After Michigan football’s practice on Sunday, strength coach Ben Herbert had a point to make.
The Citrus Bowl, he said, was a “money game.” Alabama has a ton of first-round NFL talent. It will be an opportunity for senior cornerback Lavert Hill to put reps against last year’s Biletnikoff Award winner, Jerry Jeudy, on tape. It will be an opportunity for Michigan’s defensive line to get reps against Jedrick Willis and Alex Leatherwood, two NFL-caliber tackles. And so on down the line.
Herbert’s point was, that if any of Michigan’s players want to prove something, the chance is right in front of them.
“It’s huge for us,” said junior defensive lineman Kwity Paye, relaying the story. “Just getting an opportunity to play against that talent and show that with scouts as well.”
The rest of the Wolverines seem to be on exactly the same page.
At this time last year, after a loss to Ohio State ended Michigan’s playoff hopes, the Wolverines were getting ready for a Peach Bowl that few wanted to be in. Multiple players sat out, wanting to avoid the chance of injury in a largely meaningless game. Those who played knew that, despite the pageantry of a New Year’s Six Bowl, it wasn’t the goal. Their sights had been set higher. And it showed in a 41-15 loss to Florida.
“I think this year, everybody’s just on board with anything,” said senior quarterback Shea Patterson. “No matter what the situation is, no matter who we’re playing.”
Patterson will play in the Citrus Bowl. So will Josh Metellus. So will Paye, who said he’s leaning towards staying for his senior year and will wait until getting an evaluation back from the NFL before making a decision. By the sound of it, so will every other player who would have a chance to sit.
“I don’t think anybody has any room to sit out in this game,” Patterson said. “I think anybody — (if) anything, it’s an opportunity for the seniors. If they’re thinking about sitting out, it’ll only hurt them.”
Ultimately, this comes down to the opponent. It’s Alabama, and even though the Crimson Tide didn’t make the College Football Playoff for the first time ever, that means a normally meaningless bowl game holds an added level of importance.
For any NFL hopefuls, it’s a chance for game tape against the closest thing to an NFL team that exists in college football.
For seniors, it’s a chance to end on a high note after a blowout loss against Ohio State put the Wolverines at 9-3 to end the regular season.
For Michigan football, it’s a chance for a narrative-reversing win, the kind that could vault the Wolverines in the national conversation.
When the Wolverines’ annual award show started on Sunday night, a slideshow of pictures from throughout the season played. None from the Ohio State game were shown. Beating Alabama would end a trend of finishing the season on a low note that has now gone three straight years.
The underlying narrative in this game is this: For an Alabama program that reasonably expects to win a national title every year, the only thing that can come from being in the Citrus Bowl is disappointment. For a Michigan program that wants to get to that level, getting a chance to beat Alabama puts it one step closer.
Opportunity was a buzz word when Michigan’s players were asked about this game Sunday night. Cliche as it may be, there’s good reason for that. The Citrus Bowl, if nothing else, is a chance to seize the narrative.
“We came out and won some big games, lost some big games this year,” Patterson said. “But I think, like I said, just another opportunity to play a big-time team, big-time program. (Putting) that on the resume for this season would be huge.”