Quarterback Mac Jones stood in his own endzone staring back at the determined Michigan defense. Alabama’s 2019 season was ending on the Citrus Bowl turf, far from any playoff shot that so many felt was their destiny. Jones was not supposed to be here. He was supposed to be holding a clipboard waiting for Tua to torch the other team so he could mop up. Alabama’s defense was supposed to be led by a group of veteran players. But all of that was a bitter memory now. Alabama was a team that even without the veterans on defense, even with a bunch of freshmen players playing D, with a gimped up Tua Tagovailoa had been closer to beating eventual National Champion LSU than any other team would ever get. With even one of those veteran defenders back perhaps Alabama would have gotten the stop against LSU, they only needed one. With a healthy Tua they would have most certainly beaten Auburn to enter the playoffs where certainly Tua could have put them in the 4th quarter against anyone. But that Alabama was gone, those who were left with the wreckage of the 2019 season were clinging to a tenuous 5 point lead and It was 3rd and 11. I sat alone watching the bowl game and I uttered aloud, “This is probably the game”. A mistake here would likely be fatal, not getting the 1st down would put Alabama’s eviscerated defense that had been on the field all day, back on the field with their backs to the wall. In years past we would be on the edge of our seats wondering who would make a play, but this defense never made the play, they just didn’t have it in them. It seemed the dark cloud overhanging the 2019 Crimson Tide was going to claim it’s next victim.
Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian who didn’t have the luxury of conservative play calling called a bunch formation to the right and with the other two receivers streaking north Jerry Jeudy cut to the sideline and pulled in the perfect timed spiral from Jones for the 14 yard first down. Jones had made a number of impressive throws since taking over for the injured Tua Tagovailoa but none may have been as critical as this one. The play seemed to stun Michigan and before they recovered Jones launched a 58 yards strike to Jeudy who was having a career day in his final game in Crimson. Alabama was now in the red zone where Jones found tight end Miller Forrestall who was playing for the first time since mid season for a 20 yard touchdown and suddenly there was a crack in the dark sky and a glimmer of hope came shining through.
Alabama’s 1st half defensive performance was absolutely horrendous, they allowed more rushing yards to Michigan, a bad rushing team, in one half than the average they normally surrendered for a whole game. Jones was playing well but he is not Tua and the offense was inconsistent. The staff was rotating the mostly freshman defensive linemen constantly hoping that somehow they would survive being on the field twice as many snaps as the Michigan defense. The 91 yard drive and score seemed to energize the defense which had switched back to the nickel at the half from their base defense. The nickel removes the sam linebacker and puts an extra defensive back on the field. The Sam was being played by a backup named Chris Allen who was replacing Terrell Lewis who skipped the game to prepare for the draft. Allen had not gotten any pressure on the Michigan quarterback in the first half. The 5th defensive back who came in his place was senior Shyheim Carter. With the new formation and a little extra energy they forced a punt on the next series but the offense went 3 and out. Then once again a glimmer of sunshine broke through the clouds and “Shy” Carter as he is called tracked down an errant Shea Patterson pass and picked it off. It was Carters first career interception and it was a memorable one in his final game. You could see the air let out of the Michigan sideline as they realized that the game they had control of at the half was now slipping away.
That’s when Alabama came on and did something we have not seen in a long time. They put together a clock eating, timeout absorbing, soul crushing drive of 12 plays that included 11 runs by Najee Harris ending with a 2 yard plunge into the endzone putting and end to a game that only minutes before was in jeopardy.
Michigan was not an SEC power, but they were a good team with 9 wins under their belt including a win over Notre Dame. But for Alabama to win a game over a good opponent in the most “Alabama way” possible is exactly what the doctor ordered for a program that resembles the Pacific Fleet on December 8th 1941. Alabama enters the offseason on a positive note. Alabama finished 8th in the final AP poll. Clearly gone are the days where Alabama is just automatically put at the top. There are several teams ahead of Alabama that are simply not as good, in fact you could make an argument that Alabama might still be a top four team. But In college football perception right or wrong is a fairly high percentage of reality. It will be incumbent upon those players who remain with the program, and those who signed on as freshman to go out there and take from others what has been lost. Those others will not give back that glory willingly. It will require blood, sweat, and tears, it will require players to put aside personal glory for something greater than themselves. If Alabama can once again find a group of guys who are both talented and determined they are still within view of the top. So where do we go from here? Stay tuned.