It has been an up-and-down season for the Michigan Wolverines. The new-look offense, under coordinator Josh Gattis, took some time to find its rhythm. Unfortunately, by the time that happened, they already lost two games and were essentially out of contention for the Big Ten Championship, not to mention the College Football Playoff.
Meanwhile, Michigan’s defense, while still good, declined from 2018 to 2019 after losing Devin Bush, Chase Winovich and Rashan Gary to the NFL.
Michigan’s opponent in the Citrus Bowl, the Alabama Crimson Tide, faced some adversity of their own. They were real good up until quarterback Tua Tagovailoa dislocated his hip while the team was up by 1,000 against Mississippi State (Nick Saban, wyd man?). They also lost star linebacker Dylan Moses to a season-ending injury before the season even started.
Close loses to LSU and Auburn forced the Crimson Tide out of the playoff for the first time since its inception in 2014. The last time Saban coached a “meaningless” bowl game? That was on Jan. 1, 2011 against Michigan State in the Capital One Bowl, so it’s been a hot minute since they haven’t played for a championship.
Since the aforementioned Tagovailoa is out for the year, redshirt sophomore Mac Jones has taken over the offense. In 11 total games played, Jones has thrown for 1,176 yards on 81-of-116 passing. He has also thrown 11 touchdowns to 3 interceptions. He played relatively well starting against Auburn, as well, throwing for 335 yards, 4 touchdowns and 2 interceptions.
Lined up in the backfield with Jones is a name Michigan fans should probably remember — junior running back Najee Harris. Alabama and Michigan were the final two schools in Harris’ recruitment in 2017, and now he will be facing the team who came in second place in his recruitment in what will probably be his final collegiate football game.
Playing in all 12 games in 2019, Harris has run for 1,088 yards and 11 touchdowns, to go along with with 27 catches for 304 yards and 7 touchdowns. He averages a shade over 90 rushing yards per game and 25 receiving yards per game, so he is a dual-threat back.
It’s not going to get much easier on Don Brown’s defense, as Alabama has one of the strongest receiving units in the country. Three of their top four receivers are expected to be picked in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft — juniors Devonta Smith (65 catches, 1,200 yards, 13 touchdowns), Jerry Jeudy (71, 959, 9) and Henry Ruggs III (38, 719, 7).
Their fourth receiver, sophomore Jaylen Waddle (32, 553, 6) is also a huge threat at both wide receiver and at returning kicks, as he has returned both a punt and kickoff for a touchdown this season.
Harris, along with all the Crimson Tide’s receivers, plan on playing in the game despite their high draft stock, so the defense is going to have their hands full.
Where Michigan could potentially shine is taking advantage of Alabama’s defense. The Crimson Tide will be without linebacker Terrell Lewis and cornerback Trevon Diggs in the Citrus Bowl as they prepare for the NFL Draft. It is also up in the air whether or not defensive tackle D.J. Dale plays, as he is suffering from a knee injury.
One player who is guaranteed to play is one of my favorite young defensive players in the country — cornerback Patrick Surtain. Playing in all 12 games for Alabama this year, Surtain put up 35 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 7 pass breakups, 3 interceptions, 3 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery and 1 quarterback hurry. He was making plays all over the field, whether it be in coverage or not.
Joining Surtain in the defensive backfield is junior safety Xavier McKinney. He leads the Crimson Tide in tackles (85) to go along with stats all over the board — 4.5 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 3 interceptions, 5 pass breakups, 4 quarterback hurries, 4 forced fumbles and 1 fumble recovery.
Along the defensive line, Michigan’s offensive line will have to take care of business against redshirt senior Anfernee Jennings, who is kind of like a Josh Uche type who can get work done all over the field. He comes into the Citrus Bowl with 73 tackles, 12 for loss, 7.5 sacks, 8 quarterback hurries, 5 pass breakups, 1 interception and 1 forced fumble.
Clearly, Michigan has a huge challenge ahead. In my eyes, this game is going to come down to how the defense responds after another blowout loss to Ohio State. Gattis is quite familiar with how Alabama’s offense operates, so I’m sure he is giving the defensive coaches some pointers on how to plan for it.