UPDATE: Here’s the full CFP rankings.
It is quite possible that Alabama and Michigan are on a collision course for one of the great defensive showdowns of all time, and college football might finally have a team that can out-Alabama the Crimson Tide.
Alabama is No. 1 in the opening College Football Playoff rankings, which was released Tuesday night. Michigan is No. 3, but if the Wolverines beat No. 6 Ohio State and win the Big Ten championship game, they will pass Clemson for the No. 2 seed even if the Tigers do not lose.
That could set up a national championship game between the two best defenses in the nation. Michigan is currently No. 1 in the nation in scoring defense and passing defense. Alabama is No. 1 in rushing defense, No. 4 in scoring defense and has accounted for nine touchdowns on its own this season.
Advanced statistics suggest these two defenses are clearly ahead of the rest of the nation. Michigan is first in Bill Connelly’s defensive S&P+ rating and Alabama is second, but the totality of those two schools’ dominance is staggering. Alabama is first in rushing S&P+ and second in passing S&P+, success on standard downs, success on passing downs, offensive success rate and defensive “havoc” rate. Michigan is second in rushing S&P+ and first in all of those other categories.
Both defenses are dominant at everything, basically. Alabama’s defense has scored more points, but Michigan’s success against the pass is historically absurd in this hurry it up, spread ’em out and throw it all over the place era of college football.
The Wolverines have not seen a quarterback at the level of Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, Washington’s Jake Browning or Louisville’s Lamar Jackson, so that incredible pass defense could be tested in a potential playoff semifinal.
Should Michigan meet Alabama in the championship game, the defenses will be the headliners, but the contrasting styles on offense would also be fascinating. The Wolverines would basically be playing the role of pre-Lane Kiffin Alabama against the Crimson Tide.
For years, Nick Saban railed against evolution in college football. Then he hired Kiffin to be his offensive coordinator, and the Crimson Tide have slowly become part of the unstoppable modern machine on offense that Saban once reviled.
Alabama now looks more like Chip Kelly’s Oregon, and Jim Harbaugh’s team plays more like Saban’s former offenses. Quarterback Jalen Hurts leads Alabama with 95 rushing attempts. Many of them have been designed runs, or zone-read option plays out of the shotgun without a huddle.
The Crimson Tide like to play fast. They like to spread out defenses and run zone-read plays that key off different defenders instead of just the traditional, read-the-defensive-end option look.
Meanwhile, the Wolverines run an offense that probably makes Saban a tad bit jealous and yearn for his former days of lining up in power formations and overwhelming the opponent. Michigan’s offense is plenty complex, with dozens of formations and motions to find advantages before either pounding the ball with a bevy of running backs or setting up play-action passes.
The Wolverines aren’t a fan of the shotgun. While it certainly seems like Michigan huddles more than most teams in the country these days, the Wolverines are actually 35th in the nation in adjusted pace, ahead of Alabama at 47 and way ahead of Penn State, which almost never huddles but is 113th because the Nittany Lions spend so much time at the line of scrimmage.
It’s not all traditional stuff for the Wolverines. When Jabrill Peppers gets involved, Michigan busts out a read-option package. There are jet sweeps for Eddie McDoom. Still, the Wolverines look far more like those Alabama offenses with A.J. McCarron and Greg McElroy at the helm than the Crimson Tide do these days.
This is by no means designed to belittle Alabama’s offense. The Crimson Tide are 11th in the nation in rushing yards per game and third in offensive S&P+, well ahead of the Wolverines at 15th.
So Michigan could possibly enter the national title game with the country’s best defense and be facing a very productive, up-tempo spread offense. That also sounds a lot like the Alabama of the past decade.
Alabama also has a fearsome defense, but it would certainly be fascinating to see if Harbaugh’s team could out-Alabama the Crimson Tide. That would certainly make Saban more angry than jealous.