5:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Michigan -1.5, Over/Under: 44.5
Happy new year to everyone from the good folks here at Oracle Sports, and for those of you who have been lamenting the lack of quality in these bowls, we have the remedy for you as the (No. 4) Alabama Crimson Tide battle the (No. 1) Michigan Wolverines in a heavyweight clash with a trip to the National Championship Game on the line. While there was plenty of controversy about the selection of the teams that are participating in today’s Semifinals, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Alabama (12-1, 9-0 in SEC) found a way into the Playoff, for after all, no school has appeared in more of them, with EIGHT appearances since 2014. Of course, the Crimson Tide are very much the reason for the chaos that was laid at the feet of the CFP Selection Committee, defeating (two-time reigning National Champion) Georgia in the SEC Title Game (more on that in a bit), and forcing the Committee’s hand. Simply put, there was NO way that an SEC Champion would be omitted from the Playoff, even if they had one loss on their CV. Indeed, the 2023 campaign has had a different feel to it in comparison to those of past, as (Head Coach) Nick Saban & Co have spent much of it being the hunter instead of the hunted. Sure, the Tide lost a wealth of talent to the NFL, which is nothing new in Tuscaloosa. However, a slow start offensively marred by a proverbial carousel at Quarterback saw ‘Bama fall off the radar of many. Following a 24-34 loss at home to (No. 3) Texas and narrow win at South Florida (17-3), they fell to thirteenth in the AP Poll, which is their lowest mark since 2015. During this stretch, Saban (pictured below) was clearly searching for answers, particularly at Quarterback, where Jalen Milroe, Tyler Buchner, and Ty Simpson each got an opportunity to set things right, while the attack continued to find its way under the direction of (Offensive Coordinator) Tommy Rees in his first year after coming over from Notre Dame. It wasn’t until the following week against (No. 11) Ole Miss that Saban & Co would begin to course correct, overcoming an early deficit to defeat the Rebels in a 24-10 affair. Since that turning point, ‘Bama has won TEN consecutive games by an average margin of 16.4 points per contest, while enjoying a +7-turnover differential. Though this isn’t the most talented team that Saban has had during his reign in Tuscaloosa, nor is it his most experienced, it very well may be his most resilient; four of their wins during this stretch have come by six points or less, including back-to-back 27-24 triumphs, the first being a walk-off win in the latest installment of the Iron Bowl at Auburn, and the second an SEC Championship Game victory over previously-unbeaten Georgia. After the defending National Champions opened things up with a touchdown midway through the first quarter, Alabama proceeded to score the next seventeen points, including a pair of touchdown passes courtesy of Milroe, who hit (Sophomore Tailback) Jamarion Miller with a 28-yard strike early in the second period before finding (Junior Receiver) Jermaine Burton for a 15-yard score just before halftime. Out of intermission, the two sides would trade field goals before the Bulldogs cashed in a long drive with a touchdown run from Carson Beck, cutting the deficit to three points. However, the Crimson Tide would respond in kind, bleeding over five minutes off the clock with a long drive of their own, capped by a short jaunt into the end zone by (Junior Tailback) Roydell Williams, reestablishing their double-digit lead, which they would not relinquish. In the end, Saban’s charges may have only amassed 306 total yards, but managed to control the game with 114 rushing yards on forty-one carries, with sixty-four yards attributed to Williams. They also logged the lone takeaway of the evening, as (Senior Linebacker) Trezman Marshall pounced on a fumbled snap by Beck, setting up the Tide’s first score of the second half. Milroe did a fine job of managing the game against one of the best defenses in the country, completing 13-of-23 passes for 192 yards and those two touchdowns, while rushing for another twenty-nine yards on fourteen attempts. It has been quite the ride for the Sophomore this season, who was benched after the loss to Texas, though regained the starting job and never looked back, completing 65.5% of his throws for 2,718 yards on a healthy 10.4 yards per attempt, with twenty-three touchdowns in comparison to six interceptions. With that being said, it has been quite a while since Saban has had a Quarterback capable of making plays with his legs, as Milroe brings another dimension to the attack, rushing for 468 yards and twelve more scores, many of which have come on designed runs.
