Eleven Warriors Roundtable: Looking Back at Michigan, Looking Forward to Conference Championship Weekend and Beyond

By Chris Lauderback on December 3, 2021 at 9:20 am
Ryan Day isn't used to having the first weekend of December off.

I have to admit, when I create the round-robin schedule for the Eleven Warriors roundtable, it never occurs to me Ohio State won't have a game the first weekend of December. 

But here we are after Jim Harbaugh took Ryan Day's lunch money last weekend. Luckily for you however, the roundtable is back as our own Dan Hope, Johnny Ginter and Matt Gutridge opine on the loss along with looking ahead to this weekend's conference championship games and College Football Playoff selections.

Which surprised you more last Saturday - the defensive line's inability to stop the run, the offensive line's struggles to remotely control the line of scrimmage or Ryan Day's play-calling which included what amounted to obvious tells when he was calling a run play?

Dan: All of those things surprised me, but the vanilla game plan – on both sides of the ball, but especially on offense – is what's stuck with me the most. For a game that Ohio State claims to prepare for all year long, the Buckeyes appeared to be far less prepared than their opponent in Ann Arbor. While Michigan had a bunch of creative play calls that worked, Ohio State seemed like it was sticking with the basics, which came in stark contrast to its offensive game plan against Michigan State just one week earlier. 

In that regard, the loss to Michigan reminded me of last year's loss to Alabama – and makes me wonder how much the flu bug that apparently affected numerous Ohio State players last week may have affected the game plan, much like the COVID-19 outbreak before last year's national championship game impacted the game plan against the Crimson Tide. 

Johnny: I wasn't shocked that Ohio State struggled with Michigan's defensive line; I knew that Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo could give them fits and allow the interior of Michigan's d-line to do work. I think the biggest disappointment to me was essentially how you phrased the running game issues, in that this could've been a much, much more competitive game if Ohio State had been able to run the ball with any regularity. That the Buckeyes were so incredibly predictable in the run game probably pisses me off more than any one aspect of what happened on Saturday.

Matt: The tells of Ryan Day’s play-calling were shocking. After the Nebraska and Penn State games, I figured Day and company were saving their tendency breaking offensive plays for the last Saturday in November.

The defensive performance was also a letdown. Following the Michigan State game it appeared the defense was on its way to becoming the dominant force – especially against the run – we once knew. The Silver Bullets were firing blanks.

The defensive staff is taking a beating and rightfully so. What does Day need to do to fix things? How much of the defense's struggles do you attribute to coaching versus players? I know there's some yin/yang there because coaches are responsible for developing talent but I'm not sure I see as much talent out there as the recruiting service rankings would indicate. 

Johnny: Andy and I talked with Kyle Jones about this on the Dubcast, and his solution is to modernize the defense and scrap what's going on scheme-wise entirely. I don't think that's a bad idea, but I'm a big dumb idiot who just wants to see A) more creativity when it comes to pressuring the quarterback, B) the ability to change formations on the fly, and C) just better tackling, top to bottom. I don't know what fancy terminology it takes to get those things done, but that's what I'm hoping for.

Matt: Defense is about knowing assignments, playing fast and playing aggressively. That has been lacking for most of the season. We saw it flash against the Spartans, but totally disappear in the biggest game of the season. When players know what they’re doing on the field, they play fast and aggressive. When players are in their own head, they play slow and timid.

If the players don’t know what they are doing, that’s on coaching. If the recruited players aren’t talented enough, again that’s on the coaches and the evaluation process.  

Dan: Per usual, I think it's a combination of both. There was no Chase Young on the defensive line, Pete Werner in the linebacker corps or Jeff Okudah in the secondary this season, and that showed in the biggest games of the year. It's been a couple of years since Ohio State has had a consistent game-changer on defense, and that's one reason why the Buckeyes haven't had an elite defense.

Still, there's plenty of talent out there. From a pure talent perspective, the only teams that should have had better defenses than Ohio State this year are Georgia, Clemson and Alabama. Ultimately, the fact that a defense full of four-star-plus recruits isn't playing like one reflects back on coaching and scheme, and that's why changes have to be made this offseason. At a minimum, I think Day needs to bring in a new defensive coordinator – someone who actually has experience as a full-time defensive coordinator, who has a track record of doing so successfully and who can coach the players in a way that enables them to execute the scheme with confidence, like Jeff Hafley did in 2019.

