By Melissa Triebwasser
Frogs Today staff writer
As we inch closer to game day and TCU’s debut in the College Football Playoff, it’s time to turn our attention to the Horned Frogs’ opponent, the No. 2-ranked Michigan Wolverines out of the Big Ten Conference.
In order to learn more about a first-time opponent, I chatted with Ann Arbor News/MLive Michigan beat reporter Aaron McMann, who knows the program as well as anyone. He provided great insight into the Wolverines on both sides of the ball, shared how much respect Max Duggan has garnered from his next opponent, and put in a prediction that favors Big Blue.
Be sure to check out the interview in full below as well as on Apple Podcasts and Spotify as an audio-only format.
On the difference between Michigan’s playoff appearance in 2021 vs. 2022: “I think they’re a more complete team than last year. They were just happy to get there. You know, before then, the pressure was on Jim Harbaugh to win. Michigan hadn’t gotten to a Big Ten title game. They just hadn’t kind of climbed the top of the mountain. And last year, in a way, they were able to do it. They got everything out of the way that they needed to: They beat their arch-rival, Ohio State. So, by the time they got to the playoff it was almost like, ‘OK, what more can they accomplish?’ Everybody was happy that they got the monkey off their back with Ohio State. They won the Big Ten championship. They just, I think they weren’t ready for the moment. I think it was a team that clearly hadn’t been there yet. They didn’t know what to expect. They were a little outmanned in some ways. This year, I think they’ve learned a little bit. Yes, there’s some different players, different personnel on both sides of the ball. But this team, I think, knows what it takes to win on that stage. And I think that’s the clear difference between last year and this year. I think on both sides of the ball, you’ve got players who maybe didn’t play in that game last year but recognize what it took to get there and win it. The last couple of weeks, that’s all been the talk. After they won the Big Ten championship game last week, they were happy but they said they’ve got bigger and better goals this year. And clearly that’s to not only win a game in the playoffs, but try and go the whole way.”
On Jim Harbaugh going from the hot seat to being a top-10 coach in the game: “Yeah, he needed to get the Ohio State monkey off his back. I think that was the biggest thing that was kind of knocking him and that was the biggest criticism against him. Not only could they not beat Ohio State, but because they couldn’t beat Ohio State, they couldn’t get to the Big Ten championship, and because you can’t get the Big Ten championship, you don’t get to the playoffs.
So it was a very interesting time up until 2020. It wasn’t like they were bad. Jim Harbaugh had like a 65 percent winning percentage. They won most of the games you’re expected to. They just couldn’t win some of those key games, whether it was Ohio State or in-state rival Michigan State. After the 2020 season, something had changed within the program. Jim went through and did a drastic sweep of his coaching staff. He fired several guys, and to his credit, some guys that have been with him for a while that he considered some of his longtime friends. But I think he looked internally and realized, ‘OK, something needs to change. Otherwise I may not get another couple of years here.’ So he swept a lot of guys out and brought in some former players and people familiar with the Michigan program. I think that gave him some momentum. And then they changed a lot of what they did schematically and the off-the-field stuff. He brought back his Smash Ball style of play on the offense. So the ball went back to his identity, running the ball. We saw that a lot last year kind of blossomed as the season went on. And he’s obviously carried it over this year. So, in a way they’ve gotten back to what he’s familiar with, what he’s good at doing. I think from his perspective, I think he’s really realized, too, that he wasn’t going to beat Ohio State by out Ohio State-ing them. And what I mean when I say that, I mean that like, bringing all these five-star receivers and throwing the ball around and everything else, they realized they weren’t able to do that. So I think he realized they have to find a different way to do it, and went back to what he knows best. And it’s playing that smash-mouth, physical style of play. And it’s turned into the success we’ve seen the last couple of years.”
What are the matchups he will be paying closest attention to?: “I think Michigan does have the advantage in the trenches. I think they’re going to try and run the football and try and move people and play their style of ball. Michigan likes keeping it on the ground, chewing up clock and keeping the ball away from opposing offense, especially ones that like to move quickly and score in bunches. So I suspect that’s going to be Michigan’s game plan coming in. But I’m really curious how they handle Max Duggan in that TCU offense. While Ohio State struggled to score in the second half, they were still able to put up a ton of yards. They moved the football pretty efficiently in the first half. But Michigan, where they really wore them down and did well was keeping them out of the end zone in the red zone. So I’m really curious how TCU moves the football. If they can punch it in for for seven instead of three. And if that’s the case, I think they can hang with them. If not, I think that’s where Michigan is going to have the advantage and can run away with it. But, yeah, they have the clear advantage in the trenches that they have pretty much all season long. It’s going to come down to whether TCU makes mistakes or not, whether they can move the football. If they can, I think that it will be a high-scoring, back-and-forth, competitive game. If not, I think Michigan could run away with it in the second half.”
What do Michigan players think of playing TCU: “Well, after the Big Ten championship, a lot of the players were getting questions about a potential rematch with with Ohio State. But the players were very respectful of TCU. They’re very respectful of the Big 12, and what they’re able to do, especially offensively, different schemes, different approaches, everything else. But I do think there’s a very similar feeling of playing TCU to playing Ohio State or potentially like a Maryland — they’re able to move the ball, they’re athletic, they’ve got skill guys that can play. And certainly they’re very confident in Max Duggan and his ability. They’re certainly not overlooking TCU. You know, Michigan’s been in the situation before and they lost last year. So I don’t think they really have any business to be overlooking TCU. So I think it will be a fun game. I’m really looking forward to it and it’s one of those under-the-radar matchups that could end up being a very entertaining game. And there’s so many similarities between these two teams. They both like to score in different ways. It should be a lot of fun. I’m expecting a relatively close game.”
Aaron’s early score prediction: “I haven’t put it out yet, and this is subject to change. I think Michigan probably runs away with it in the second half. I’m going to say something like 41-24. I think it’ll be a little more high scoring than many of us expect. I think you’re going to see points early. I think Michigan’s defense, as I mentioned, probably clamps down the second half and they’ll probably pour it on the second half.”
Thank you to Aaron for his work and be sure to check out MLive for the Michigan perspective in the coming weeks.