Michigan vs. Alabama Primer

Going to the game…a tailgate… maybe just the day with watching with friends on TV? Don't be caught off guard with what happens on the field, Saturday. Know your opponent with the Michigan vs. Alabama Primer.

Each week we scout Michigan's opponent. We'll start with the basics, and then explore some relevant match-ups. For those that want to know more, we'll sprinkle in a mixture of history, reflection, and philosophy for a comprehensive look.

#8 Michigan (0-0) vs. #2 Alabama (0-0)
Best ‘Bama win in 2011 Season: LSU 21-0 to win the National Championship
Worst ‘Bama loss in 2011 Season: LSU in Tuscaloosa 9-6 (OT)

Alabama Players to Watch:
QB A.J. McCarron (Jr. #10) Offensive MVP of the BCS Title Game; entering 2nd season as starter
RB Eddie Lacy (Jr. #42) Takes over for Trent Richardson; Seven scores; 7.1 ypc.
C Barrett Jones (Sr. #75) Outland Trophy Winner and Unanimous first-team All-American (2011)
 NG Jessie Williams (Sr. #54) Benched 600 lbs this Spring; Should contend for All-American in 2012
LB Nico Johnson Sr. (Sr. #35) Most experienced LB; 5-Star U.S. Army All-American who had to wait

Last meeting: U-M 35-34 OT in the 2000 Orange Bowl

What a win means for Michigan: The Wolverines would be, at least temporarily, the marquee team in the Big Ten and a bigger favorite to win the conference championship. Fans will declare that “we’re back!” Brady Hoke would continue to surprise the pundits. Denard Robinson would likely become a Heisman candidate for winning on a big stage. It would be the Wolverines highest opponent ranked win since beating #1 Miami in 1984.

What a win means for Alabama:  The Tide would receive more #1 votes in the polls. Depending on the score, it could mean that a defense that lost seven starters and four to the NFL by the 35th pick can simply reload and contend.  Once again, SEC bragging rights over the Big Ten. The Tide would even their series record with Michigan at 2-2.

Alabama players taken in the 2012 NFL Draft: (8); Trent Richardson, RB, 1st Rnd (#3); Mark Barron, S, 1st Rnd (#7); Dre Kirkpatrick, CB, 1st Rnd (#17); Dont'a Hightower, LB, 1st Rnd (#25); Courtney Upshaw, LB, 2nd Rnd (#35); Josh Chapman, NT, 5th Rnd (#136); DeQuan Menzie, CB, 5th Rnd (#146); Brad Smelley, FB, 7th Rnd (#247).

What Does Alabama Brag About?

  • 14 National Titles
  • Most Bowl Appearance (59)
  • Most Bowl Wins (33)
  • Bear Bryant : Six National Championships; 73-2 at Bryant Denny Stadium
  • Bryant Denny Stadium: Joins the 100,000+ capacity level in 2010 (101,821).
  • Eight NFL First Round Draft Picks in the last two years
  • 7 NFL Hall of Famers
  • 22 SEC Championships; Tennessee is #2 with 13
  • A winning record against every school in the SEC

There are two different team perspectives as Alabama and Michigan kickoff the 2012 college football season. It’s clear that this game presents an opportunity for the Wolverines to reestablish themselves in the eyes of the nation as a premier football team. The Crimson Tide has a different outlook. To them one game against Michigan is too short-sighted.

Nick Saban

It’s not about the first game or even one game. It’s about 14 games. It’s about whether the defending national champions are good enough to repeat.  It’s about winning three titles in four years.  It’s really the only question that fans care about. It’s the question because Alabama is trying to learn from the past mistakes of 2010, a team on paper that was better than their 2009 National Championship team.  That 2010 team failed with three losses, so in Tuscaloosa they want to know how if it’s going to be different and whether the team has learned from just two seasons ago.

It’s analogous to Michigan basketball thinking they arrived after making the NCAA tournament in ‘09, the first time in 11 years, only not to be even in the N.I.T. the following season. After getting back in 2011, seniors Zack Novak and Stu Douglass were determined to make sure 2010 didn’t happen again in 2012. For the Tide, there are twenty 4th and 5th year 'Novak’s and Douglass’s' out there that are taking the same approach.

"I think this team is different from the teams in the past, in a lot of different ways," Alabama head coach, Nick Saban said.

