Alabama vs. Michigan: A Blueprint for a Maize and Blue Upset in Week 1
If the eighth-ranked Michigan Wolverines are to upset the defending national champion—and second-ranked—Alabama Crimson Tide on Sept. 1 at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, they'll have to ride the momentum provided by a perfect storm.
Although improbable, it is possible.
Michigan has the firepower necessary to at least stay neck-and-neck with Alabama for the majority of the game. Barring a defensive meltdown or titanic mistakes on offense, Michigan should compete with the Tide.
But what is that perfect storm?
Which factors would have to go in Michigan's favor?
Which of Alabama's mistakes or weaknesses would the Wolverines have to exploit?
Glad you asked.
Sit back and entertain just how the Wolverines could topple the reigning champion Crimson Tide at Cowboys Stadium—think about the perfect storm that could propel Michigan to victory.
Bait Alabama into Throwing the Ball More That It Planned to
In 2011, the Tide threw for 215.2 yards per game, an average good for 69th-best in the nation.
Tide quarterback AJ McCarron had an admirable sophomore year, throwing for 2,634 yards, 16 touchdowns and just five interceptions—but he had more experienced sets of hands to throw to a year ago.
Now with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Marquis Maze led the Tide with 627 receiving yards in 2011. Tight end Brad Smelley, now a running back with the Cleveland Browns, finished with 356. Without its two leading receivers from this past year, Alabama will have to rely upon a relatively young group of receivers to get the job done against the Wolverines.
Kenny Bell racked up 255 yards receiving in 2011. Now a junior, he returns as Alabama's leading wideout. Bell certainly has the ability to cause problems; he's by far the most experienced Alabama has at the position. However, it's always nice to have a senior leading the way if possible.
Starting opposite of Bell, according to the most recent depth chart, is sophomore Christion Jones. While Jones has reportedly made an impact, he's still young. A big game at Cowboys Stadium against Michigan might be enough to rattle him.
Michigan will have to give a little to get a lot, meaning this: If the Wolverines hold back and allow Alabama to gain confidence—a false sense, of course—they could capitalize on more frequent passes by causing turnovers.
Denard Robinson Has to Play Best Game of His Career
It's no secret, the Michigan Wolverines will go as far as senior quarterback Denard Robinson takes them this season.
Like Alabama, Michigan is missing a few key contributors on both sides of the ball—players that greatly contributed in 2011.
No Junior Hemingway. No Mike Martin.
But Michigan still has Robinson, an electrifying force that gives the competition fits.
Robinson will have to play the best game of his career if the Wolverines are to topple the Tide. And by the best, I mean the best.
Robinson threw three picks against Notre Dame in 2011. Luckily, for Michigan, he also came through with late-game heroics. But if Robinson put a cap on those interceptions, he wouldn't have had to save his team from defeat. That 35-31 win was electrifying, but the dramatics were quite unnecessary.
Interceptions. Kill. Chances. Of. Winning.
Robinson can't get fancy and play beyond his ability. He's a running quarterback. He's not John Elway.
It's easy to say—from a writer's perspective, at that—that Robinson has to (queue the cliches) "make smart decisions with the ball," or "allow his teammates to make plays," and "play with composure."
Those phrases are cliches because they're true. Robinson has to do all of that.
If Robinson can complete at least 50 percent of his passes and manage close to 100 yards on the ground, he'll put Michigan in position to win.
Michigan Absolutely Can Not Allow Alabama's Defense to Cash in and Have Its Way
The Tide had the top-ranked scoring defense in 2011, allowing just over eight points a game—and they shutout Louisiana State, 21-0, in the BCS title game.
The Tide averaged 2.31 sacks per game last season, too—putting them in the top 30 in that category.
And when it came to the red zone—inside the 20-yard line—Alabama was quite stingy. It's 88 percent red-zone rate was among the best in the country. The Tide defense was also among the best when picking off quarterbacks, hauling in 13 interceptions.
Scared yet, Michigan fan? No shame in that.
But, look on the bright side, former Alabama star safety Mark Barron is now in the NFL with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. So that should ease a little tension—especially for Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson. Having not to deal with a two-time All-American who was one of the best cover guys in college football has to be somewhat reassuring.
However, Alabama's defense is still rock solid. Michigan can ill-afford to let the Tide have their way. Turnovers turn into points—and when the opposing defense scores points, that spells doom for the offense and puts it in quite the predicament.
