Ohio State v Michigan
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This is as close as it comes to a traditional Rose Bowl Game in this day and age. No. 1 Michigan didn't have to think twice when making its venue choice for this College Football Playoff semifinal. The Wolverines played in the first "Granddaddy of Them All" in 1902. Pasadena, California, has served as postseason home for this program 18 previous times. The longing has been great to get back; Michigan last played in the Rose Bowl in 2007 (vs. USC) as part of a Big Ten vs. Pac-10 tradition that lasted from 1947 to 2002.

Nowadays, between the old BCS system and the College Football Playoff, the Rose Bowl has mostly been told: You're taking who you're given. So the Rose long ago opted out of its tradition so it could be part of the national championship picture. 

No. 4 Alabama is no slouch in terms of this game's tradition, either. The Rose Bowl is mentioned in the school's fight song. With eight appearances, the Crimson Tide have played in more Rose Bowls than 12 schools combined in the Big Ten and Pac-12. 

In this current configuration, the Rose Bowl is unlikely to host a CFP National Championship. That doesn't mean being a national semifinal -- or quarterfinal, as it will serve in 2024 -- isn't attractive. This one, for example, features two iconic coaches at the top of their games.

Of course, there is so much more to this year's Rose Bowl than just a beautiful sunset over the San Gabriel Mountains. So, what are the keys to winning the game when the Rose Bowl kicks off on Monday? Let's take a look.

College Football Playoff cases: No. 1 Michigan | No. 2 Washington | No. 3 Texas | No. 4 Alabama

Keys to the Rose Bowl semifinal

1. Michigan's easy path 

This is a polite way of saying the Big Ten was subpar this season. Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State were good, sure. The rest of the league? Not so much. That's not to take anything away from the Wolverines, which became a legitimate No. 1 seed after capturing their third consecutive conference title. They just haven't had many games like this. Alabama matches up well across both lines. At his best, Tide quarterback Jalen Milroe does things Wolverines QB J.J. McCarthy simply cannot. Michigan running back Blake Corum's output has decreased this season. His team has played three ranked programs, all since Nov. 11. Alabama has played five such teams stretching back to September. 

The question seems to be whether Michigan has maxed out already this season. Coming off an SEC Championship Game win over Georgia, it sure looks like Alabama has not. Michigan is the No. 1 seed, but it might have the hardest road to winning the national title. First, it must get by Nick Saban and Co. before moving on to one of two offensive powerhouses in No. 2 Washington or No. 3 Texas. The matchup against Alabama is Michigan's toughest in at least two seasons -- probably since the Wolverines were blown out by Georgia in the 2021 Orange Bowl semifinal.

Only three times in the first nine CFP events has the No. 1 seed won it all. 

2. Jalen Milroe must be the man for Alabama

We've watched Milroe this season go from being the scapegoat for why Alabama wasn't built to win it all to the biggest reason it's in this position. That's how much Milroe has improved in the 14 weeks since being benched before the South Florida game. It's not a stretch to suggest Milroe will be the best player on the field in this Rose Bowl. 

Michigan has yet to face a QB who's this much of a threat with his legs. As a thrower, Milroe is one of only three signal-callers to average 10 yards per attempt this season. We may be in the midst of the beginning stages of a 2024 Heisman Trophy run. On pass plays of at least 30 yards, Milroe is a top-10 performer. If he leads the Tide to the win on Monday, he'll cement his place as the latest Alabama legend.

3. Michigan needs J.J. McCarthy to rediscover himself

One year ago in Michigan's CFP semifinal loss to TCU, McCarthy threw for a career-high 343 yards, added 52 yards rushing and accounted for three touchdowns. He hasn't exactly been the same since. In fact, the offensive staff has sort of gotten away from calling on McCarthy late in the season. Offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore, who filled in as interim coach during Harbaugh's suspension over the final three regular-season games, chose to run the ball on the last 32 offensive snaps at Penn State; McCarthy threw only eight times that day. Since Oct. 21, he has thrown exactly one touchdown pass. This is a team that is winning lately despite McCarthy, not because of him. A lingering ankle injury bothered him late in the season, too. 

Perhaps the playoff prep has allowed him to heal. What's certain, though, is that Michigan cannot win this game without McCarthy being dynamic. Dare we say the off-and-on Heisman Trophy candidate is now a dreaded game manager? In that monster game against the Horned Frogs a year ago, McCarthy threw two pick sixes, reinforcing the notion that Michigan isn't ready for the bright lights of the CFP. If Michigan wants to avoid being a one-and-done for the third consecutive season, that will have to change against Alabama. 

4. Will the Wolverines offensive line hold up?

Michigan is one season removed from having the best offensive line in the country over back-to-back seasons (Joe Moore Award winners, 2021-22). The position group might still be the best on the team. It's not sexy, but it is the backbone of Michigan football. Just ask Ohio State, which has been pushed around by the O-line in the last three meetings.

Still, it's hard to envision Michigan doing that to an Alabama front which includes All-SEC lineman Landon Jackson and All-America linebacker Dallas Turner. Add to that the loss of Michigan's best offensive lineman, Zack Zinter, who was knocked out for the season in the Ohio State game. The last time Alabama got pushed around up front was the Texas game. You might have noticed, the Tide have come miles since then.

5. Saban's best coaching job, Jim Harbaugh's swan song?

Saban has not been among the Coach of the Year award winners this offseason, but the job he's done with this Alabama team might be his best -- and it may not be close, either. The 72-year-old Saban entered the season with an unproven quarterback (Milroe) while having lost the national defensive player of the year (Will Anderson Jr.). Milroe stepped up. Turner and Chris Braswell combined for 18 sacks. Defensive back Caleb Downs earned multiple Freshman Player of the Year honors, including here at CBS Sports. Wide receiver Isaiah Bond is a legitimate deep threat.

The Tide as a whole rebounded impressively from a double-digit, nonconference loss to Texas in September. Oh, and Saban had to replace both coordinators for the fourth time since 2008. The "team of destiny" in this year's CFP? It might be the 14-time national champions who weren't expected to be here after that loss to the Longhorns.

Meanwhile, Harbaugh reportedly has a contract extension offer on the table that will make him the highest-paid coach in college football. Why hasn't he signed? The easy answer: no reason. The extension reportedly contains a poison pill in the form of a clause that prevents Harbaugh from jumping to the NFL in 2024. Why not just wait and see what's out there in the NFL after the season? It's not like Harbaugh hasn't done that before. 

It's a weird, weird situation in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Harbaugh doesn't seem to see eye-to-eye with athletic director Warde Manuel. But the same coach who may be in charge of the best Michigan team ever -- if it wins the national title, of course -- is 1-6 in bowl games at his alma mater. The Wolverines are coached by an enigma who missed half the regular season because of alleged misdeeds. Don't be surprised if we're watching Harbaugh's last game at Michigan come Monday. Also don't be surprised if he stays and wins the next three national championships. Again -- he's an enigma.

There's no telling how the mindsets of these coaches may impact the semifinal, but there's no question both are at key points in their careers with a Rose Bowl win or loss potentially affecting what they do in the future.