The University of Alabama football program will do something today that it hasn't done since January. That doesn't mean the Crimson Tide will play a game - you still have to wait until Saturday for that. But it will release a depth chart, an event not quite as rare as Halley's Comet, but sort of like the flight of a migratory hummingbird that zips through Tuscaloosa on its way to Venezuela or Surinam. Fans crave the information, though. Alabama practices are closed, and the scrimmage stats are sometimes hard to decipher without context (and do nothing to tell you who played well at left guard, for instance). So the depth chart is a cherished artifact of actual information and can even be useful, if you remember the rules for reading it without straining your retinas. First, looks can deceive when all positions are not equal. Every position will have a player listed as a "starter" (although he may or may not start) and another listed as a backup.
"High achievers can’t stand mediocre people and mediocre people can’t stand high achievers," Saban told his team in the locker room following the spring game. "So what are you gonna be?" Throughout camp, improvement and focus have been the mantra with the media. Senior linebacker Nico Johnson came closest even acknowledging what is in front of Alabama this season. He also welcomes the challenge. "In the teams I’ve been on the last three years, I don’t think we’ve been so focused in and committed to what we were doing," Johnson said. "We have an opportunity here and everybody understands that. We’re just trying to take advantage of it."
Alabama has plenty of choices for H-back, but coach Nick Saban said that none can play the position as Brad Smelley did, who is now a rookie with the Cleveland Browns. "I think Smelley was really kind of a special guy at that position," Saban said. However, others are competing for the job. "Kelly Johnson has done a good job because he's tough and he's a good athlete," Saban said. "We're trying to do it some with (running back) Jalston Fowler, because he's 250 pounds, can block, is a really good receiver, is fast, has running skills and running ability, but he's also playing running back. "Harrison Jones is working at that position. We have several guys that are working at that position, and we've got a couple of big guys that are pretty good blocking tight ends. So do we have a specialty guy like Smelley was? Maybe not all wrapped into one."
For the last few weeks the young and inexperienced Michigan defensive line has been facing off against one of the best offensive lines in the Big Ten during practice. That should pay off in a little under a week when that same group of defensive linemen have to contend with one of the best offensive lines in the country. If Michigan hopes to have any chance against the Crimson Tide on Saturday, that young offensive line is going to have to grow up fast. Alabama under Nick Saban is known for its punishing defense, but one area where the Tide has also excelled in the last few years is building strong running games on the back of large, talented offensive lines. The 2012 Crimson Tide offensive line might be the best Nick Saban has ever assembled. U-M coach Brady Hoke agrees, "I’m a defensive coach and watching that offensive line, that’s as good an offensive line as I’ve seen in college football."
"I think one of the unique things about it as it was built was it was meant to be more than a football stadium," said Brett Daniels, director of corporate communications for the stadium. "It's more of a sports and entertainment venue and an architectural icon." One of the stadium's striking features - apart from its retractable roof, it's immense size and a video board that's just a little smaller than New Hampshire - is that all of its inside signage is digital. For the Alabama-Michigan game, that signage will reflect the logos and colors of the two schools. "The atmosphere at these kind of events is just fantastic," Daniels said. "Being able to split the crowd with the bands and our (school-themed) signage, it feels like a college football game and not just a college game in an NFL stadium."
While tens of thousands on campus and throughout the country know him as an All-American and a standout on the Tide’s 2012 National Championship team, a small group of UA students know him as the leader of an annual mission trip designed to serve others in different parts of the world. Jones, an accounting master’s student with a 4.0 GPA and one more class to complete his degree, has proven to be an expert at balancing academics, athletics and service. Aside from the trips he leads annually, Jones has actively participated in tornado relief efforts in Tuscaloosa and has worked with countless other community service organizations during his time as a UA student. "God has blessed me to have so much influence at 22, and I want to use it in the best way possible," he said.
On the field, however, shy isn't going to work this season. Alabama is asking Jones for the same kind of confidence he shows when he tells a joke. He won't remain in the background. If everything works out as it appears to be going in preseason practice, Jones will help field kickoffs, return punts and be a big part of the receiving corps. "Christion Jones has done a really good job," Alabama head coach Nick Saban said. "He plays fast. He's got great speed. He's very explosive. I've been impressed with him as a return man as well. I think he's the kind of guy who can make a lot of big plays out there. I think he's a lot more confident at the receiver position now."
If the Wolverines are to contend for a BCS Championship this year, their chances start and end with star quarterback Denard Robinson, now a senior and entering his third year as the starter. As strong a Heisman candidate as their is in the nation, Robinson continues to torch defenses with his supreme athleticism and improving pocket presence. Barring injury, he is all but assured to break Antwaan Randle El's Big Ten record for rushing yards by a quarterback. However, if Michigan is to pick up right where it left off last year, Robinson will need to continue to develop his passing skills. At the Big Ten's media day, Hoke said Robinson has a full grasp of the system and has really matured as a player. "He has really become a guy you can count on when it comes to leadership and how his work ethic is and those things that he's done," Hoke said.
"Our expectations are always the same and that’s to win the Big Ten championship, year in and year out," Hoke said. "That’s the expectation for the Michigan football team. "I think remembering what the expectations are, remembering where we failed and why we failed, I think that’s a big part of it," Hoke added, later. "As coaches, that’s on us first; believe me, it’s on me. We failed because I failed as the head coach."
Reaction to the Alabama game - After the season opener, there will be a notion that Michigan’s season will be complete based on its result. If the Wolverines shock the world and win, there will still be a tremendous amount of work to do to equal or improve on last season. If they lose, their basic goals will still lie ahead. It’s not an all-or-nothing game. It just seems like it, and maintaining a collective level head following the Alabama game will be extremely important.
The lack of a three-peat in college football since World War II has been well documented. But winning three national championships in a four-year span is almost as rare. In fact, Nebraska is the only team to have pulled it off. Alabama captured three titles in five years from 1961-65, and Miami did the same from 1987-91. Some of the premier programs in college football -- Oklahoma, Ohio State, Texas, USC -- have come close. Florida had a chance in 2009 but lost to Alabama in the SEC championship game.
Saban bristled at the suggestion that Gentry’s career was quiet until last season. "Nick Gentry really had an impact here as an inside rusher his entire career," the coach said. Gentry "did a fantastic job because he had great quickness, was very smart, could use his hands well and in his role made just as much of a contribution as a lot of other guys but never really got recognized till last year. "And hopefully we’ll have some other guys that can fit into that role, that are good inside rushers, that are hard guys to block, that have his quickness. We have a few, but we’ll see how they do."