Bob Wojnowski and Angelique S. Chengelis of The Detroit News break down Michigan's loss to Alabama in the Citrus Bowl. The Detroit News
Orlando, Fla. — The eyes don’t deceive. It doesn’t take 20-20 vision on the first day of 2020 to know we’ve seen this before.
Obviously, there’s a talent gap between Michigan and the truly elite programs. That’s not in dispute, based on recruiting rankings and pro potential and all the eyes that witnessed Alabama’s 35-16 victory over Michigan in the Citrus Bowl.
But sorry, that can’t always be the sole response to explain away another disappointing end to another unsuccessful season. Every time Jim Harbaugh’s program loses to Ohio State (0-5) or loses a bowl game (1-4), it can’t simply be chalked up to, oh well, the other guys were faster and bigger and perhaps even meaner.
In five seasons under Harbaugh, the gap has been graphically identified, seared into the minds of weary Michigan fans. The Wolverines (9-4) hammer the teams beneath them but never pull the upset against those on top. Alabama was mildly ripe, out of the playoff for the first time, but only two significant players opted to sit. Nick Saban’s gold-standard program still had plenty of motivated guys, and the outcome wasn’t a surprise.
So, what are the Wolverines going to do about this disparity, besides point it out?
They can start by stopping making crushing mistakes, from turnovers to penalties. They can try more unpredictable game-planning and better adjustments. They updated their offense after last season, and in the first year under Josh Gattis, it showed promise. Against the Crimson Tide, the running game was humming early, and a clever trick play produced a 34-yard pass from Shea Patterson to Donovan Peoples-Jones, which led to the tying touchdown, 7-7.
If you can’t pry as many difference-makers from the recruiting powers, then the coaching and the culture have to make a difference. Harbaugh is still struggling to create that, partly because he’s struggling to find a game-changing quarterback.
Too much settling
Patterson played poorly Wednesday in his final game, missing receivers deep and finishing 17-for-37 with two interceptions. In a way, he symbolized the Wolverines this season — feisty and competitive with a hint of untapped potential, but not as big and strong as the opposition. Next season, it might be time for Harbaugh to take a different look at quarterback, perhaps gambling on the upside of big sophomore-to-be Joe Milton, who will compete with Dylan McCaffrey.
Against Alabama, Michigan wasn’t outmanned in the trenches but outflanked by skill and speed. That’s the scary part for any team trying to crack the Alabama-Ohio State-Clemson-LSU foursome. Those programs don’t just maul you, they out-skill you and out-scheme you. Without injured Tua Tagovailoa, Mac Jones was solid for the Crimson Tide, and his array of weapons was ridiculous.
Michigan can put together top-10 recruiting classes but often misses on the five-star play-makers, and you can see how narrow misses become huge differences. Like when Alabama’s spectacular receiver Jerry Jeudy runs around defenders and catches everything — 204 yards including an 85-yard touchdown on the Crimson Tide’s first snap. Like when Najee Harris, who nearly chose Michigan three years ago, drags approximately nine Wolverines defenders down the field on several carries, on his way to 136 yards rushing.
“It was a very competitive game through the half, into the fourth quarter, until, really, about six minutes left in the game,” Harbaugh said. “Their ability to create the big play was critical in the game. We had long drives and settled for field goals.”
Bam, there it is. If big games were won in first halves, Harbaugh might have a title by now. Michigan led 16-14 at halftime and outgained Alabama 286-205. In the last two stompings by Ohio State — 62-39 and 56-27 this season — it was relatively close at the half.
Saban is a master adjuster. And with Harbaugh, Michigan sometimes seems as if it just wants to do what it does. With Zach Charbonnet and Hassan Haskins running hard, Michigan piled up 135 yards rushing in the first half, only 17 after that.
Did the Wolverines abandon the run, or did the Crimson Tide take it away?
“Well, they were hurting us running the ball mostly when they were in two tight ends and two receivers,” Saban said. “So in the second half, we decided to play nickel (five in the secondary), which gives us more multiple things we can do. We're a little smaller when we do that, but it's easier to adjust and we were able to pressure more, which really helped us stop the run.”
The talent gap
You know what else helped? That Alabama has an incredible group of receivers and a quarterback and scheme to get them the ball. Michigan controlled the clock with lengthy drives — four consuming 10 plays or more — that too often ended in field goals. Alabama’s only comparable drive was a 12-play grind to end the game.
Michigan’s receivers — Nico Collins, Peoples-Jones, Ronnie Bell — are good, but not as explosive. Alabama only needed four plays and 90 seconds to grab the lead on the first possession of the second half, with DeVonta Smith hauling in a beautiful throw for a 42-yard touchdown.
Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson said he missed some plays during the loss to Alabama in the Citrus Bowl. The Detroit News
“I would have to say (Alabama receiving corps) is as impressive a group as you're going to ever see,” Harbaugh said. “They're fast but they also made the contested catches, made some great catches, ran some tremendous routes and they were able to get behind us two or three times.”
You know what else helped? Michigan’s miscues, such as back-to-back false starts, and later on the same drive, a 13-yard loss on a Patterson sack. Michigan committed seven penalties for 61 yards, including a crushing roughing-the-passer call on Aidan Hutchinson.
Patterson made some nifty runs but his deficiencies in height and arm strength were notable against top teams, and he knew he didn’t play his best here.
“It could have been a lot different (if he hit some deep shots),” Patterson said. “It comes down to making plays and I missed a couple throws, and we didn’t make enough of them.”
That’s generally the case in games like this, and it’s always the case these days for Michigan. Under Harbaugh, Michigan is 0-10 as an underdog, which at this stage is more compelling than his 47-8 record as a favorite.
In the grand scheme, this wasn’t a defining loss for the Wolverines, nor would it necessarily have been a defining win. And that’s pretty much the problem. It was a flash of this and a mash of that, and ultimately just more of the same.