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What's at Stake Between Alabama and Michigan, and Who Wins the Citrus Bowl?

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystDecember 30, 2019

Alabama QB Mac Jones
Alabama QB Mac JonesButch Dill/Associated Press

While not officially a "New Year's Six" game, the Citrus Bowl showdown between the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Michigan Wolverines will probably be the most-watched game on the first day of the new calendar year.

No disrespect to Auburn vs. Minnesota in the Outback Bowl, Baylor vs. Georgia in the Sugar Bowl or Wisconsin vs. Oregon in the "Granddaddy of Them All," but we're talking about two of the biggest fanbases and the two winningest FBS programs of all time here.

It might not be a bowl game that "matters," but there's an awful lot at stake in the Citrus Bowl.

Five big things by my count.

   

1. Alabama's 2020 Starting QB Job

Alabama Crimson Tide | BamaInsider.com @bamainsider

"I think the big thing with Mac (Jones) is he doesn't really have anything to prove. He doesn't have to try to live up, or be anybody but himself." - Saban 📺 Watch more from Orlando: https://t.co/MYAqUh9zjF Friday's Alabama football practice report: https://t.co/JDG4ft3jPS https://t.co/JHtX6hbB2B

Aside from a pair of extremely painful pick-sixes in the Iron Bowl, Mac Jones has been better than most of us were realistically expecting.

In three starts and two relief appearances for the oft-injured Tua Tagovailoa in the second half of the season, Jones completed better than 70 percent of his pass attempts, averaged 10.6 yards per attempt and had 10 touchdowns against two interceptions. In those five games, he put up a passer efficiency rating of 190.5. That's not quite Tagovailoa-great, but it's doggone impressive all the same.

Assuming Tua goes pro, you would think that type of successful extended audition would be enough for Jones to enter the offseason as the heavy favorite to win next year's starting job. However, the Crimson Tide also have Tua's younger brother, Taulia, as well as the No. 1 QB in the 2020 recruiting class, Bryce Young.

Even if Jones has a good performance in the Citrus Bowl, it's still going to be one heck of a tough decision for Nick Saban to make next spring/summer. If he struggles against the Wolverinestaken in conjunction with the loss to Auburn in which he threw two touchdowns to the wrong team—it would make it easier for Saban to put his faith in either a redshirt freshman or a true freshman.

And if that happens, Jones could end up becoming the most intriguing immediately eligible transfer of the 2020 portal cycleor whatever you want to call college football free agency.

Jones is a redshirt sophomore who has already earned his undergraduate degree, which means he has two years of eligibility remaining and would be able to play right away if he so chooses to continue his collegiate career elsewhere.

Will he be Alabama's next great quarterback? Could he be Joe Burrow 2.0? Or if he really struggles with Michigan, might he need to re-prove that he's worthy of a high-major starting gig?

It's a fun debate that can't truly begin until we get this final, citrus-y data point.

         

2. Jim Harbaugh's Job Security

Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh
Michigan head coach Jim HarbaughDarron Cummings/Associated Press

Before this season even began, I wrote about this being a "now or never" type of year for Jim Harbaugh in Ann Arbor. Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin all had to break in new quarterbacks. The Buckeyes were also adjusting to a new head coach and needed to play "The Game" at the Big House.

Meanwhile, the Wolverines had a veteran, highly touted QB in Shea Patterson, an experienced offensive line, a solid defense, per usual, and a schedule against which a 13-0 record was at least plausible.

If they didn't win the Big Ten this year, it was going to result in intensifying questions about whether it could ever happen.

Not only did Michigan not win the Big Ten, it wasn't even close, finishing in third place in the Big Ten East and fifth place overall with three league losses. The Wolverines got smashed by both Wisconsin and Ohio State and trailed Penn State 21-0 before a too little, too late finish to that L.

At least they embarrassed Notre Dame and eked out wins over Iowa and Army, but 9-3 was not the goal here. If they get blown out by Alabama, there are going to be many words written about the temperature of Harbaugh's seat as the head coach.

For what it's worth, I think it would be a foolish, short-sighted move to fire him. Michigan has finished in the Top 15 of the CFP rankings in four of the past five years, including two years in the Top Seven. The Wolverines want titles, but kick this man to the curb and you risk a return to the dark days of Brady Hoke and Rich Rodriguez. But narratives gonna narrative, and we'll be spending much of the next eight months talking about Harbaugh's job security if this game goes sideways.