Oh, and don't forget about Alabama's sophomore linebacker Trey DePriest; he's a 6'2", 240-pound wrecking ball. He racked up 25 tackles as a freshman in 2011, including two in the BCS title bout with the Tigers.
Long story short, the Wolverines have to take care of the football. There goes another one of those cliches again.
Put the Train on the Track: Flint's Thomas Rawls Has to Shine
As stated in a previous slide, Michigan's Denard Robinson has to have a career game in order to propel his team past the Nick Saban-coached Tide.
But Robinson can't get too fancy; he can't try to do more than what he's capable of doing.
Running the ball will be key—and doing so successfully—for Michigan if it wants to establish some sort of easy-going, reliable tempo against Alabama.
So who's going to do that?
Sophomore Thomas Rawls, that's who.
The Flint native will get the starting nod while Fitz Toussaint serves a suspension. Rawls, an absolute bruiser of a back, is the type of runner that could be efficient against a defense like Alabama's. The 5'10", 219-pound former Flint Northern star has been compared to Mark Ingram, some guy from Flint who had an OK career at Alabama.
"I love Rawls. I love Rawls," Michigan running backs coach Fred Jackson told TheWolverine.com. "I told you last year if he doesn't get hurt that first game, he's starting, but he got hurt a week before the first game and that killed us. You're going to see a lot of Rawls. With Fitz or without, you're going to see a lot of Rawls."
Well, that says a lot, doesn't it?
While Jackson didn't particularly say Wolverines followers would see a lot of Rawls against Alabama, it's logical to assume that coach Brady Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges plan to use "Thomas the Train" plenty Sept. 1.
If Alabama knows what's good for it, it'll study tapes of Ingram and apply those lessons to defending Rawls.
A solid effort from Rawls, combined with Robinson completing at least 50 percent of his passes should give the Wolverines a good chance in Arlington.
Michigan Linebackers and D-Linemen Have to Stand Tall, Hold Steady
With two sophomores occupying top linebacker positions, the Michigan Wolverines defense could give up easy yards in the middle of the field.
Being the elder, it'll be Demens' job to get Ryan and Morgan calm, cool and collected when facing a tidal wave from the Tide offense.
Michigan's defensive line will be tested, too. Alabama's offensive line is full of the typical SEC big boys. Nose tackle Will Campbell will have to buckle down and play a nearly mistake-free game if Michigan wants to fly out of Texas as a winner.
"Will's play this season is crucial because every great defense needs to have a great nose tackle. Period," defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery told TheWolverine.com. "If you're weak in the middle, you're a weak defense. If you're strong in the middle, you have the chance to be a great defense. So he's critical."
Wolverines Have to Contain Alabama's Rushing Attack
Michigan is probably at least a little lucky that Trent Richardson opted for the NFL draft instead of staying for his senior year.
Richardson, the third overall pick of the 2012 NFL draft (Cleveland Browns), rushed for a team-high 1,679 yards and 21 touchdowns in 2011.
He averaged 5.9 yards per carry.
Lacy, of course, will be the focal point this year. The 6'1", 220-pound junior stands to be the next in a very recent line of bruisers in the 'Bama backfield, following Heisman winner Mark Ingram and Richardson, a Heisman finalist.
"You're going to see a lot of Eddie Lacy, and you're going to see three new defensive linemen for Michigan that are going to have to find out in a hurry whether they can play at an SEC level," former Wolverines quarterback Brian Griese told the Detroit News in July. "He's going to get the ball a lot."
Oh, and Dee Hart.
Michigan fans probably don't recognize that name, though.
A Little Side Info...
Alabama didn't play in many close games in 2011. In fact, the closest—by far the closest—was a 9-6 regular-season overtime loss to Louisiana State. The Tide rushed for just 96 yards.
But, on the other side of that "hold them under 100 yards and we're safe" thought is this: Alabama's second-closest game was a 27-11 win over Penn State at Happy Valley. Alabama ran for 196 yards that day.
Sept. 1 promises to be a day of hard-hitting, bone-breaking football. And if the Wolverines can at least compete at a level close to Alabama's physicality, they should remain competitive. As always, Denard Robinson is the key.
Sure, the defense has to play well. The linebackers have to hold their ground, Will Campbell has to anchor the defensive line—but Michigan's success almost exclusively boils down to how well Robinson plays.
Follow Bleacher Report's Michigan Wolverines football writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81