ORLANDO, Fla. — Free Press sports writer Orion Sang breaks down the Citrus Bowl game between Michigan and Alabama:
Matchup: No. 17 Michigan (9-3) vs. No. 9 Alabama (10-2).
Kickoff: 1 p.m., Wednesday, Camping World Stadium, Orlando, Florida.
TV/radio: ABC; WWJ-AM (950), WTKA-AM (1050).
Line: Alabama by 7.
Michigan: Out: OT Andrew Stueber (ACL), DT Michael Dwumfour (undisclosed), RB Christian Turner (undisclosed). Probable: S Brad Hawkins (undisclosed), DT Carlo Kemp (undisclosed).
Alabama:Out: QB Tua Tagovailoa (hip), EDGE Terrell Lewis (sitting out), CB Trevon Diggs (sitting out), RB Trey Sanders (foot), LB Joshua McMillon (right knee), LB Dylan Moses (ACL), DL LaBryan Ray (foot), DL DJ Dale (knee). Probable: DL Raekwon Davis (ankle).
When Michigan has the ball: The Wolverines’ offense improved dramatically the second half of the season, averaging 35.7 points and 417 yards per game in the final six games. They fixed their turnover issues (they had 13 through the first six games) and began to jell in the passing game. Quarterback Shea Patterson might’ve played the best of his career in the past three games. and his stats against Ohio State — 18-of-43 completions for 305 yards, one touchdown and one interception — didn’t tell the whole story, as he threw for 250 yards in the first half alone and was plagued by drops throughout the game.
This isn’t a vintage Alabama defense: Injuries have ravaged the linebacking corps and several young players have had to start. It’s still an effective unit, even with edge rusher Terrell Lewis and cornerback Trevon Diggs sitting out the bowl game. On average, opponents are completing 17-of-31 passes for 183 yards and rushing 35 times for 135 yards per game. Alabama’s defense ranks No. 6 in Bill Connelly’s SP+ rankings, which makes it the second-toughest unit the Wolverines will have played this season (after No. 1 Ohio State and No. 5 Iowa).
When Alabama has the ball: Star QB Tua Tagovailoa, who set an NCAA record with a 206.9 passer rating, will miss the game after suffering a serious hip injury Nov. 16 against Mississippi State. But the Crimson Tide’s offense is still powerful — and all of their top players chose to participate in the bowl game: receivers Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs, offensive tackles Alex Leatherwood and Jedrick Wills, and running back Najee Harris. Quarterback Mac Jones will have plenty of support up front, and a lot of options to choose from. In the two games after Tagovailoa was injured, Alabama still averaged 528 yards of offense, and it would’ve beaten Auburn if it weren’t for several costly turnovers and miscues.
Michigan will be hard-pressed to slow down the pass game, which ranks No. 3 in the nation with 343.5 yards per game, considering the depth of Alabama’s receiving corps. It might also be difficult to slow down the run game, with how powerful the offensive line is — and how talented Harris is.
Know the foe: Alabama
Best WRs in the nation?: Defensive coordinator Don Brown said that Alabama’s receivers were in the top 3 or 5 he has ever coached against, and it’d be hard to disagree. This is a historically talented group, with two future first-round picks in Jeudy and Ruggs. Jeudy, the 2018 Biletnikoff Award winner, is a route technician who can easily create separation and make big plays. Ruggs, who is reputed to have 4.2 speed, is a threat to take it to the house every time he touches the ball and has the speed to challenge defenses over the top.
Devonta Smith, meanwhile, leads the team in receiving yardage and has two 200-plus yard games. Jaylen Waddle, the lone sophomore of the group, is an explosive athlete who also makes an impact on special teams.
Najee Harris: Michigan fans will remember Harris, a former five-star recruit from California who was heavily pursued by the Wolverines. Harris found himself in a time share in Alabama’s backfield during his first two seasons but broke out as a star this fall. He leads the Crimson Tide with 185 carries for 1,088 yards, 11 touchdowns, and he also contributes as a pass catcher with 27 receptions for 304 yards and seven touchdowns. At 6-foot-2, 230 pounds, he is a load to bring down but that doesn’t mean he’s a plodder. He has solid speed and makes excellent cuts. “He’s probably the best jump cut guy I’ve seen,” Brown said.
Powerful offensive line: The two tackles, Leatherwood and Wills, are as good as anyone Michigan’s defensive line has played this season. The only comparable team would be Iowa, which featured Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs; Alabama’s combo is likely better. Both are huge, physical presences in the run game who also keep the quarterback clean in pass protection. After previously playing at right guard, Leatherwood transitioned to left tackle this year with ease. According to Alabama, he graded out at 89 percent, allowing just two sacks and three quarterback hurries and missing six assignments in 694 snaps.
Wills, the right tackle, recently has earned maybe even more draft buzz than his counterpart. He earned All-American honors while grading out at better than 91 percent, allowing one sack and 3.5 quarterback hurries while missing seven assignments in 714 snaps, according to the Crimson Tide. Both will be coveted by NFL teams.
Another important piece up front for Alabama: left guard Evan Neal, a freshman All-American who is simply massive (6-7, 360) and can generate push up front in the run game.
Score a lot: This won’t be a defensive slugfest. Michigan can’t in good faith expect its defense to hold Alabama to less than 30 points. This is the type of game that led the Wolverines to overhaul their offense this past season. This will require a big performance from Patterson, who proved he was capable of doing so against teams such as Michigan State and Indiana — and played moderately well against Ohio State, the nation’s top defense.
Alabama doesn’t quite have the elite talent that the Buckeyes do, but still presents quite the challenge. Michigan might target cornerback Josh Jobe, who is expected to fill in for Diggs and has struggled in coverage. Either way, the Wolverines will need Patterson and their leading trio — Nico Collins, Ronnie Bell and Donovan Peoples-Jones — to be on their A-game.
Make swing plays: Alabama’s most recent game, a 48-45 loss to Auburn, was a case study in how to lose despite outplaying the opponent. The Crimson Tide outgained the Tigers, 515 yards to 354, and Waddle returned a kick 98 yards for a touchdown, but Auburn made several swing plays. The Tigers had two pick-sixes and drove down the field to end the first half with a crucial field goal.
Michigan will likely have to follow the same recipe.They weren’t able to accomplish that against Ohio State, however, doing quite the opposite with a litany of first-half miscues that allowed the Buckeyes to take a 12-point first-half lead. If that happens again, the Wolverines likely will lose big for a second consecutive game.
Alabama is one of the two or three most talented teams in the nation. The big question: How will it respond to being in a non-playoff game for the first time since the College Football Playoff was implemented in 2014? The Crimson Tide have been saying all the right things, but it’s still something to consider.
Michigan, meanwhile, has a poor track record in the postseason under Harbaugh, having lost its three previous bowl games. Will the Wolverines be motivated after yet another crushing defeat to Ohio State? And even if they are, will that be enough against Alabama’s supremely talented offense? Alabama 44, Michigan 27
Contact Orion Sang at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @orion_sang. Read more on the Michigan Wolverines and sign up for our Wolverines newsletter.