By almost all of the basic measures, Michigan has one of the nation’s best defenses. It ranks tied for fifth in yards per play allowed, 17th in points per play allowed and 14th in first downs allowed per game.
A good bit of that success is on the back of a run defense that will be among the best the University of Alabama football team has faced this season, when it meets the Wolverines in the Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Day. Alabama’s ability to reach the 200-yard mark on the ground could be enough to decide it: in the last two seasons, Alabama has won all 10 games in which it ran for more than 200, while in the same stretch Michigan is 1-4 when it allows 200 or more rushing yards.
Alabama running back Najee Harris enters the Citrus Bowl after going for at least 80 rushing yards in six of his last seven games and at least 100 in four of those seven.
“He's been really, really effective,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “Big, powerful back with outstanding balance. I've always admired his feet and his balance and his vision, the physicality with which he runs.”
But this will be Harris’ toughest test to date. Michigan’s 3.03 yards per carry allowed is better than any defense UA has faced this season and ranked 10th nationally; Auburn is next best at 18th (3.41 yards per carry allowed). Michigan’s defense performed that well while facing the nation’s No. 6 (Ohio State), No. 10 (Wisconsin), No. 18 (Army) and No. 21 (Middle Tennessee State) rushing attacks by yards per carry.
Michigan has also been good at limiting teams from generating explosive plays on the ground, but with a catch.
The Wolverines have allowed just 31 runs of 10 yards or more, which ranks tied for third in the nation. However, Michigan has allowed seven runs of 30 yards or more and four runs of 40 yards or more, both of which are outside of the top 50 nationally.
When Michigan does allow a run of 10 yards or more, it goes for 30 yards or more 22.58 percent of the time (only five FBS teams are worse) and it goes for 40 yards or more 12.9 percent of the time (only nine FBS teams are worse).
Turning small holes into big ones may be the only way to beat this Michigan defense on the ground, because small gains have not repeated themselves often.
Forty-four times this year, the Michigan defense has faced a run on third down with three or fewer yards to go. The opposing offense moved the chains on 23 of those runs; that 52.27 percentage is among the top 25 nationally.
Alabama’s rushing attack has been efficient through the second half of the season, but in the Citrus Bowl, breaking big runs may be the answer.