MICHIGAN WILL WIN IF… Alabama is replacing half of last year's homicidal defense, including both starting outside linebackers and both starting cornerbacks, and those who do return have never faced a running threat at quarterback anywhere near the caliber of Denard Robinson. (Last year, in fact, the Tide didn't face anyone who could be accurately described as a scrambler or a "dual threat" quarterback at all.) As relentlessly disciplined as Nick Saban's defenses tend to be, Robinson's quickness in tight quarters can't be simulated on a whiteboard or by the scout team, and any mental lapses or sloppy pursuit angles from one of the youngsters could mean lights out. That said, Robinson likely will have to complete a long pass or two on the new corners to either keep the defense from crowding the line of scrimmage or make them pay for it when they do, which will be a tall order. If the Wolverine D manages to hold up against the run, though, a couple of quick strikes could be the difference in a low-scoring game.
"I think first games are always really exciting for everyone. We are really looking forward to the opportunity that we have to play against a really good, well coached Michigan team," the Crimson Tide coach said. "It's always exciting to have, for us at least, to have a challenging game in the opener. I think that really excites the players throughout the year and not just this week, so we are looking forward to the opportunity and the challenge that we have." Yes, Saban allows for excitement. Cold, calculated and brutally efficient excitement.
Who could steal the show: Alabama: S Robert Lester will be one of the Alabama defenders keeping an eye on Robinson. Lester knows Robinson served up 15 interceptions in 2011, and he will be looking to add to his career total of 10 picks. He'll also have the tough task of tackling Robinson in the open field should he break into the secondary. Michigan: RB Fitzgerald Toussaint -- will he play or not? Coach Brady Hoke has danced around the question all week after the star back was arrested over the summer. He pleaded guilty to a charge of driving while visually impaired on Tuesday, but it's unclear if he'll be in the lineup Saturday. If he is, the Wolverines will hope he can continue the strong numbers he put up in the second half of 2011. Toussaint had four 100-yard games in the last six contests of the season on his way to a total of 1,041 yards on the ground.
Alabama's defensive backfield has to cover receivers but also be ready for run support when Robinson chooses to freelance. The trick is to stay with the receiver until Robinson crosses the line of scrimmage, because he is willing to sling it on the run if he sees a receiver make a late break to get open. "Just know that he can scramble out of the pocket and extend plays and make plays," safety Robert Lester said. "Just be fundamentally sound. We're going to do our job, that's what we're supposed to do. We've got to trust that the (defensive) line and the linebackers are going to do their job and contain him and rush him. "Every game we play, there's certain things that we key. We read run-pass. To be quicker on the run if it's a run, it brings more to the table in being able to stop it."
Michigan will find ways to exploit the young Alabama defense on Saturday. There will be holes and breakdowns and miscues. The reason that I, and anyone with any familiarity with conference football not wearing deeply maize-shaded glasses, can't see Michigan winning this game isn't because of the level of athletes on Alabama's roster. That alone doesn't win you football games. It is the coaching. The fact that once something inevitably goes wrong it will be fixed quickly. Those tiny windows will be slammed shut, and by the end Michigan will be gasping for air. It is the way Nick Saban does it, and has always done it. Alabama doesn't get an A+ for coaching because Saban is the one teaching the class. He does it every Saturday in the fall.
On Michigan's defense vs. Alabama's offensive line: "We’re just looking forward to getting on the field. We’ve been hitting each other for a long time. We’re excited about our first game, no matter who it’s against. I definitely think playing Michigan has maybe added a little extra excitement, just because they are a name-brand opponent, an opponent we have a lot of respect for. We’re certainly excited offensive line-wise. We know we have a chance to have a good offensive line this year. This is the first step in that direction."
4. Sophomore linebacker Trey DePriest said he owes a lot to former Alabama linebacker Dont'a Hightower. - "I took everything I could from Dont’a and I’m looking forward to stepping in and playing my role ... The fronts that we have, you’ve got to know where to fit, what’s your gap assignment, how to shuffle stack, when to go downhill hit your guard. He taught me that.”
“They're Michigan,” he said. “They're not going to change what they do. Any time you play a big-time program like that, they know what they do, and they know what they're capable of, and they're going to do it. You've got to stop them. It'll be a good challenge for us come Saturday. It's something I'm looking forward to.” Almost all of the pregame hype has focused on the game’s other quarterback, Michigan star Denard Robinson. That doesn’t bother McCarron. “I don't really worry about everybody else,” he said. “I just kind of go out and do what I'm capable of doing and play the way I can. I let my game talk for itself, but I don't really. ... More power to them. That's awesome that you get all that publicity.”
