[Note for people who don't read who posts what: Ace posted this. You probably didn't read this either. DAMN YOUUUUU.]
|WHAT||Michigan vs Alabama|
|WHERE||Cowboys Stadium, Arlington TX|
|WHEN||8 pm Eastern, September 1st 2012|
|THE LINE||Alabama -13.5|
|TELEVISION||National on ABC|
|WEATHER||sunny, mid-90s, roof expected to be closed so it doesn't really matter|
[Image via Tower of Bammer]
It's the opening game of the season, so certainly the Wolverines have scheduled a directional Michigan school or similar creampu...
Michigan takes on defending national champion Alabama, which is ranked second in both preseason polls despite returning just 11 starters. There is good reason for this: Nick Saban has turned Tuscaloosa into an NFL talent factory, one that shows no signs of slowing despite the heavy personnel losses. Michigan's toughest test traditionally comes in the last regular season game; this year, it's the first.
Run Offense vs Alabama
Jesse Williams shifts from end to nose tackle; this should not be a problem
The Crimson Tide defense posted one of the most dominant seasons in collegiate history in 2011, allowing ten yards per game fewer than any other team in the country. A look at their run defense, game-by-game, reveals their numbers could have been even better if not for one obvious outlier:
FCS school Georgia Southern was the only team to crack 3.6 yards per carry against Alabama, and they more than doubled that figure. Flukes are flukes, however, and a triple-option FCS team managing that kind of output against that defense screams irrelevance unless Al Borges breaks out the flexbone tomorrow. The rest of the year, Bama allowed more than three ypc just twice, to Penn State (still boasting Silas Redd) and LSU (first matchup—the second didn't go so well).
This isn't the same Alabama outfit, of course; they lose nose tackle Josh Chapman and a pair of All-American caliber linebackers in Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw. The Tide can replace that talent effectively, sliding 320-pound end Jesse Williams down to the nose and inserting former blue-chip recruits Trey DePriest and Adrian Hubbard into the lineup at linebacker, but replicating last year's success will be difficult.
Then again, Alabama ceded just 2.4 yards per carry last year en route to crushing the entire universe. Giving up a full yard more per carry would've still placed them inside the top 25 nationally—there may be regression, meaning the extent of their destruction is limited to merely our own galaxy. Williams reportedly bench-pressed 600 pounds(!!!) over the summer—as a JUCO transfer who originally hails from Australia, he's just beginning to reach his potential. Starting ends Damion Square and Ed Stinson each played in all 13 games last year (Square started all 13) and weigh in at over 280 pounds. The Tide carry a reputation for being strong up the middle and that should not change this year.
At linebacker, Nico Johnson and C.J. Mosely combined for 11 TFLs in 2011 and should greatly improve on that output now that they're out from under the shadow of Hightower and Upshaw. Johnson is listed as the co-starter at both MIKE and WILL, while Mosely will stick to the weak side. You may remember DePriest from his recruitment, when the five-star out of Springfield, Ohio, appeared to favor Michigan at one point before choosing to head South. He tallied 25 tackles as a true freshman last year and is a star in the making. Strongside linebacker Hubbard functions more as a defensive lineman in Alabama's 3-4 defense.
On the Michigan side, their performance in this regard may hinge on the status of Fitzgerald Toussaint [UPDATE: forget that]—it takes a dynamic runner to be effective against this defense, and Thomas Rawls and Vincent Smith do not fit that bill.
If Toussaint isn't available, Moving the ball on the ground will be a difficult proposition, especially since Alabama can then key on Denard Robinson without having to fear the guy next to him.
As long as there are no injuries along the offensive line, the Wolverines should hold up in the trenches. The pressure will be on Patrick Omameh—who's struggled against bigger, stronger linemen—and new starter Elliott Mealer to not give any ground; if they're getting knocked into the backfield, the efforts of Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield will be for naught.
If, as expected, Toussaint is not available, it'll take a monster effort from Denard for Michigan to consistently move the ball. He's capable, of course, especially against a defense facing its first full-speed test of the season. As detailed in FFFF, it usually takes misdirection to find running room against the Tide, so we'll see if Borges gets creative to try and get Denard into space on the edge.
