No. 14 Michigan vs. No. 13 Alabama: Citrus Bowl preview and picks against the spread

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No. 14 Michigan (9-3) vs. No. 13 Alabama (10-2)

Location: Orlando | When: Jan. 1 (1 p.m.) | TV: ABC | Line: Alabama -7

HOW THESE TEAMS GOT HERE

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Michigan: The 2019 season — a season with very high expectations — started rather poorly for Michigan. The Wolverines needed double-overtime just to beat Army in Week 2. That scare preceded a thorough beatdown at the hands of Wisconsin. From there, the Wolverines would win three straight before falling 28-21 at Penn State on Oct. 19. But the Michigan offense under new coordinator Josh Gattis seemed to turn the corner in the second half against PSU, sparking a four-game winning streak until No. 1 Ohio State visited Ann Arbor. That visit did not go well. OSU won 56-27, extending its winning streak to eight in the series. 

Alabama: Alabama missed out on the College Football Playoff for the first time in the format’s history. The Crimson Tide, led by QB Tua Tagovailoa and an array of talented wideouts, stormed out to an 8-0 record to open the season, setting up a highly anticipated No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup against LSU. The Tide had an eight-game winning streak in the series, but fell 46-41 to Joe Burrow and the Tigers. The following week, Alabama lost Tagovailoa to a season-ending hip injury in a win over Mississippi State. That forced Mac Jones into action for the Iron Bowl, but the Tide lost 48-45 in dramatic fashion. The loss knocked Alabama from CFP consideration.

Mac Jones will start at quarterback for Alabama against Michigan in the Citrus Bowl. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
Mac Jones will start at quarterback for Alabama against Michigan in the Citrus Bowl. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH

This is one of the most fascinating games of bowl season, starting with the coaching matchup of Nick Saban vs. Jim Harbaugh. Alabama is not used to being in this position. Will Saban have his guys motivated? Only Alabama two players — DB Trevon Diggs and OLB Terrell Lewis — have opted to sit out to begin preparing for the NFL. The rest of Alabama’s roster of draft hopefuls, other than the injured Tagovailoa, is expected to play. On the other side, Michigan finished third in the Big Ten East yet again, but Harbaugh likely senses a big opportunity here going up against mighty Alabama. Can he and the Wolverines — with former Alabama assistant Josh Gattis calling plays — seize it?

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Michigan LB Khaleke Hudson: When Jabrill Peppers left Michigan for the NFL, Khaleke Hudson stepped into his “viper” role — sort of a hybrid safety/linebacker — seamlessly. The 6-foot, 220-pound senior earned second-team All-Big Ten honors this season as he led the Wolverines with 96 tackles. A three-year starter, Hudson has compiled 220 tackles, 23 tackles for loss, 10 sacks and two interceptions in his Michigan career. 

Alabama WR DeVonta Smith: Alabama’s receiving corps is absolutely stacked with NFL talent. Jerry Jeudy might prove to be the highest draft pick among the group, but it was DeVonta Smith who led the Crimson Tide in receiving yards and touchdowns. Smith has 65 receptions on the year — six behind Jeudy — but went for 1,200 yards and 13 touchdowns. Smith has two 200-yard games on the year, including a ridiculous 274 yards and five scores in the win over Ole Miss. 

NFL DRAFT PROSPECT

Alabama OT Jedrick Wills Jr.: Wills has taken a big step forward this season and could vie for OT1 supremacy with another big game here. Already considered a great run blocker coming into the season, Wills really impressed as a pass blocker as well, which has led to his ascent. He’ll have a nice test against Michigan EDGEs Aiden Hutchinson, Josh Uche, Kwity Paye and Mike Danna. The Wolverines will rotate their ends, and yet Wills should have the physical edge against all of them. He’s likely going to end up a high first-round pick.

- Eric Edholm

WHAT’S ON THE LINE

Michigan: Until the blowout loss to Ohio State, Michigan got better and better as the season progressed — especially on offense. If the Wolverines can put together another good offensive output against Alabama, that would create some positive vibes going into the offseason. A win would also snap a three-game bowl losing streak and get Michigan to 10 wins for the fourth time in five seasons under Harbaugh. 

Alabama: Going 10-2 and missing out on the College Football Playoff is already considered a down season for Alabama — especially under Nick Saban. Only twice during Saban’s 13-year tenure in Tuscaloosa has the Crimson Tide lost more than two games in a season. It happened in 2007, Saban’s first season and in 2010 when the Tide went 10-3. Saban’s group will look to avoid that against Michigan. 

Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh, left, greets tight end Luke Schoonmaker (86) as he returns to the sideline during the first half against Penn State in State College, Pa., on Oct. 19, 2019. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh, left, greets tight end Luke Schoonmaker (86) as he returns to the sideline during the first half against Penn State in State College, Pa., on Oct. 19, 2019. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

PICKS

Nick Bromberg: Alabama -7

Sam Cooper: Alabama -7

Picks from the Yahoo Sports College Podcast

Pat Forde: Alabama -7

Pete Thamel: Alabama -7

Dan Wetzel: Alabama -7

Sean Sullivan: Alabama -7

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