Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, ABC
Here's The Deal: To close out the 1999 season, Tom Brady and Michigan beat Shaun Alexander and Alabama 35-34 in a classic Orange Bowl that ranks among the greatest college football games of all-time.
This is bigger.
This is either the moment when one of college football's best rises up to show that it's ready to play the role of superpower again, or it will be a chance for the defending national champion to flex its muscle and prove to the world that it's an SEC world with everyone else simply playing for fun.
Can Michigan come up with the shocker and show that it belongs among the national title favorites? This is one of the Big Ten's top teams going into the season in Brady Hoke's second year at the helm, and while it's expected to be in the mix for the conference title and the Rose Bowl all season long, this is the game the fan base has been waiting for in what would be the program's biggest opening day win since it handed Iowa Pre-Flight its only loss of the 1944 season. That's how important this is to the Wolverines, and that's how much they've struggled in titanic early season matchups over the years.
|All August long, CFN and Scout.com will get you ready for the season with these great features. But that's not all. Check CFN's 2012 preview page for even more coverage.|
|Aug. 1: Top coaches on the hot seat|
|Aug. 3: Meet the new coaches|
|Aug. 6: Teams that might surprise us|
|Aug. 8: Teams that might disappoint us|
|Aug. 10: Teams that could ruin your season|
|Aug. 13: Biggest unanswered questions|
|Aug. 15: Great programs heading nowhere|
|Aug. 17: Unknown programs on the rise|
|Aug. 20: Top Heisman Trophy candidates|
|Aug. 22: Best games of the regular season|
|Aug. 24: Toughest stadiums to play in|
|Aug. 27: Teams most likely to play in BCS|
|Aug. 29: Title game match-ups we'd love|
But it's a new team with a new attitude under Hoke, and while Michigan might not be quite the finished product the coaching staff wants it to be following the Rich Rodriguez era, it's good enough to be able to realistically think it can go toe-to-toe with a team as good as Alabama.
The main focus might be on Michigan and whether or not it's ready for prime time, but this is a statement game for the Tide, too. Depending on the poll and ranking system, LSU and USC have spent August battling it out for the top spot with 'Bama hovering around the top three. There were some big personnel losses on defense and running back Trent Richardson is gone from the offense, but the talent level is still as strong as ever under Nick Saban with the expectations set at national title or bust.
It's possible that the Tide could lose this game, roll through conference play, and end up getting into the BCS championship, but a defeat would be a huge blow to the aura of invincibility surrounding the SEC and would be a painful blow to a team that hasn't lost an opener since 2001.
Why Alabama Might Win: The Alabama front seven is going to be a brick wall for the Wolverines to try to get through.
The Michigan offense wasn't all about the running game last season, highlighted by Denard Robinson's jump-ball deep passes in the win over Notre Dame, but the problems came when the ground attack didn't go anywhere, gaining a season-low 56 yards in the close call over Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl and being stuffed for 82 yards in the loss to Michigan State. In the only other loss of the season, Michigan gained just 127 yards with no scores against Iowa, while Notre Dame was able to keep everything bottled up allowing just 114 yards and a score.
Of course, it's a new year with new personnel and new ideas, but it's going to be the same old Alabama defense. Last season's D led the nation in almost every major defensive category, allowing just three rushing scores while giving up over 150 yards on the ground just once -- allowing 302 to the quirky Georgia Southern option attack. Michigan has to go into the game assuming it won't be able to crank out big rushing yards on a regular basis, but it's going to try to get Robinson loose early on in an attempt to take the fight to the defending national champions. The problem will be speed. The Michigan runners are fast, but Alabama's linebackers should be able to run stride for stride.
It's no cupcake in Week 1 for A.J. McCarron and Alabama.
Why Michigan Might Win: It's possible that Denard Robinson just might be that good.
Rarely do good Michigan teams get to play the "Nobody Believes In Us" card, and motivation only goes so far against a team as good as Alabama, but this will be an attitude game on the lines, and the Wolverines have the ability to more than hold their own on offense. Alabama's front seven might be a rock, but Taylor Lewan and the veteran offensive line will be a strength, now knowing what it's supposed to do under Hoke. Few coaching staffs do a better job of creating holes to get their speed guys into space, and while the chances might be few and far between, all it will take is one or two key chances for Robinson to break off a big dash.
This isn't going to be a high-scoring game -- Michigan isn't going to be able to hang 30 points on the board -- and the Wolverines D should be able to load up to stop the run. Alabama's passing game won't do much deep, and while QB A.J. McCarron should get plenty of time to work, he'll have a hard time doing much more than keeping things short-to-midrange, like he did against LSU in the BCS championship. Michigan was able to survive last season when it got dinked and dunked on, and this year the back seven is even stronger with six starters back including a solid safety tandem of Jordan Kovacs and Thomas Gordon. This group has been through the lean times and now knows what it's doing.
