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Running back Najee Harris is among several Alabama juniors facing a decision about whether to play against Michigan in the Citrus Bowl on New Year's Day. / Photo by Crimson Tide Photos

As Alabama was making appearances in each of the first five College Football Playoff extravaganzas, players across the country started electing not to play in postseason games that didn't have a national championship at stake.

Former LSU running back Leonard Fournette, former Auburn cornerback Carlton Davis and former Georgia cornerback Deandre Baker were among the notable Southeastern Conference players who elected to bypass bowl games and get a head start on their NFL preparation. Nick Saban's Crimson Tide didn't have to concern themselves with such departures, but that won't be the case in the weeks ahead.

Alabama didn't qualify for this year's playoff and instead will play Michigan in the Citrus Bowl on New Year's Day.

"I'm sure that guys are going to make individual decisions based on their circumstance and their situation," Alabama coach Nick Saban said Sunday. "What we want to focus on are the guys who want to look to the future and look to try to improve themselves as players and to improve our team in getting back to the standard that we want to play to.

"This is something that has been a bit of an issue in the past with other programs. We will have those conversations, and we will let you know if any of those decisions are imminent."

Running back Najee Harris, receivers Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III and DeVonta Smith, offensive tackles Alex Leatherwood and Jedrick Wills, and safety Xavier McKinney are among Alabama's most likely juniors who could bypass their final seasons in Tuscaloosa. Any immediate exits would leave the recent Iron Bowl loss at Auburn as their final college game.

"They will all have a choice to make," Saban said. "When you have guys who don't play in bowl games and they do play in the playoffs, that in itself tells you the view of the players in terms of how they look at the bowl game. We have made everything about the playoffs in college football."

The Tide (10-2) and the Wolverines (9-3) will meet for the fifth time. The series is tied 2-2, with Alabama rolling to a 41-14 victory in the most recent matchup at the 2012 Cowboys Classic in Arlington, Texas.

Alabama is making its third Citrus Bowl appearance, having defeated Ohio State 24-17 after the 1994 season and Michigan State 49-7 after the 2010 season.

"I think that this is an opportunity for us to sort of try to reestablish the standard that we want to play to," Saban said, "and when you play against a great opponent, it certainly enhances that opportunity. I think it's an opportunity for a lot of players on our team to have time to practice and to prepare for the future.

"That's certainly what we're focused on right now — the future."

Saban would love this season's Citrus Bowl to provide the same momentum the last one did. After humiliating the Spartans, the Tide went out and won national championships in 2011 and 2012.

"I certainly think that game was the first step in the right direction," Saban said, "and I thought that the players responded well, because that season had been a little bit of a disappointment. The players prepared well for that game and played well in that game, and it did sort of set the table for what we were going to do."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.

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