Ever yelled “We want Bama” as a joke when Michigan had a good game? Well, you got your wish.
It’s official: the 14th-ranked Wolverines will be headed to Orlando to play No. 13 Alabama in the Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Day.
“Certainly a privilege and an honor for our team to be … playing a great team like the University of Michigan with great tradition and a great coach in Jim Harbaugh,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said on a conference call Sunday evening. “And this is something that we — a challenge that we certainly look forward to.”
Harbaugh is 1-4 in bowl games during his time at Michigan, though the one he did win was also the last time the Wolverines were in the Citrus Bowl, where they beat Florida to conclude the 2015 season.
All three teams Michigan lost to in the regular season made either the Playoff (Ohio State) or a New Year’s Six bowl (Wisconsin and Penn State), clearing the way for the Wolverines to get a spot in the Big Ten’s top non-New Year’s Six bowl.
Meanwhile, the powerhouse Crimson Tide seemed destined for a College Football Playoff spot — what would’ve been their sixth in six years of the Playoff — for most of the season, but when quarterback Tua Tagovailoa went down for the season with a hip injury and Alabama lost to rival Auburn, it fell out of a New Year’s Six spot altogether.
Still, the Crimson Tide are second in the country in SP+ and have the third-ranked offense and the No. 6 defense. Michigan is 19th and ninth, respectively.
“The Alabama team is a great team,” Harbaugh said. “I have the utmost respect for them. They’ve set the bar for college football over the last many years, the model of success and credit to Nick Saban and his coaches. High-powered offense, a great defense and I’ve already started to look at them.
“… That offense, they average somewhere around 48 points a game and their two offensive tackles look to be guys that could be top-20 picks in the draft. A lot of good receivers. This could be the best group of receivers maybe ever. Three top picks, probably three first-round picks in that group and two really talented running backs. Very impressed with (quarterback) Mac Jones and the defense is, the other thing is, the special teams is dynamic. The punt returns, kick returns, those two especially. We’ll need to have a great plan in regards to all three phases of the game. Excited for the opportunity.”
The two teams last played in 2012, when they met at a neutral site for the season opener. The Crimson Tide won in a blowout, 41-14. Before that, their most recent matchup was in the 2000 Orange Bowl — 20 years to the day before their upcoming Citrus Bowl tilt — where Tom Brady led the Wolverines to a 35-34 win in the first-ever overtime BCS Bowl game.
Though Michigan and Alabama rarely play each other, there is still some level of familiarity. Offensive coordinator Josh Gattis spent the 2018 season as the Crimson Tide’s co-offensive coordinator as they made a run to the national championship game. Shea Patterson also faced off against Alabama as Mississippi’s starting quarterback in 2017.
Saban and Harbaugh only really have a passing relationship, but as coaches of two blue blood programs, they respect each other and know the Citrus Bowl will bring a unique challenge.
“I have a lot of respect for Jim,” Saban said. “I think he’s been a great coach and done a great job at Michigan, did a great job every place he’s been prior to that. We have a lot of respect for the University of Michigan, their program, their tradition and the job that he’s done as a coach.”
Normally, the Citrus Bowl doesn’t feature marquee matchups by design. But when schools with two of the largest fanbases in the country fell there, the meeting seemed like a no-brainer for the bowl.
Most of the Wolverines have not announced whether they intend to play in the bowl, though linebacker Josh Uche and tight end Sean McKeon, both seniors, have indicated that they will play.
“We still got one more game to play for,” McKeon said after the loss to Ohio State. “One more game to win. Looking forward to preparing with the team one more time and trying to get that (win).”
With a match against one of the consistent best teams in the country, that task just got quite a bit harder.
“It’s a fabulous team,” Harbaugh said. “A very, very elite team and as I said, credit to Nick Saban and the coaching staff and our preparation will have to be at its highest level. Good to know who you’re gonna play and get started. It’s a big-time matchup. We’re very much looking forward to it.”