For the first time in the College Football Playoff era, Alabama is not playing in one of the semifinals. Instead, the Crimson Tide will have to find a way to get motivated for the VRBO Citrus Bowl in Orlando against the Michigan Wolverines. The Crimson Tide are still getting a lot of respect as touchdown favorites and a total of 59.
For now, it looks like Tua Tagovailoa and the other injured Tidesmen are the only ones that will miss the bowl game. With several projected first-round picks, most notable Jerry Jeudy, it was fair to wonder how many players would sit out the bowl game with the much lower stakes. Sitting out a College Football Playoff semifinal is not a decision to take lightly. Sitting out the Citrus Bowl when you play for Alabama is almost understandable. To this point, none of the Alabama players have announced their intentions to prepare for the NFL Draft by skipping the bowl game.
It is still fair to wonder about Alabama’s motivation level here. You don’t go to Alabama to play the Citrus Bowl. You go to Alabama to be in the Playoff every year. Had the Crimson Tide beaten Auburn, they could very well have been in the Final Four, even without a conference championship. A “close” loss to LSU as the only blemish on Alabama’s record could have put them in over Oklahoma. Instead, Auburn won the Iron Bowl and Alabama wound up here.
None of Alabama’s full-season numbers on offense are relevant without Tua Tagovailoa at quarterback, but Mac Jones wasn’t the problem in the Iron Bowl. The sophomore is a Florida native, so this is a big opportunity for him. He did throw two backbreaking interceptions, as both were returned for touchdowns, but he also threw four touchdown passes and amassed 335 yards. He certainly has an insane amount of weapons. DeVonta Smith was a 1,200-yard receiver. Najee Harris was a 1,00-yard rusher. Jerry Jeudy is considered the best wide receiver prospect in the NFL Draft. Henry Ruggs III hasn’t had the junior season he hoped for, but he is still a very solid player.
Tua probably won’t come back, but proving that he is healthy could go a long way. Jones will be in the driver’s seat to start, but Tua’s brother, Taulia, and five-star recruit Bryce Young are also in the mix. To some degree, we worry about this type of thing with Alabama in the bowl – planning for next season. Of course, no program in the country boasts the depth of talent that Alabama has.
The primary reason Alabama has no chance at the National Championship for the first time since the 2013-14 season is the defense. It hasn’t been bad, per se, but the Crimson Tide were vulnerable against LSU and Auburn. Finishing tied for 17th in yards per play with the schedule that Alabama played is in excusable. The Tide avoided Georgia and Florida from the East and didn’t play anybody good in the non-conference. Having a top-20 defense is generally nothing to sneeze at, but when you are Alabama, you need to be better.
Terrell Lewis and Trevon Diggs will be missing from the Alabama defense after opting to sit out the bowl game. Diggs broke up eight passes and was tied for second on the team in interceptions. Lewis was second with six sacks.
On the other sideline, the Citrus Bowl is about the pinnacle these days for Michigan football. Under Jim Harbaugh, the Wolverines have not won the Big Ten East, have not won the Big Ten, and haven’t beaten Ohio State. This is about as good as it gets as far as the postseason. Getting a crack at Alabama is a blessing and a curse. The Wolverines have the chance to snag a signature win against a team that wears a shade of red. On the other hand, the win can be downplayed by Alabama’s alleged lack of motivation. And if Michigan can’t beat an Alabama team that may not be fully invested, that is just another checkmark in the anti-Harbaugh column.
Even with the switch to Josh Gattis, a former Saban assistant, at offensive coordinator, the Wolverines finished 64th in yards per play with 5.85. Shea Patterson has some weapons, but Michigan rarely got the ground game going and there really seemed to be a butting of heads between Gattis and Harbaugh after the slow start to the season, which included almost losing to Army at home.
When Michigan stepped up in class, it rarely went well. The Wolverines lost to Wisconsin, Penn State, and Ohio State. They beat Iowa in a sloppy game and crushed Notre Dame. Patterson finished the regular season with a 22/6 TD/INT ratio, but only completed 57.3% of his passes. Hassan Haskins was more effective than Zach Charbonnet, but Michigan should never run for only four yards per carry. This program isn’t maximizing its talent well enough and the stats bear that out year after year.
Without Michigan’s defensive prowess, this team would be even more disappointing. Don Brown’s defense held the opposition to 4.44 yards per play on the season. Of course, Michigan dominated bad teams and good teams had more success. The seven unranked opponents had just 3.79 yards per play on Michigan. The five ranked opponents had 5.32 yards per play and 62 more total yards over two fewer games.
Initially, I liked Michigan in this game, simply because I wasn’t sure how serious Alabama was going to take it. With no offensive players ruled out for Alabama as of yet, I don’t see how Michigan stops Alabama. The Buckeyes either spread out Michigan and got explosive plays or wore them down in the ground game. It didn’t matter what Michigan did. This game profiles the same way. Michigan is getting talent, but not the same athleticism as the elite programs.
I would wait a while on this game before locking in any sort of position. If Alabama cares, this has the chance to be a massacre. If Alabama doesn’t care and more guys announce that they are sitting out, Michigan can keep it close.
Pick: Alabama -7