What Will Happen: The Alabama defense will be the Alabama defense. This won't be a thing of beauty by any stretch, but the Tide ground game will outrush the Michigan running attack and Robinson won't have the passing day to pick up the slack. Expect an efficient and effective day from McCarron and the Tide offense, while the D will give up one big play that gives the Wolverines a glimmer of hope, and nothing else.
CFN Prediction: Alabama 27, Michigan 10
Here's The Deal: Twice the Tigers. Double the drama.
Clemson and Auburn have met 47 times throughout history, with the latter dominating the series. However, Clemson flipped the script last September, becoming a streak-buster in the process. With a rousing 38-24 win in Death Valley, it snapped Auburn's 14-game winning streak in the head-to-head battle, and handed the defending national champs their first loss in the last 17 games. The annual Chick-fil-A Kickoff at the Georgia Dome promises to be one of the marquee matchups of the opening weekend, a game that could serve as a harbinger of things to come for both schools.
When last seen on a grand stage, Clemson was getting humiliated, 70-33, by West Virginia in the Orange Bowl. The fallout was swift, as former defensive coordinator Kevin Steele was replaced with Brent Venables, who'd built his reputation as a key member of Bob Stoops' staff at Oklahoma. Venables' directive is clear -- transform the program's considerable talent so that the offense doesn't have to carry the team all alone. The Tigers are ranked No. 14 in both major preseason polls, and are expected to go toe-to-toe with Florida State in the ACC Atlantic Division. This is a particularly crucial contest for head coach Dabo Swinney, who can ill-afford another defeat in a game that's going to attract a national audience.
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Auburn's Gene Chizik will be taking a reshuffled staff into Atlanta as well. In fact, these Tigers will feature a pair of new coordinators, Scot Loeffler on offense and Brian VanGorder on D. Both assistants are eager to put their imprint on a program that wants to prove that 2010 was no fleeting occurrence on the Plains. The team hit a predictable snag in the year after Cam Newton left for the NFL, going 8-5 and slipping in the SEC West pecking order. Chizik has recruited exceedingly well since arriving three years ago, but just how ready is this youthful squad to contend in the deepest division in America? Auburn fans are hoping that history is on their side; the last three times that the Tigers lost five regular-season games, they rebounded the following year with a perfect mark.
Why Clemson Might Win: Yeah, the Tigers are going to miss suspended WR Sammy Watkins, who torched the Auburn secondary a year ago, but they still harbor plenty of weapons on offense.
The best news of all is that QB Tajh Boyd is back to build on a scintillating debut as a starter running Chad Morris' up-tempo attack. He has a better grasp on the system, which means fewer mistakes and poor decisions. Balance will come from RB Andre Ellington, a speedy playmaker who'll be quicker operating on a fast Georgia Dome surface. On the outside, DeAndre Hopkins may not be Watkins, but he's a big-play guy nonetheless. And following a terrific offseason, he's ready to perform like a go-to guy in the passing game. Clemson is going to throw a lot of speed at an Auburn defense that's transitioning to a new staff, and is vulnerable in the back seven.
While Clemson boasts Boyd at the most important position on the field, Auburn has handed the reins to second-year sophomore Kiehl Frazier. While the former five-star recruit is a fantastic all-around athlete, with obvious upside, he still has plenty to prove as a passer. If Venables' kids are able to stack the box with LB Stephone Anthony and S Rashard Hall, Frazier will be forced to play outside of his comfort zone.
Kiehl Frazier takes the QB reins for Auburn this season.
Why Auburn Might Win: The Tigers believe they can disrupt Clemson's offensive rhythm with one of the fiercest D-lines in the SEC.
For VanGorder and the defense, it'll all begin up front, where Auburn welcomes back all of last year's regulars. On the outside, Dee Ford and particularly Corey Lemonier will cause fits for a Clemson blocking unit still adapting to the insertion of three new starters. Pass protection is already a concern for Swinney, but it's liable to become a four-alarm crisis on Saturday night. On the inside, tackles Jeffrey Whitaker and Gabe Wright are quick enough to shoot the gaps, and make the Tigers pay for giving extra attention to Lemonier.
Venables was lured out of Norman in the winter for good reason -- Clemson is vulnerable defensively. The Tigers gave up too many big plays in 2011, and remain soft on the interior. Yeah, Frazier is a wild card who won't be asked to shoulder the load. However, he'll be fine if he can manage the game by handing the ball to RB Onterio McCalebb, and connecting with WR Emory Blake and TE Philip Lutzenkirchen. Blake has returned to full strength and Lutzenkirchen is one of the best in the game at his position.
