'They're not an NFL team': Wolverines refuse to be cowed by Crimson Tide

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Winter Park, Fla. — Everyone is aware of Alabama’s phenomenal success under coach Nick Saban.

The Tide have played in six national title games since 2011 and won four. Saban also won a national championship at LSU in 2003 and at Alabama in 2009.

Michigan (9-3) and Alabama (10-2) will meet in the Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Day, the fifth time the programs have met. Michigan first-year offensive coordinator Josh Gattis was co-offensive coordinator at Alabama last year and has shared as much insight into the Tide as possible with Michigan coaches and players.

“They can be beat like any other team," says Michigan tight end Sean McKeon of Alabama.

Tight end Sean McKeon said what stood out from what Gattis has told them about Alabama is that the team is not infallible. After all, Alabama lost two games this season, although it shouldn’t be forgotten that the Tide lost quarterback Tua Tagovailoa late in the season to a hip injury.

“They’re not an NFL team,” McKeon said Saturday after practice. “They can be beat like any other team. Just because they’re Alabama doesn’t mean we can’t compete and beat them. Obviously, they’ve lost twice this year already so just kinda playing our best football, and I think we can get the job done.”

McKeon said the Wolverines are particularly motivated coming off a disappointing loss to Ohio State in the regular-season finale, the eighth-straight win by the Buckeyes in the rivalry. Alabama also lost in its final game, a shootout with rival Auburn.

“We’re pretty hungry, especially coming off a loss like that, just to get back out there and play better,” he said. “Definitely, this victory would mean a lot for the program, a lot for the guys next year coming back, so definitely we’re very motivated.”

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Michigan opened the Big Ten season with a 35-14 loss at Wisconsin and finished with a 56-27 loss to OSU, snapping a four-game win streak during which the Wolverines, particularly on offense, seemed to have found their rhythm.

What would a win over Alabama prove?

“I mean, win over Alabama, of course, would be great,” center Cesar Ruiz said Saturday. “It would just prove that we are a great football team. We can play with the best. We can win big games, you know?”

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh and his players have emphasized the importance of getting a 10th victory. Bowl games are not only about wrapping a bow on the season but also giving the program a springboard into next season.

McKeon won’t be back, but leading receiver Ronnie Bell returns for his junior season. Bell said that even though the Wolverines were coming off a loss in the Peach Bowl, they were motivated heading into winter conditioning and spring practice.

“I’m just excited for the offseason because I understand now because I got a taste of what the offseason can do for you in the season,” Bell said. “I’m really excited for this offseason, to get even more prepared for next season."


Twitter: @chengelis