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Looking Ahead: What Can Michigan Expect From Alabama in the 2012 Opener?

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Looking Ahead: What Can Michigan Expect From Alabama in the 2012 Opener?
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Sometime in the second or third quarter, after another Jordan Jefferson speed option to nowhere, the conversation shifted dramatically. No longer was the question: Was LSU's 2011 season the most impressive in the history of college football? It was: Is the 2011 Alabama defense the best ever? 

By the final whistle of a 21-0 strangulation, one would be hard pressed to make an argument contrary.

Alabama finished the season ranked first in the nation in all five of the major defensive categories, rush yards allowed, pass yards allowed, pass efficiency defense, total yards allowed, and points allowed per game.

For long stretches of the national championship game it wasn't even assured that the Tigers would cross the 50-yard line. Had LSU got seven points for each trip into Bama territory, they would have still lost by two touchdowns.

Michigan fans watching the game spent most of it cringing at the thought of the sub-200 lbs quarterback and running back combo of Denard Robinson and Fitzgerald Toussaint running headfirst into Dont'a Hightower and his buddies for 60 minutes.  

But what do the Wolverines really have to expect when these teams meet next September in the Jerry Dome to kick off the 2012 season?

Can this defense rebuild?

Will the offense take a step forward?

Will the team be likely to start 2012 in the top spot on the polls, and manage to end the year at the same place (again)?

First, the Bama offense will have some holes to fill.

The offensive line will lose its center and first team all-SEC selection William Vlachos, but to bring back both second-teamer Chance Warmack and first-teamer Barrett Jones (both juniors) should help keep the running game functioning at a high level.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Although out of any position on the offense, the biggest shoes to fill will undoubtedly be those of Trent Richardson, the Heisman finalist that doubles as the boulder from Raiders of the Lost Arc. 

All season long fans have been treated to articles and Sportscenter segments on just how strong Richardson is, and if he should decide to take his game to the NFL (he is, after all, a junior and could come back for one more year) it would be all the better for Michigan's chances in the game. Richardson finished the year with 1,679 rushing yards, 338 receiving yards, and 24 total touchdowns. 

Those numbers don't bode well for any defense lining up opposite him, especially one losing two of its best defensive players in Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen. However, watch out for Eddie Lacy who looks to fill the last two Bama running backs' shoes.

While quarterback AJ McCarron will once again return—and if the national title game is any indication it will be as the prototypical Nick Saban quarterback—the Bama passing game will take a hit in the form of senior receivers Marquis Maze (56 rec, 627 yards, 1 touchdown) and  Darius Hanks (26 rec, 328 yards, 1 touchdown), as well as senior tight end Brad Smelly (34 rec, 356 yards, 4 touchdowns). 

Add in the contribution of Richardson to the passing game and Bama is set to lose its top four receivers with only Kenny Bell having more than 200 receiving yards in 2011.

The defensive losses could be even steeper. To begin with, linebacker Courtney Upshaw will graduate, and fellow first team All-SEC linebacker Dont'a Hightower could be well on his way out the door to a lucrative NFL paycheck as well. Right there are two of the best linebackers in the country. Senior Jerel Harris is also out the door. Somewhere, Denard Robinson's ribs just hurt a little less.

What should make the interception prone Robinson's brain hurt a little less is the imminent departure of first team All-SEC defensive back Mark Barron and fellow senior DeQuan Menzie.  Throw in the possible departure of second team All-SEC defensive back Dre Kirkpatrick and the Tide will be rolling (thank you, folks. I'll be here all week) out nearly an entirely new defensive backfield.

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
On the line, Alabama will be losing second team All-SEC Josh Chapman and the team's second place finisher in sacks, Nick Gentry (Upshaw was first FWIW).

Sounds like a good bit of damage to a defense that routinely grounds its competition into a fine powder, which it then brushed off its cleats before moving on to the next (victim) team.

Well, I have some bad news for you, Michigan fans: Trey Depriest, Quinton Dial, Nico Johnson, Robert Lester, Will Lowery, DeMarcus Milliner, CJ Mosley, Damion Square, Ed Stinson, and Vinnie Sunseri are just the returning players who registered more than 20 tackles, two TFLs or one sack in 2011. Yeah, this defense is pretty well stocked with talent.

What then is the upside for a Michigan team that could enter the 2012 season on the verge of the top ten, but with glaring holes on the defensive line, wide receiver, and very little depth on the offensive line?

For one, Alabama is still going to have a number of talented offensive players, but without the yeoman-like effort of Richardson (assuming once again that he goes pro) the Tide is going to be forced to rely more on a downfield passing game that was largely absent in 2011. 

No player was more missed on offense this season than Julio Jones, and while Marquis Maze was a great receiver he was hardly the downfield threat that the Tide needed. Can Duron Carter step into that role? Only time will tell.

One thing is for sure, with a new coordinator and the top four skill-position players gone this will be an offense that is still finding itself next September. There will be growing pains, even with the emergence of AJ McCarron as a better than average quarterback.

As we saw in the beginning of 2011, growing pains don't matter much on offense when the defense is capable of sucking the life out of the other team without breaking a sweat. The Tide's defense in 2011 is rightfully going to be talked about as one of the best ever.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
However, that defense isn't back. While there is no reason to think that Nick Saban can't build a very good defense out of the pieces he will be working with, that group will have a long way to go before it reaches the heights of 2011 again.

Remember just why this defense is so good in the first place: Nearly every starter returned from the disappointing 2010 season. It was still a very good defense, but not an invincible one. Given the complexity of Nick Saban's defense—think NFL level—it is no stretch to say that he will still be working out the kinks come September.

The 2012 Alabama Crimson Tide will most likely start the season at number one in the polls, and there is a decent chance it ends in the same spot.

However, if you had to pick a time to take on Alabama, right after most of the defense and offensive skill players leave on the heels of a national championship would probably be the best case scenario.

Whether the Wolverines will be able to take advantage of this is another thing entirely.

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