Michigan vs. Alabama Preview

So that's what we're dealing with. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

(8) Michigan vs. (2) Alabama; 8:00pm, September 1st. Arlington, TX

Read the Enemy: Roll Bama Roll

It's almost here, that moment that we have all been patiently waiting for. All that time this summer you spent going away for the weekend, sitting on the beach, throwing parties and grilling out with friends, it was all a cover. Everyone thought you were genuinely enjoying yourself, and in a way, deep down maybe you were, but I know better. You can't fool me. It was all just a way to pass the time and speed up the hands of the clock.

You wanted football back more than anything. Now you have it.

Your favorite team wasn't just passing time, it was working hard to get better. Denard Robinson spent his summer becoming more comfortable in the offense, hopefully to curtail his interception problem. Will Campbell spent the offseason slimming down and now has a wardrobe composed entirely of half-shirts. Craig Roh was drinking olive oil milkshakes because that is what you do when you want to bulk up a body that already requires nearly 4000 calories a day just to operate in stasis.. Freshmen spent time getting used to campus life while seniors relished the last go-round. Kickers kicked and punters punted. Its a year round job*.

*(NCAA Disclaimer - It's not a job, despite the long hours and adverse conditions.)

Now all that hard work is finally about to pay off. Michigan is matched up against some directional MAC scho---

/looks at schedule

/drops jaw

/leaves it there on the floor for a while

Ok, so Michigan doesn't just kick the season off with a MAC school of FCS bodybag -- results not guaranteed. Michigan starts the 2012 season off with a bang, in the kind of marquee matchup usually reserved for only the highest of bowl games. Michigan faces the defending national champions, less than nine months after Alabama dismantled LSU on the same field where MIchigan had escaped its overtime game against Virginia Tech a week before.

Brady Hoke has literally done everything right since taking over this team almost two years ago. He has made all the right coaching hires, hit the recruiting trail hard, and willed a young, flawed team to a Sugar Bowl win and an 11-2 record. What could he do for an encore?

Beating the defending champs wouldn't be a bad start.

(Full preview after the jump...)

When Michigan Has the Ball

Alabama's 2011 defense wasn't just great, it was all-time great. We are talking G.O.A.T -- or at least prominent in the discussion. Here is a list of things the Tide defense led the country in:

- Rush Defense (72 ypg)
- Pass Defense (111 ypg)
- Pass Eff. Defense (83.69)
- Total Defense (183 ypg)
- Scoring Defense (8.2 ppg)
- Opponent Third-Down Conv. (24.4%)
- Opponent Redzone Conv. (58.8%)
- Plays over 10 yards (75), 20 yards (20), and 30 yards (10)

Everything. I should have just said everything. At least everything that counted. The Tide returned almost the entirety of the 2010 defense en route to one of the most impressive seasons in recent memory. Had it not been for the faulty leg of not one but two kickers, Alabama would have probably beaten LSU in the regular season and marched unscathed to a dominating win over whoever was unlucky enough to get the call up to the chopping block the BCS title game.

The good news? Alabama loses a number of players off that vaunted defense, four of them in the top-35 picks in the 2012 NFL draft.

The bad news? It is Alabama, and there are just a bunch of future draft picks waiting for the call up. Some things never change.

Michigan's run game is unquestionably the strength of the offense, and with one of the better offensive lines in the Big Ten, Michigan should be able to find some success on the ground, but it won't be easy.

Alabama's defensive line is as most true 3-4 defensive lines are: big. At the nose is Jesse Williams who played at defensive end a year ago but more than has the size (6'4, 320lbs.) to hold up on the inside. Williams wasn't a disruptive player, but in this defense he doesn't have to be. All he has to do is hold the point of attack and let the linebackers run free. This will be a bear of a matchup for Ricky Barnum in his first game as a starter at center, and giving up 25lbs. in this matchup could very well mean that Barnum needs a lot of help.