It has to be different. The Crimson Tide lost seven starters from what arguably can be considered as the best defense in the modern era. Alabama has four returning starters at corner, safety, linebacker, and up front where Jessie Williams (Sr. #54) is moving from end to tackle. Playing with them are those that have seen situational opportunities but have a strong resume. Many of these new players like LB C.J. Mosley (Jr. #32), DE Damion Square (Sr. #92) and CB Dee Milliner (Jr. #28), are showing up as one of the best in the conference to play the position in the preseason magazines.

“It's kind of a talent overload, man,” Square said. “There's just so many guys that are great.”

Three teams come to mind as teams that ‘reload’: USC, Texas and Alabama. The Crimson Tide has been consistently recruiting in the Top 5 during Saban’s regime. Like Michigan teams decades ago, many of these players have been waiting their turn to start but with the potential to become all-conference players. Whether there is any inconsistency in this talented group that could cost Alabama a national championship opportunity is, and will remain after Michigan, the bigger picture.

AJ McCarron

The offense has some changes, too. They didn’t lose six players to the NFL Draft, but they did lose Trent Richardson (1,679 yards, 21 rushing touchdowns). The other big change came in the coaching staff as former offensive coordinator Jim McElwain took the head coaching job at Colorado State. Replacing him is Doug Nussmeier, from Washington. Saban’s offenses have been described as bland, but that may be more on McElwain than Saban. There are indications that under Nussmeier, the Tide’s offense will open up more.

He’s a very bright guy with a lot of positive energy, says Saban. “He has a lot of good ideas that we’ve implemented into our offense.”

If Nussmeier’s name is familiar he was the quarterback coach at Michigan State from 2003-’05. He coached Jeff Smoker and Drew Stanton.

The players on offense seem pretty thrilled, including returning quarterback A.J. McCarron (Jr. #10).

"He’s awesome,” McCarron said. “He’s really cool, down to earth, cuts jokes in the film room. It’s definitely a cool experience working with him so far, and for our relationship as coach and quarterback to keep growing.”

Now no one is going to rip their new coach, but If Alabama’s ‘A’ Game, the equivalent of Michigan’s annual spring scrimmage, was a preview of what’s to come, the Michigan defense will have to be ready for the power run and for the deep pass. No one felt neglected as McCarron was 29-42 for 304 yards and two scores in April.

McCarron grew as a quarterback, his first as a starter, in 2011. The proverbial ‘caretaker’ QB finished his sophomore season picking apart LSU’s defense with 234 yds and a completion rate of 67%, while picking the offensive MVP in the national title game. He finished the year with 2,634 yards passing, and a manageable 16 TD’s with five interceptions. His passer rating was 147.3 which was 26th in the nation.

Alabama offense vs. Michigan Defense

The biggest match-up disparity in the entire game is Michigan’s defensive line versus Bama’s offensive line. They’re taking Outland trophy winner Barrett Jones (Sr. #75) and moving him from left tackle to center to make room for the highly rated sophomore Cyrus Kouandjio (#71)! Jones and Chance Warmack (Sr. #65) may be the two best linemen in the SEC. D.J. Fluker (Jr. #76) joins them both on the preseason’s SEC’s First-Team in December.

I asked Brady Hoke on Monday if this is the best offensive line he’s seen.

“From what I’ve seem of them, yes,” Hoke said. “Compare them to some of those Iowa lines when I was here before, being as good as anybody.”

So you take an offensive line that is the best a defensive line coach has ever seen and put them up against a Wolverine team that loses three starters. Hoke says he isn’t concerned about being overmatched, but this week Michigan is changing things up front by shifting Will Campbell (Sr. #73) and Jibreel Black (Jr. #79) and inserting Quinton Washington (Jr. #76) at tackle. The idea is to add more weight to engage the offensive line on running downs. If Saban and Nussmeier go conservative, than it should help the Wolverines. If they broaden their horizons and use the entire field, then it could backfire.

Eddie Lacy

With Richardson gone, Eddie Lacy (Jr. #42) assumes the #1 running back position. Lacy finished the 2011 season with 674 yards and seven touchdowns. Lacy is also a threat to catch the ball averaging nearly 12 yards per catch. He’s battled an ankle injury in camp that has hindered his practice time.

The Tide like to rotate two backs, so expect to see Jalston Fowler (Jr. #45) carry the ball. He had 385 rushing yards and four scores in 2011 and is a much bigger back that could also be used as a lead blocker. T.J. Yeldon (Fr. #4), an early enrollee who just happened to win the offensive MVP of Alabama’s “A Game”, is one fans are excited to see. Finally former Michigan recruit Dee Hart (Rd. Fr. #1), who is coming off knee surgery, is a bit of wildcard with potential. To Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, it doesn’t matter.

