Najee Harris could be in line for more monster numbers against Michigan
Around this time three years ago, Najee Harris was the topic of several Alabama message boards as fans waited impatiently to see if the five-star back would honor his commitment to the Crimson Tide or flip to Michigan.
Three seasons and 2,597 all-purpose yards later, Harris’ final game for Alabama could come against the school he nearly chose to attend. Through 12 games this season, the junior leads Alabama with 1,088 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground while also recording 27 receptions for 304 yards and seven more scores through the air. While the 6-foot-2, 230-pound back still has a year of eligibility remaining after this season, the general belief is that he has already proved himself at the college level and will enter next year’s draft.
Before he leaves, Harris could be in line to treat Crimson Tide fans with one more stellar performance.
On paper, Michigan has one of the nation’s top defenses. The Wolverines rank No. 5 in passing defense (173.8 yards allowed per game), No. 7 in total defense (292.8) and No. 19 in scoring defense (19.5 points per game). While Michigan fares better against the pass, it has also been solid against the run where it ranks in the top 25, limiting opponents to 119.08 yards per game on the ground.
However, when it has come to bringing down top-rated ball carriers, the Wolverines have experienced some woeful results. Michigan is coming off a 56-27 loss to Ohio State in which it allowed Buckeyes’ running back J.K. Dobbins to rush for 211 yards and four touchdowns on 31 carries. It was the second 200-yard game Michigan allowed this season after Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor gashed the Wolverines for 203 yards and a pair of scores on 23 carries.
Michigan ranks No. 10 in the nation allowing opposing ball carriers to average just 3.03 yards per carry. Although against the three top-50 rushers it has faced this season — Taylor, Dobbins and Middle Tennessee State quarterback Asher O’Hara — the Wolverines have seen that average more than double to 6.66 yards per carry. The average climbs all the way up to 7.35 yards per carry if you take away O’Hara’s three sacks against Michigan.
Michigan’s numbers slightly improve when considering their performance against top-100 rushers, adding Michigan State’s Elijiah Collins and Indiana’s Stevie Scott III into the mix. However, even then, the Wolverines are averaging 5.72 yards per carry, more than 2.5 yards a carry over their average.
It’s worth noting Taylor and Dobbins rank No. 2 and No. 3 respectively in rushing yards this season. Numbers are expected to rise when facing top-level competition. However, Michigan’s discrepancy against top backs is still alarming.
For perspective, Alabama is allowing opponents 3.82 yards per carry. Against the five top-50 rushers it has faced — Mississippi State running back Kylin Hill, LSU running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Arkansas running back Rahkim Boyd, New Mexico State running back Jason Huntley — that average has only jumped up to 3.99 yards per carry.
Another positive note for Alabama is how well Harris has performed of late. The star back piled up a combined 579 all-purpose yards and nine touchdowns over four games in November alone. That includes a combined 388 yards and three touchdowns against top-50 defenses LSU and Auburn.
Harris’ five 100-yard rushing games this season came against the five top-50 defenses the Crimson Tide faced. In those games, he combined for 763 total yards and seven touchdowns.
“He's been really, really effective,” Michigan head 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.”
Chances are, Harbaugh will get a first-hand look at those attributes in the coming week. No. 13 Alabama will face No. 14 Michigan on Jan. 1 at noon CT inside of Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Fla. The game will be televised on ABC.