The notion that Michigan would come to play was never in doubt.
Whether Alabama would join the Wolverines with the same intensity was the question answered on Alabama’s first offensive snap of the game. Mac Jones went deep, Jerry Jeudy ran out of reach, and an 85-yard bomb offered the welcome-to-Orlando moment. The Crimson Tide went on to win the Citrus Bowl 35-16.
Had the teams met during the regular season, motivation wouldn’t have been a consideration. And the Vegas oddsmakers would have made Alabama a double-digit favorite.
But that’s before Alabama was ousted from the College Football Playoffs, thanks to losses to LSU and Auburn. So, for just the seventh time since Nick Saban turned Alabama into college football’s version of Godzilla, the ninth-ranked Crimson Tide had something to prove on the field without a shot at a national title.
Instead, Alabama committed to competing. That commitment came with all but two of a roster of draft-eligible juniors, as Alabama pulled away in the fourth quarter for a 35-16 Citrus Bowl victory.
And Jeudy, the 2018 Biletnikoff winner, proved the biggest difference of all. He caught six Jones’ passes for a career-high 204 yards.
The 17th-ranked Wolverines had plenty to prove, as well, and Josh Gattis, the Michigan offensive coordinator, did just that with a game plan that exploited Alabama’s atypical defense early. Gattis, who spent the 2018 season on Saban’s Alabama staff, did so with quarterback. Shea Patterson, who was looking for a better experience than his last game against Alabama — the wrong end of a 66-3 shellacking of Ole Miss.
While Patterson proved reliable, the strength of Michigan’s running game allowed the Wolverines to consume clock and limit Alabama’s opportunities, especially in the first half.
Yet the oft-maligned Tide defense forced Michigan to settle for field goals after the first score. That’s a positive sign moving forward.
And if you believe in signs, the last time Alabama played a meaningless bowl game against a Big Ten team from Michigan with normal intensity, four national titles followed in the next seven seasons.
Alabama’s current dynasty may be officially over. But don’t count out Nick Saban from starting a new run.