New Year's Day in Orlando is a letdown for the Crimson Tide
Full disclaimer: We love almost everything about Orlando. Even with the never-ending road construction, Mouse City is a pretty rocking place to hang out. And even if you aren’t the Disney type, Disney Springs and the Universal, um, universe offer a smorgasbord of interesting activity.
Sports in Orlando aren’t half bad, either. The NBA’s Magic are competitive. Spring training baseball with the Braves is always fun. The NFL’s Buccaneers are just an hour and change west. And Central Florida football is entertaining* too.
(*- entertaining for an American Athletic Conference ballclub with a vastly outsized opinion of itself …)
But let’s not kid ourselves here. Any semblance of belief that Orlando is a preferred postseason destination for college football programs is pure Fantasyland.
The Alabama Crimson Tide and Michigan Wolverines will convene a few roads down from Main Street, U.S.A., on New Year’s Day in a final attempt to put an exclamation point on what has been a disappointing season.
In a town where perspective is distorted for great profit, it is somewhat fitting that the Vrbo Citrus Bowl (what is a Vrbo, anyway?) is the venue for Tide vs. Wolverines. Because there are a whole lot of programs that would be quite pleased to fly the Vrbo flag proudly to kick off 2020.
But that’s not how it works for blue-blood programs like Alabama and Michigan. Next Wednesday’s 1 p.m. kickoff will certainly feature plenty of empty seats in the quasi-dilapidated Camping World Stadium. The ABC team of Dave Pasch, Greg McElroy (his dad worked for the Cowboys …) and Tom Luginbill will try its level best to make it feel like a big game — but it won’t work.
Because, like it or not, the Citrus Bowl is just another game among the 37 that don’t amount to a hill of beans.
And ironically, it has been Alabama’s doing — more than any other program in America — to make it feel this way.
It was the Tide’s unbroken string of appearances in the College Football Playoff — 5 straight starting with the 2014-15 season — that cemented the sport’s final 4 bracket as the place to be. No other program had made it to as many CFPs. And with 2 national titles in those 5 years, Alabama fans have been conditioned like no other fanbase in the country to believe/expect/demand yet another berth in the Playoff.
That makes the 2019 season, by definition, a failure. Again, 10-2 is a great season by just about anyone’s standards. Ask Tennessee fans or Southern Cal fans if they’d trade their seasons for a 10-2 mark and a trip to Orlando …
But for Alabama, 10-2 is a disaster. Losing to LSU at home was, theoretically, a salvageable moment. But losing star quarterback Tua Tagovailoa just a week later was just too much to bear. Who knows if Tagovailoa’s presence would have altered the trajectory of the Crimson Tide’s ill-fated 60 minutes against Auburn. But the lead-up to the Iron Bowl basically had Alabama both playing for its CFP life as well as begging for chaos around it to get back into the picture.
Michigan’s 2019 story is even more unfortunate, as at least the current crop of Tide players have all those national title rings to keep themselves warm at night. The Wolverines entered yet another season brimming with promise, only to get whipped at home by Wisconsin, lose a shocker at Illinois and then get smacked around by Ohio State.
Quarterback Shea Patterson, who escaped Ole Miss in part to not have to be a punching bag for the Alabama defense every season, will end his career not writing another slice of history for Michigan football but instead being chased around all of Orange County by … wait for it … the same Alabama defense he fled the SEC from.
And coach Jim Harbaugh — who has been hailed as equal parts recruiting savant, Ann Arbor savior and greatest khaki-wearer in world history — seems to have some in Maize and Blue wondering if he is just an empty ballcap instead of the second Schembechler.
If there is a central subplot Wednesday, it most certainly will be how Harbaugh and Michigan rebound from getting the taste slapped out of their mouths by the Buckeyes. You lose 56-27 to your archrival, Harbaugh’s 5th straight loss to Ohio State and Michigan’s 8th straight overall, and the drumbeats will begin. Lay an egg against Nick Saban and the Tide, well, they only get louder during the offseason.
Saban, of course, will not hear any such drumbeats. The statue will continue to lord over the North End Zone during the Bryant-Denny Stadium renovation, win or lose. The legacy of Saban as the 2nd-greatest coach in Alabama history is set in as hardened concrete as the permanent captains footprints around Denny Chimes.
But a loss to Michigan will raise questions during the offseason, the kind that are impossible to answer until almost 9 tortuous months later. Does a flat performance against the Wolverines on New Year’s Day mean the Alabama Death Star is in need of a tuneup? Or do all the hard miles of the past decade mean it is time for a major rebuild?
With both Alabama and Michigan, New Year’s Day delivers an opportunity to lose more ground than it can ever gain. Win = Okay, you were supposed to do that like the top-5 program you were supposed to be all season. Take the L = What the heck is going on in Tuscaloosa/Ann Arbor?!?
So in that regard, the Vrbo Citrus Bowl is a referendum on the macro futures of both Alabama and Michigan. But what New Year’s Day in Orlando isn’t for both the Crimson Tide and Wolverines is where they truly want to be.