Eyes on the Enemy: Alabama

Football

On Wednesday, the Michigan football team will ring in the new decade against the premier powerhouse of the previous one.

With a chance to erase much of the negativity surrounding three regular season losses, the Wolverines drew Alabama in the Citrus Bowl. It appears Michigan will be at full strength, while the Crimson Tide will be without star quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (hip) and a pair of NFL-bound defensive players.

For the Wolverines, this is anything but a glorified exhibition game. It’s a chance to change the perception of the program, for better or worse. Its trickle-down impact will affect this offseason’s narrative, next year’s starting point and, perhaps most importantly, the recruiting trail.

So, how can Michigan topple the reigning national runner-up?

Put points on the board early, especially after Alabama’s scoring drives

In a game that’s going to be defined by a pair of electric offenses, the Wolverines cannot afford a slow start. Even without Tagovailoa, Alabama boasts a star-studded group. At its core, the Crimson Tide’s offense is comprised of multiple future first-round offensive linemen, a strong wideout corps led by 2018 Biletnikoff Award winner Jerry Jeudy and an elite running back in Najee Harris, who was nearly a Wolverine himself.

If Michigan is going to win this game, its offense can’t waste the first few drives trying to settle in. The Wolverines need points early in the game, particularly to answer Alabama’s scoring drives. If Michigan lets the Tide pour on two, three or even four unanswered touchdowns, the Citrus Bowl will quickly become eerily reminiscent of the Wolverines’ trip to Wisconsin in September.

To keep pace with Alabama, quarterback Shea Patterson must remain aggressive. He’s shown an ability to produce outside the pocket, which means receivers Nico Collins, Donovan Peoples-Jones and Ronnie Bell will have ample opportunity to extend plays. Against a physical Crimson Tide secondary, the Wolverines will need to lean on the physicality of Collins (6-foot-4, 222 pounds) and tight end Nick Eubanks (6-foot-5, 256 pounds), or the open-field speed of freshmen Giles Jackson and Mike Sainristil.

In its regular season finale, Alabama’s defense gave up 48 points to Auburn. While Michigan’s offense may not need to eclipse the half-century mark, it can’t waste any time trying to find a rhythm.

Michigan’s secondary has to make big plays

Alabama’s wide receiver trio of Jeudy, DeVonta Smith and Henry Ruggs III combined for nearly 2,900 receiving yards and 29 touchdowns during the regular season. To put that in perspective, the Wolverines’ trio of Black, Peoples-Jones and Bell posted a combined 1,790 yards and 14 scores — less than half as many.

For Michigan to stay in the game, its secondary must step up. Whether it’s forcing a turnover, breaking up a third-down pass or making a crucial open-field tackle, there will be times when Michigan looks to its secondary for a pendulum-swinging play. Defensive backs Lavert Hill, Ambry Thomas, Daxton Hill and Josh Metellus have all proved capable of providing the game-changing plays the Wolverines will need against the Tide. The group’s ability to answer the call may very well dictate the game’s outcome.

It appears the defensive backfield may be receiving a boost in the Citrus Bowl, as Orion Sang of the Detroit Free Press reported that Brad Hawkins participated in Friday’s practice.

The verdict

Even without a handful of starters, Alabama’s roster is dominant. For the Crimson Tide, their first bowl season without a College Football Playoff berth provides an opportunity to get their talented youngsters up to speed with practices, game reps and, ultimately, a Citrus Bowl victory.

Amid a four-loss season, the Wolverines would enter an offseason of questions and introspection. Ultimately, decisions could be rooted in how far Michigan feels it is from contending with the country’s top programs — a point accentuated by a miserable losing streak against Ohio State. Against the Crimson Tide, U-M may get its first glimpse of an answer.

Final score: Alabama 41, Michigan 24

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