Key Matchup: The interior line vs. Jesse Williams. As I said, Lewan and Schofield could dominate and it won't matter if Omameh, Mealer, and center Ricky Barnum can't keep Williams from getting a push up the middle. If the interior line can fight Williams to a draw there's a chance Denard and the backs can put together a few decent runs, perhaps (please?) by running some inverted veer, which Auburn (and Cam Newton) ran with great success against the Tide in 2010.
[Hit THE JUMP for the rest of the news. Which is mostly bad.]
Pass Offense vs Alabama
If Michigan is going to win, this is where they have to take advantage of Alabama's inexperience. The Tide return just one starter from the secondary, senior strong safety Robert Lester, and must replace two first-round picks in free safety Mark Barron and cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick.
One corner spot should not be an issue; junior Dee Milliner, a former five-star, essentially functioned as a third starter in 2011, playing on the outside while DeQuan Menzie (since graduated) shifted down the slot when the Tide went to a nickel defense. At 6'1", 199 pounds, Milliner can match up physically with just about any wide receiver in the country.
If the Wolverines are going to pick on a defender, it'll be the guy lined up across from Milliner, whether that's JUCO transfer Deion Belue or true freshman Geno Smith. Both are unproven. Both are talented. We won't know what wins out until they step on the field. Alabama plays a lot of one-high coverage, so there will be chances to test them on the outside.
Lester is a rock at strong safety—though he doesn't put up big numbers, that's to be expected with such a strong front seven. As the most experienced player in the secondary he'll be the one keeping them in the right coverage. Across from Lester, the Tide will play a pair of sophomores in Vinnie Sunseri—a very reliable backup last year—and former five-star Ha'Sean "HaHa" Clinton-Dix, another name familiar to followers of Michigan recruiting (he flirted with a visit during the sunny aftermath of 2010 Notre Dame). Sunseri is the more experienced player while Clinton-Dix has the edge in talent; either way, the Tide should be well above average in back.
The Tide didn't generate an enormous pass rush last year, finishing 30th in the country with 2.3 sacks per game. However, they were able to get pressure on the quarterback while rushing just four a large percentage of the time. Hubbard is the player to watch in this regard; he recorded three sacks in Alabama's spring game and could be poised for a breakout season.
Michigan returns their senior quarterback but loses their top wide receiver and downfield threat, Junior Hemingway, and questions abound about the returning receivers. Is Roy Roundtree the player we saw lead the team in receiving in 2010, or the guy we watched struggle to get separation in 2011? (In this offense, likely the latter.) Can Jeremy Gallon be an effective downfield option at 5'8"? (Given his lack of downfield targets last year, we'll see.) Is Devin Gardner really the answer on the outside? (I'm more optimistic about this than I am Roundtree, to be sure.)
Attacking Alabama's secondary requires precise short and intermediate passing. This is not Denard Robinson's forte. He'll have to display a much greater comfort level with the offense and improved accuracy and decision-making if Michigan hopes to move the ball effectively.
Key Matchup: Denard Robinson vs. Tacopants. Self-explanatory, I hope. Denard should have time in the pocket to survey the defense, but that won't matter if he can't hit his target.
Run Defense vs Alabama
Heisman finalist Trent Richardson has moved on to the NFL, but the Tide have a stable of talented backs ready to step in and replace his prodigious production. The starting back will be junior Eddie Lacy, who averaged over seven yards per carry as Richardson's primary backup a year ago. While Lacy lacks Richardson's remarkable agility, he's a load to bring down at 6'0", 220 pounds, and has the athleticism to break big runs into the secondary. Lacy missed spring ball due to turf toe and has been bothered by knee and ankle injuries in fall camp, but he should be fine for Saturday.
If Lacy is limited, Alabama has options. Junior Jalston Folwer rushed for 385 yards on just 56 carries in 2011; at 6'1", 246 pounds, he's even bigger than Lacy. True freshman T.J. Yeldon impressed in the Army All-American game and is listed as the co-backup with Folwer. He's not tiny either at 6'1", 215, but he brings more versatility to the position as a great athlete who can catch out of the backfield. One-time Michigan commit Dee Hart sits behind them on the depth after tearing his ACL a year ago. He's a good deal smaller than the rest of Alabama's backs and a dangerous player in space.