The ends are returning starter Damion Square (6'3, 286lbs.) and Ed Stinson (6'4, 282lbs.) Square was third on the team a year ago in TFLs (behind departed linebackers Courtney Upshaw and Dont'a Hightower, thank god) and has started at end the last season and a half. Stinson was a rotation player a year ago. Both these ends should give Michigan trouble, but neither is an elite pass rusher.

The big question for Alabama in the front seven is how do the replacements fill in for the aforementioned departed backers? Stepping in for Upshaw at the Jack linebacker spot will be sophomore Xzavier Dickson (6'3, 262lbs.) and for Hightower at the Mike it will be sophomore Trey Depriest (6'2 242lbs). Both players got a lot of run in reserve roles a year ago, but will be obvious downgrades in the short term from their all-world predecessors. If Michigan is lucky this will mean less negative plays as those two were responsible for the majority of the team's TFLs and sacks a year ago. Adrian Hubbard (6'6, 248lbs.) will be stepping in at the Sam linebacker spot, and could see time at the Jack.

The returning starter is Nico Johnson (6'3, 245lbs.) at the Will, but expect CJ Mosley (6'2, 232lbs.) to get plenty of time in the lineup, moving Johnson to the Mike and experimenting with different looks based on the situation with the three sophomores. Both Johnson as Mosley are long experienced and should step up as leaders on defense.

The story of this unit is potential. All three of the first-year starters have the physical ability to play at an amazingly high level, but considering how integral Upshaw and Hightower were not just as players but as leaders, this could be a matchup where Michigan could find some success. It will be up to the performance of the backs in the run game and in pass protection, as well as the guards ability to get to the second level and get a body on these backers. If Michigan's line can handle the front three with any success and make life hard on the linebackers with a constant stream of blocks to deal with, Michigan should be be okay in the run game.

In the secondary, Michigan -- and more importantly, Denard Robinson -- catches a break because three of the Tide's starters from last year, safety Mark Barron and corners Dre Kirkpatrick and DeQuan Menzie, are gone. Barron was the lynchpin of the Tide secondary in 2011 and will be replaced by Vinnie Sunseri (6'0, 215lbs.), a solid player but a downgrade. Next to him will be third-year starter Robert Lester (6'2, 210lbs.) who has been a rock at free safety for the Tide.

The corners are both new-ish. Deion Belue (5'11, 179lbs.) is a juco transfer and Dee Milliner (6'1, 199lbs.) was the Tide's nickel corner a year ago. Both will be good, but neither has the type of game experience of the two departed starters.

Denard Robinson has received a lot of praise this offseason for his development as a passer and his advanced understanding of the offense, and he will need both of those. Despite replacing three starters in the secondary, the Tide will still be very capable of capitalizing on Robinson's mistakes. Nick Saban's specialty is building a defensive gameplan that slows the run game, forces long second- and third-downs, and takes away the quarterbacks comfort zone. If Michigan beats Alabama it will be for one of two reasons on offense: the rushing offense was consistently successful on first and second down, and/or Denard Robinson found a way to keep the chains moving despite long third-down situations.

Given his track record, it is hard to expect Robinson to be as good as he needs to be, even with improvement factored in.

The Outlook

Michigan can gain the advantage in this matchup, but it is going to depend heavily on the Wolverine's ability to run the football. When Michigan can move the ball on the ground effectively (Neb '11, OSU '11) it creates a lot of short fields which lead to first downs and openings in the passing game that Robinson can exploit. When Michigan's run game is bottled up (MSU '11, VT '12) it puts too large a burden on Robinson's shoulders and allows other teams to bring more pressure.

The Tide will still be a very good defense, but losing so many key players -- not only of the Make Plays variety, but more importantly the kinds of guys that lead the defense and deal with checks and stunts on the field -- will mean that Michigan won't be facing a perfect unit. There will be great defensive plays, but there will also be mistakes. Michigan will need to make good on those mistakes if it wants a chance to keep up on the scoreboard.

Advantage: Even

When Alabama Has the Ball

If I told you nine months ago that when Michigan and Alabama faced off that the bigger advantage for the Tide would be when it had the ball, you would have called me crazy. Yet, that is where we are at.