“Whoever they put at running back, whoever the running back is going to be, it’s Alabama. That guy is going to be the next guy,” Mattison said.

Two other exciting freshmen are receivers Amari Cooper (#9) and Eddie Williams (#15) and they need to be. Cooper, like Lacy has an injury (foot) that has limited his camp but both will play. There just isn’t a lot of production from this group. Kenny Bell leads the returners with 255 yards and two touchdowns. Saban recognized the talent deficiency and got these two highly rated recruits. Cooper is 6’2” and Williams is 6’3”, so J.T. Floyd (Sr. #8) and Blake Countess (So. #18) will have their hands full. Let’s face it, however, both are experienced in facing dominant Big Ten receivers and Notre Dame’s Michael Floyd. McCarron should have a little more punch in his throws to this group. McCarron revealed he played most of the season hurt after injuring his labrum late September during the Arkansas game. After having surgery in January, McCarron feels his arm is much stronger to throw deep.

The guess here is that Alabama will attempt to pound the football as the season opens and challenge Michigan’s secondary only when they have to. The Tide has the personal to run in between the tackles, around the tackles and to catch short passes in the backfield.

Michigan will need to create some turnover magic that they benefitted often from last fall. The Wolverines had 29 takeaways in 2011 which was far better than the 35 they had in 2009 and 2010 combined.

Michigan Offense vs. Alabama Defense

As for the flow of the game goes, I expect this to look very similar to Sugar Bowl. The Crimson Tide defense will be aggressive as it is their nature under defensive coordinator Kirby Smart. Virginia Tech’s defense was pretty decent, but it wasn’t a vintage Bud Foster defense. The Wolverines played the Sugar Bowl with a limited David Molk, further complicating things. Tech managed to smother and then penetrate the Michigan offense up front to seize control for the most part, but Michigan took advantage of the few opportunities that were given. Until the new line gels, this may not seem much different as Michigan tries to hang in.

Williams who can bench press 600 lbs and should provide quite a challenge for new Michigan center Ricky Barnum (Sr. #52) and new guard Elliott Mealer (Sr. #57). The outside linebackers like to rush and the Michigan offense will have to be very clear on responsibilities with the pass rush because they will come from different places.

Smart is going to have to be very careful; however, because Denard can ‘turn the Tide’ if someone makes a positional mistake. That’s nothing new, but what is different from a personnel stand point is that you have a well-coached team with very talented, but extremely limited players with experience. This isn’t Notre Dame’s defense. They are fast with excellent recovery skills, but there may be no one better in college football to exploit a defensive mistake than Denard.

Denard is going to need help. With Fitzgerald Toussaint’s (Jr. #28) status still undetermined, another threat at running back has to emerge. Whether it’s Thomas Rawls (So. #38) or Justice Hayes (Rd Fr. #5) , someone else has to keep the Bama defense keying on Denard exclusively. The Tide has allowed only five players to rush over 100 yards in five years.

The biggest concern however, is the passing game. I asked offensive coordinator Al Borges in February to reassure me that the receiver group is fine without Junior Hemmingway. To his credit, he didn’t skip a beat in telling me that there won’t be an issue, but I’m not persuaded. Roy Roundtree (Sr. #21) can return to form. Jeremy Gallon (Jr. #10) has great hands for the slot, but Michigan will be challenged to fine a vertical threat for either the long pass or the high one. That’s why you should expect to see Devin Gardner (Jr. #12) playing wide receiver this year. He’s 6’4 and has looked very comfortable and natural at wide out. His playing time won’t necessarily be dictated by his abilities, he can play the position, but will be determined by how much the position group needs him (they do) and whether 3rd string quarterback Russell Bellomy (Rd Fr. #8) can lead the team in case Denard and Gardener get hurt (he can).

Without a doubt, Michigan is going to need to be successful passing the ball against man coverage in this game and can’t afford to have penalties or dropped balls that cost them first downs. Smart will likely play man coverage to force Denard to be accurate. It will be up to the receivers to be good enough to get them to focus on them instead of #16 deciding whether to take off towards them with their backs turned.

Most likely Crimson Tide you’ll remember after the game is over: A.J. McCarron

McCarron isn’t on the Heisman watch lists, but barring injury he’ll develop into a fine quarterback. Don’t look for this guy to throw picks in the red zone. It didn’t happen in 2011. It’s much more likely that they’ll miss field goals in the red zone instead. He makes good decisions and will keep the chains moving just enough for us to remember who he is. Hopefully this game won’t be remembered as the ‘McCarron game’.


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