         

3. Draft Day Health

Alabama WR Jerry Jeudy
Alabama WR Jerry JeudyVasha Hunt/Associated Press

Players skipping bowl games to prepare for the NFL draft has been quite the hot-button issue for the past half-decade, and this year's Citrus Bowl is a huge one in that regard.

In his early-December three-round mock draft, our resident draft expert Matt Miller had a combined total of 16 players from these two rosters projected to go in the top 92 in April. (That doesn't even include Michigan linebacker Josh Uche, who has already declared for the draft and might go in the first three rounds.)

Tua Tagovailoa and Dylan Moses won't be playing due to injury. Trevon Diggs and Terrell Lewis have opted to sit out to prepare for the draft. But that still leaves at least a dozen players putting a lot of hypothetical money on the line by risking injury in this game.

Wide receivers are at the forefront of that list. Alabama's Jerry Jeudy (projected No. 3 pick), Henry Ruggs III (No. 16), DeVonta Smith (No. 25) and Michigan's Donovan Peoples-Jones (No. 26) all have first-round grades. As do offensive tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. (No. 15) and safety Xavier McKinney (No. 28).

If one of those six players blows out a knee while playing in a bowl game not even regarded as one of the six most prestigious, it's going to re-open Pandora's box, leading to questions of whether a draft-eligible player should ever risk injury in a non-CFP bowl.

Conversely, if one of the receivers has the type of outlandish performance that LSU's Justin Jefferson had on Saturday, it could be an opposite turning point in this whole debate, convincing more stars to play that one final game.

           

4. Paul Finebaum's Sanity

Ric Tapia/Associated Press

ESPN's Paul Finebaum has long been regarded as the foremost SEC homer in the national media, and he has never been shy about his disdain for Michigan's Jim Harbaugh.

In April 2016, Finebaum called Harbaugh "the Donald Trump of college football" because of the Wolverines head coach's stance in favor of satellite camps.

The following February, he outright called Harbaugh a "cheater" and "an evil genius" for hiring an assistant coach who was the father of a highly-touted prospect in the 2019 recruiting class. (That coach actually went to Oregon a few days later instead, and the player, Michael Johnson Jr., signed with Penn State and was barely even regarded as a 4-star recruit in the end.)

Lately, though, Finebaum has simply taken shots at Harbaugh after Michigan losses, constantly expressing his doubts that the Wolverines will ever be great again under this head coach.

If Alabama convincingly wins this game, it means another offseason of Finebaum gleefully banging the anti-Harbaugh drum. But if Michigan gets the W, it might break the radio personality's brain. Either way, this game is a #content dream.

        

5. Bragging Rights, Of Course

Alabama head coach Nick Saban
Alabama head coach Nick SabanVasha Hunt/Associated Press

Michigan and Alabama have played more than 2,600 combined games, but this is just the fifth meeting between the two winningest FBS programs. (Michigan has 936 wins; Alabama has 929.)

The Crimson Tide won the 2012 season opener by 27, but the previous three meetings were each bowl games1988 Hall of Fame Bowl, 1997 Outback Bowl and 2000 Orange Bowldecided by four points or fewer. Each program won two of the first four games, so this is something of a rubber match as far as college football historians are concerned.

It's also a key result as far as No. 1 on the all-time wins list is concerned. An Alabama win would close that gap to just six, which the Crimson Tide might be able to erase entirely within the next two years. A Michigan win would further delay the seemingly inevitable, but it might be just what it needs to spark some championship momentum, keeping Alabama at bay for a while longer.

Even if you don't care that much about the history, this could be a colossal game for the immediate future of the recruiting arms race. These coaching staffs are constantly squaring off in the hunt for top-notch talent, and the Citrus Bowl winner is going to have an intriguing head-to-head selling point on the recruiting trail for the next year or two.

            

Prediction

Alabama is favored by seven, per Caesars Sportsbook, and it's hard to argue with that.

Michigan is 2-11 against AP Top 10 opponents under Harbaugh, and both of the wins (Notre Dame this year, Wisconsin in 2016) were home games. But Alabama wins games like this all the time. Just last season, the Crimson Tide had three wins away from home against AP Top Five opponents.

Alabama's biggest weakness is its run defense, but Michigan will likely have trouble exploiting that, considering it was held below 100 rushing yards in each of its last three games. Unless Michigan RB Zach Charbonnet bounces back from a rough finish to have the game of his young life, Alabama should get the win.

Predictions: Alabama 35, Michigan 21; Offensive MVP: Najee Harris, Alabama; Defensive MVP: Xavier McKinney, Alabama

           

Recruiting rankings via 247Sports' composite. Kerry Miller covers college football and men's college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.