The real place to start here is under center. Nick Saban has had some solid quarterback play during his time at Alabama, but this looks like it could be the year where quarterback becomes the genuine strength of the offense itself.

As a freshman in 2010 AJ McCarron got a number of snaps as a backup behind senior quarterback Greg McElroy, and 2011 fall practice kicked off with a full-fledged quarterback controversy as McCarron fought for the starting job with Phillip Sims. By the second week of the season McCarron established himself as the clear number one option and set about putting together an Alabama quarterback season: hand the ball off to ______(insert Heisman candidate running back's name) and throw safe passes on third-and-long.

Everything was dandy. Alabama was winning, Trent Richardson was making people look like fools, and the defense was, well you read those stats above. Then something unexpected happened. AJ McCarron came out and played the game of his life against LSU. He picked apart the defense with smash passing concepts and continually picked on Tyrann Mathieu. The Bama offense marched and while he finished with no passing touchdowns, the only offenses that put up more passing yards on LSU were Oregon and West Virginia -- and nobody matched the 68 percent completion rate McCarron managed to put up. Not bad company.

This season it looks to be McCarron's show, the problem is who will he throw to. Alabama didn't have any game changing receivers a year ago, but between losing the top two outside receivers, tight end Brad Smelly, and Richardson -- a solid receiver in his own right -- the Tide have to replace a lot of production in the passing game. The leading returning receivers are TE Michael Williams (16 rec, 191 yds, 2 tds), WR Kevin Norwood (11 rec, 190 yds), and WR Kenny Bell (17 rec, 255 yds, 2 tds). Lesser utilized sophomores DeAndrew White and Christion Jones will also be stepping into the lineup to start with Bell the first receiver off the bench. There is enough talent here that the Tide should be fine in the long run, but McCarron will have his hands full early on leading this unit through the trials and tribulations of replacing so much production from 2011.

Michigan's secondary isn't elite when it comes to coverage, so shutting down the Tide passing game seems like a tall task, but both safeties have shown a good ability to keep things in front of them and limit the big plays (the OSU game, and its unique game plan not withstanding). If Michigan can play sound coverage in both man and zone, this group of receivers could struggle to find the openings for McCarron that last year's senior-laden group was adept at finding. This is Michigan's best chance of slowing the Bama offense and making it one-dimensional.

Luckily for the Tide, there is another way to move the ball, and being a one-dimensional running team isn't really a weakness. Alabama returns one of the best offensive lines in the country. The headliners is Barrett Jones, last year's Outland Trophy winner who is moving inside to start at center after playing LT a year ago. Jones is an all-American lock, and should be a first round pick. He isn't alone. Right tackle DJ Fluker is in his third year starting, was the top rated lineman in his class coming out of high school, and should challenge for first-team all-SEC.

The reason that Jones slid inside isn't just to replace departed senior William Vlachos. It is also to make room for second year tackle and first-year starter Cyrus Kouandijo, 2011's top rated offensive line recruit and the next anchor of Alabama's line. The sophomore got playing time in a reserve role last year before injury, and he should be a solid addition to the line this year.

The guards are third-year starter Chance Warmack and second year starter Anthony Steen. Warmack should push for all-SEC recognition, and Steen is anything but a liability along the line.

This unit is impressive from top to bottom, not only in pedigree and production, but also in the cohesiveness that they have displayed. Greg Mattison fawns about that:

What about their offensive line makes them so good?

"To me, they're so good at their combination blocks. Without getting too technical, but always in a defense, there's a person who is shaded so he will get help with a guy slamming down on him, and sometimes a guy stays on him, and that frees up the linebacker. They're really good at slamming down and coming right up on the linebacker as if he went to the lienbacker right away. I think they're as good of a combination blocking offensive line as I've seen. Obviously a lot of that comes from playing together. Tremendous experience from strength, where you don't have to overextend yourself to do your job because you know you're strong enough to be able to do it with just a little bit of help."

The Alabama offensive line has a combined 95 starts, four of the players have a full year of starting experience together, while three have been starting together for two years.

