As the college football season finally opens up, the first big game of the year pits two powerhouses against one another, as the No. 8 team in the land, Michigan, takes on the defending champions Alabama Crimson Tide at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas. This game will shape the national perception of the Big Ten. Either it will be considered the elite conference in college football, or remain "secondary."
Anytime Alabama is on the field, the game is destined to be a low-scoring one for the opponent. Coach Nick Saban believes in slowing down the pace of the game offensively and allowing his defense to pummel the offensive line of the opposing team. They tend to stack the box against run-oriented teams, which is why it is vital for Denard Robinson to air it out quickly to Roy Roundtree and the other Michigan receivers. He and four other lesser known players will hold the key to beating this team:
Roy Roundtree, WR
This senior put up solid numbers to start off Roundtree's Michigan career, but has tailed off over the years as Michigan has found other weapons to replace his production.
His sophomore campaign saw him gather 72 balls for 935 yards. With expectations soaring for his junior year, he only managed to catch 19 passes for 355 yards, one of, if not the biggest, drop-offs in production in Michigan history.
Roundtree has his knee scoped on August 10 after feeling a twinge the day prior. Without waiting, doctors decided to have surgery on him right away. He returned to practice only two weeks later, itching at the chance to play in the season opener. He is expected back for the game and looks to start the season on a high note.
The biggest change that Roundtree made over the summer? A change of number. He will don the "Legend" patch this season, which bears the number of Michigan great Desmond Howard and was most recently worn by U of M graduate receiver, Junior Hemingway.
If Roundtree performs to his fullest potential and brings back the days of old, the Wolverines will have a pretty potent air attack. He's a big target and if Robinson finds him early, Alabama will have to stay modest.
Taylor Lewan, OL
Can an offensive lineman be considered a star? Presumably, though unlikely. Especially when looking at the stars playing in this game. But few will be as important as Taylor Lewan, thought to be the best offensive lineman Michigan has seen since Jake Long.
The offensive line, which is believed to be the weakest part of this team, has Lewan to lean on. He is the most experienced of the bunch and certainly the best professional prospect on Michigan's line.
He has plenty of room to grow though, especially at this time. Asked to be the leader and anchor of the line, he will also be counted on to bring this group together cohesively.
Only problem? Alabama's rush defense is scary good. Lewan will have to push defenders inside to give Robinson enough time to work if they have any chance at moving the ball against Quinton Dial, Damion Square and Co. They aren't likely to abide.
Kenny Demens, LB
Outside Michigan fans, how many of you have heard of Kenny Demens?
A smattering of Big Ten fans raised their hands, but not much else. But Demens, a senior from Oak Park, Michigan, will not only play a huge role in hindering the movement of Alabama's offense, but will be an omnipresent part of Michigan's D all year.
The middle linebacker led the Wolverines in tackles last season with 94, almost 20 more than the next closest Michigan player, Jordan Kovacs.
But Demens was a tad inconsistent in his play last year, not so much as a tackler, but as the leader of the Michigan D. Look for that to change as the All-Big Ten Honorable Mention from last year takes hold of a very young linebacking corps. Demens and Brandin Hawthorne are the only seniors on the corps.
Demens will play spy against AJ McCarron all night. McCarron isn't likely to air it out, so underneath routes will be Demens' calling card Saturday.
Craig Roh, DE
Roh, who has started 38 consecutive games—seemingly everywhere for the Wolverines—will be huge in this game. He'll have to clog the holes against junior running back, Eddie Lacy, a back who took 84 carries away from the electric Trent Richardson last season, and Dee Hart, an absolute speedster.
He is finally at a spot that will suit his abilities, strong-side defensive end. After bouts with playing linebacker as a freshman, then weak-side end in his sophomore year, Roh is entering his senior year in a comfortable position. And that is bad news for the Big Ten and for this week, Alabama.
Roh added weight since last year and is looking to redeem lost time at "wrong" positions. He enters the season as the only real lineman with starting experience, and will be surrounded by players who are in similar situations as he was in the past three years.
Look for Roh to step up big time in this crucial game for both programs.
Brendan Gibbons, PK
Gibbons, now a junior, has seen good times and bad at Michigan.
Good times: Gibbons hits the game-winning field goal against Virginia Tech in the Allstate Sugar Bowl
Bad times: Losing the starting spot to walk-on Seth Broekhuizen.
But that is the past. It's over with. He is now entering a game where he will be counted on immensely. If Alabama has their way, the game will be rather low scoring, making Gibbons essential to Michigan's success.
It is all a matter of being more consistent. Gibbons started off his career hitting only 1-of-5 field goals as a redshirt freshman. Yes, he hit six of his final seven kicks last season, but missed four over the course of the year—something that simply cannot happen again due to the Wolverines' tough schedule.
With the Wolverines sure to struggle at times moving the ball, Gibbons will be huge inside the 40's. If he hits a couple from that range, it heightens Michigan's chances exponentially.
I cannot think of a better way to start off the season with these two powers going at it. This will perhaps be the most important game of the year for both teams, as it will set the tone for what their respected seasons will look like. With the world watching, expect a classic. For Michigan to win, they simply cannot turn the ball over and need to seize as many opportunities as they can.