Saban has hinted at the Tide's inexperience all summer. He told reporters the first day of game week that if Alabama doesn't win in 2012, it won't be because of a lack of talent or effort, it will be because of a lack of veteran starters. The good news for Alabama fans is that experience can be gained quickly in the right environment. Luckily for UA, they get to travel to Arlington, Texas, and play a top-10 team right off the bat. There's nothing like a nationally televised game to get you prepared for the season ahead.
It perhaps is the most-anticipated opener for the Wolverines since 1989, the last time they faced a defending national champion. They lost that game to top-ranked Notre Dame 24-19. To achieve a different result against the No. 2 Crimson Tide, they must find a way to channel the energy that has built over the last months. That starts with quarterback Denard Robinson, Michigan's most important player. Robinson has a history of being too jacked before games -- and he didn't anticipate those matchups for months. He has this one. "I know that's my weakness," Robinson said. "I've been working on it. At practice, I've been trying to amp myself up and then try to calm myself back down."
AJ McCarron and Denard Robinson could not be two more different quarterbacks. One lives and dies with the pass, the other is as comfortable running with the ball as he is throwing it. But who is best; who does more with the ball: Robinson or McCarron? No one doubts Robinson holds the edge in celebrity, but is he that much more effective a quarterback than his SEC counterpart? With the help of the ESPN Stats and Information Department, let's break down the two quarterbacks in terms of passing, rushing and clutch situations:
Belue signed with Alabama in 2010 out of Deshler but did not meet the NCAA’s academic standards. So instead of joining the Crimson Tide for preseason workouts, he headed to Northeast Mississippi Community College. He completed his stint there in time to enroll at Alabama in January, which allowed him to go through spring practice. The new and improved Belue impressed from the start. "He got thrown into the fire with the plays and everything, but he progressively learned the plays and has been a great competitor out there on the field," said Dee Milliner, who will start at the other cornerback slot. "He’s learning the plays and doing what he’s supposed to to."
Can Michigan win? Yes. Are they likely to win? No. But this is a showcase game and a loss to the defending national champs, while a bitter thought, is not terminal. One thing for certain: there is no better measuring stick for current progress and future needs for improvement. To get to the level of Alabama there is no easy way, that is evident. So strap them up, turn them loose, and see what happens. There is nothing else left to do at this stage.
The Tide are too strong up front. This is an opportunity to take an underrated Alabama team, who too many are trying to pigeonhole into the 2010 mold, over a Michigan team that many don't realize was not nearly as good as its 2011 record. Bama's defense is not nearly as inexperienced as it was in 2010 coming off the 2009 championship. The Wolverines have Shoelace at QB, but those fun college stories often seem to come to an end when facing Saban's Alabama squads. Michigan took way too much money from me in 2011. I'm taking it all back. Starting now.
In all of the sometimes-heated discussion about how the University of Alabama matches up with Michigan, one point of conflict hardly elicits more than a shrug before the verdict is conceded to the Crimson Tide. The contest between the Alabama offensive line and a rebuilding Wolverines defensive line is, for most observers, all Alabama. Michigan returns only one starter on its defensive front, senior end Craig Roh, and even he switched from the weak side to the strong side. At the other spots on the four-man front, Michigan has attempted to add bulk and strength, but will have minimal experience.
Nearly 30 years after he coached his final game and then passed away a month later, Paul "Bear" Bryant remains a powerful presence looming over the Alabama football program. And with good reason. Bryant directed the Crimson Tide to six national championships in less than 20 years, neatly divided between three in the 1960s and three more in the ‘70s. It is easily the greatest run of sustained success for the Alabama program, and one of the best in all of college football history. The architect of those championship decades will forever hold a special place in the hearts of all Alabama fans. Still, as Nick Saban continues to accumulate victories and championship trophies as the current Alabama head coach, it is tempting to propose something that just a few years ago would have been considered heresy among Tide devotees. Is Saban threatening to become even more popular than Bryant in the state that "Bear" built?
Although Alabama had one of the most reliable rushing attacks in the nation last year, not many facts support the notion that the Crimson Tide was conservative offensively. Consider: With only 9 yards separating UA's rushing production (2,788) from its passing production (2,797) for the entire season, the Crimson Tide was as well-balanced as a Wallenda on a high wire. McCarron threw 45 more passes on the season than Trent Richardson had carries. With an average of 215 passing yards per game, the Crimson Tide ranked fourth in the Southeastern Conference. Another aggressive trend for the Alabama offense has been a strong willingness to throw on first down. Against LSU in the BCS National Championship Game, the Crimson Tide attempted a pass on 20 of 31 first-down snaps, and most of the rushes came late in the game with the score in hand. With the game more in doubt, UA had at one point thrown on 18 of 21 first-down plays. And that was no one-game anomaly. According to Saban, the game plan against Tennessee last season was to throw play-action passes on first down, though McElwain did little of that in the first half, in which UA's offense struggled. "You throw a play-action pass on every first down until I tell you to quit," Saban recalled telling McElwain. "So in that case, I didn't have to call the defense or the offensive plays, but we scored on three big plays in a row against Tennessee on long passes, all on first down. I told him 'OK, now you can run it again if you want.'"
In case you've forgotten since last fall, FFFF is the weekly film breakdown of Michigan's upcoming opponent where I apply my (limited) knowledge of X's and O's—luckily, this week much of the technical brilliance is provided by Chris Brown. College football fans should know a few things about Alabama: they're good (duh), they play a soul-crushing 3-4 defense, and they grind out wins with a glacial-paced zone running offense that's brutally efficient. I'll get into more detail below, of course, but that's the Cliffs Notes version if you hate to read.
Alabama (-13½) 34, Michigan 24 A lot of the talk heading up to this big SEC-Big 10 showdown has been about how an inexperienced Alabama defense is going to handle Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson. A better question might be how a rebuilt Michigan defensive front is going to handle Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack and D.J. Fluker.
Hoke grew up in Ohio, rooting for the maize and blue, and worked on Michigan's staff when Saban returned to Michigan State as a head coach in the late 1990s. Now, Hoke is in his second season in charge after a much-heralded debut season in which the Wolverines won a BCS bowl game for the first time since 2000 - when they beat Alabama in the Orange Bowl - and 11 games for the first time since 2006. He has embraced the program's rich tradition and added some wrinkles of his own. He refuses to even say the name Ohio State, blares the fight song and other Michigan-related tunes at 1:30 p.m. each day during game week at Schembechler Hall and has pieces of paper put on windows in the building that feature that week's opponent. "It keeps our mind on the prize," Wolverines linebacker Kenny Demens said. "We understand what's at stake here. With him and everybody preaching, `Beat Bama,' that's keeping us focused." Down at Alabama, Saban said he doesn't use any such signs of visual motivation. "We don't do a lot of that kind of stuff," he said.
"We are really excited to finally play a game and have been looking forward to this opportunity for a long time," sophomore safety Vinnie Sunseri said. "We’ve been preparing for this game so much, and we’re glad it is finally here."