Michigan vs. Alabama Citrus Bowl Preview

Steve Deace

Two of college football's greatest programs, Michigan and Alabama, will square off in the 2020 Citrus Bowl for only the 5th time ever.

The only debate is who's happier -- the Citrus Bowl or Paul Finebaum?

No. 13 Alabama and No. 14 Michigan, two of the winningest and most decorated programs in college football history, will square off New Year’s Day in Orlando. Throw in two of the sport’s biggest lightning rod coaches, Nick Saban and Jim Harbaugh, and this could be the most buzz-worthy Citrus Bowl ever. Toss in what's likely coming from SEC provocateur-in-chief (and noted Harbaugh hater) Finebaum, and it might also be the most cringe-worthy.

What remains to be seen is if the game itself will prove worthy.

The Crimson Tide, even without injured quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, figures to be a double-digit favorite. And a Michigan defense that has struggled mightily to contain Ohio State’s prolific pass catchers the last two years, now faces arguably the best wide receive corps ever -- Jerry Jeudy, Jaylan Waddle, Devonta Smith, and Henry Ruggs III. Jeudy, a Julio Jones clone, is expected to be a top 10 pick in next spring's NFL Draft. The quartet has combined for 35 touchdowns and just under 3,500 yards, or about 700 more than Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson has total passing yardage this season.

But don't sleep on Alabama’s rushing attack, either, which is led by Najee Harris. His recruitment was sort of a metaphor for Michigan football in the Harbaugh era. It came down to Alabama and Michigan, and the Wolverines certainly battled hard for one of the top running back prospects since Adrian Peterson. But in the end Michigan came up short against elite competition, as it so often has on the gridiron. Although Harbaugh did beat Saban, twice, for 5-star safety Dalton Hill last year.

It’s also a reunion between Saban and his former assistant Josh Gattis, who left to become Michigan’s offensive coordinator. After a sputtering start, Gattis’ offense has rebounded strong and has a chance to end the season as the best of Harbaugh’s tenure. The Wolverines should find some success against a young Alabama defense, which has uncharacteristically surrendered 28 points or more four times this season.

However, defensively this will be a major challenge for Michigan’s embattled defensive coordinator, Don Brown. After giving up 118 points the last two years to the Buckeyes, Brown’s stock has plummeted with an increasingly loud faction of fans, advocacy media, and former players. The Crimson Tide have a similar imposing offensive line to the ones Wisconsin and Ohio State battered the Wolverines with. The aforementioned Harris is also a physically imposing runner, as well as a quality receiver out of the backfield.

And then there’s those receivers. Each of them a mismatch against any member of Michigan’s secondary. Probably a mismatch against any secondary for that matter. This game could very well be decided by how many of them elect to play in this bowl game. Michigan’s receivers are also no joke, and will make some plays themselves. This is their chance to improve their stock against such decorated counterparts.

Expect a high scoring affair on a fast track.

Series History: These two titans of college football have only previously faced each other four times ever, three of them in bowl games.

Michigan won the first meeting, 28-24, in the final seconds in the 1988 Holiday Bowl, thanks to Jamie Morris' big day running the football and a clutch touchdown pass from Demetrius Brown to John Kolesar. Legendary Coach Bo Schembechler was forced to miss the game with his second heart surgery.

Alabama got its revenge in the 1997 Outback Bowl, 17-14, in a battle of stout defenses.

The 2000 Orange Bowl is considered an all-time postseason classic, with Tom Brady torching the SEC Champion Crimson Tide in his final college game. Brady twice brought the Wolverines back from 14-point deficits, before Michigan eventually prevailed in overtime, 35-35, when Alabama missed an extra point that would've tied it.

However, those three nail-biters predate Saban's unparalleled era of excellence. The only time Michigan faced Saban's fully-loaded Crimson Tide the Wolverines were dominated 41-14, in a 2012 season-opener that probably wasn't even that close.

Alabama Citrus Bowl fact: This will be Alabama's first appearance in a non-New Year's Six bowl since the 2011 Citrus Bowl, when the Crimson Tide destroyed Michigan State, 49-7.

Michigan Citrus Bowl fact: The Wolverines will tie Georgia, Penn State, and Tennessee with the most Citrus Bowl appearances (6) ever. Michigan's last two appearances in the Citrus Bowl (2008 & 2016) featured the two largest crowds for the bowl game in the last 15 years.

Saban vs. Michigan: Going back to his five years as Michigan State's coach, Saban is 3-3 all-time against the Wolverines. Harbaugh and Saban have never faced each other before, whether it be college or the NFL.

Buckeye hangover: All-time Michigan is just 6-15 (29%) in bowl games in years it ended the regular season by losing to Ohio State. 

Comments (5)
No. 1-3
BlueDemon
BlueDemon

Steve great analysis and I appreciate your insight... one question though. There’s “ two of the winningest and most decorated programs in college football history“, ones Alabama, who’s the other one? 😂

Joparish
Joparish

That first line...genius! It is so true. Finebaum hates Michigan, and he will probably get the blowout he wants.

Mdwalt
Mdwalt

Steve, I think we all know how this game is going to end up. In another blowout loss for the Wolverines.


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