Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines will have an opportunity to reach 10 wins for the fourth time during his five seasons with the program, but they’ll have to go through Nick Saban and an Alabama Crimson Tide team that is motivated to “re-establish the standard” at which they play.
The Wolverines (9-3) are No. 14 in the College Football Playoff rankings and will face No. 13 Alabama (10-2) in the New Year’s Day Citrus Bowl in Orlando, it was announced Sunday. Michigan had won four straight before a 56-27 loss to Ohio State in the final regular-season game. Alabama is without injured quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and also lost two of its final four games by a combined eight points, to LSU (46-41) and Auburn in the final game (48-45).
Under Harbaugh, Michigan has won 10 games during the 2015, 2016 and 2018 seasons. The Wolverines were 8-5 in 2017. Harbaugh is 1-3 in bowl games after the Wolverines defeated Florida, 41-7, in the 2015 Citrus Bowl. Since then, the Wolverines have lost three straight – 33-32 to Florida State in the Orange Bowl, 26-19 to South Carolina in the Outback Bowl and 41-15 to Florida in the Peach Bowl.
But for the Tide, not being in the four-team national playoff is an unusual position and one that Saban believes will be a motivation as Alabama prepares to face Michigan.
“Our team is a little disappointed in the way we finished the season, so this is an opportunity for us to show who we are and try to get back to playing the Bama standard,” Saban said Sunday night on a Citrus Bowl conference call.
“I think this is an opportunity for us to sort of try to re-establish the standard we want to play to. When you play against a great opponent, that certainly enhances that opportunity. There’s an opportunity for a lot of players on our team to have practice and prepare for the future. That’s what we’re focused on right now is the future. This is an outstanding opportunity for them.”
This will be Michigan’s 48th bowl appearance. The Wolverines have a 21-26 record.
Michigan and Alabama have played four times and split. The Wolverines won the first meeting in the 1988 Hall of Fame Bowl, 28-24. Alabama won the second meeting in 1997, 17-14 in the Outback. The last postseason meeting between the two was memorable with Tom Brady guiding a 35-34 overtime victory in the 2000 Orange Bowl. The teams last played to open the 2012 season at the Cowboys’ stadium in Texas. Bama won handily, 41-14.
Saban has won six national championships, including the 2003 title while at LSU. Saban won BCS and AP national titles at Alabama in 2009, 2011 and 2012, and in the College Football Playoff era, Bama has won titles in 2015 and 2017.
This is a powerful team in every phase and boasts some tremendous firepower on offense.
“The Alabama team is a great team,” Harbaugh said Sunday night. “I have the utmost respect for them. They set the bar for college football over the last many years. They’re a model of success and credit to Nick Saban and his coaches.
“High-powered offense, great defense. I’ve already started to look at them. Two offensive tackles (Alex Leatherwood and Jedrick Wills) look to be top-20 picks. A lot of good receivers. This could be the best group of receivers I’ve seen in maybe ever. Probably three first-round picks in that group. Two really talented running backs. The special teams is dynamic – punt return, kick returns, those two especially. We’ll need to have a great plan in regard to all three phases of the game. Excited for the opportunity.”
Running back Najee Harris was recruited hard by Michigan. He leads Alabama in rushing with 1,088 yards and 11 touchdowns and is 45th nationally in all-purpose yards (116.0). He also has 304 yards receiving and seven touchdowns.
Tagovailoa suffered a dislocated right hip in the second quarter against Mississippi State on Nov. 16 and redshirt sophomore Mac Jones took over as starter the following week against Western Carolina. Jones has played in 11 games and thrown for 1,176 yards and 11 touchdowns this season. Tagovailoa had completed 71 percent of his passes for 2,840 yards and 33 touchdowns.
Alabama is deep at receiver with DeVonta Smith ranked ninth nationally with 1,200 yards and has 13 touchdowns. Jerry Jeudy has 959 yards and nine touchdowns, Henry Ruggs III has 719 yards and seven touchdowns and Jaylen Waddle has 553 yards and six touchdowns. He also has 19 punt returns including one for a touchdown.
“The team is the model of success – 2014, ’15, ’16, ’17, ‘18 all playoff,” Harbaugh said. “They have really outstanding players, great freshmen group, too. Experienced secondary. A fabulous team. A very, very elite team. Credit to Nick Saban and the coaching staff. Our preparation will have to be at its highest level. It will be a big-time matchup. We’re very much looking forward to it.”
Alabama is ranked 17th nationally in total defense (318.6) and 15th in scoring (18.8).
The Tide’s No. 13 CFP ranking is a low for the program in the six years of the playoff rankings. This is the first year since 2010 that Alabama has played outside the New Year’s Six/BCS bowls. That year, the Tide beat Michigan State 49-7 in what is now the Citrus Bowl.
Another storyline for the game features Michigan first-year offensive coordinator Josh Gattis. Gattis was co-offensive coordinator at Alabama in 2018. Before Saban was Michigan State head coach (1995-99) he was on the staff from 1983-87. Also on the MSU staff at that time was Ed Warinner, currently Michigan’s offensive line coach.
It will be interesting if players from both teams will decide not to play in the bowl game. Last year, Michigan starters Devin Bush, Rashan Gary, Karan Higdon and Juwann Bushell-Beatty opted to sit out the game and not risk injury ahead of training for the NFL Draft.
“Those are individual conversations,” Harbaugh said when asked how he approaches this situation. “Finish what you started has always been kinda the general rule that I’ve personally thought of it as.”
Linebacker Josh Uche, however, announced this past week he will pursue the upcoming NFL Draft, but said in his Twitter post that he will play in the bowl game. Tight end Sean McKeon, after the loss to Ohio State, also said he will be play.
“The last four years have been the best four years of my life,” McKeon said after his final game at Michigan Stadium. “The seniors gave their all to this team. Still have one more game to play for and one more game to win. Looking forward to preparing one more time with this team.”
Alabama hasn’t really had to deal with the situation of players sitting because the Tide has so often been part of the playoff picture. The playoff, it is perceived by some, has diluted the importance of the bowl games, hence the decision by some to sit it out and prepare for the NFL Draft.
Saban said he would tell the players this is a way to enhance their futures by playing well and improving their draft status.
“That’s what we’ll emphasize to our older players on the team, and they’ll have a choice to make,” Saban said. “When you have guys that don’t play in bowl games and they do play in the playoffs, that in itself tells you the view of the players in terms of how they look at the bowl game because we have made everything about the playoffs in college football.”
MICHIGAN VS. ALABAMA
► Kickoff: Jan. 1, 1 p.m. Camping World Stadium, Orlando
► TV/radio: ABC/950 AM
► Records: Michigan 9-3, Alabama 10-2
► Tickets: Tickets will be available 8:30 a.m. Monday. Tickets can be purchased through the UM athletic department at www.mgoblue.com/tickets. For assistance with your ticket order, contact the UM ticket office at (734) 764-0247 or email@example.com.