From a betting perspective, Alabama has been far more rewarding than they have in past seasons, going 12-1 straight-up, but 9-4 against the spread. That’s because their early struggles and shuffling at Quarterback caused the oddsmakers to temper the weekly lines. Case in point: after being favored by 30+ points in two of their first three outings, the Crimson Tide were favored by less than twenty points in all but one of their next seven contests. To put that into perspective, last year’s incarnation of the Tide faced a line below thirty points on just four occasions. Coincidentally, they went 6-1 against the spread during that particular stretch. Of course, they are an underdog tonight, which marks the SECOND consecutive tilt in which Saban’s troops are receiving points from the oddsmakers, which marks a first for the venerable taskmaster. This is just the SIXTH time since 2009 in which ‘Bama has been a dog, winning the first three instances outright by an average margin of 21.3 points before getting bludgeoned by Georgia in the 2021 National Championship Game (+3). In fact, all but one of these games has been against the Bulldogs, which includes a fateful SEC Championship Game encounter back in 2021, in which Saban & Co (+6) took it to the eventual Champions, running them out of the Superdome in a 41-24 affair. Of course, they bested the Dawgs in their most recent SEC Title Game clash, winning that aforementioned encounter from late November as 5.5-point underdogs. Looking at this particular matchup, Alabama leads the all-time series (3-2) dating back to 1988, with Saban winning and covering each of his two meetings with Michigan. The first, a 41-14 thumping in the 2012 season opener from AT&T Stadium kicked off the second leg of back-to-back National Championships, while the second, a 35-16 romp in the 2020 Citrus Bowl saw the Tide end the affair on a 21-0 run after trailing at halftime. On the injury front, the notable player to keep an eye on is (Junior Tailback) Jase McClellan has been nursing an ailing foot since the final few weeks of the regular season, though the train of thought is that he will be good to go after enjoying over a month of rest. Looking ahead, a win this evening will send ‘Bama to their SIXTH CFP National Championship Game since the advent of the Playoff in 2014, setting up a potential rematch with Texas, who dealt them their lone defeat of the campaign back in early September.
Meanwhile, even if you are simply a casual college football fan, it would be impossible not to be aware of the happenings at Michigan (13-0, 10-0 in BIG 10), who for better or worse have commanded the attention of the sporting world. Of course, we’d like to say that is due to the fact that they are undefeated, have beaten their bitter rival, Ohio State, for a third year in a row, and are thus ranked number one in the country heading into a third consecutive Playoff, but that simply isn’t the case. Unfortunately, much of the press that been drawn to Ann Arbor has been due to the ongoing saga that is (Head Coach) Jim Harbaugh and his role in an outstanding sign-stealing fiasco that has saw him suspended for the final three games of the regular season. Remarkably, that wasn’t even the first time that Harbaugh (pictured below) was suspended this season, as he was barred from the sidelines for the first three contests due to recruiting irregularities during the wild and crazy COVID campaign that was 2020. This latest scandal involved members of his staff allegedly going undercover as staffers for future opponents all in an effort to steal their signs to be used against them. As a result, the fate of the 60-year-old has been the topic of many discussions, with rumors ranging from another suspension to a lucrative new contract to remain at his alma mater to a sensational return to the NFL dominating the news cycle. With all that being said, this all appears to have had a positive effect on the Wolverines themselves, who have thus adopted a us against the world mentality that has carried them through the controversy. This has proven to be a VERY resilient team, folks, winning a number of games against top competition without their Head Coach, including a 24-15 defensive struggle at (No. 10) Penn State along with their 30-24 triumph over (No. 7) Ohio State at the Big House. The Maise & Blue completed just SEVEN passes in the win over the Nittany Lions, taking the air out of the football with 227 rushing yards on forty-six carries against what was statistically the best defense in the country, while forcing a pair of turnovers to topple the