ORLANDO, Fla. — As far as anticlimaxes go, this is a weird one.
Jim Harbaugh and Nick Saban sitting next to each other at a decorative podium, one holding back laughter as the other excoriates the media at large over the existence of mock drafts, is an image that implies a little more than the Citrus Bowl, a month after Michigan and Alabama both lost rivalry weekend games. Either program being here in Orlando on New Year’s, playing in the early game before the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl will take most of the country’s attention, implies a little less than this. The entire week is a juxtaposition of brand names and reality.
Let’s try to wade through it.
There’s truth to the statement that this game means more because it’s against Alabama. Even in a down year for the Crimson Tide, even when they missed the College Football Playoff and will play in a non-New Year’s Six bowl game for the first time since 2010, even when they’re starting their backup quarterback, this is still Alabama. It’s still a measuring stick for just how good Michigan can be. Saban is still the best college football coach in the country. That backup quarterback, Mac Jones, still threw for 335 yards in a pressure-cooker at Jordan-Hare Stadium last month and helped the Crimson Tide to 45 points against the fourth-best defense in the country by SP+. Beating them — even competing against them — would matter.
“Coach Saban and their staff have really set the bar,” Harbaugh said. “Elite program, great football team and it’s a big challenge for us.”
Still, the bowl amounts to an exhibition in the last game of the year. The next game Michigan will have to look forward to — win or lose — is a trip to Seattle in nine months, with a different quarterback under center and an unknown quantity of similarity around him. The Citrus Bowl serves to calibrate some of the expectations that will accompany the Wolverines there, and it’s a chance for a highlight in a largely forgettable season, but that’s about it.
Win, and Michigan still has to carry that momentum into next year to avoid being in the same spot when the calendar flips to 2021, likely without an Alabama to motivate it. Lose, and Michigan football is in the same spot it’s been in at the end of every year for the last three: Looking up at everyone else, yet to find a breakthrough, or anything resembling one.
“There’s some simple stuff, like ‘Michigan isn’t anything, they’ve never been there,’ ” sophomore linebacker Cam McGrone said. “But our plan is to get there, and to get there we have to shut people up on the way.”
That’s the kind of rhetoric the Wolverines have regularly employed before games in which everyone doubts their capability. At this point, it usually falls hollow, because Michigan hasn’t won a single one of those games in the Jim Harbaugh era.
“It’s going to come down to who can execute more,” McGrone said, echoing another talking point, one in which Michigan has found truth time and again when it runs into an opponent it cannot simply out-talent. On Wednesday, it’ll certainly apply. Here’s where:
Win the turnover battle
You don’t get to win these kinds of games if you commit needless errors. And you can’t win them without creating some luck.
It got tiresome early in the year when Michigan blamed all of its struggles offensively on turnovers. But the numbers bear out some truth. The Wolverines coughed up 13 turnovers in their first six games and just five in their last six. Ask anyone in the program when things got better, and they’ll tell you Penn State — the midway point.
“When you’re extending drives, you’re not turning a football over,” offensive coordinator Josh Gattis said, “you’re able to put points on the board and continue those drives.”
Against Alabama, that’s easier said than done. The Tide are fifth in the country in turnover margin — forcing 26 with just 10 of their own. Offensively for Michigan, the onus largely falls on Shea Patterson to take care of the ball. His red-zone fumble in the first half against Ohio State with Michigan driving and the Buckeyes leading by just one score proved critical. Those mistakes can’t happen for the Wolverines to finally win one of these games under Harbaugh.
Defensively, this is where Michigan could benefit from Jones being under center instead of Tua Tagovailoa. Jones put in a mostly impressive showing against Auburn, but struggled the most with his accuracy. Throughout the game, he missed throws Tagovailoa would have made easily — and two of them resulted in pick-sixes.
“I think the biggest thing with Mac is we try to get him to play within himself and just make the reads that you have to make,” Saban said. “Don’t force the ball. Take what the defense gives you and sort of try to use an ABC approach with him and not make it too complicated.”
An extra months of starter’s reps will help Jones, as will an uber-talented receivers group that includes Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs, DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle. Defensive coordinator Don Brown called it one of the best three or five groups he’s coached against. But if Michigan’s defense is to be what it wants to be, that doesn’t matter much.
“We’re confident in our ability,” Brown said. “You’re not going to beat them one way. You’re going to have to play a number of different coverages. And we’re confident in our ability to do that.”
And if a mistake presents itself, the Wolverines must capitalize.
Defend the run
For all the consternation about Alabama’s receivers in the run-up to this game, the Tide also have a run game that averages five yards per carry, anchored by running back Najee Harris and tackles Jedrick Willis and Alex Leatherwood.
And, lest we forget, Michigan’s biggest issues against Ohio State started and ended with stopping the run. On top of that, defensive tackle Mike Dwumfour is currently not with the team after undergoing a medical procedure, meaning the Wolverines will likely go with a mix of Jess Speight, Chris Hinton and Mazi Smith next to Carlo Kemp. (Kemp, according to Kwity Paye at Michigan’s awards banquet, wasn’t fully healthy against Ohio State).
The Wolverines gave up 264 yards to the Buckeyes in that game, most of them at the hands of J.K. Dobbins, and seemed overwhelmed by Ohio State’s size up front throughout. It was the same story earlier in the year at Wisconsin, when Jonathan Taylor led the Badgers to 359 yards on the ground in a romp.
None of this bodes well against an Alabama line starting a second-team All American in Willis, an NFL talent in Leatherwood, two four-stars with multiple years of experience and a five-star freshman in Evan Neal.
Harris, a former Michigan recruit, poses a challenge of his own.
“He’s probably the best jump cut guy I’ve seen,” Brown said of Harris. “… The thing that I’m most impressed with is his ability to change direction and jump cut and be in the strong side A gap, end up in the backside B gap, or vice versa. So a good back, a guy that we’re going to have to tackle, for sure. You’re not going to be able to one-arm, whip him down on the ground. He’s not one of those type of guys. He’s kind of a throwback because of his size and strength.”
Don’t beat yourself
Turnovers fit into this box, but so do a litany of other errors Michigan has committed this year.
Don’t call timeout before the first play from scrimmage. Don’t pull out a two-quarterback package with no clear goal for what it’s supposed to accomplish. Don’t drop interceptions. Don’t jump offsides on fourth-and-4 when your opponent is punting from deep in its own territory.
There’s something to the idea of being aggressive, but not if you can’t capitalize. Go for it on fourth down all you want, but if a hole opens, the running back can’t go the other way.
In short, execute.
“They’re a very well-coached team in every phase of the game,” Saban said. “Their players play really, really hard. They play with tremendous toughness. They’ve got great intangibles in terms of their discipline, their accountability to do their job, how they play together as a group.”
But Saban knows better than anyone in this sport that these games are won with stout discipline and execution. That’s why merely being in the Citrus Bowl constitutes the worst season he’s had in the decade, and why Michigan is using the language of opportunity to describe this matchup.
“Never really say the hay’s in the barn,” Harbaugh said. “We’re still working and polishing, but feel like the time to play a football game, you have that feeling now. It’s time. And have at it.”