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A special MnB bowl roundtable searches for ways to beat Alabama

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Not exactly David versus Goliath, but the chances are slim

Rutgers v Michigan Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Alright, I will keep this short and to the point. Just like a Mark Dantonio smile.

A football game has to be played on Wednesday, and it (probably) won’t go well. The four of us are in agreement that Michigan is still not where they should be, and share general despair for whether it can be fixed sooner rather than later. But don’t worry, Nick Saban is here to make us all PANIC.

One broad question to close out the year, and the season: Can Michigan come up with a way to beat mighty Alabama...and how in the hell are they going to do it?

Go!

Jay S: If Michigan is to beat Alabama, and that if is larger than the Big House, it will require absolute perfection. It will require a Notre Dame-level performance, then multiply everything that went right in that game by two. Josh Gattis will need the Wolverines wide open spread attack to flourish, Shea Patterson MUST be dialed in, making his throws despite being under duress by a bevy of future NFL players on Alabama’s defense. The running game needs Zach Charbonnet and Hassan Haskins to make the right reads and find the proper holes in order to keep the Crimson Tide honest.

On the opposite side of the ball, Don Brown must have his finest performance as Michigan’s defensive coordinator. Your first thought is to say, “but Jay, Alabama is without Tua Tagovailoa, Mac Jones cannot replicate what he can.” I counter that by reminding you that Felipe Franks and Florida’s anemic 2018 offense rang up 41 points on a more experienced unit last year despite a month’s worth of preparation. Brown needs to abandon his incredibly baffling usage of Josh Metellus covering receivers in the slot, because Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs or Jaylen Waddle all have the speed to leave Metellus in the dust.

Perhaps most of all, Michigan cannot defeat itself. The mental mistakes that plagued the Wolverines in the loss to Ohio State --cough -- jumping offsides on 4th and 4 -- cough -- or a now-former player running out of bounds short of the marker, will not fly against Alabama. Now, let’s believe for a second that Michigan pulls the unlikely upset against college football’s dynasty of the decade, it will be Jim Harbaugh’s finest hour. In a season that produced some signature highs as well as some crippling lows, it will allow Michigan to enter the offseason and Harbaugh to enter year six with something Michigan hasn’t had entering an offseason since 2016: A bowl victory, and momentum.

Since 2003, Michigan has lost its final two games of the season (Ohio State + Bowl Game) ten times out of a possible 13 times during bowl eligible seasons. It’s a nasty habit that draws all the way back to Ohio State’s current run of success against Michigan and has included four coaches over that span, including Jim Harbaugh the last three years. Some bowl losses were close, genuinely fought battles (Florida State in 2016) some were absolute collapses (South Carolina in 2017) and others, Michigan turtled after the opening drive (Florida last year.) There seems to be a misconception that bowl games are an exhibition and do not matter. The stats count, the wins and losses count, and the players aren’t practicing 15 times to just go through the motions. Bowl success is what can start an offseason on the right note, and for Michigan this season, logging the Wolverines biggest non-conference win of the Harbaugh era would be a massive step forward.

Now time for me to get hilariously negative, because that is how these round tables work: If Michigan gets blown off the field on Wednesday (remember what the ‘Bama did to Big Ten co-champion Michigan State after the 2010 season), questions must be asked. What does Don Brown really provide if his defense gets destroyed by every offensively innovative team it faces? Is Jim Harbaugh ever going to break the self-imposed ten-win glass ceiling Michigan presses itself against? What reason does anyone have to believe that next year the Wolverines can do something different? 11-0 going into Ohio State isn’t impossible, especially with Wisconsin and Penn State are at home. But we thought that was likely this year. The pattern of the Harbaugh era says Michigan will probably have an avoidable loss; So far, that list is: the Penn State loss this year, Notre Dame last year, Punt Horror in 2017, and Iowa in 2016. Add on a loss in Columbus in 2020, and the Wolverines are in exactly the same place they were 365 days before, a terrible football purgatory of being good, but never great.

Editors’ note: “Being good but never great” is reserved for such fine programs as: Michigan State.

I will watch Wednesday’s game with no expectations, the fact that I am watching the game with my two nephews and niece will keep me from getting too emotionally invested, since they don’t need to see the lunatic fan side of their uncle. Of course, I go in believing Michigan has a chance, because that is what being a fan is, at the same time, I’m realistic enough to know all the same mistakes will plague Michigan and Alabama will likely drop at least 40 points and win comfortably. That said, we go again. Happy New Year.

Dan. P: Ditto. Jay S just dropped a mic and said just about everything I was going to say. Although ‘Bama is quite the daunting opponent, just like you and me they put their pants on one leg at a time. Just like Michigan, they failed to make the playoff and lost their biggest games of the season. They are quite vulnerable and have never been in a situation where they aren’t competing for a national championship. This is unprecedented.

