THERE'S A SAYING in boxing that styles make fights. If that's the case, Michigan offensive coordinator Josh Gattis said, then expect the Capital One Orange Bowl to be a "heavyweight matchup" of "smashmouth" football teams -- the No. 18 rushing offense vs. the No. 2 rushing defense.
Michigan makes no secret that it wants to be physical up front on offense and wear defenses down through the running game, led by Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum, who have combined for 2,227 rushing yards this season. Georgia, behind 340-pound, All-American nose tackle Jordan Davis, seeks to take away the run, then get after the quarterback.
"It's going to be a train wreck inside," Gattis said of the Orange Bowl (7:30 p.m. ET Friday on ESPN/ESPN App).
When Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh reached out to Gattis following the end of the 2018 season, he made an offer to the then-Alabama receivers coach and co-offensive coordinator: Come here, he said, and "you're going to run your offense."
Curiously, though, the product on the field today doesn't look much like what many Michigan supporters envisioned when Gattis was hired. The offense appears to be built more around Harbaugh's brand of conservative bully ball than Gattis' modern spread concepts.
But Gattis isn't poking holes. It's still his offense, just ... different. It has been a long three years in Ann Arbor, Michigan, as his hire was questioned in the beginning, decried in the middle and now, finally, celebrated. This was a year of vindication -- Gattis won this season's Broyles Award, given to college football's top assistant coach, while the school punched its first trip to the College Football Playoff.
So don't expect Michigan to alter its game plan much to counter Georgia.
If there was any doubt, a week ago, Harbaugh was pictured in a shirt with boldface type that might as well have been broadcasting their strategy in advance: "RUN THE DAMN BALL."
GATTIS WAS SUPPOSED to be the one to breathe life into what had been a stagnant Michigan offense during Harbaugh's first four seasons as head coach. Good but not great -- the Wolverines averaged 9.5 wins but couldn't beat archrival Ohio State -- Michigan needed someone to come in and drag the old-school Harbaugh into the 21st century.
Instead of trying to win the time of possession battle, under Gattis the Wolverines promised to go no-huddle and push the tempo. Instead of relying solely on pro-style formations with one or two receivers and the quarterback under center, they'd move the quarterback into the shotgun and use three- and four-receiver sets.
The changing of the guard was going to be exciting. It even came with a clever slogan: "Speed in space."
The catchphrase, which Gattis coined, showed up everywhere. Michigan's graphics department created a phone wallpaper that fans could download with an astronaut in a blue and yellow winged helmet soaring over the moon. The school printed shirts, which Gattis shot out of a T-shirt cannon during a February 2019 basketball game.
Gattis leaned in, tweeting the hashtag "#SpeedInSpace" 33 times in 2019, including once alongside a video he shot from a boat on the waters of Cape Town, South Africa.
But after a debut season in which the Michigan offense was OK but never truly took off, the hashtag disappeared from Gattis' tweets.
Then, in 2020, everything that could go wrong for Michigan football did. Going 2-4 was bad, but the record didn't tell the entire story as the offense ranked a paltry 66th in points per game, Joe Milton III struggled at quarterback and had to be benched in favor of Cade McNamara, and the team's last three games were all canceled due to COVID-19.
There wasn't much optimism heading into 2021. The Wolverines were unranked in the AP Preseason Top 25, Milton left via the transfer portal, and there was more buzz about McNamara's backup, freshman J.J. McCarthy, than McNamara himself.
Offensive lineman Andrew Vastardis would later revel in how one oddsmaker predicted the team's chances of winning the Big Ten championship at 2%.
"But, you know," Vastardis said, "we believe in each other."
Michigan won the season opener against Western Michigan handily, but it wasn't exactly promising as McNamara attempted only 11 passes and the team's most experienced receiver, Ronnie Bell, was lost for the year to a knee injury.
The first month of the season seemed like it might be a mirage. Yes, Michigan went 4-0, but it had beaten only Western Michigan, Washington, Northern Illinois and Rutgers, and McNamara hadn't attempted 20 passes in a game.
