Michigan vs. Alabama: Keys for Both Sides in College Football's Game of the Week

Tyler Conway@jtylerconwayFeatured ColumnistAugust 30, 2012

NEW ORLEANS, LA - JANUARY 09:  Head coach Nick Saban of the Alabama Crimson Tide looks on from the sidelines against the Louisiana State University Tigers during the 2012 Allstate BCS National Championship Game at Mercedes-Benz Superdome on January 9, 2012 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The long-awaited arrival of the 2012 college football season happens this week, with a cavalcade of the nation's best teams opening their season Saturday. 

And coming into the weekend, there is no more hyped contest than ABC's game of the week between the No. 8 Michigan Wolverines and No. 2 Alabama Crimson Tide.

Michigan comes into 2012 fresh off an 11-2 season and the school's first BCS bowl victory since taking home the Orange Bowl in 2000. Led by scintillating quarterback Denard Robinson and head coach Brady Hoke, expectations are the highest in recent memory for the Wolverines this season.

Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban leads a vastly different squad than the one that took home the 2012 national championship. Alabama returns just 12 starters this season and will seemingly look to rebuild this season on the fly.

But living up to all the hype and expectations for both squads starts on Saturday.

With everyone in the college football world squarely focused on this contest, here's a look at the biggest keys for Week 1's biggest game.



Denard Robinson Must Limit Turnovers

Robinson, a dynamic dual-threat quarterback, comes into the 2012 college season as one of the favorites to win the Heisman Trophy and holds his team's BCS bowl hopes in his hands this season.

But for Michigan to live up to expectations, Robinson must protect the ball better than he did in 2011.

As a junior, nearly all of the quarterback's numbers went down across the board, except one: interceptions. Robinson threw 15 picks last season, tied for sixth in the NCAA, and did so in just 258 pass attempts. That's one interception per 17.2 pass attempts, a rate unbecoming of a replacement-level quarterback, let alone one who is supposed to compete for postseason awards.

No one will ever expect Robinson to become the NCAA's bastion of passing accuracy. Nevertheless, he'll need to improve this year to have any chance against a talented Alabama defense or going forward this season.


Contain Eddie Lacy and the Alabama Rushing Attack

Coming into the season, one of the biggest concerns for the Wolverines is on the defensive line.

The team lost three starters in Mike Martin, Will Heininger and Ryan Van Bergen, and Craig Roh has moved to linebacker, leaving Michigan with an all-new defensive front for 2012.

On the other hand, Alabama is returning four starters on what is widely considered the best offensive line in college football. With talented running back Eddie Lacy looking to follow in the footsteps of dominant predecessors Trent Richardson and Mark Ingram, it could be a long day for the Michigan defense.

To avoid getting dominated on the ground, Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison will surely dial up a multitude of run blitzes to make the Crimson Tide think twice about simply grinding the game out on the ground.



Avoid Over-Aggression On Defense

It's wholly unfair to compare the 2012 Crimson Tide defense to the juggernaut predecessor from last season. The 2011 Tide defense had four players taken in the first 35 picks of this year's NFL draft, and is one of the premier units in college football history.

This unit, while talented, has just five returning starters and a ton of inexperience in the secondary.

With the defense's first game as a unit coming against a dynamic quarterback like Robinson, there will be no opening cupcake to get into rhythm. That means containing the Wolverines star on the outside will be mostly left up to the linebackers and defensive ends. It will be vital for those positions to fill their gaps properly and always keep Robinson in their peripheral vision. 

Robinson is as dangerous (if not more so) using his legs as his arm, so throwing different looks and playing sound fundamental defense is key.

We've already established that Robinson is turnover prone and often makes overly aggressive decisions. And, ironically, aggressive quarterbacks usually tend to do better against risk-taking defenses. If the Crimson Tide defense stays at home, fills gaps correctly and sticks to the game plan, it could cause some key turnovers.

But if the team shades too far on the side of aggression, Robinson could take advantage for some huge plays for the Wolverines.


Give A.J. McCarron More Offensive Freedom

The Michigan defense will undoubtedly key on stopping the vaunted Alabama rushing attack on Saturday, leaving the Tide signal-caller responsible for generating more offense than he's accustomed to. 

For the uninitiated, the last time Saban handed McCarron the keys to the offense, he turned in a virtuoso performance in the national championship game against LSU, going 23-of-34 for 234 yards in Alabama's 21-0 victory.

A junior, McCarron comes into his second season as Tide quarterback as a Heisman hopeful and one of the most fundamentally sound signal-callers in all of football. His five interceptions last season were astounding considering his experience and the level of competition in the SEC.

If McCarron and his improved set of receivers can come out and provide a more balanced attack against Michigan, it's doubtful that the Wolverines can pull off the upset.


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