Michigan kicks off the 2012 season this Saturday against the Alabama Crimson Tide, and Todd from the great SB Nation blog Roll Bama Roll was kind enough to answer my questions about Alabama, and to try -- unsuccessfully
1. Alabama returns what might be the biggest and baddest offensive line in the country and gets Eddie Lacy back after he put together a solid season as the change of pace to Trent Richardson. Am I missing any tiny weakness that Michigan may be able to exploit against the run game -- you know, with its three new starters on the D-line -- or do you think Alabama is pretty much going to be able to run at-will in this game (and all season for that matter)?
Honestly I think the experience of our offensive line versus the lack of experience on y'all's defensive line is the biggest key to the game for Alabama, so I really have to go "no, you aren't missing a weakness and we will run at will on you" here. That's arrogant as crap and I'm sure I just jinxed us into a 42 yards, .4 ypc performance, but that really is the reason I'm fairly confident in this game. The tiniest glimmer of hope I can give y'all as far as weaknesses go is that Eddie Lacy did sit out the spring recovering from a turf toe injury that bothered him most of the 2011 season and has recently had an ankle sprain issue in fall camp, so there are some questions about his ability to be a workhorse back like Trent Richardson and Mark Ingram before him. He's a veteran of the offense by now, though, so the missed time shouldn't affect how he plays so much as the time he lost in the spring and summer conditioning programs. If he isn't at 100% we will be relying on Jalston Fowler, who was the lead RB during spring, true freshman T.J. Yeldon, who enrolled early and was the offensive MVP of our spring game, and redshirt freshman Dee Hart, who's ridiculously tiny compared to the rest of them but brings a whole new wrinkle to the offense as a receiver out of the backfield. So even though Lacy sat the spring, it did give us an opportunity to develop the guys behind him and basically prepare for the season as if he wasn't going to play anyway.
2. Occasionally Alabama is going to need to pass the ball. While AJ McCarron is back and looking as impressive as ever, the top four receivers from 2011 are gone. Is this cause for concern? Who are the players to watch on the outside? Does Alabama have a Julio Jones-type of deep threat waiting to break out this season.
Alabama struggled a lot last season with getting receivers open and that was the biggest reason our top targets were often the TEs and RBs. Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks were both pretty solid, but behind them was a big bundle of inexperience and youth that just wasn't consistent enough to really lean on. Plus, Trent Richardson. Anyway, the whole look of the receiver rotation has evolved over the last few seasons as we've recruited a lot of speed on the outside instead of the bigger possession types that we've had to use a lot of for the last decade or so. Julio was actually the best of both worlds (plus he run blocks like a fullback), but guys like him are once a decade types and trying to find another do it all go to guy has been difficult, but honestly having him made it difficult to develop players into specific roles because he was such a focal point for the offense. With him gone we've had to adapt to spreading the ball around, and A.J. did a magnificent job of that last season. He's routinely labeled a "game manager," but honestly it was pretty difficult to give him a fair evaluation last season because he wasn't asked to do much and he played within the system, being conservative and avoiding negative plays and taking shots when he had them. I think the fact that we put the entire game plan in the BCS Championship Game on his arm speaks volumes about the trust the staff has in him to carry the offense in 2012, so I'm looking forward to seeing him air it out more. As for the receivers, the top three are likely going to be Kevin Underwood, Kenny Bell, and Christion Jones. Underwood stepped up big time against LSU and looks like he's finally got the offense down enough to be a consistent contibutor. He's going to be the over the middle big body guy, most likely. Bell has been McCarron's security blanket and he's a good in between guy. He's got good speed, but his biggest asset is his route running ability. Christion Jones is a pure downfield speed guy that stepped in for the injured Maze against LSU as a true freshman and even though he only had a few catches last season he was on the field quite a bit, so it was fairly obvious the staff saw a lot of potential and wanted to start bringing him along as quickly as possible. Outside of those three we're back to the inexperience and youth game, but I'm pretty excited to see us utilize multiple downfield receivers for once.
3. Alabama has a new offensive coordinator this season in Doug Nussmeier. Will this have any noticeable effect on the Alabama offense, or does Nick Saban pretty much only hire guys that will bend to his every beck and call by running the ball 75 percent of the time because he secretly hates offense? Nussmeier comes to Tuscaloosa by way of Washington, where he led the 69th, 96th, and 26th ranked scoring offenses over the last three years, and he was once the quarterbacks coach for Michigan State under John L. Smith. Are you ready to talk yourself out of the hire yet? Why will Nussmeier work out, and no your answer can't be "because of Alabama's defense"?