Buckeyes for the third consecutive season. Harbaugh would return for their BIG 10 Title Game showdown with (No. 18) Iowa, which proved to be a glacial affair if there ever was one despite ending in a 26-0 shutout. (Junior Kicker) James Turner got things started with a 35-yard field goal midway through the first quarter, before (Junior Tailback) Blake Corum put the offense on his back with rushing touchdowns on back-to-back drives. From there, it was all Turner the rest of the way, with three field goals of forty-six, thirty-six, and fifty yards. Yards were at a premium in this one, folks, as the Wolverines outgained the Hawkeyes 213-155, with the two sides combining for just twenty first downs. Michigan rushed for a season-low SIXTY-SIX yards against one of the tougher defenses in the country, with Corum accounting for fifty-two yards on sixteen carries. (Junior Quarterback) J.J. McCarthy completed an efficient 22-of-30 attempts for 147 yards, though was sacked four times, while (Defensive Coordinator) Jesse Minter’s defense proved to be the decisive factor with thirty-five rushing yards, seven first downs permitted, three sacks, four tackles loss and three takeaways. (Senior Nickelback) Mike Sainristil forced a pair of fumbles on the day, with his teammates recovering three to book their passage to the Playoff. Coming into this matchup with Alabama, the chess match to keep an eye on is how this defense performs against a mobile QB who is capable of keeping plays alive by evading the rush and getting outside of the pocket. On the season, Michigan allowed the fewest points in the country (9.5) on just 239.7 total yards, including 87.1 yards via the run, with seventy-two tackles for loss and thirty-two sacks.
From a betting perspective, Michigan may enter a third consecutive playoff with an unbeaten 13-0 record straight-up, but they have been less-rewarding against the spread, posting a 7-5-1 record in that regard. With that being said, that latter mark is a bit misleading, for after failing to cover any of their first four contests, the Wolverines went 7-2 versus the spread the rest of the way, including covers in their last two outings, a 30-24 triumph over Ohio State (-3) in the regular season finale, before narrowly covering as 22.0-point favorites in that aforementioned shutout of Purdue in the BIG 10 Title Game. Of course, this evening’s spread is about as low as it gets, which is notable for the fact that Harbaugh’s troops have covered FIVE straight games when favored by 0.5-3.0 points. With that being said, there are two very significant trends that are working against the Maise & Blue. First, they have struggled mightily in these postseason affairs, losing seven consecutive bowls outright under Harbaugh, who is just 1-7 in such contests, while failing to cover SIX straight during that stretch. Second, Michigan is 0-4 against the spread in their last four affairs with non-conference opponents, which includes last year’s stunning 45-51 loss to TCU in the CFP National Semifinal, in which they were favored by seven points. Looking at this particular matchup, these historic programs have met on just five occasions dating back to 1988. with the Wolverines winning just twice, though they haven’t bested the Crimson Tide since a thrilling 35-34 triumph in the 2000 Orange Bowl, which featured some guy named Tom Brady making his final start for UM. Harbaugh has faced off against the aforementioned Saban once, coming in the 2020 Citrus Bowl; after falling behind early, Michigan rallied back with thirteen consecutive points before eventually heading into intermission with a 16-14 lead, though that would be about it for the BIG 10 representatives, who were outscored 0-21 in the second half. They were outgained 480-395 in that one, with a pair of turnovers and a woeful pass defense (327 yards, 3 TD) spoiling their postseason finale. On the injury front, the only major absence for this evening’s seismic matchup is (Junior Guard) Zak Zinter, who unfortunately fractured both his tibia and fibula in the victory over the Buckeyes. It will be interesting to see how the Offensive Line performs without him against Alabama’s athletic Defensive Line, for the ground game was held in check against Iowa (66 yards on 34 carries), while McCarthy was sacked four times and pressured on many more occasions. Looking ahead, a win this evening would propel Michigan to their first National Championship since the 1998 Rose Bowl, which served as a de facto natty for the Wolverines, who ended up splitting the trophy with Nebraska, which immediately led to the BCS.