ORLANDO, Fla. — When Josh Gattis arrived in Ann Arbor last January, it came with the promise of modernizing Michigan’s offense into a pro-spread style.
It was seen as the move to bring the Wolverines into the 21st century, transforming their identity while distributing coaching control in a way Jim Harbaugh never had. But more than anything, the allure came because of Gattis’ previous stop: a season at Alabama, the pinnacle of college football. In his one season in Tuscaloosa, Gattis’ Crimson Tide reached the national championship and scored the third most points in the country.
Now, just under a year later, Alabama hasn’t quite replicated those heights, missing the College Football Playoff for the first time in its existence. But it’s still Alabama, still the nation’s third-best scoring offense, still a vaunted 10-2 outfit.
That’s the path that’s taken the Crimson Tide here, to the Citrus Bowl, where Gattis’ Michigan will get a shot at his former team. And for the Wolverines, that has it’s advantages.
“I think it always helps, obviously, going against us,” Gattis said. “But they’re different. We’re different. Obviously, there’s a little bit of similarities in what we do offensively.”
The equation, of course, isn’t that simple.
Both Gattis and co-offensive coordinator Mike Locksley left Alabama in the offseason, leaving the offense in the hands of former Atlanta Falcons’ offense coordinator Steve Sarkisian, who has brought some NFL influences with him. The personnel is different too, even if quarterback Mac Jones doesn’t have the same dynamic playmaking ability that Gattis became familiar with under the injured Tua Tagovailoa.
Gattis himself acknowledged as much when presented with the pretense that his experience would help Michigan’s defense this week.
“You know, I think they’ve done a really good job adapting and adjusting the offense from previously being there,” Gattis said. “And, you know, they’ve got good players. They’ve got good coaches. Steve Sarkisian has done a really good job for them offensively.”
And yet, that pretense still exists.
On Monday morning at a local amusement park, sophomore linebacker Cam McGrone stood flanked by a giant swing and loopy rollercoaster and emphasized the value of practicing against a similar offense to Alabama’s all season.
“Since spring ball, we’ve really been seeing Alabama’s offense,” McGrone said. “So coming into this game, we’re very confident. Our offense runs a lot of the same plays, same route combinations, so we’re really confident coming into this game, and I can’t wait.”
But like Gattis, McGrone was sure to point out Alabama’s explosiveness. “There’s speed all across the field,” he said. “You can’t give one guy too much attention. You’ve got to kind of divvy it out throughout the whole thing and just execute.”
On talent alone, the only comparable offense Michigan has faced this season was Ohio State’s — a unit it gave up 56 points to.
The Wolverines’ confidence, though, remains. And at the center of that is their familiarity with Alabama’s offense.
“We just want to prove everybody wrong,” McGrone said. “All throughout the season, and even last season, we’ve had doubters, and we only listen to the voices in our room, but we kind of get a boost from shutting people up. So that’s what we plan to do.”