The Citrus Bowl is always one of college football’s top postseason matchups, and that’s the case once again as Alabama and Michigan meet in Orlando on Jan. 1. The Crimson Tide and Wolverines enter Wednesday’s game looking to rebound after disappointing losses to their biggest rival at the end of the regular season. The VRBO Citrus Bowl also marks the first coaching matchup between Alabama's Nick Saban and Michigan's Jim Harbaugh.
Anything short of a national championship could be considered a disappointment for Alabama. However, the 2019 season had a lot of unique circumstances for Nick Saban’s squad to overcome. The defense was hit hard by injuries – including one to preseason All-American linebacker Dylan Moses – and attrition from last year’s group in the front seven. As a result, the defense wasn’t up to its usual standard and played a role in Alabama’s loss to LSU (46-41) in early November. A week later, the Crimson Tide’s playoff hopes took a huge setback with a season-ending injury to quarterback Tua Tagovailoa against Mississippi State. After an easy win over Western Carolina on Nov. 23, Alabama dropped its annual Iron Bowl showdown 48-45, ending any hopes of a playoff spot in 2019.
Michigan has become more nationally relevant under Jim Harbaugh, but the program is still searching for its first Big Ten title and playoff bid under his watch. While the Wolverines haven’t reached that level yet, a win over Alabama would give Harbaugh at least 10 victories in four out of his five years in Ann Arbor. In an effort to help the program reach the next level this season, Harbaugh hired Josh Gattis as the team’s new play-caller on offense. Michigan’s offense started slow but showed signs of life in the second half of the year. However, the slow start was tough to overcome, as the Wolverines lost to Wisconsin 35-14 and dropped a 28-21 game against Penn State on Oct. 19. Michigan finished the regular season with a 56-27 defeat to Ohio State, dropping Harbaugh’s squad to 9-3.
This is the fifth time Alabama and Michigan will meet on the gridiron and four have taken place in a bowl. Both teams have won two matchups, with the Crimson Tide owning a 41-14 victory in the last meeting (2012).
Citrus Bowl: Michigan vs. Alabama
Kickoff: Wednesday, Jan. 1 at 1 p.m. ET
Where: Camping World Stadium (Orlando, Fla.)
Spread: Alabama -7
When Michigan Has the Ball
As mentioned above, Gattis was brought in to bring more spread and up-tempo principles to Michigan’s offense this season. After an uneven start, the Wolverines found their rhythm midway through the year. The offense scored at least 38 points in five out of the team’s last six games and averaged at least 5.1 yards a play in each of the last seven contests.
The combination of Gattis and Michigan’s scheme seemed to click with quarterback Shea Patterson in the second half of 2019. Patterson did not record a 300-yard passing performance until November but finished the regular season with three consecutive efforts over that mark. Patterson threw a combined nine touchdowns in wins over Michigan State and Indiana and tossed only five interceptions over his last six games.
Can Patterson keep up his late-season surge versus Alabama’s defense on Wednesday? The Crimson Tide won’t have standout edge rusher Terrell Lewis or cornerback Trevon Diggs, as both players decided to get a head start on training for the NFL Draft. Additionally, the line will be thin with D.J. Dale and LaBryan Ray not expected to play. Patterson will be facing an Alabama secondary that ranks first in the SEC in pass efficiency defense and a unit that generated 29 sacks in the regular season. Assuming the pass protection holds up, Patterson and Gattis need to find ways to get the ball to receivers Ronnie Bell (44 catches), Nico Collins (33), Donovan Peoples-Jones (33) and tight ends Sean McKeon and Nick Eubanks in space against a defense that gave up 393 passing yards to LSU, 264 to Texas A&M, 324 to South Carolina and 173 to Auburn.
Michigan didn’t have a 1,000-yard rusher this season, but the one-two punch of Hassan Haskins (561 yards) and Zach Charbonnet (642) was a solid combination. This duo won’t be asked to tote the ball 40-plus times against a standout Alabama front, but the Wolverines will need a few plays out of their ground game in order to win.
When Alabama Has the Ball
Mac Jones had big shoes to fill when Tua Tagovailoa was lost for the year against Mississippi State on Nov. 16. However, Jones has played well under the spotlight for Alabama’s offense. When Tagovailoa was sidelined against Arkansas on Oct. 26, Jones connected on 18 of 22 throws for 235 yards and three scores. He threw for 275 yards and three touchdowns against Western Carolina and finished the regular season by connecting on 26 of 39 throws for 335 yards and four scores against Auburn. The only downside to Jones’ performance in that game was two interceptions returned for touchdowns.
While Jones isn’t going to replicate or match the type of production Tagovailoa would’ve brought to the offense, he’s played well in limited time and will benefit from the extra practices to prepare for this game. And it certainly doesn’t hurt the sophomore’s cause that he’s working with one of the nation’s best supporting casts. Alabama’s offensive line ranks near the top of college football after allowing only 12 sacks and boasting one of the top tackles in junior Jedrick Wills. Running back Najee Harris earned All-SEC honors after recording 1,088 yards and 11 rushing scores. And as evidenced throughout the last two years, Alabama possesses one of the top receiving corps in the nation. DeVonta Smith (65 catches), Jerry Jeudy (71), Henry Ruggs (38) and Jaylen Waddle (32) are a threat to score every time they touch the ball.
Michigan coordinator Don Brown is known for his aggressive scheme and play-calling, so Jones can expect to see plenty of pressure on Wednesday. That setup could allow Jones a few big plays, especially with one-on-one matchups or mismatches found through the air. The Wolverines held teams to 19.5 points a game and just 4.4 yards a play this year. However, Michigan was gashed for 313 passing yards by Ohio State and struggled to contain the run (264) also in that contest. Alabama doesn’t need Jones to throw for 400 yards to win this game, but the sophomore also has to eliminate the turnovers and not make a ton of mistakes against the opportunistic Wolverine defense (20 forced takeaways).
In terms of tradition, history and brands, it doesn’t get much better than Alabama and Michigan meeting in a postseason matchup. Of course, both teams had high expectations and dreams of a CFB Playoff bid this preseason. While the Wolverines and Crimson Tide fell short, neither team was hit hard by a significant chunk of talent departing early to the NFL Draft. With both teams largely at full strength, this game has potential to be one of the better matchups of the bowl season. If Patterson and Michigan’s receivers find a rhythm early, there should be opportunities to make plays against Alabama’s secondary. The Crimson Tide should find similar success against the Wolverines, especially after this unit struggled to contain Ohio State in late November. With Jones playing well at the end of the year, Harris and a deep group of playmakers on the outside in place, Alabama simply has too much talent and firepower and edges Michigan in Orlando.