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Sports Illustrated
Sports Illustrated
Richard Johnson

Playoff Preview: Michigan, TCU Make for Compelling Matchup

After a night of admittedly not much sleep and a whole lot of stress from many connected to the TCU program, they got to celebrate Sunday because their Horned Frogs officially punched their ticket to the College Football Playoff at No. 3 in the final rankings. TCU’s draw is No. 2 Michigan in the Fiesta Bowl, a team that is making its second appearance in a row in the CFP.

The Frogs have been comeback artists all year, but fell just short against Kansas State in the Big 12 championship game to cap off a 12–1 season. Michigan finished its first 13–0 mark with a win over Purdue in its conference championship game after capturing its one-game season over Ohio State Thanksgiving weekend. The Wolverines may be in the midst of making these Playoff appearances a habit, while TCU is more than just happy to be here.

MORE: Breaking Down Georgia–Ohio State Semifinal

The Frogs are led by QB Max Duggan and have battled back in close shave after close shave all season, no matter the deficit. The Wolverines have dominated just about every opponent. The paths here may have been contrasting, but it sets up for an entertaining semifinal tilt. 

McCarthy (left) and Johnston are key offensive figures in the Fiesta Bowl matchup.

Darron Cummings/AP; Jay Biggerstaff/USA TODAY Sports

Story line you’re already tired of

Hand-wringing over running back Blake Corum’s absence. There is no doubt that the injury to Corum was a gutting one to the heart and soul of Michigan’s offense. Corum had been a consistent and excellent engine to it, and was in the midst of the Heisman race before he got injured against Illinois. An attempt to return in that game and again against Ohio State was unsuccessful, and Corum had season-ending surgery this week. 

But with Corum out of the picture, Donovan Edwards is well equipped to stand in the limelight. Edwards is a more explosive back whose speed gives him a different gear to power Michigan’s run game. The Wolverines would certainly rather use a committee backfield approach, but they are in capable hands with Edwards. 

Key matchup to watch

TCU receiver Quentin Johnston vs. Michigan cornerbacks DJ Turner and Will Johnson. Johnston hasn’t really been healthy the last few weeks, but when he is—as he showed against Kansas State—he’s a big play waiting to happen to power TCU’s passing game. He’s a surefire first-round NFL draft pick and has a unique blend of size and speed with great footwork and a pterodactyl-like wingspan. He will have the size advantage against Michigan corners Turner and Johnson, and as Ohio State’s Marvin Harrison Jr. showed in The Game, dominant receivers can still have plenty of joy against Michigan’s pass defense. Will Johnston?

Underrated x-factor

TCU’s Taye Barber. Let’s say the Wolverines do hold down Johnston, and even put a lid on shifty Frogs running back Kendre Miller. Well, then their slot corner Mike Sainristil will still have his hands full containing Barber. The slot wideout is the yin to Johnston’s yang in the TCU passing game, giving QB Max Duggan a big-play threat. He isn’t a volume receiver, but if he gets loose at the wrong time for Michigan he can absolutely make the Wolverines pay. 

Michigan wins if ...

It continues to showcase what got it here in the first place. Michigan has an explosive play waiting to happen in Edwards and has been getting the best out of QB J.J. McCarthy the past few weeks with a play-action passing game. Its defense is not built with the edge pressure it had last season, but it is much more stout up the middle. The Wolverines will have to keep the lid on Duggan, whose off-schedule prowess makes him adept at extending plays. And in a tight game, don’t count out the fact that kicker Jake Moody is one of the nation’s best at getting the ball through the uprights.

TCU wins if ...

It can actually keep this close throughout. The Horned Frogs have made a living being comeback kids this season. But if they get down against Michigan, they may not be able to pull off their patented heroics. TCU has averaged 19.5 second-half points per game, good for seventh in the country. One of the six teams higher than it in that ranking? Michigan, at 21.5. The Frogs have to match the Wolverines shot for shot, because Michigan is capable of a second-half boat race. 

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