With each passing week it started to set in: This defensive-minded, run-oriented team might be the real deal even without McNamara and the passing game in the driver's seat at all times.
Who cares that McNamara threw for only 159 yards and no touchdowns against then-No. 2 Ohio State? Michigan was just fine running for 297 yards and six touchdowns, and winning at home by 15 points.
This wasn't #SpeedInSpace, not even close. Michigan doesn't have a single player among the top 100 nationally in receiving yards or in the top 200 in receptions. The offense isn't particularly fast, going a full 7 seconds per play slower than Tennessee, and it still huddles 40.9% of the time.
This was more like picking a fight in a phone booth, and winning. Powered by Haskins and Corum, Michigan is third among all Power 5 teams in rush attempts. Last week, it won the Joe Moore Award, which is given to the best offensive line in the country.
After beating Iowa and winning the school's first Big Ten championship since 2004, Corum recalled an interview from a year earlier in which Gattis seemed to indicate he wasn't focused on the running game. Corum said that hasn't been a problem this season as Gattis bought in to running the ball early and hasn't looked back.
Michigan wide receiver Mike Sainristil shed light on another team motto: P.S.P.
"Which is physical, smart, precise," he said. "And as you see, the first word is physical. That's just how we play football here. That's what we want to do. That's what we instill into our guys, and that's just how it's going to be."
GATTIS APPEARED ON the verge of tears as he accepted the Broyles Award.
Appearing at the awards luncheon in Little Rock, Arkansas, earlier this month, Gattis recalled how Harbaugh took a risk on hiring him. Not only would he become one of only a handful of Black offensive coordinators in the Power 5, he'd do so having never been a primary playcaller before.
During his acceptance speech, Gattis acknowledged the patience shown by athletic director Warde Manuel and chief of staff Doug Gnodtke. When Michigan went 2-4 last season, they could have opted to clean house and didn't.
Gattis thanked them for "giving us a chance to ride this wave out."
"We truly believed we could," he said.
But the biggest thanks belonged to Harbaugh. After last season, Harbaugh opted to not bring back six of his assistants, and stuck with Gattis.
"They didn't believe we belonged there," Gattis said. "They didn't believe I belonged there. They didn't believe I was the right man leading our program offensively, and I'm forever grateful to Coach Harbaugh because he believed in me."
That belief appears to be seeping over into preparations for the playoff.
Speaking to reporters from Miami, Gattis didn't hint at a sudden shift back to a more wide-open offense to counter Georgia's size and strength along the defensive line.
Never mind that Alabama did exactly that, throwing the ball 44 times and beating Georgia 41.24 in the SEC championship game. Gattis said it's hard to call that a blueprint for success because it was Georgia's only loss this season.
Corum echoed his coach, telling reporters, "You know, there's no need to change anything."
"We've had a wonderful year," he said. "The offensive line has done great, our tight ends have done great, our receivers and everyone has done great. So we'll just continue to prepare and watch film on them and just keep going."
Despite losing Bell for the season, Gattis has managed to manufacture big plays in the passing game when he needs them. Shorthanded at receiver, he has made the most of tight ends Erick All and Luke Schoonmaker, who have combined for 51 receptions and five touchdowns.
McNamara might not be the most talented quarterback in the playoff, but he's an effective passer with 2,470 yards, 15 touchdowns and only four interceptions.
McCarthy even provides a good change of pace from time to time, with 23 carries for 100 yards and two touchdowns.
Georgia defensive coordinator Dan Lanning said Harbaugh and Gattis deserve credit for the offense they've built.
"They run hard, smashmouth football plays," he said. "They demand some physicality up front, which I know we're excited to see, and then they have the ability to attack you downfield. I just think they show tremendous balance in the way they prepare, in the way they play the game."
Gattis also seems eager for this heavyweight matchup.
After three years, instead of changing Michigan, it sounds as if Michigan has changed him.
"I mean, it's two smashmouth teams kind of going against each other," he said. "And endurance is gonna play a big piece of that -- who's able to win the fourth quarter, who's able to win at the line of scrimmage late in the game is going to be key to who wins."