When Michigan hired Jim Harbaugh five years ago, it had visions of competing against the likes of Alabama in the College Football Playoff. The 2020 Citrus Bowl between the No. 13 Crimson Tide and No. 14 Wolverines may not have been for a national title, but it certainly did not lack in drama. In the end, Alabama pulled away in the second half to beat Michigan, 35-16.
The biggest difference was Alabama's passing attack. Even without quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, the Tide found plenty of downfield shots to take the top of the Wolverines' defense. Quarterback Mac Jones finished the day 16-of-25 passing for 327 yards and three touchdowns. Jerry Jeudy had the best game of his career, statistically speaking, with six receptions on eight targets for 204 yards and a touchdown. Devonta Smith and Miller Forristall also had a receiving touchdown each. That allowed running back Najee Harris to have a big day on the ground with 136 yards and two touchdowns.
Michigan had a solid game plan of its own as well -- at least in the first half. The Wolverines found success in the ground game with Zach Charbonnet, Hassan Haskins and quarterback Shea Patterson. Charbonnet and Haskins ended the day with a combined 145 yards rushing, but most of those came in the first half. By the final 30 minutes, the Tide's defense won in a lot of first-and-second down situations, forcing Michigan out of its comfort zone.
The loss drops Michigan to 9-4 and is Harbaugh's fourth straight bowl loss. Alabama ends the year at 11-2. Here's what else we learned from Wednesday's Citrus Bowl ...
Alabama's 2020 quarterback situation will be fascinating
Jones isn't Tagovailoa, but he really doesn't need to be. He showed to be perfectly capable running Bama's offense both against the Wolverines and in his previous three starts against Auburn, Arkansas and Western Carolina. For the year, he threw for 1,503 yards at about a 69% completion rate and 14 touchdowns to three interceptions. That's more than good enough, and if Tagovailoa were to declare for the NFL Draft, it would put him in position to legitimately challenge Tua's younger brother, Taulia, in an offseason quarterback battle.
However, it's not 100% determined that Tua will go pro. It would make tons of business sense because any rookie contract is better than not being paid a salary at all, but there's a growing sense around the program that. Would Jones, a redshirt sophomore, transfer from the program? He would have options, especially after what he showed this season. Jones may not be the singular talent that Tagovailoa is, but he's a step above what the Crimson Tide had for many years.
Jerry Jeudy reminded everyone that he's WR1
It's not so much that Jeudy slipped off of anyone's radar, it's more that the radar is filled with other talented wideouts. By now, it's clear the Crimson Tide have four pass catchers -- Jeudy, DeVonta Smith, Henry Ruggs III and Jaylen Waddle -- who could the first option on just about any team in college football. Jeudy and Ruggs are first-round talents for the NFL draft and Smith isn't far behind. When there's such an embarrassment of riches like that, even the best can get overshadowed from time to time. Jeudy still led the Tide in receptions in 2019, but was passed by Smith in yards and touchdowns. Some of that is probably due to the attention Jeudy received from opposing defenses. Against Michigan, though, he showed why he's still in contention for WR1 in the spring. His 204 yards were a career best and he was a nightmare for the Wolverines all day, starting with the first play from scrimmage:
Shea Patterson did not help his draft stock
Speaking of draft takes, Patterson didn't exactly do himself any favors against the Tide. Yes, the full body of work is bigger than one game, but this was not the game Patterson wants to put on his highlight reel. The senior went 17-of-37 passing for 233 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions. Beyond the numbers, though, he overthrew his wide receivers on seven different occasions -- including a couple of likely touchdowns.
Patterson has always been a guy who's better when he's using his legs. That doesn't mean he's strictly a running quarterback; rather, he's more comfortable in the pocket when he's on the move. He also does better when Michigan has a running game, which is why he seemed more settled in the first half than the second. But when Alabama forced Patterson to make plays with his arm, he didn't fare all that well. Patterson has had his ups and downs in his career, but without the use of his legs, he just didn't show enough as a passer to prove he's a top NFL prospect.
This is going to be a long offseason for Harbaugh's narrative
It's always going to be something with Harbaugh. That's part of being the coach at Michigan. But Wednesday's loss was another blow to the narrative that the Wolverines' favorite son can't win the big games. Of course, that's not entirely true. The blowout over Notre Dame earlier in the season looks better now than it did at the time. But Harbaugh has now lost four straight bowls (and is 2-5 all time) and has not been competitive lately against the best teams on the schedule.
Looking at the totality of Harbaugh's time in Ann Arbor, it's fair to surmise that he's overall been a good coach. He's won 72% of his games and hit 10 wins three times. That's objectively good. However, without a Big Ten East title or a statement bowl win to hang his hat on, his time at Michigan is incomplete. Some of this has to do with Ohio State's current success; it's hard for two blue-blood programs in the same division to be amazing at the same time. There are ways to fix Michigan's struggles, namely in recruiting, but right now Harbaugh's taking it in the teeth for coming up short yet again.