With Alabama seeking to defend another national championship, early September brings another marquee non-conference opponent for the Crimson Tide, this time in the form of a resurgent Michigan program who surprised everyone by winning eleven games and the Sugar Bowl a year ago. No scrumptious cupcakes in the friendly confines of Bryant-Denny Stadium this season, and the match-up is perhaps the headliner of week one of the college football season.
Alabama figures to be the known commodity of the two, and barring key injuries at certain thin positions, 'Bama expects to be among the nation's elite yet again in 2012, even if its national championship cannot be successfully defended. Michigan is more of an unknown, and the relevant distinction for Wolverines is whether or not they are really on the cusp of arriving or if the first-year success under Brady Hoke was part improvement and part mirage. Hoke deserves credit for making strides in fundamental play, team discipline, and defensive effectiveness, but is this team really ready to return to the nation's elite, or was the surprise season a year ago largely a by-product of a weak conference and good fortune in close games?
Either way, the bigger problem for Michigan in the immediate future is that this is not the Big Ten, and Alabama is not another iteration of their typical foe. The Wolverines may have won eleven games a year ago and be firmly on the path to a return to the upper echelons of college football, but Alabama is not Illinois or Ohio State. The potential reward here for Michigan is clear, but the task ahead is especially imposing and they have not faced a team of Alabama's caliber in several years.
Denard Robinson receives all of the media hype for Michigan, and in many ways rightfully so. He was relatively respectable a year ago as a passer, but his raw athleticism at the quarterback position is without peer. He is with no real argument the quickest quarterback Alabama has faced without Tyrod Taylor, and his explosiveness alone gives the Michigan offense a dimension that it otherwise does not have from the skill positions. Fitzgerald Toussaint is a quality tailback, but he is more solid than superstar and there is no one in the wide receiver corps who produces tangible fear in quality secondaries. Likewise, the offensive line is respectable, but generally small and there has been attrition on the interior. In other words, make no mistake, Robinson makes the offensive attack go and stopping him is of tantamount importance because the supporting cast is arguably insufficient to carry the load on their own.
Defensively, this is a more pedestrian and unremarkable team. Michigan was relatively middling against the run a year ago, and by having to replace three starters on the defensive line the defensive front could border on an outright weakness. The linebacker corps is relatively solid, but size is an issue, particularly outside, and combined the front seven limits the effectiveness of what is otherwise a quality defensive backfield.
Alabama comes into Dallas a two-touchdown favorite in this game, and the match-up comparison supports such a sizable betting line. 'Bama figures to hold a significant edge over Michigan at the point of attack on both sides of the line of scrimmage, and if the concerns in the Wolverine defensive front seven holds true, the Alabama ground game could have a big night. Moreover, Michigan seems unlikely to consistently exploit any of the inexperience that Alabama has in the secondary, and their continuing issues in the return game could make it difficult to take advantage of Alabama's infuriatingly undisciplined and ineffective kick return defense. As such, if Alabama can avoid the big, negative plays, it's relatively hard to see a path to victory for the Wolverines.
To that end, if Alabama can adequately control Robinson, Michigan figures to be in for an uphill battle, and in doing so restraint will be the name of the game. Overly aggressive pass rushers invariably lead to breakdowns and big negative plays when explosive athletes play the quarterback position. The goal for the Alabama defensive line and rush linebackers must be to keep containment and force Robinson to throw from the pocket into crowded and constantly changing zones. Give Robinson complex and rotating looks, force him to read defenses in the pocket, make quick decisions, drive tough throws down the field, and not allow him to chew up easy yardage with his natural athleticism. And when he does tuck the ball and run, 'Bama must be aggressive in pursuit and violent in contact upon arrival. As is the customary refrain, make him pay for every inch with the hard currency of pain and punishment.
The bigger concern for Alabama, though, could be simply avoiding the sloppy, inconsistent play that so frequently defines early season football, and which is the source of constant hand-wringing from coaching staffs as marquee match-ups approach in early September.
Consider the Virginia Tech game three years ago, an opponent likely similar in overall quality to this Michigan team. 'Bama absolutely dominated that night in the Georgia Dome, outgaining the Hokies 498 to 155 and controlling the football for nearly forty minutes. Tech converted only two third downs all night long and only mustered eleven first downs. Nevertheless, Alabama played sloppy at times, and two busted assignments and an ill-advised throw by Greg McElroy resulted in seventeen easy points for Virginia Tech, and despite the domination 'Bama found itself trailing in the fourth quarter before cleaning up the play and pulling away down the stretch.
Much of the same concern could be voiced tomorrow night with Michigan. No, the Wolverines might not be good enough to edge 'Bama, but performance in the early season usually tends to be spotty and unpredictable, especially when new faces are given significant responsibilities. In other words, Alabama looks to be the clear favorite, but not decidedly so such that it can make a few key mistakes and still be assured victory.
Michigan is no LSU, to be sure, but in equal comparison they are perhaps no Penn State, either. Robinson is far more dangerous than anything Penn State has put on the field at quarterback in many years, the overall roster is no worse and is likely superior, and frankly the coaching is better to boot. The Wolverines likely won't be slowly suffocated into submission like Penn State was the past two years, and with Robinson the offensive firepower is there to make some noise along the way. Nevertheless, with clear advantages in both line match-ups and more overall speed and depth, this game is there for the taking for the Crimson Tide.
For Alabama, the recipe for success is simple enough: contain Robinson, exploit the advantages in the trenches, and don't allow mental breakdowns and turnovers to result in easy points. Executing the game plan, however, can be a much more difficult task, especially in early September.
Hope for the best.