Alabama and Michigan both boast beefy O-lines in Citrus Bowl


CW / Madelyn Verbrugge

James Ogletree | @jameslogletree, Sports Editor

Three-twenty-one. Three-twenty-five. Three-nineteen. Three-fifty. Three-nineteen.

They’re not expensive gas prices, nor are they mid-afternoon times of day. They’re the weights of Michigan’s hefty five offensive linemen entering the Citrus Bowl against Alabama on Wednesday.

All five stand at least 6-foot-3, and three of them — including both tackles — are 6-foot-5.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said the Wolverines’ O-line has been a “shining light” for an offense that has averaged more than 38 points over its last five games.

With 145 combined starts among the starting five, which includes three seniors and a junior, Michigan’s big boys up front have an abundance of a commodity Alabama’s D-line is lacking: experience. 

Wolverines left guard Ben Bredeson has started 45 games in his career, which leads all O-linemen on both teams. Center Cesar Ruiz, the highest-rated pass-blocking center in college football by Pro Football Focus, has started 30 straight. 

Bredeson called Alabama’s defensive front “outstanding” despite its youth.

“It’s going to be one of the best that we’ve seen all year,” Bredeson said. “I think we match up really well and it’s going to be a good battle.”

The Crimson Tide is thinner up front than at any other point this season, though. With junior defensive end LaBryan Ray out for the season since September, the team is also missing freshman nose tackle D.J. Dale

That leaves a probable seven-man rotation, only two of whom have been on the team for more than two years. 

Younger D-linemen like redshirt freshman Christian Barmore and true freshmen Byron Young and Justin Eboigbe made six, five and four tackles, respectively, against Western Carolina and totaled 2.5 sacks, but Michigan, obviously, is in a different class.

“The protection’s been good and it’s going to really need to be this week,” Harbaugh said. “I mean, [we’re playing] a defensive line that stunts, moves physically, can set the edge and [has] physical linebacker play.”

When Alabama is on offense, its line has a significant size advantage. Of Michigan’s four most productive defensive linemen, only one exceeds 280 pounds. Three of Alabama’s offensive linemen are at least 320 pounds and all five weigh at least 308.

The heaviest of the five is 360-pound freshman left guard Evan Neal, whom coach Nick Saban was asked about in his Tuesday morning press conference.

“Evan Neal has done a really good job for us at left guard,” Saban said. “And I think he’s going to get really, really challenged in this game because complexity, multiple stunts, and that their front they’re going to throw at us is going to challenge our entire offensive line. But I think the guys that have the least experience will be challenged the most.”

But what Michigan’s defensive linemen lack in size, they make up for in quickness.

“The quickness and how aggressive they are and how they utilize their quickness on defense by stunting, gaming, changing up the coverage multiples is very, very challenging,” Saban said. “… It challenges your offensive line and the coverage aspects of what the quarterback has to read and receivers have to adjust to.”

After some early-season inconsistency, the Crimson Tide’s front five have again coalesced into one of college football’s best units. Despite transitioning to a new OL coach, Kyle Flood, Alabama was named a finalist for the Joe Moore Award, given annually to college football’s best O-line, for the fifth consecutive year.

“That’s two opposing wills colliding. And I’ve told our guys, have at it,” Harbaugh said. “… We definitely have tremendous respect for our opponent in this game, but take your best shot.”