Alabama's zone running attack is bolstered by the best offensive line in the country, bar none. They lose just one starter, center William Vlachos, and replace him by shifting senior left tackle—and sure-fire first-round pick had he chosen to leave early—Barrett Jones to center. This appears insane until you see that 6'6", 322-pound sophomore Cyrus Kouandjio, Rivals's #4 overall prospect in 2011, steps into the lineup at left tackle. Three of Alabama's five starters—Jones, LG Chance Warmack, and RT D.J. Fluker—made Phil Steele's preseason All-America first team. Forget that they're the best offensive line in the country—this is the best position group in the country.
This does not bode well for a retooled Michigan defensive line, which will be rolling out three new starters while moving Craig Roh (of course) from WDE to SDE. The Wolverines are expected to roll out a starting lineup of WDE Jibreel Black, NT Quinton Washington, DT Will Campbell, and Roh. Black bulked up with the expectation that he'd play three-tech until the coaches recently decided that was probably a bad idea; now he's a very large WDE with some serious question marks against both the run and pass. Washington came to Michigan as a guard and hasn't played significant time. We all know about Will Campbell.
The defensive line has to hold their ground against a steady diet of inside zone. They've got the size to do so; it's the massive difference in proven ability versus the Alabama line that is cause for great concern. If the DL can simply play to a draw and allow the linebackers—all returning starters, so that group is solid—to run around and clean up, it'll be very encouraging.
Key Matchup: Washington/Campbell versus DEATH. If Jones and the Tide guards are able to handle Michigan's DTs one-on-one, freeing up a blocker to get to the next level, Alabama will march up and down the field unimpeded—it's that simple. I don't expect Washington and Campbell to consistently knife into the backfield and make plays, but they need to consistently demand a double-team and drop anchor in the middle or the Wolverines are in deep trouble.
Pass Defense vs Alabama
This is Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron, an unidentified female, and A.J. McCarron's chest tattoo, which merits separate billing because obviously:
When not inking his life story onto a one square foot area of his chest, McCarron functions as the ideal quarterback for Alabama's offense. From FFFF:
Alabama loses most of their top skill position players from last year, but McCarron is often overlooked as one of the better quarterbacks in the nation, largely due to their run-heavy attack and defensive reputation. As a redshirt sophomore last season, McCarron finished 25th in the country in passer efficiency (147.27) and 24th in yards per attempt (8.0), most impressively posting a miniscule 1.5% interception rate. McCarron doesn't wow you, but he's the perfect quarterback for 'Bama's system: the proverbial "game manager" who rarely makes a mistake.
The Tide don't take many shots downfield, nor do they need to with a lethal running game setting up their play-action. McCarron will mostly operate in the short-to-intermediate range, where he's usually on the money.
Who McCarron throws to, however, is a big question. Alabama loses their top three receivers from last year—top four if you include Richardson—including leading receiver Marquis Maze and underrated tight end Brad Smelley. Junior DeAndrew White and sophomore Kevin Norwood, who combined for just 25 catches last year, are slated to start on the outside, though we'll see a good deal of junior Kenny Bell (17 catches, 225 yards in 2011) as well.
Senior tight end Michael Williams should replace most—if not all—of Smelley's production after providing a solid second option and very sound blocking at the position last year. Senior Kelly Johnson earns the starting nod at H-back, a position Alabama utilizes heavily, especially when running play-action off that inside zone.
Michigan matches up with an experienced secondary that returns every major contributor save Troy Woolfolk, who was less effective than free safety Thomas Gordon regardless. J.T. Floyd and Blake Countess provide a solid cornerback pairing that shouldn't have too much trouble staying with Alabama's receivers. Jordan Kovacs is Jordan Kovacs, which is pretty awesome.
Getting pressure will be tough; Alabama allowed only 1.3 sacks per game last year and returns four starters from that line, while Michigan struggled to get pressure from players outside of the departed Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen. Jibreel Black doesn't provide a major pass-rush threat from the weakside DE spot and Craig Roh hasn't lived up to the QB-killer hype he got in high school. To get pressure, Greg Mattison will have to get creative, which is fine by him. They key will be freeing up Jake Ryan and Jordan Kovacs off the edge.
