The Wolverine

January 2020

The Wolverine: Covering University of Michigan Football and Sports

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Page 64 of 67

JANUARY 2020 THE WOLVERINE 65 I f it was known in the preseason that Michigan would square off with Alabama in its bowl game, it would have felt like an opportunity for Michigan to win big. Most would have believed that the Wolverines finally snapped their Ohio State and Big Ten title droughts and secured their first bid in the College Football Playoff (CFP). Michigan was the favorite to emerge as the Big Ten champion before the season started, and the Crimson Tide hadn't missed the CFP since it began in 2014. There would have been little reason to think that they would be meeting in any other bowl. But they are. Instead of competing for a spot in the national championship game, No. 14 Michigan (9-3) and No. 13 Alabama (10-2) will meet in Orlando, Fla., for the Citrus Bowl — a non-New Year's Six bowl. The stakes are a far cry from what would have been expected from such a matchup in August. As a result, Michigan won't have the chance to win big. Rather, it feels this will be a lose-lose. It's a loss in one sense because Michigan is not expected to beat Ala- bama. Even with star junior quarter- back Tua Tagovailoa out with a hip injury, the Tide are still favored by seven points. Alabama is by far the best team not competing in the CFP. Alabama, Ohio State, LSU and Clemson are the four teams that have been head and shoulders above the rest this season. As a tempo- and opponent-adjusted and predictive model of college foot- ball efficiency, SP+ ranks the Crim- son Tide second in nation with a rating of 32.6 and lists Ohio State first (35.4), LSU third (31.8) and Clemson fourth (29.3). SP+ thinks so highly of the Tide that it projects that they would be at least a six-point favorite on a neutral site against any school other than these three. Yes, even Oklahoma (who is in the CFP). Auburn, too. The Tigers may have trumped their rival in Alabama's most recent game, but it took some extraordinary circumstances for it to happen. Auburn benefited from be- ing at home. The Tigers also scored on two pick-sixes from Alabama's backup quarterback, Mac Jones, with Tagovailoa sidelined, one of which was returned 100 yards with the Tide on the doorstep of a touchdown. Auburn averaged more than one yard less per play than Alabama. They also kicked four field goals, all of which were from at least 43 yards. And Auburn still only won by three after Alabama doinked a 30-yard field goal off the upright that would have tied the game with two minutes left. Would Auburn knock off its rival in a rematch? Probably not. So while Florida gets to face Vir- ginia, who is 45th in SP+ and three spots behind Michigan State, in the Orange Bowl, Michigan gets almighty Alabama in a non-New Year's Six bowl game. Makes sense. A loss to Alabama would only fur- ther the narrative built against Jim Harbaugh and Michigan that they cannot win big games. Alabama is essentially the southern equivalent to Ohio State, against whom Har- baugh is now 0-5, so a loss in the Citrus Bowl would only bring more questions about the size of the gap between Michigan and the elite pro- grams of college football. This is not the narrative that Har- baugh and Michigan want to battle for another offseason. If the Wolver- ines lose to Alabama, it would be the fourth straight year where they lost their final two games of the season: the first to the Buckeyes and the second to a southern team in a bowl game. A win could help Michigan and Harbaugh get the sour taste of an- other Ohio State loss out of their mouths, generate positive energy about the state of the program as Na- tional Signing Day approaches and show that they are capable of beating programs of the Buckeyes' caliber. Could is the operative word, though, because that may very well not be the case. Even if Michigan and Harbaugh topple Alabama in the Citrus Bowl, it is foreseeable that they would receive little credit. Critics likely would ex- cuse such a loss by the Crimson Tide as a lack of focus because it is the first time they are not playing in a playoff or BCS bowl game since 2010. They likely would point to Tagovailoa's injury and decisions by senior corner- back Trevon Diggs and redshirt junior outside linebacker Terrell Lewis to sit and prepare for the NFL Draft as evi- dence that this game meant very little to Alabama. Personalities such as Paul Finebaum likely would be ready to tell Michigan to win the Big Ten and beat Alabama when it matters. Thus, Michigan faces a situation where it may suffer another painful loss to end its season or not be given nearly the praise it would deserve for beating one of the best teams in the nation. It will be difficult for Michigan to squeeze much of a benefit out of this Citrus Bowl. ❑ INSIDE THE NUMBERS   DREW HALLETT Squeezing A Benefit From The Citrus Jim Harbaugh and his crew have a huge opportunity against Alabama in the Citrus Bowl, but if Michigan pulls off the upset critics will likely justify it by saying Alabama was not at a full strength or unfocused due to it being a non-playoff bowl. PHOTO BY LON HORWEDEL Staff writer Drew Hallett has covered Michigan athletics since 2013. Contact him at and follow him on Twitter @DrewCHallett.

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