Meanwhile, Michigan's defensive line is anchored in the middle by two players without starting experience, Quinton Washington and William Campbell, and the only returning starter is Craig Roh. This is the worst matchup on the field for Michigan, and unless Campbell and Washington can grow up in a hurry and deal with the stellar interior blocking of an experienced interior line, there is little doubt that Alabama will be able to run the ball with ease. As far as getting a pass rush, it is doubtful that Michigan's defensive ends, Roh or Jibreel Black, will be able to generate much if any pressure from the outside. Greg Mattison will need to experiment with blitz packages to get linebackers free runs at the quarterback, or else McCarron will have all day to throw. When you give AJ McCarron all day to throw, you're going to have a bad time.

In the backfield the Tide lose the Mack truck that was Trent Richardson but return his primary backup, Eddie Lacy. Lacy spent fall camp dinged up with a sprained ankle after toe surgery kept him out of off season practices, but Lacy is reportedly ready to go for Saturday. He ran for 694 yards and seven touchdowns on 95 carries a year ago, and should transition easily to the role of feature back in this offense. For a change of pace Alabama can bring in Jalston Fowler, a bigger back (6'1, 242lbs.), five-star true freshman TJ Yeldon, or tourture Michigan fans with what could have been lining up small and shifty Dee Hart in the backfield. Yeah, Alabama has options.

Michigan's defensive line is going to have its hands full with the offensive line of Alabama, and that is going to put a lot of pressure on the linebackers to get off blocks and make tackles on the second level before this talented group of Alabama running backs gets into the secondary. Senior Kenny Demens should be fine in the middle as his strength has always been going downhill, filling holes, and wrapping up tackles. The big x-factor in the run game could be the offseason development of Will linebacker Desmond Morgan. A year ago Morgan struggled with diagnosing plays, attacking from the right angle, and dealing with blocks. If these issues are still present in a big way, Michigan could see a lot of cutback runs that test the safeties' abilities in run support. Finally, with the offensive line most likely swallowing the pass rush of Michigan's front four, it is time for Jake Ryan's official announcement party as a terrorizing force off the edge. If Ryan can pick up where he left off against VT (6.5 tackles, 4 TFLs, 1 sack), it would go a long way toward helping Michigan create some second- or third-and-long situations.

The Outlook

This is where things get ugly for Michigan. It all starts with the offensive line. Alabama is going to look to run the ball early and often, not taking the reins off McCarron in the passing game and instead allowing him to pick his spots and bring along the inexperienced receiver corp. On top of that, Michigan's coverage isn't overly susceptible, where the defensive line and small-ish linebacking corp will have their hands full. Look for Alabama to run for somewhere around 150 yards and 5.0 ypc. Yes, it'll be that bad.

Michigan's one hope is that when it is able to force the Tide into third-and-long situations, that the pass defense makes things hard enough on Alabama's young receiving corp that the Tide struggle to convert longer downs. With McCarron's development and ability to place the ball in a small window, this seems less and less likely.

Michigan will give up yards to Alabama. Probably close to 350 or 400 of them. You won't be used to this because it didn't happen very often last year. Only two teams (ND and Northwestern) put up over 400 yards on the Wolverines, and three more (SDSU, OSU, and VT) topped 350. The key to this game, just like the key to those games, is going to be that Michigan limits big plays and finds ways to get the Tide offense off the field -- be it with turnovers or punts, or even field goals. If Alabama's run game is as effective as it seems like it will be, this is too tall a task, and that will be the difference in the game.

Advantage: Alabama

Special Teams

Kickoffs are most likely a moot point to discuss these days since returns are going to be greatly curtailed. That leaves us with punts and field goals.

Alabama will be rolling out Jeremy Shelley at PK. He was the more effective of the two kickers a year ago, making 21 of 27 FG attempts. Michigan, meanwhile has Brendan Gibbons back, who was 13 for 17 last year and culminated his year of redemption with the game winning kick in the Sugar Bowl. Alabama gets a slight edge in this one.

