For the Michigan football team, drawing Alabama in the Citrus Bowl makes the bowl season anything but meaningless.
That hasn’t been the case in past years. In the current four-team College Football Playoff format, the premier teams left on the outside looking in typically spill over into the next tier of bowl games, which has evolved into a series of exhibitions defined by which NFL-bound prospects elect to sit out.
Over the last three seasons, the Wolverines’ annual trajectory beginning the Saturday after Thanksgiving has followed the same script — lose to Ohio State, prepare for an insignificant bowl game without much of their NFL talent and travel to a warm-weather city to lose on national television.
This season’s Citrus Bowl, though, presents an opportunity to score a win with big-picture implications. If U-M team can find a way to beat the Crimson Tide, who will be without star quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (hip) and numerous NFL-bound players, it would immediately become one of the best wins in the Harbaugh era. Perhaps even more importantly, it’s a chance to erase much of the negativity surrounding a three-loss regular season.
From a recruiting standpoint, a win would have a national ripple effect. It could revolutionize the current perception of Michigan, which is seen as a program struggling to break into the sport’s upper echelon. Under Harbaugh, the Wolverines have come within inches of a CFP berth, yet they’re still seen as a team trapped in purgatory — a notion attributable to a miserable losing streak against the Buckeyes. After five years, that’s the understanding of this program’s ceiling.
But by beating Nick Saban and Alabama, U-M could showcase an ability to compete with a program that has established itself as the gold standard of the sport. That’s something it can, and should, flaunt to elite high school prospects.
A loss, however, would have equally important ramifications for all the wrong reasons. If the Wolverines — who will be at full strength despite a handful of players with looming NFL decisions — can’t beat Alabama, it would add a fourth loss to a season they began tabbed as the Big Ten favorites.
Even after thrashing then-No. 8 Notre Dame in October, a loss would fuel another offseason of criticism around Michigan’s performance on the national stage. After finding themselves on the wrong side of a blowout in Madison, falling short in Happy Valley and getting dominated by Ohio State in the season finale, falling to the Crimson Tide would give the Wolverines their fourth loss in five games against top-13 opponents this season.
On the recruiting trail, Harbaugh and his staff would have to deal with the consequences of losing to a shorthanded Alabama team in a down year, especially if the margin gets out of hand. Losing to a backup quarterback at the helm of a team trying to plug holes left by NFL-bound prospects would show how far the Wolverines lag behind the sport’s powerhouses. To a top recruit, that’s as strong of a deterrent as any.
For better or worse, the bottom line remains the same: Michigan is playing for something this postseason, unlike previous years. For those set to return, laying the foundation for next season starts on New Year’s Day. In what’s shaping up to be an ultra-competitive Big Ten in 2020, the Wolverines will enter next fall with the taste the Citrus Bowl leaves in their mouths. For those graduating or departing for the NFL, it’s a chance to leave the program on the highest possible note after falling out of CFP contention in October.
Amid three regular-season losses, the sense of preseason optimism surrounding Michigan’s senior quarterback, veteran offensive line and new offensive scheme feels like a distant memory. This was supposed to be the year. And just when it looked like it was headed towards the same fate as previous shortcomings, the Wolverines stumbled upon a golden opportunity in Orlando.
Now, they have the chance to make it count.
Dash can be reached on Twitter @danieldash428 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.