But it also means that Nick Saban is out to make a statement and Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines are just in the way. Saban doesn’t want people and the media to think he or his program have lost a step. I have a feeling that this really doesn’t bode well for Michigan.

The Crimson Tide are also set up very well offensively to crush Don Brown’s defense. They are built very similarly to Ohio State: athletic and blazing fast. They have four future NFL wide receivers on their roster and Don Brown has three corners in his defensive system. That means Metellus will be in coverage against a Bama wide out that runs a sub 4.4-40. That matchup is going to be an absolute disaster if Brown continues to believe that his safeties can cover the slot.

Overall I’m horribly pessimistic for this game, however; this game has more meaning than any of the other seemingly meaningless bowl games. I would much rather face a team like Alabama than a second-tier school from another conference. The Wolverines have a chance to prove who they really are in the grand scheme of college football since Alabama has set the bar over the past two decades. Unfortunately, I think we are going to see how far below that bar the Michigan football program really is...

Daniel Allweiss: No.

Editors’ note: Dan wanted to expand upon this point, but travel hell happened, but then he decided a one-word answer best expresses how most of us feel, including him.

Kevin: A question periodically enters my mind during football season: why do I subject myself to this, year after year?

Michigan football the last decade can be summarized thusly:

Many argue the program has settled on being content with Iowa-levels of success year after year. Except Iowa wins a big game every so often.

Hayden Fry, who just passed away, and was a respected adversary of Michigan’s from the Schembechler era, used to say he wanted his teams to “scratch where it itches.” He meant that if a team stopped the rush, then Iowa would pass. If an opponent stopped the pass...well, you get it. The great ones surpass the good ones by adopting the Costanza Rule of Opposites: Instead of doing nothing, do something.

I and others in this space have spent literal years crowing about Michigan refusing or struggling to get with the times, join the 21st Century, stop playing caveman football. The current philosophy is exactly what we see on the field: there’s ten wins plus a victory over Ohio State once a decade, so...shrug! Try again next year! Michigan has uniquely decided to dip a toe into both the 21st Century pool and the three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust-pool, and somehow they fall into the wet cement behind them without a rope to bail them out. They’ve become Bizarro World Perennial Football Power: grand schemes, tomfoolery in execution, and foiled by people smarter than them. The other night after the Peach Bowl, Joe Burrow said in a post-game interview on the field, “We expected this.”

That assumed confidence blew me away.

Meanwhile, here’s Michigan:

Moments of utter brilliance brought down by a failure to get out of their own way. How many times during the three losses this year did we wonder why Michigan didn’t keep doing what was working, or try something else. Choosing to run the ball against a stacked box. Leaving a safety in man coverage over and over. Sane coordinators would change things up, or something. Michigan fans often think Michigan is just cursed, and with good reason, but I’ll push back on that. It’s beyond a curse, it’s a gluttonyfor sameness that dooms them into repetition. If the program were cursed, more 3-9 seasons would’ve happened. Michigan just overthinks all of this. Remember the last time Michigan played without a care in the world? I do.

Wouldn’t it be nice if that light bulb went on again, for this particular game, against this giant, to prove to us that what Jim & Crew are trying to build, is still coming? No better way to silence the many (correct) criticisms that Michigan is so far behind the annual playoff participants. Yet I fear anyone who attempts to capture lightning in a bottle against a team as full of talent as Alabama forgets that the lightning is coming from inside the house, from Zeus Saban himself.

So why do I, and all of you, subject ourselves to this, year after year? We care too damn much, and it’s our downfall.

We’re too invested, too attached. It’s one of the few things in life that sends a chill up and down our spines and back again. Football idealists who continue to wait for that moment that hasn’t come...that moment when it’s finally safe to shout from a mountaintop that Michigan is BACK. A glimpse emerges, and we think this is it, itshappening.gif ! Michigan just won’t leap, and, as Jay says up there, ends up right back where they started a year ago.

This game is yet another opportunity to break the script. None of us can say with any certainty that anything will be different, but gosh darn it it’s fun to hope, isn’t it?

My maize and blue heart can’t take any more hoping that ends in inevitable, crushing despair. Instead, I give you blissful detachment, devoid of any reasonable expectation...it’s the only way to survive anymore.

When the puzzle pieces snap into place, Michigan football will be fun again, I promise you. No more listening to PAWL trumpeting the SEC, no more “Hey, remember App State?” and definitely no more O-H cheers from 10,000 truck drivers that drown out the entirety of Michigan Stadium. From also-ran to ran them the hell over. But I’m done predicting exactly when that will happen.

I may be back with you all next season to delight in a renewed enthusiasm unknown to mankind, but that sorta depends on if that light bulb goes off at 1:00 tomorrow in Orlando. If it doesn’t, the emergency glass on the Urban Meyer Spending More Time With My Family Kit gets broken.

May all your Michigan football dreams come to pass in the new year, and forever, Go Blue.