Back to Crimson Tide game Split your practice in the fall as you always would, or special attention given to that first game? “We’ll do what we normally do. We’ll go, there’s a lot from an offensive, defensive kicking standpoint that we’ll put in and fundamentals and techniques. As we get closer to game day, we’ll focus more in on what they do, which is pretty good for us anyway because there is a lot that we do that they do, so our offense and defense can gel against each other.”
No. 2 Alabama versus No. 8 Michigan. Tradition versus tradition. The winningest program in college football history versus the school with the most national championships. Said a jovial Nico Johnson, "I'll take 14 national titles." The senior linebacker for the Crimson Tide was in a good mood to start game week. In his fourth year at Alabama, he has been through games like this before. Alabama played No. 5 Virginia Tech in Atlanta to kick off his freshman season. In the last two years he has faced San Jose State in Week 1 before a home-and-home series with Penn State. If he had it his way, he'd rather just cut to the chase. "Oh yeah," Johnson said when asked whether he'd prefer Michigan to the fighting Spartans of San Jose State. "You kind of learn a lot playing against a team like this, a good team early. You learn a lot, instead of waiting on down the line to learn those lessons.
The good news for the Michigan defense is that all three starting linebackers return, along with all four members of the secondary, which started in the Sugar Bowl. Fifth-year senior Kenny Demens will man the middle once again after leading the team with 94 tackles in 2011. He will be flanked by a pair of sophomores in Jake Ryan (37 tackles, 8 TFLs) and Desmond Morgan (63 tackles). In the secondary, fifth-year senior Jordan Kovacs (75 tackles, 4 sacks in 2011) is a natural leader. Junior Thomas Gordon will man the other safety spot, while senior J.T. Floyd and sophomore Blake Countess round out the secondary at cornerback.
Around the University of Alabama practice field this week, it's not hard to tell which jersey numbers belong to Michigan's best players. Scout team players wear numbers corresponding to the opposing players that are of the greatest concern to the UA coaching staff, and there are several wearing No. 25 this week. That would be Michigan fifth-year senior linebacker Kenny Demens. "He's an outstanding football player, probably one of their best football players," said UA coach Nick Saban. "He's somebody we're going to have to get blocked and finish on because these guys don't stay blocked very long. He can run, he's a very good athlete and he runs their defense, pretty much.
It’s obvious that Alabama is one of the top five teams in college football. Again, why L.S.U.? Because the Tigers are chillingly good, and the Tigers might also have a quarterback, which is a frightening proposition. In addition, I think that L.S.U. is experienced enough – and Les Miles is wily enough – to avoid falling under the same spell that has cursed Florida since Alabama took the Gators behind the woodshed in the 2009 SEC title game. We’ll know whether that’s the case on Nov. 3. Until that point, I don’t expect Alabama to lose a game; nor do I expect Alabama to lose again after that point. But of the top four teams in the country, Alabama is the one I feel is most likely not to win its own conference. That’s all. But like the rest of the SEC – and the rest of the nation – I’m terrified at the proposition that Alabama won’t miss a beat.
If you walked in at the wrong time and didn't hang around for longer than two minutes, you might have left thinking running back Eddie Lacy was experiencing some issues with his right ankle. That wasn't the case, though. Lacy simply needed some more tape reapplied to it, so he sat out one drill before rejoining the group for its next task.
Not even a trip to Cowboys Stadium is changing Alabama’s schedule heading into Saturday’s season opener. Alabama, as it typically does, will hold its Friday walk-through in Tuscaloosa before it boards its flight to Dallas. Upon arrival, the Crimson Tide will travel to the $1.5 billion, state-of-the-art facility to "get a lay of the land," coach Nick Saban said Wednesday. "I’ve been there before and I think it will be good that they have an opportunity to do that," Saban said.
"We love our football. We love our coaches, and we put them on a pedestal," said Kelvin Croom, one of the first African Americans to play for Bryant in the '70s and a preacher at College Hill Baptist Church in Tuscaloosa. "Coach Bryant was one of the first coaches in the country to walk around with state troopers."
I know many Alabama fans are headed to Dallas for Saturday’s game against Michigan, and some are driving that long stretch of I-20. If are you leaving today, understand you will be driving through tropical rain over much of Mississippi, and there have been many reports of flooding. However, I have heard of no I-20 flooding problems so far, but just be ready to take it slow and easy with heavy rain at times in the Magnolia State. The most important issue is the potential for small tornadoes in the tropical rain bands, so be sure and have your radio on and hopefully tuned to local stations that are doing weather coverage. A portable weather radio is also a great idea. The weather will improve once you get past Monroe, Louisiana.