MICHIGAN VS. ALABAMA
► Kickoff: 1 p.m. Wednesday, Camping World Stadium, Orlando, Florida
► TV/radio: ABC/950
► Records: Michigan 9-3, Alabama 10-2
► Line: Alabama by 7
View from the other side
Michael Casagrande covers Alabama football for AL.com. He breaks down the Crimson Tide for The Detroit News, answering five questions heading into Wednesday’s Michigan-Alabama meeting in the Citrus Bowl. You can follow him on Twitter at @ByCasagrande.
► Question: Jim Harbaugh has called Alabama’s receivers maybe the best he’s seen — “ever." What distinguishes this group?
► Casagrande: It’s a few things, in my view. All four of the top receivers have tremendous speed. Henry Ruggs III was a high school track champion and Jaylen Waddle might be even faster. It’s wild watching some of the games when defenders still underestimate their speed to the edge. With Jerry Jeudy, it’s his technical route running that stands out the most. He stops on a dime, changes direction and makes corners look back. DeVonta Smith has some of the strongest hands I’ve seen. He looks thin, but wants to prove he’ll run you over.
► Question: How different is Alabama with quarterback Mac Jones running the offense in place of the injured Tua Tagovailoa?
► Casagrande: It’s interesting because you could tell they dialed things back quite a bit early in the Iron Bowl before slowly opening things up more and more. Once Jones got some momentum, the offense was moving pretty well. It wasn’t quite the Tua efficiency, but they had him throwing a few tough balls and Jones responded better than most probably expected. There were two Pick-6 plays, but one was a fluke. The other was a poor decision and it really cost Alabama in the end.
► Question: This is a fairly unusual scenario for the Tide, not participating in the national playoff. How do you think the players have responded knowing this game doesn’t carry the same weight?
► Casagrande: That’s a really good question that I’m not sure even Nick Saban knows just yet. They played poorly in the last similar scenario after the 2013 season in the Sugar Bowl, but Saban is practically the only person left from that team. Alabama responded well the last time they played here, crushing Michigan State 49-7 playing with a purpose after a three-loss 2010. I really can’t tell yet how they’ll respond here since nobody older than a freshman knows anything but playoff football, and this clearly is well off that path.
► Question: Is there much concern from the 'Bama coaches that Josh Gattis, who was on Nick Saban’s staff last year, can share intel with the Michigan coaches and players to give them an advantage?
► Casagrande: I don’t think it’s as big of a factor considering they’ve had to do this almost every year recently. Whether it was Kirby Smart going to Georgia or Jeremy Pruitt leaving for Tennessee, these kinds of scenarios are almost baked into the plan at this point. I can’t see it benefiting Alabama in any way, but I don’t think they’re freaking out over the prospect of Gattis being on the other sideline (or coaches booth).
► Question: Michigan’s offense started to click starting with the second half of the Penn State game and quarterback Shea Patterson has had some big games. How do you think the Wolverines will match up with the Alabama defense, which has shown some vulnerability this season?
► Casagrande: That’s a good question, especially given the time they have to prepare a plan to exploit the weaknesses that became apparent in Alabama’s defense. If they can confuse the middle of the defense where two true freshmen start instead of All-American Dylan Moses, that could be a factor. Teams definitely did a lot of that this fall. Alabama also will be without its top cornerback, Trevon Diggs, and best pass rusher, Terrell Lewis, so there will be some weaknesses in that phase of the game. Alabama didn’t give up that many big-shot plays, but were vulnerable to long drives where opponents nibbled away. It should be interesting to see what Gattis cooks up.
Players to watch
► Najee Harris, RB: Alabama’s lead running back has 1,088 yards on 185 carries this season and scored 11 rushing touchdowns. He has had six 100-yard rushing performances in his career, the most recent in the regular-season finale when he ran for 146 against Auburn. The junior became the first Alabama player to score three touchdowns in the first quarter of a single game when he achieved the feat at Mississippi State on Nov. 16 — two were rushes, one a reception.
► Mac Jones, QB: The redshirt sophomore started the final two games of the season after starter Tua Tagovailoa suffered a season-ending hip injury. Jones played in 11 games and has thrown for 1,176 yards and 11 touchdowns. He has completed nearly 70 percent of his attempts. He set a career high in passing yards (335) and touchdowns (four) on 26 completions in his first career road start against Auburn on Nov. 30.
► DeVonta Smith, WR: This has been a breakout season for Smith, who finished the regular season with a team-high 1,200 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns. He ranks 11th nationally in receiving yards while his touchdown total is tied for sixth. Smith has 731 yards after the catch. He has had two, 200-yard receiving games this season — 213 against LSU on Nov. 9 and earlier in the season against Ole Miss, he set the Alabama single-game record with 274 yards.
Facts and figures
► Lots of success: Saban, the former Michigan State head coach, has 83 career wins against Associated Press Top 25 teams, which makes his second all-time. Late Penn State head coach Joe Paterno leads the list with 86, while Florida State legend Bobby Bowden is third with 82, and Alabama’s Paul “Bear” Bryant is fourth at 66.
► Turning the Tide: Alabama ranks third in the nation in turnover margin, averaging +1.33 per a game. The Crimson Tide is also tied for seventh in turnovers gained (26) and tied for fourth in turnovers lost (10).
► A big decade: Since the start of the 2010 season, Alabama has won 123 games to lead all NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision teams. Ohio State is second on the wins list during the decade with 115. Alabama has been the wins leader in two other decades in program history — the 1960s (85 wins) and 1970s (103 wins).