I think Nussmeier will work out just fine for a couple of reasons, namely that he isn't a "system" guy and he seems to fit right in with the rest of the staff already. What we basically look for in an OC is first and foremost someone who is a solid gameplanner and is able to make good in game adjustments, and after that someone who can develop QBs. We have our offense that we run, we're not looking for someone to come in and install the Air Raid or spread option or whatever, we just want you to come in and build your game plans around the strengths on the roster and be able to provide a certain continuity with the offense we're already running. That doesn't mean he isn't going to bring in anything new. For example, Jim McElwain installed the pistol formation and utilized the Wildcat in 2009, but I'd say roughly 80% of our offense is the same from year to year. Nussmeier seems to fit that kind of OC to a T. Further, and this goes back to the last question, I think we went after a guy who coached in an offensive happy league for a reason; we've recruited talent at the QB and WR positions so we can be a more explosive offense. You can joke about Saban being an offensive neanderthal, but go back to his latter years at LSU when Jamarcus Russell and Early Doucet were lighting up secondaries left and right and you'll get an idea that Saban doesn't care how you move the ball, so long as it's done efficiently and without a lot of negative plays or turnovers. We just really haven't had all the pieces of the puzzle to be an "offensive chic" team, and to be blunt we really haven't even HAD to be an offensive minded team 'cause we're averaging close to 40 points a game and are routinely at or near the top of the conference in most of the relevant statistical categories.
4. Alabama lost two linebackers and two secondary players in the first 35 picks of the 2012 NFL Draft. Would I be wrong in thinking that both units will be devastated by these losses and will just kind of let Denard Robinson throw the ball around at will? Who might step up to replace these four players? Is there any chance that it takes at least one or two games before the back seven ends up being really, really good?
I think losing Mark Barron at safety is going to be a bigger blow than a lot of people expect, mostly because he knew the D inside and out and consistently kept us in the right coverages, so having someone step up as that kind of leader is a must. Robert Lester at FS is the old man of the group, while sophomores Vinnie Sunseri and HaHa Clinton-Dix played last season in a limited role. Clinton-Dix was a five star "can't miss" guy and he's shown why whenever he's had the opportunity, while Sunseri is a hard hitting in the box kind of safety that worked his way up from special teams at the start of last season to being Barron's backup and the dime safety in a lot of our 3rd down packages. We've always rotated three guys at safety, and looks like that will continue this year.
Losing Dre Kirkpatrick at corner is probably not as big a deal as a lot of people think, though; as great as he was in bump and run coverage downfield he wasn't particularly good in run support, didn't tackle all that well, and gambled a lot. DeQuan Menzie I think is the bigger loss since for everything Kirkpatrick did great Menzie was still pretty darn good, and for everything Kirkpatrick didn't do well Menzie was still pretty darn good at. I think we're solid at both corner positions with Dee Milliner, who started all of his true freshman season in 2010 and was the #3 corner last season (he came in outside opposite Kirkpatrick while Menzie moved inside to star in our nickel package) so he has the defense down at this point. We've got a JUCO player (Deion Belue) at the other corner spot that basically locked down the start in spring, and another guy who has been in the system waiting his turn (John Fulton) as the #3 guy. Milliner is probably going to be the versatile one that we move around a lot since he has the experience, plus he's probably the best in run support at this point.
As for the linebackers, losing Dont'a Hightower's leadership is the same kind of blow as losing Barron's, but the inside rotation is still solid. Nico Johnson has been a starter and situational role player since 2009, while C.J. Moseley was the preferred linebacker on passing downs since 2010. Trey DePriest is supposedly the next coming of Rolando McClain after seeing a lot of quality snaps as a true freshman last year, so I'm not terribly worried about the interior. It's the pass rushers outside that are a concern. You don't replace a Courtney Upshaw just like that, so the outside guys may be a work in progress for a few weeks.
5. What kind of game plan do you think Nick Saban has in store for the Michigan offense? Michigan State has had good success the last couple years blitzing the hell out of Denard Robinson, but to me that doesn't seem like Saban's style. I always pegged him for the kind of guy who would rather strangle an offense slowly to death than kill its hopes quickly. In your opinion are we likely to see Saban try to force Robinson into mistakes with heavy pressure, or bait him into mistakes with smart containment, a dedication to stopping the run, and a heavy dose of third-and-longs?
You're pretty close with the "strangle you to death" approach. Being the first game of the season I expect we'll play it pretty conservatively to start, just try to keep everything in front of us and not blitz a whole lot and give Robinson an opportunity to escape the pocket. I think our staff does a magnificent job of making in game adjustments, though, so how long that remains the game plan is up in the air. If we see an opportunity to generate negative plays with blitzes we'll take them, but for the most part I'd go back to the '09 SEC Championship Game and look at the way we played Florida (disciplined pursuit, not a lot of blitzes, forcing Tebow to stay in the pocket and try to create downfield, etc.) to get a good idea of how we'll attack y'all.
6. So, with all of that said, how many touchdowns do you think Michigan wins by?
Now that you've stopped laughing, what has to happen for Michigan to win this game? Is there something that impresses you about the Wolverines that you think could be the difference? Is there something that concerns you about Alabama or should this just be business as usual? What is your final score prediction?
At least seven, Denard Robinson will win the Heisman based off of this performance and the Tide will completely fall to pieces in the wake of such a horrific bludgeoning that we limp into the Music City Bowl at the end of the year a shell of our former selves. #ReverseJinxEngaged