If there is a game everyone is waiting for outside of the College Football Playoff, it’s the New Year’s Day matchup of Alabama and Michigan in the Citrus Bowl.
Nick Saban vs. Jim Harbaugh. A favorite that probably would have qualified for the Final Four if its star quarterback hadn’t been injured. A highly publicized underdog hoping to atone for underachieving in major litmus tests the last few seasons.
From a market perspective, Alabama received the bulk of betting action for days at a long-settled point spread of -7. Oddsmakers knew they’d ultimately have to accept one-sided exposure or invite a lot of Michigan money into the fray at 7.5 or higher. That’s dangerous because it probably turns the key number of 7 into a loss rather than a push for sportsbooks.
Let’s see how key indicator stats paint the picture:
— Alabama (-7) vs. Michigan (1 p.m. Wednesday, ABC)
Alabama: No. 7 offense, No. 17 defense, No. 54 schedule, 16 turnover margin
Michigan: No. 68 offense, No. 7 defense, No. 12 schedule, 2 turnover margin
The Crimson Tide has the much better total yardage composite, but it came against a softer schedule (according to Jeff Sagarin’s rankings at USA Today). The late-season change in quarterbacks from Tua Tagovailoa to Mac Jones could hinder their clear edge in ball protection. In his loss at Auburn, Jones threw two interceptions that were returned for touchdowns.
Alabama outgained Auburn 515-354 on 6.7 to 5.4 yards per play in that heartbreaking 48-45 road defeat. Auburn and Michigan rank similarly in various respected Power Ratings. The Citrus Bowl will be on a neutral field but in SEC country in Orlando, Fla., where Jones should be less likely to make huge mistakes.
Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson is a transfer from Ole Miss in the SEC. There he seemed overmatched against quality. The stat rankings suggest he could have trouble consistently leading the Wolverines down the field.
Patterson and Michigan ended their regular season against Final Four entry Ohio State, which could provide a preview of what will happen against Alabama’s parade of blue-chip talent. The Wolverines were outgained 577-396 on 7.5 to 5.7 yards per play. They were just 2 of 13 on third-down tries and 0 of 2 on fourth-down tries.
— The case for Alabama: Jones has had plenty of time to work out the kinks, which will allow the Crimson Tide to roll up a big yardage advantage and name the score. Michigan is more hype than quality under Harbaugh and will be embarrassed once again on both sides of the ball.
— The case for Michigan: There’s a chance Alabama will come in flat, having failed to qualify for a playoff spot. If that happens and Jones stays mistake-prone, the Wolverines can spring an upset.
Handicappers must focus on these questions. Will Alabama bring peak intensity? Can Jones play a relatively clean game in a bowl atmosphere? Is the point spread properly reflecting those complex dynamics?