Key Matchup: Linebackers vs. play-action. Desmond Morgan struggled mightily at times in coverage last season and now faces an offense with a lethal play-action attack. Kenny Demens was actually pretty solid against the pass last year, displaying an ability to get great drops in the middle, and he'll have to build on that. The linebackers have to play strong against the run, but they can't get too caught up or they'll open things up underneath.
Alabama finished just 72nd in special teams FEI last year, a figure that would have been worse if not for Marquis Maze's above-average production as a return man. That poor performance largely fell on the shoulders of the kickers; now-senior Jeremy Shelley connected on 21-of-27 field goals from short distance, but deep field goal specialist Cade Foster made only two of his nine attempts. Both kickers return and are listed as co-starters—expect them to do the same short vs. long split in kicking duties.
The Tide were mediocre in the punting game as well, finishing 60th in the country with a net average of 36.5 yards. That figure should be in the same range this year with junior Cody Mandell returning to his starting gig. Sophomore receiver Christian Jones takes over return duties for both punts and kickoffs, supported by Dee Milliner and Dee Hart.
Michigan returns Brendan Gibbons at kicker, Will Hagerup and Matt Wile at punter, and Jeremy Gallon on punt returns. Kickoff returns don't matter because of the new rules, but if they do it'll be because Josh Furman and/or Dennis Norfleet are a revalation. This unit was a tick above average last year and should replicate that level of success.
Key Matchup: "Screw your head on straight, Will Hagerup" is the new "Gibbons you put it through the uprights?"
- Quinton Washington's place in the starting lineup reveals itself to be a panic move based on Black's inability to hold up inside.
- Denard can't hit open receivers underneath.
- Thomas Rawls runs smack into Jesse Williams, over and over and over...
Cackle with knowing glee if...
- Al Borges finds a way, somehow, to get Denard to the edge.
- Devin Gardner is a revelation at wide receiver.
- Campbell and Washington are immovable objects.
Fear/Paranoia Level: 10 (Baseline 5; +1 These Guys Were Pretty Good Last Year, +1 for Holy Hell Look At All Those Five-Stars, -1 for At Least Much Of That Five-Star Talent Is Inexperienced, +1 For Saban Defensive Death Machine, +1 for Hanging Hopes On Fact That Denard Can Be A Precision Passer, +1 for Basically NFL Offensive Line, +1 for That Offensive Line Goes Against Our Biggest Question Mark)
Desperate need to win level: 3 (Baseline 5; -1 for Nobody In Their Right Mind Expects A Michigan Victory, -1 for The Goal Is Always The Big Ten Championship, +1 for But Wouldn't It Be The Greatest Thing Ever, -1 for Yes It Would So Let's Stop Getting My Hopes Up)
Loss will cause me to... make bitter statements about oversigning.
Win will cause me to... lose my everloving mind, then probably say something regrettable about a national title on the podcast.
The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict:
The problem with this game is that the things Michigan needs to have go in their favor are the things I least expect to do so. The inexperienced D-line must stand up to Alabama's absurdly large and talented O-line. Denard Robinson must play mistake-free football and be accurate with his throws. Al Borges needs to go against his nature, quicken the pace, and mix in a lot of misdirection and play-action with Denard to create big plays. The defense probably needs to force A.J. McCarron to turn the ball over, something he rarely does.
The good news for Michigan is that Alabama has to replace a lot of talent; in the first game of the season, there may be a feeling-out process that can be exploited. However, the Tide can get things rolling on offense by running their bread-and-butter, the inside zone, with a stable of blue-chip backs behind that O-line. Saban and Kirby Smart adjust on defense as well as anybody in the country, and their new starters on D don't exactly look like potential liabilities.
I have a hard time seeing the defensive line stopping Alabama from a good day on the ground, which opens things up for McCarron in the play-action game. While Borges may find ways to move the ball early, staying one step ahead of Saban and Smart doesn't happen often. It'll take a remarkable performance from Denard to overcome the
probable absence of Toussaint, and even then the defense needs to step up big time.
Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:
- Denard completes more than 60% of his passes but tosses a cringe-inducing pick.
- None of the Wolverine RBs break 40 rushing yards
- Michigan is forced to play Ondre Pipkins, who plays like a freshman
- Alabama, 31-20