#8 Michigan vs. #2 Alabama
Cowboys Stadium, Arlington, Texas
Kickoff 8:00 pm EST
Alabama: 12-1, National Champs :(. You probably already know Alabama's story. With the only loss on their schedule a plodding 9-6 game against LSU, Nick Saban's squad redeemed themselves by pounding Les Miles and LSU into dust in the national championship game. Led by returning quarterback AJ McCarron and NFL-bound Trent Richardson, Alabama's offense was good-not-great (16th rushing offense, 69th passing offense, 35th passing efficiency, 20th scoring offense).
What held the team afloat was a legendarily great defense. The Crimson Tide ranked first in most defensive categories last year: rushing defense (72 yards/game), pass defense (111.46 yards/game), pass efficiency defense, total defense (183.62 yards/game), and scoring defense (8.15 points/game [!!!]). Alabama had as many games last year in which they shut their opponent out (3; North Texas, Vanderbilt, LSU in the National Championship game) as they did games where their opponents scored more than two touchdowns (3; Arkansas, Georgia Southern, Auburn). They never allowed more than 21 points and only allowed teams to score in double digits in 5 games.
Michigan: 11-2, Sugar Bowl Champ. You also know Michigan's story. Brady Hoke, Greg Mattison, Al Borges, Denard, Brady Hoke, Junior Hemingway, Brady Hoke, Ohio, Suger Bowl LOLZ, Brady Hoke. Suffering only losses to Michigan State and Iowa, the transition from Rodriguez to Hoke went quite a bit smoother than the transition to the previous regime. Denard, though statistically worse, was still Denard and was able to sustain an effective (if often lucky) offensive unit.
On the other side of the ball, Greg Mattison turned a horrible defense into a, well, kind of a good defense. By the season's end, Michigan's defense was 39th in rushing defense, 16th in passing defense, 17th in total defense, and 6th (!!!) in scoring defense. That scoring defense was bolstered by an inordinate amount of recovered fumbles, but there are plenty of signs of tangible improvement brought about by the coaching staff. Departed is essentially everyone important from the defensive line, David Molk, and Junior Hemingway. Otherwise, Michigan returns almost their entire team, something Alabama doesn't have the luxury of in 2012.
Offense vs. Alabama
Fair or not, this game will determine whether or not Denard Robinson has a chance to win the Heisman. Aside from Heisman candidates needing big-game highlight reels, it's hard to see Denard having a mediocre game against the Alabama defense. It's either going to be an ugly 9-24, 3 INT-game or something approximating his performance against Ohio
Though Alabama loses a ton of talent and starters from their defensive roster (Dre Kirkpatrick, Mark Barron, DeQuan Menzie, Dont'a Hightower, Courtney Upshaw, and Josh Chapman, among others), years of oversigning means that unproven 5-stars step in at almost every position; think Will Campbell only without the years of struggling with technique, weight, and motivation.
Alabama runs Nick Saban's traditional 3-4. He's very good at coaching it and his defenses are always very good. The secondary will run a man-coverage variant that involves pattern reading (read Ace's Fi Fie Fo Film for an explanation; as a side note Ace, change the name of this column). Unfortunately, Denard hasn't really seen a defense that runs these kinds of schemes. His ability to properly read and react to what the secondary is doing will go a long way toward determining if Michigan even has a chance in this game.
Up front, the 3-4 defense means that the linebackers will be looking run-first. With the expected suspension of Fitzgerald Toussaint for the game, finding any running lanes will be difficult. Hopefully--maybe?--Denard will be able to zone read the defense to death, but Alabama's defense didn't get to be great by being undisciplined.
My biggest concern is that Al Borges will refuse to stretch the Alabama defense horizontally. Without any true deep threats (Devin Gardner maybe?), Michigan will need to put stress on the Alabama defense by thinning them out across the field. The only plays we saw last year that would be able to do that were the tunnel screens to Jeremy Gallon and the throwback screens to Vincent Smith. Those are going to work approximately once each against this defense. I fear the rest of the offense will be Michigan running its head into a wall like the Sugar Bowl.
Defense vs. Alabama
Michigan returns a deep secondary, quality linebackers, and Craig Roh. Michigan can only beat Alabama if the defense shows improvement over last year, much of which has to start with the defensive line. Alabama is a run-first, pro-style offense with a spectacular offensive line. This is not the kind of game that you want to break in a bunch of unproven starters on the D-line, but that's where we are.
Alabama's offense frankly doesn't scare me that much. The loss of Trent Richardson should not be undersold. He was, without a doubt, the best offensive player on a relatively mediocre offense last year. Incoming junior starter Eddie Lacy is no pushover (151 carries, 1,080 yards, 7.15 yards/carry), but he's also not the guy that went #3 overall in the NFL draft. Lacy will get his yards in this game on the strength of his offensive line, not because he'll outrun Michigan's defense. If Will Campbell and Quinton Washington can hold up at the defensive tackle slots, Michigan might be able to shut down the Alabama rushing attack.
Stopping that running attack is crucial because it starts to negate the effect of AJ McCarron's play action. McCarron is basically a game manager with a really good cast of supporting players. Last year, he completed 66% of his passes but only accounted for 16 TDs (5 INTs). McCarron had a really high passer rating last year, but in the same way that Wisconsin quarterbacks (not named Russell Wilson) are ranked highly nationally.
With Michigan returning everyone on the back end of the defense, Alabama is going to have to win this game on the ground, which they can almost certainly do unless the defensive line ends up being much better than expected. The good news is that an oversized Jibreel Black at weakside defensive end is the kind of player that you want to try and stuff a punishing, downhill running attack. Keeping outside leverage will also be key. Pray that Desmond Morgan and Jake Ryan have finally figure that out.
How does Michigan win: Michigan wins if Sugar Bowl. In terms of talent, Michigan is dominated at almost every position, and despite the advantage the Wolverine coaching staff has over most other play callers, Nick Saban is not to be trifled with. Alabama has a young, mostly unproven defense entering their first game of the season at a "neutral" site. There's a chance that Denard makes mincemeat of the Alabama defense, and the game's turnovers/broken plays all go Michigan's way. That's really the only shot the Wolverine's have unless Devin Gardner is instantly Justin Blackmon.
How Does Alabama win: If everything goes to plan. Vegas doesn't really get things wrong all that often, so an Alabama -14 line is not to be trifled with. They are vastly more talented and have an equal-or-better coaching staff. Michigan really does need a lot of breaks to win this game. Otherwise, it's about damage control and trying to not get blown out for the sake of the Big Ten's national reputation.
Arbitrary chance Michigan wins: 10%
Final prediction: I'd love to say Michigan can win this game but there's almost no logical way at looking at this and predicting an M victory. Alabama pulls away in the first half and Michigan tries to chip away at the lead as the game wears on but doesn't beat the spread. Alabama 31 - Michigan 16