Why isn’t Michigan football a bigger underdog in Citrus Bowl against Alabama?

Crimson Tide lost just two games by total of eight points

Donovan Peoples-Jones #9 of the Michigan Wolverines reacts to a first half touchdown while playing the Ohio State Buckeyes of the Michigan Wolverines  at Michigan Stadium on November 30, 2019 in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Donovan Peoples-Jones #9 of the Michigan Wolverines reacts to a first half touchdown while playing the Ohio State Buckeyes of the Michigan Wolverines at Michigan Stadium on November 30, 2019 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (2019 Getty Images)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – The Michigan football team is just a day away from lining up across from Alabama in the Citrus Bowl, and oddsmakers seem to believe the Wolverines have a legitimate chance.

As of Tuesday morning, Michigan is just a seven-point underdog against Alabama. Why is the game expected to be so close? It’s likely due to a handful of Alabama’s best players missing the game and questions about the Crimson Tide’s enthusiasm about playing in a non-New Year’s Six bowl.

Alabama players missing bowl game

The most notable omission from Alabama’s lineup will be star quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who suffered a season-ending injury Nov. 16 against Mississippi State. Tagovailoa is a national champion, a Heisman finalist and a first-round NFL draft prospect. He’s one of the most dynamic playmakers in college football history, but he won’t be on the field.

If Tagovailoa was playing, the spread would be much larger, but his backup, Mac Jones, is no scrub.

Jones threw 116 passes this season, completing nearly 70% of them for an average of 10.1 yards per attempt, 11 touchdowns and three interceptions. He doesn’t quite have the video game numbers of Tagovailoa, but they’re still elite.

Terrell Lewis and Trevon Diggs also announced they won’t participate in the game to prepare for the draft.

Lewis, a star linebacker, made 31 tackles this season, including 11.5 tackles for loss and six sacks. He finishes his Alabama career with 14.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks in 26 games.

Diggs started all 12 games at cornerback this season, making 37 tackles and three interceptions while defending 11 passes.

That duo will leave a hole in Alabama’s defense, but Nick Saban has built incredible depth up and down the roster, so another talented player will step up to take those spots.

It helps for Michigan to avoid Lewis and Diggs, but that’s not enough to erase the massive talent gap created through recruiting. From 2015 to 2019, Alabama ranked No. 1 in recruiting every season except for 2018, when it ranked No. 5. Michigan has finished 37th, eighth, fifth, 22nd and eighth over that span.

In other words, most of Alabama’s backups were more highly ranked than Michigan’s starters.

Bowl motivation

The question of Alabama’s motivation Saturday is certainly fair. The Crimson Tide has been in the College Football Playoff every season of its existence and hasn’t played in a non-New Year’s Six bowl since 2011.

None of these players have appeared in a more meaningless game during their Alabama careers. In fact, none of them have even lost multiple games in a season. In the last four years, Alabama has appeared in four national championship games, winning twice and losing twice to Clemson.

It’s strange to see Alabama ranked outside the top 10 and playing in the Citrus Bowl. In the 2011 Capital One Bowl against Michigan State, Alabama won 49-7 coming off a national championship season. But that Crimson Tide team was just two years removed from back-to-back Independence Bowl trips, so the dynasty hadn’t fully formed.

How motivated will Alabama be to avoid a third loss and finish the year around No. 10 in the country? Who knows? This hasn’t happened to Alabama since Saban revitalized the college football powerhouse.

An unmotivated Alabama team would obviously be susceptible to an upset, but that doesn’t seem likely with Saban at the helm.

Why spread could be bigger

Alabama is Alabama, so Michigan was always going to be an underdog.

This year honestly hasn’t been much different. Alabama lost a tight battle to what appears to be an historically dominant LSU team and also slipped up on the road against rival Auburn without Tagovailoa. The Crimson Tide lost those two games by a combined eight points while winning its other 10 games by an average of 33 points.

Close losses to the No. 1 and No. 12 teams in the country shouldn’t fool anyone into thinking Alabama isn’t one of the best teams in college football.

And we all know how Michigan has fared against the best teams in college football.

The Wolverines once again weren’t competitive against Ohio State to end the season, even though the game was at home. Michigan got blown out at Wisconsin. It lost at Penn State.

Alabama is undeniably part of that elite tier of teams. Michigan has given its fans no reason to believe it can compete at that level.

Jim Harbaugh is also in danger of developing a poor reputation in bowl games. Since pounding Florida in the Citrus Bowl four years ago, Michigan has lost to Florida State, South Carolina and Florida the last three years. In 2016, Michigan didn’t show up to the Orange Bowl until the fourth quarter. The second half was a disaster in the Outback Bowl vs. South Carolina, and last year’s Peach Bowl was a total blowout.

Final thoughts

Maybe Michigan will shock the world and beat Alabama, but there’s no real reason to expect the game to be close. The Wolverines are facing a talent deficit and a history of losing big games.

Oh yeah, and the greatest dynasty the sport has ever seen is standing on the opposite sideline.

Harbaugh is trying to win 10 games for the fourth time in five seasons. To do so, he’ll need to earn the biggest win of his Michigan career.

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