Wojo: Don't kid yourself, Michigan-Alabama has plenty of juice

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

It’s always tempting this time of year. As the bowl schedule gets bloatier and bloatier, and the sponsorships get sillier and sillier, the first reaction is to laugh and wonder if the Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl is a real thing or not.

(It is.)

OK, what about the Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl?

(It is.)

A victory over Alabama in the Vrbo Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1 would give Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh and his program a big boost.

Chuckle away, and feel free to lament the bowls’ diminishing importance in the playoff era, but don’t deny the truth. If they play ’em, you’ll watch ’em. And while they aren’t as meaningful as a conference championship or a playoff spot, they certainly aren’t meaningless.

Michigan-Alabama in the Vrbo Citrus Bowl isn’t meaningless, and you know how I can tell? Because Nick Saban will be on one sideline and Jim Harbaugh on the other, and millions will be watching on New Year’s Day. If Michigan gets stomped and Harbaugh falls to 1-4 in bowls, it’ll add to the big-game bomb narrative, fair or not. If Michigan wins, no matter how many Alabama first-round picks sit out, it’s a significant program boost, fair or not.

You think the bowl trips are just a chance to smush large football players into tiny amusement-park rides for photographic purposes, part of a fun little junket? Not if you lose.

Go back to the past two bowl seasons to understand the contradictory perceptions. Michigan collapsed in a “meaningless” Outback Bowl against South Carolina, 26-19, and the backlash was loud and lasting. It was deserved, by the way, because the Wolverines blew a 19-3 lead and finished 8-5.

Last year, they collapsed again in a “meaningless” Peach Bowl against Florida, 41-15. Three of Michigan’s best players — Devin Bush, Rashan Gary, Karan Higdon — sat out, but that didn’t stem the angst one bit. Harbaugh vowed changes and then revamped the offense, even with a 10-3 record.

Bowls don’t necessarily lead to sweeping conclusions that alter the course of the following season, but they can set the tone. When the Wolverines pounded Florida, 41-7, in the Citrus Bowl at the end of Harbaugh’s first season, expectations rocketed, and by the following November, Michigan was 9-0 and ranked No. 2.

These guys care

Don’t tell Mark Dantonio that bowls are meaningless. A miserable year for Michigan State can be mildly gussied up with a victory over Wake Forest in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl. With his job under scrutiny, Dantonio can finish with a winning record (7-6) and add this to his credentials – 12 bowl appearances in 13 seasons.

Don’t tell Eastern Michigan’s Chris Creighton the bowls don’t matter. He’s doing unheard-of things in Ypsilanti, and maybe they’ll get heard when the Eagles play Pitt in the Quick Lane Bowl at Ford Field. Don’t tell Central Michigan — with a remarkable turnaround from 1-11 to 8-5 in Jim McElwain’s first season — it’s wasting its holiday, or that Western Michigan shouldn’t enjoy its trip to the SERVPRO First Responder Bowl, a name I did not fabricate.

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There are 39 bowls, up from 20 in 1997, when people still complained there were too many. It’s an annual whine, and I don’t get it — who gripes about more football? What, the Tropical Smoothie Café Frisco Bowl might interrupt the 178th showing of such Christmas classics as “Frosty the Snowman” or “Die Hard”? Nothing expands unless there’s an appetite for it, and despite sometimes-sparse crowds, the impact on hosting communities is large, and TV ratings generally are good.

Has it changed since the four-team playoff began in 2014? Of course. The Rose Bowl (presented by Northwestern Mutual) isn’t what it was, although it features a traditional Big Ten-Pac-12 matchup this Jan. 1 between Wisconsin and Oregon. Everyone warned this would be the consequence of the playoff system, and now it’s used as an argument to expand the field to eight. Sorry, not buying it. Many more regular-season games would be rendered “meaningless,” with some unbeaten teams virtually guaranteed berths even before playing their rivalry games.

Who sits?

Once again, the four-team format worked. LSU, Ohio State, Clemson and Oklahoma are clearly the best, with a significant drop-off to two-loss Georgia and Oregon. If the push to expand is driven by the diminished importance of other bowls, it’s a weak point. If the push is driven by the growing trend of top players skipping bowls to get ready for the NFL, that’s worth a discussion.

Begin with this: A player absolutely deserves the right to protect his future. Ever since Jake Butt tore up a knee in Michigan’s Citrus Bowl, it’s impossible to argue otherwise.

But add this: You can respect a player’s decision and still not like the result.

Competition and teamwork are factors too, and players can get deluded. Higdon rushed for 1,178 yards for Michigan last season, skipped the bowl, and went undrafted.

College football is a huge business, and everyone is entitled to make business decisions. Saban and Harbaugh are paid extremely well for their decisions, so they can’t vociferously argue against a player’s choice. But they can dislike it and hope it doesn’t escalate.

Alabama might have as many as eight first-round picks on its roster, and wouldn’t look the same without elite players such as quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (already out due to injury), receivers Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III, running back Najee Harris or starting tackles Alex Leatherwood and Jedrick Willis. Several reportedly might skip the Citrus Bowl. Alabama should be about a 14-point favorite but the spread is only seven because of the sit-out possibility. Saban didn’t have to deal with this when Alabama was making the playoff the past five years.

“I’m sure guys are going to make individual decisions based on their circumstance,” Saban said.

“What we want to focus on is the guys who want to look to the future, look to try to improve themselves, improve our team.”

The Crimson Tide (10-2) is ranked 13th, one spot higher than Michigan. The last time they had a disappointing regular season and got sent to a bowl in Orlando was 2010, and they summoned the strength to beat Michigan State 49-7. You figure Saban carries a healthy disdain for Michigan from his days as the Spartans’ coach, and he also verbally sparred a few years ago over Harbaugh’s satellite camps.

On one hand, maybe Michigan wants Alabama’s best shot as it goes for a fourth 10-3 season in five years.

On the other hand, uh, maybe not. If both teams are at full strength, the Wolverines might have success against Alabama’s leaky defense, but little chance of stopping the Crimson Tide’s loaded offense.

Harbaugh doesn’t know if any of his players will sit but there are obvious possibilities, especially among the receiver group. Quarterback Shea Patterson and other seniors are likely to play, and you’d think on the motivation scale, Michigan would have an edge.

“Finish what you started has always been kind of the general rule I’ve personally thought of it as,” Harbaugh said. “Our preparation will have to be at its highest level. We’re looking forward to it.”

It’s a New Year’s Day game against a storied program and the best coach in the country. It’s Big Ten against SEC. It’s not the Cheez-It Bowl or the Cheribundi Boca Raton Bowl, which may or may not exist. (They do).

The Vrbo Citrus Bowl might lack a few vowels, and it isn’t for everything. But it doesn’t lack names or stakes, and it’s certainly not for nothing.

Twitter: @bobwojnowski