgia, the latter in the SEC championship game. After being written off, ‘Bama was suddenly in the mix again.

“I definitely told the guys after the Texas game, because I knew the type of team we had, and I was very disappointed. So I definitely told the guys, like, ‘Listen, I know this game, we lost this game, but the season’s not over. We shouldn’t lose no more games this season,’” Tide receiver Isaiah Bond said. “I could see the talent in the room. I know what everybody can do. We’ll be able to get this done. Them believing in that and in the byproduct, that’s why we’re here.”

It’s rare when Alabama isn’t in the playoff, but its selection over an undefeated Florida State team managed to raise eyebrows, even to some Michigan players as their audible reactions went viral.

Some viewers took it as a sign of fear, but Barrett argues they are wrong.

“It’s funny that I keep hearing everybody say we’re scared because we got ‘Bama,” Barrett said. “And it was more like the shock of not seeing an undefeated Power 5 team get picked. We kind of figured that all the undefeated teams were going to come, and we were just debating on who would slip into that fourth spot.”

But regardless whether they were expecting to face Alabama, the Wolverines’ defense is fully embracing the challenge.

“I’m sitting here talking like the underdog, like we’re not the No. 1 team in the country,” Barrett said. “I get it. It’s ‘Bama. It is what it is. Let everybody talk.”

Michigan defensive back Rod Moore agreed.

“I really don’t buy into that little SEC bias thing,” he said. “It’s just football at the end of the day. Maybe they are faster. Maybe they are not. The film shows it. We’ll see on Monday.”

Linebacker Junior Colson looks at it as almost a rite of passage to face the Crimson Tide.

“We’ve always strived to be the best. To be the best, you’ve got to beat the best. Right now we’re about to play the best,” Colson said. “Doesn’t matter what you say about them and all that stuff. But their coaches brought them eight out of the last 10 times to the playoffs. At the end of the day you’ve just got to go out there and dominate.”

The biggest task at hand for the Wolverines defense is to contain Alabama quarterback Jalen Milroe. One of the ways they’ve been preparing for Milroe is by taking inspiration from another mobile quarterback they faced earlier in the season: Maryland quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa.

“We kind of had like a similar prep for him. He was a good athlete and he could extend plays, as well,” Michigan defensive lineman Mason Graham said. “Just kind of reciprocate it, but take it to the next level almost, because obviously this is a higher-caliber team than what Maryland was.”

Barrett also made the connection between Tagovailoa and Milroe, but added that he sees Alabama’s offense as a mix of Ohio State and Penn State.

“That’s kind of how I viewed it there. But they’re their own team,” he said. “Everybody is going to come out different and attack us differently. They had this month to prepare just like we have, and we could probably come out and see something totally different. So we just got to stay on our toes and be ready.”

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