Michigan preview: Bama’s ranks are too thinned to take Wolverines lightly

One look at the injury/inactive report for ’s Citrus Bowl matchup against tells the tale: The Wolverines will be without a total of three players; the Crimson Tide is missing 13.

Whether the talent advantage Alabama enjoyed over Michigan was so great for the Crimson Tide to have been considered a clear favorite before is no longer the question; the question now is what chance Alabama will have against a team built to mimic a power-brand SEC program while giving up a net difference of 10 scholarships in the process.

Michigan has never seemed able to crack the Big Ten’s glass ceiling under coach and alum Jim Harbaugh. Even in , Michigan was never really considered a contender, and then backed up that lack of prognosticative faith with a 9-3 season that featured two ugly losses to the two best teams on the schedule (Wisconsin, Ohio State) and a quality win list consisting of Notre Dame, Iowa, and … MTSU?

The other issue with Michigan football in 2019 was style of play. And when we say “style,” think zoot suits. The Wolverine offense redefined the concept of plodding, even as the rest of the country were looking for ways to be as aggressive as possible. Michigan even managed to take former Ole Miss quarterback Shea Patterson, who was once one of the SEC’s most promising dual-threat quarterbacks, and more or less pigeonhole him into being a pocket-based passer. While Patterson is still a threat to scramble, one wonders what he could have been in, say, LSU’s offense instead.

Still, teams ultimately take the personalities of their head coach, and Michigan’s Harbaugh is a tough, focused leader (sometimes to a level of detriment) who will expect his team to compete head-up with an Alabama squad that is, unfortunately and unquestionably, lessened by injury and now, dealing with a couple of early NFL Draft defections as well.

OFFENSE

Michigan brings something to the table Alabama is fairly unaccustomed to seeing: an actual fullback. This is a pro-style offense, but one still based in old concepts of fullbacks and multiple blocking tight ends. In an era of four- and five-wideout groups running downfield like Air Force jets flying in an air show, Michigan’s offense looks almost archaic. The results in 2019 were archaic, too: 69th in total offense, 81st in rushing offense and 49th in passing offense. Alabama’s wide-open, pro-based spread ranked 7th nationally, 56th in rushing offense and 3rd in passing offense.

QUARTERBACKS
Patterson’s early rise to stardom at Ole Miss and subsequent flame-out surprisingly led to a second chance at Michigan, where he has apparently matured but not necessarily improved. Patterson was supposed to come to Michigan to give the old-school offense a jolt of the new, but instead, Michigan has seemed to artificially hold him back. His numbers in 2019 – 2,828 yards passing, 22 touchdowns, 6 interceptions, a QB rating of 143.9 – look positively serene.

Most surprisingly, his running skills got cut off almost completely: 79 carries for 46 yards (0.5 avg.), including yardage lost to sacks, and 5 touchdowns. Part of the issue was an offensive line that couldn’t pass block to save its own lives, much less that of Patterson. But the scheme has not been as friendly to his skill set as it could have been.

Alabama will use Mac Jones, whose performance against Auburn was blessed with the highest highs but also cursed with the lowest lows. Still, Alabama fans who thought Alabama would revert to … well, a Michigan-type offense … in the wake of Tua Tagovailoa’s injury had to be both shocked and pleased with Jones’ gunslinger mentality and ability to deliver. Jones’ QB rating on the year is 181.1 and with 1,176 yards passing on 116 attempts, you can’t really call him green anymore. As for backups, Michigan’s Dylan McCaffrey hasn’t had much more work under his belt than has Bama’s Lia Tagovailoa. Neither is expected to play unless it’s either unavoidable, or the game is out of hand.

This one is close, but mostly because of the wide gulf that exists between the two starters in terms of experience. For now, though, it’s just too hard to overlook what Patterson has been through, and he has prior experience against Alabama. Advantage: Michigan

RUNNING BACKS
For a team so determined to move the ball on the ground, the fact Michigan has had trouble doing it is sort of mind-blowing. Freshman Zach Charbonnet has scored 11 touchdowns on the ground, but has averaged a nothing-special 4.7 yards per carry over 136 attempts.

Backups Hassan Haskins and Tru Wilson both cracked the 5.0-ypc barrier but combined for 5 touchdowns, the same number Alabama’s top backup (Brian Robinson Jr.) got by himself. Christian Turner adds depth but didn’t show much in 2019. When Michigan needs a fullback, Ben Mason, who is also on the depth chart at defensive line, is available, and he has carried the ball.

Quite frankly, Alabama’s Najee Harris beats this entire bunch just by himself. Not only is Harris going to crack the 1,100-yard mark (if not the 1,200-yard mark) in this game, but he has steadily become more and more of a factor with each passing week, and few running backs across the country are playing on his level right now. Brian Robinson and Keilan Robinson will provide depth along with Jerome Ford.

We’ve seen nothing from any Michigan back to suggest the Wolverines compare to even Brian Robinson’s output, much less than of Harris, or the explosive, speed-based Keilan Robinson. It’s really a mismatch. Advantage: Alabama

WIDE RECEIVERS
Speaking of mismatches, this was already going to be one even before top Wolverine reserve Tarik Black decided to enter the Transfer Portal in early December. Without him, Michigan’s second line is made of up entirely of true freshmen. Starters Ronnie Bell, Nico Collins and Donovan Peoples-Jones have been solid, with the Alabama native Collins and Peoples-Jones combining for 13 scores.

Somehow, Bell has managed 43 touches yet has been in the end zone just once. As one would expect of a Big Ten power team, the tight end group of Nick Eubanks and Sean McKeon is a strong one, recording 37 receptions and 5 scores combined.

At the end of the day, though, Alabama’s group is just too much. Bell would be the fourth-leading receiver if his numbers were transferred to Alabama. DeVonta Smith, Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III are all ahead in terms of production, and Jaylen Waddle is not far behind Bell. Those four players alone have put up 35 receiving touchdowns.

Alabama is also set to get a boost at tight end with the return of Miller Forristall from a throat injury. In the weeks since Forristall was knocked out, Alabama has discovered a running game behind converted offensive lineman Kendall Randolph, so Forristall’s role may be restricted to H-back when Alabama goes to an Ace package. Jahleel Billingsley and Major Tennison offer depth, and Billingsley will start at H if Forristall can’t go.

Alabama’s primary concerns will be Collins, who has both height and speed, and the tight end duo, but Michigan is going to have issues with Alabama’s speed across the board. Advantage: Alabama

OFFENSIVE LINE
To be frank, Michigan’s offensive line has not been up to par. The Wolverines rank 54th in sacks allowed to go along with a ranking of 81st in rushing offense. RB protection was much better (20th in tackles for loss allowed). Even more curious, this is a veteran unit: seniors Jon Runyan Jr. (LT), Michael Onwenu (RG) and Ben Bredeson (LG), along with junior Cesar Ruiz (center) are the starters. Only right tackle Jalen Mayfield was an underclassman.

Alabama will start Alex Leatherwood and Jedrick Wills at tackle, Evan Neal and Deonte Brown at guard and Landon Dickerson at center. Alabama has simply done more with its group, and the ability of the offense to bear down and play to a strong running game in recent weeks shows off Alabama’s versatility. Again, this is not really a close call. Advantage: Alabama

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