What Will Happen: In a pivotal game involving a couple of similar programs, the team with the better quarterback usually survives. At least that'll be the case in the latest ACC-SEC hook-up in the Georgia Dome.
Clemson and Auburn might as well be looking in a mirror. New assistants under a microscope. Defenses with an identity crisis. Promising O-lines that lack experience. Next level-type running backs. Quality special teams units. Loads of really good athletes on both sides of the ball. What will tip the scales in favor of the Tigers from South Carolina is that Boyd is noticeably more advanced than Frazier is at this embryonic stage of his career.
CFN Prediction: Clemson 34, Auburn 28
No. 16 Virginia Tech
Here's The Deal: No auditions. No rehearsals. No easing into a new season with a visit from some anonymous team out of the FCS. Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech will meet on Labor Day night in an opener that will have major implications in the ACC title chase.
There are six teams in the Coastal Division. North Carolina is ineligible. Virginia and Miami are a year away, with the latter facing possible NCAA sanctions. Duke is, well, Duke. It's not a two-team race to Charlotte, but then again it sort of is when the fluff is stripped away. Whoever survives at Lane Stadium is going to have an enormous leg up on one spot in the ACC Championship Game more than two months before it happens.
The dynamic Logan Thomas is a big asset for Virginia Tech.
The Hokies are the favorite in the division, a familiar position for one of the country's most consistent programs. Under venerable head coach Frank Beamer, they've now strung together eight straight 10-win seasons with no end in sight. At a base level, Tech enters every year expecting to win the Coastal, compete for an ACC crown and, with a break or two, get in the discussion for a national title. The 2012 edition will be led by a dynamic quarterback, Logan Thomas, and a defense that could be as nasty as any in the conference.
Since taking the league by storm in 2009, Georgia Tech and its architect, Paul Johnson, have hit a lull. Yeah, the Yellow Jackets haven't missed the postseason since 1996, but they've been unable to get back to the higher bar established two years ago. Since opening 10-1 in 2009, Tech is just 15-14, tanking in the second half of last year. The program is hoping to recapture the swagger that not long ago had it looking like one of the rising stars of the ACC. A night win at Lane Stadium could do the trick.
Why Georgia Tech Might Win: The ground game will always be prolific as long as Johnson is in Atlanta. It could be even better this season, with the return of last year's top three rushers. QB Tevin Washington is closer to having the system down to a science, and backs David Sims and Orwin Smith form a terrific complement. Sims is the power runner, while Smith is one of the game's most dangerous home-run hitters. Together, the trio will test a brittle collection of Virginia Tech linebackers that needs to prove it can remain healthy.
The Hokies offense will stride forward in the passing game, but who runs the ball? And how well will the rebuilt line block for redshirt freshman Michael Holmes and the rest of the team's unproven backs? The Yellow Jackets are going to be underrated in the secondary, bringing back four starters from a pass defense that ranked 28th nationally in 2011. If Holmes & Co. are slow out of the gates, it'll allow linebackers Jeremiah Attaochu and Quayshawn Nealy to spend more time pinning back their ears and dropping into coverage.
Can Tevin Washington lead Georgia Tech to a huge win?
Why Virginia Tech Might Win: Thomas is not just any quarterback. He's a game-changer who's liable to turn this season into his own personal campaign into the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft. He's enormous, improving all the time and like a locomotive when he takes off and runs. Thomas will be a handful for an Al Groh D that underachieved a year ago. The junior will also have access to a bunch of athletic targets at wide receiver, led by freakishly talented senior Marcus Davis.
No, it's not easy preparing for the Georgia Tech option, but unlike regular season games, Virginia Tech has had an entire offseason to get ready for this one. Plus, there's enough talent on hand for this to be coordinator Bud Foster's best unit in years. Yeah, the linebackers need to remain upright, but the first and final lines of the D are very quick and very good in the open field. Since the Yellow Jackets no longer have WR Stephen Hill to stretch the defense, everyone in Chicago maroon jerseys will be flowing to the backs. All of the linemen slide seamlessly, and corners Kyle Fuller and Antone Exum will step up and fill lanes like undersized linebackers.
What Will Happen: A night game with a division rival at the tail of a holiday weekend? Enter the sandman.
This would be a tough spot for Georgia Tech on the Flats. In Blacksburg, the Yellow Jackets will be fighting an uphill battle all evening. Virginia Tech has holes, especially on offense, but Georgia Tech won't be able to fully expose them. Plus, the Jackets are losing a key edge since the Hokies will have so much time to prepare for the triple-option running game. Thomas will be the show-stopper of the night, producing three touchdowns while making an early statement for Heisman contention. Georgia Tech will pile up its usual yards on the ground, but will stall in the red zone against a Hokies defense that becomes exponentially tougher and harder to beat in tight spaces.
CFN Prediction: Virginia Tech 34, Georgia Tech 23