Alabama football took an unwelcome ride this year, going back to a time when Nick Saban and his team were not vying for a national championship.
The Crimson Tide had made the College Football Playoff every year since its inception in 2014. As Alabama gets set to face Michigan at noon New Year’s Day on ABC in the Vrbo Citrus Bowl, Saban wants his players to remember who they are, or can be.
Saban told media he hopes his squad will feel it has something to prove with the disappointments it has had this season. There were the early losses of key linebackers on defense and the late loss of all-star quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.
The season’s challenges reached their height with the Tide’s 46-41 loss to LSU and its 48-45 defeat to in-state rival Auburn. The Citrus Bowl is a chance for Alabama to re-establish the standard to which it wants to play, Saban said.
“I think we played in seven championship games in the last 10 years. We won five and lost two,” Saban said. “There is a high standard for the program, and you’re a little disappointed when you’re not in that position. There’s been a lot of players that worked hard to establish that tradition in this program.
“But this group had a lot of adversity to overcome,” the coach continued. “This is obviously an opportunity to try to get things back on track with the players that we have that are excited about playing in the game. That’s what we’re going to focus on as coaches.”
While the Alabama Nation may be experiencing an identity crisis, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh thinks Alabama is the same great team it has always been.
“We have the utmost respect for them,” the Wolverines coach said. “They set the bar for college football. Over the last many years they’re the model of success and that’s a credit to Nick Saban and his coaches.”
It’s hard to argue with Harbaugh. Alabama has won two of the past four CFP national championships. It ranks second nationally in scoring at 48.3 points per game and ranks third among FBS teams in passing offense with 343.5 yards per game.
“They’ve got three, well, a lot of good receivers,” Harbaugh said. “This could be the best group of receivers we’ve seen in maybe ever. Probably three first-round picks (and) two really talented running backs.”
Devonta Smith (1,200 yards and 13 touchdowns) and Jerry Jeudy (959 yards and nine touchdowns) lead the Alabama receiving corps. Najee Harris has paced the Alabama rushing attack with 1,088 yards and 11 touchdowns this season.
In two games since taking over as Crimson Tide starting quarterback, Mac Jones has thrown for 610 yards and seven touchdowns.
Alabama ranks 17th nationally in scoring defense, allowing just 318.6 yards per game, and its pass defense ranks No. 9 among FBS programs at 183.4 yards allowed per game. Xavier McKinney leads the Tide defense with 85 total tackles on the season, while Anfernee Jennings (12 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks) and Terrell Lewis (11.5 tackles for loss, six sacks) have been disruptive in the backfield all season long.
While some had feared that many Tide juniors would not play to save themselves for their upcoming pro careers, it appears that only linebacker Lewis and defensive back Trevon Diggs will sit out.
“Those guys, even coming here, they want to play another game,” Mac Jones said. “They’re team guys. At Alabama, we’re trying to win championships, yes, but they want to play in every game and they want to do the best they can for themselves, their families and for their teammates around them.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that those guys were going to play and they are going to play,” he said. “It’s exciting.”
Michigan enters the game ranked sixth nationally in total defense, allowing 292.8 yards per game, and has held opposing quarterbacks to just 173.8 passing yards per game. The Wolverines have held opponents to 19.5 points per game and Khaleke Hudson leads the team with 96 tackles.
Defensive end Kwity Paye (12.5 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks) and linebacker Josh Uche (10.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks) have also had strong seasons. Ambry Thomas and Lavert Hill lead the defense with three interceptions apiece.
Offensively, the Wolverines come in averaging 33 points per game. They are paced by quarterback Shea Patterson, who ranks in the top three in the Big Ten in passing yards (2,828) and passing touchdowns (22) and has also added five rushing touchdowns this season.
Zach Charbonnet is Michigan’s top-producing running back with 642 yards and 11 touchdowns, while Ronnie Bell (705 yards), Nico Collins (681 yards and seven touchdowns) and Donovan Peoples-Jones (404 yards and six touchdowns) lead the Wolverines receiving corps.
This year’s Vrbo Citrus Bowl will be the fifth all-time meeting between the Crimson Tide and Wolverines and the first since an Alabama victory over Michigan during the opening week of the 2012 season. The all-time series between the teams is tied 2-2.
Alabama is 2-0 in two previous appearances in the Citrus Bowl, the most recent coming in 2011 against Michigan State. Michigan is 4-1 in five previous Citrus Bowl appearances, with the most recent appearance coming in 2016, a 41-7 victory over Florida.