Outside of the College Football Playoff, one of the most anticipated bowl games this season is the VRBO Citrus Bowl between the no. 13 Alabama Crimson Tide and no. 14 Michigan Wolverines. Kickoff is set for 1:00 EST on Wednesday, January 1 at Camping World Stadium in Orlando. The game will be broadcast nationally on ABC.
According to this year’s college bowl game betting odds, the Crimson Tide are 7-point favorites over Michigan. The over/under for the game is set at 58.5 points.
It’s undoubtedly going to be weird for Alabama not to be playing in the College Football Playoff this season. The Crimson Tide has been in the national semi-finals every year since the CFP was created. They’ve also been in the national championship game in seven of the last 10 years, so they rarely play postseason games that don’t have a championship on the line.
Alas, Nick Saban’s team didn’t earn a spot in the top-4 this season. Alabama’s schedule didn’t produce many quality wins. With losses to both LSU and Auburn, the Crimson Tide fell short when they had a chance to impress the CFP committee. It’ll be interesting to see if Alabama comes out uninspired after falling short of their goals or if they’re eager to make a statement after a 10-2 campaign that was a disappointment by their standards.
As for Michigan, they were also disappointed not to get a chance to play for a conference championship. But losses to Wisconsin, Penn State, and Ohio State kept them from reaching the top of the Big Ten East Division. For what it’s worth, the Wolverines took care of business against all of their other opponents, including convincing wins over Notre Dame and Michigan State.
With a win over Alabama, the Wolverines will finish with 10 wins for the fourth time in Jim Harbaugh’s five-year tenure at his alma mater. However, bowl games have been an issue for Michigan, going 1-3 under Harbaugh and winning just four of their last 15 bowl appearances. That includes a 41-15 loss to Florida in last year’s Peach Bowl. On the bright side, the Wolverines were victorious in their last Citrus Bowl appearance five years ago.
Of course, there’s a little bit of history between Alabama and Michigan, two of the proudest programs in college football history. The Tide and Wolverines have three previous bowl meetings, with Michigan winning two of them. However, the most recent meeting between the teams was to kick off the 2012 season, a 41-14 win for Alabama in Arlington.
Here’s the thing to remember about this game: while it’s unclear whether the Crimson Tide will be motivated to play in the game, nobody should doubt that Alabama is the better team. If the Tide just fails to show up and loses, I can live with that. But if I take Michigan on a hunch that Alabama takes the day off and the Crimson Tide ends up winning a lopsided game, I’ll be upset with myself. It’s a little convoluted, but I still think the best bet is to take the better team, so I’ll lean toward the Tide to win and cover.
Of course, Tua Tagavailoa won’t play after getting hurt late in the season. However, Mac Jones was not the problem in Alabama’s loss to Auburn. While he threw two interceptions that Auburn returned for a touchdown, he shouldn’t be blamed for both of them. Outside of those two picks, Jones played well against a quality SEC defense, connecting on 26 of his 39 passes for over 300 yards and four touchdown passes.
It’s also important to remember that Jones has the same supporting cast that Tagavailoa had all year. Najee Harris is a bruising running back who gained over 1,000 yards and averaged nearly six yards per carry this year. More importantly, Alabama has a quartet of wide receivers that all have distinct skillsets and can be a nightmare for opposing defenses. With those players around him, there shouldn’t be a significant drop-off for the Alabama offense with Jones at quarterback.
Obviously, the Michigan defense will be one of the best the Crimson Tide has faced this season. But the Wolverines were also vulnerable against the best teams on their schedule. They failed to stop the run in an early-season loss to Wisconsin. They also had their lunch handed to them to the tune of 52 points in the season finale against Ohio State. If Michigan couldn’t get a handle on the Ohio State offense, I have doubts about them keeping the Crimson Tide to a reasonable point total.
Meanwhile, I still have lingering doubts about the Michigan offense. The running game was good but not great most of the year. I also thought the passing game underperformed on several occasions. To be fair, the Alabama defense had plenty of trouble against quality offensive teams, so I think the Wolverines will be able to find the end zone. But I don’t think the Michigan offense can be consistent enough to keep up with Alabama if this game turns into a shootout.
Ultimately, I think Alabama is a level or two above Michigan talent-wise. That should be the ultimate equalizer in this game despite some concerns about Alabama’s motivation. I also think Saban will find a way to get his team fired up to play a Michigan team that has struggled in bowl games recently, especially against SEC teams. As long as the Tide comes to play, I don’t think they’ll have a problem covering the 7-point spread.