Cody Mandell punts for Alabama, and averaged 38 yards per punt a year ago. Will Hagerup looks to have taken back the starting punting job for Michigan, and if that means he has his head on straight -- and by all accounts he has been booming punts as of late in practice -- that would be a huge advantage for Michigan. Right now, lets mark it down as even.

A year ago Christion Jones only returned three punts. Jeremy Gallon returned 19 for an average of over ten yards per. Slight edge to Michigan for being a known quantity.

Advantage: Even

Coaching

I don't think this is going to get its own section every week, but this week I couldn't possibly talk about this game without talking about the coaching matchup. It is -- outside of the defensive line of Michigan vs the offensive line of Alabama -- arguably the biggest factor.

Brady Hoke is great. I love him like I have loved few coaches in my day. He has the right approach to the game, to his job, and to recruiting. He has done nothing but make the right decision day in and day out since January 2011. We couldn't ask for a better man to lead the program. His coaching staff has proven to be very good at dealing with problems in games and preparing for opponents. Michigan gets an A for coaching, and it isn't even a question.

That being said, Nick Saban is a natural born killer. He is Napolean reincarnate, a master strategist and completely in control at all times. He has three national championships in the BCS era. There have only been 14 of those titles give out, and he has over 20 freaking percent of them. He has done it at two separate schools, and even today LSU, his last college team, is built in the image of what he created.

Michigan will find ways to exploit the young Alabama defense on Saturday. There will be holes and breakdowns and miscues. The reason that I, and anyone with any familiarity with college football not wearing deeply maize-shaded glasses, can't see Michigan winning this game isn't because of the level of athletes on Alabama's roster. That alone doesn't win you football games. It is the coaching. The fact that once something inevitably goes wrong it will be fixed quickly. Those tiny windows will be slammed shut, and by the end Michigan will be gasping for air.

It is the way Nick Saban does it, and has always done it. Alabama doesn't get an A+ for coaching because Saban is the one teaching the class. He does it every Saturday in the fall.

Advantage: Alabama

Other Stuff

(In which I borrow liberally from Beauford's old preview format, because if its a good idea, why not use it?)

Key Matchups to Watch

  • Ricky Barnum vs. Jesse Williams - If Barnum can find a way to neutralize Williams on his own in most situations it will allow the rest of the offensive line to create holes and get to the second level. Saban's 3-4 scheme is predicated on the NT taking up multiple blockers in the middle of the line. If Michigan can get away with just one guy then the backs could have a big day.
  • Will Campbell and Quinton Washington vs. Alabama's Interior Line - Pad level young men, pad level.
  • Desmond Morgan vs. play diagnosis - If Morgan's game has finally clicked and he is flowing downhill to the ball at good angles, Michigan will do a much better job holding Bama to 4.0 ypc instead of 5.0 -- a big difference. If not: Jordan Kovacs, cleanup in aisles one to everywhere.
  • Denard Robinson's front foot vs. Denard Robinson's back foot - Stay grounded and work together boys. We'll all thank you for it.
  • Fitz Toussaint vs. the laundry list of stuff he needs to do to get back in Hoke's good graces - Nuff said.

Alternate Programming: This is the biggest game of the night, but on commercial breaks you check out Auburn vs. Clemson, USC's death machine vs. Hawaii, Oregon vs. Arkansas State to see what Gus Malzahn has cooked up, and Arizona vs. Toledo. No reason on that last one.

Inanimate Object Threat Level: 5. Sure, I've resigned myself to a loss in this one, but that doesn't mean I'm not going to lose it at least three or four times.

Final Prediction:

- Denard Robinson has an INT and a fumble, but accounts for two touchdowns.

- Fitz Toussaint plays at least one half.

- Eddie Lacy goes over 100 yards at 5.0 ypc.

- Jordan Kovacs makes three plays that save long touchdowns.

- Will Hagerup hits the JerryWorld scoreboard on one punt. Win's 100 dollar bet with teammate he made before the game.

- The game is within one score at halftime, but Alabama wins 31-21.

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