Next up for Michigan is a date with Iowa in Indy. Any chance Michigan stumbles knowing they've been feeling pretty damn good about themselves and are now in the unfamiliar territory of playing a postseason game of consequence? 

Dan: There's always a chance. Just look at all the upsets we've already seen in college football this year. If conference championship weekend goes chalk with all the favorites winning, that would be a change from what we saw throughout the regular season. And to your point about Michigan, this is the kind of game where a letdown often happens, knowing how much the Wolverines put into beating Ohio State and how big it was for them to get that weight off their backs.

But I still think Michigan beats Iowa. By beating Ohio State, the Wolverines proved they're not the same old team they've been for the past decade and that they can win the big game when all the pressure's on. I don't think running the ball against Iowa will come as easily as it did against Ohio State, but I don't see the Hawkeyes scoring many points against Michigan's defense. I'll take Michigan to win 31-17.

Johnny: There's always a chance, but probably not a good one. Iowa's offense is just way too anemic (literally 123rd in the country) to be covered up by their admittedly pretty good defense. Because the thing is that Michigan sits right behind them in the national rankings on defense, and is waaaaaaaay ahead of them offensively. I would love to see Iowa pull the upset here for obvious reasons but something tells me this will be over by halftime.

Matt: Hoping that the hangover for Michigan is real and perennial Big Ten Coach of the Year, Kirk Ferentz, pulls his upset magic. Losing The Game sucks, but a nice consolation prize is for Harbaugh to lose against Iowa and his bowl opponent. The rising of the sun in January is dependent on Michigan losing three games every season with Jimmy at the helm.

The other biggie among the teams still playing takes place down in Atlanta as Georgia and Alabama play for the SEC championship. Georgia enters as a 6.5-point favorite, marking the first time since 2015 Alabama enters a game as an underdog. How do you see this one playing out? Has Bryce Young already won the Heisman? 

Matt: I’m pulling for Georgia to knock off Alabama. The Bulldogs are the better team, but following last week’s improbable comeback against Auburn, it appears Nick Saban’s deal with the devil has kicked into overdrive. The Tide will put up a fight, but I expect the Bulldogs to win a tight one with both teams scoring in the twenties.

If the voters watched Bryce Young’s performance against Auburn, he has not won the Heisman. However, Young gets a chance to win the coveted trophy if he connects enough times with Jameson Williams – who is averaging 105.1 yards per game – to torch Georgia’s exalted defense.

Dan: I'm never gonna count out Nick Saban, but seeing the Crimson Tide struggle to one-score wins in each of their last three SEC games didn't inspire much confidence that they can knock off the No. 1 team in the country. I think Alabama still finds a way to keep it close, but I'll take Georgia to win by 7 points.

I think the Heisman is Bryce Young's to lose at this point, but I'm not sure he's locked it up yet. If he struggles against Georgia's top-ranked defense and Alabama loses, that could bring others back into the race. Not playing this weekend hurts C.J. Stroud's chances, but I think the door is cracked open for a defensive Heisman winner – Michigan defensive end Aidan Hutchinson, or even Alabama linebacker Will Anderson Jr. or Georgia defensive tackle Jordan Davis – if one of them can have a monster game this weekend.

Johnny: I kind of think Alabama will get stomped here? Maybe? Famous last words, given Nick Saban and all, but this Alabama team has some weirdly specific deficiencies that an excellent defensive team like Georgia can exploit (especially in the run game for some reason).

With tomorrow's games leading to the CFP's final rankings release on Sunday, project the four teams, in order, the committee will unveil. Which team will ultimately win the title?

Johnny: 1. Georgia, 2. Michigan, 3. Oklahoma State, 4. Cincinnati. I hate, hate that Michigan is so close to having a shot at winning this thing. If this is the top four, and I think it will be, they are a clear number two and should be the strongest challengers to Georgia. With that said, I think the Bulldogs are just too good on defense and have the inside track no matter who they're playing in the playoff.

Matt: 1. Buckeyes, 2. Lost, 3. Don’t, 4. Care. 

Dan: I have Georgia, Michigan, Cincinnati and Oklahoma State all winning their conference championship games this weekend and making the College Football Playoff, in that order. While I think just about everyone who reads this site will be pulling for a Bearcats win over the Wolverines in that scenario, Georgia over Michigan is my pick for the national championship game.

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