Alabama football is back.
The No. 2-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide will return 10 starters when they take the field against the Michigan Wolverines on Saturday.
Stud offensive lineman and Outland Trophy winner Barrett Jones, quarterback A.J. McCarron and tight end Michael Williams are some of the impactful leaders on offense.
Meanwhile, safety Robert Lester, linebacker Nico Johnson and defensive end Damion Square represent the defensive headliners returning after last season.
The Wolverines will boast a No. 8 national ranking when they arrive to meet the Tide at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas. Not since the Lloyd Carr days has there been this much hype surrounding a Michigan team. The Big Ten has much at stake, as well, considering the reputation of this SEC foe.
Returning national champions or not, Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide will surely have their hands full against Brady Hoke’s club.
Michigan features one of the nation’s most explosive offenses, led by QB Denard Robinson, in addition to an NFL-coached defense under Greg Mattison.
Alabama, though, is still the prohibitive favorite, with a well-coached and thoroughly impressive club itself. There is much depth at all levels of the defense. A pro-caliber front line anchors an offense led by McCarron, a duo of powerful running backs and speedy weapons on the outside.
Speaking of which, let’s highlight the six members of the Crimson Tide that will make impacts against the Wolverines in the Saturday kickoff of 2012 college football.
Barrett Jones, C
The game of football begins in the trenches. And Jones is as fierce and productive as they come in this crucial area of the field.
One of the country’s foremost offensive linemen, Jones now secures the line at its most important position—center. He’ll lead the charge against Michigan’s defensive front and operate as the road-grader for his running-back brethren.
Alabama employs a run-heavy, pro-style offense. Jones is integral for its proper execution.
His linemates Chance Warmack (LG) and D.J. Fluker (RT) also deserve honorable mentions.
Nico Johnson, LB
Where does the NCAA’s most prolific rushing quarterback enjoy running most often?
To the outside.
When Denard Robinson executes his read-option or designed runs, he blasts through the middle and takes it outside, where he can best utilize his speed.
This is where weak-side linebacker Nico Johnson enters the picture.
Alabama’s reigning leading tackler (the three above him left for the NFL) must use his sideline-to-sideline abilities to contain Robinson, whether that be pursuing to the outside or on initial bursts up the middle. Based on his performance last year, he should at least be able to diminish the effectiveness of the Michigan QB.
The Robinson vs. Johnson matchup will be a headline battle all game long.
Eddie Lacy, RB
Alabama’s secondary back of 2011 is now its primary back in 2012.
Lacy totaled 674 yards and seven touchdowns on 95 carries as Trent Richardson’s backup in 2011. Those 7.1 yards per carry led the team then and certainly bode well for Saturday’s matchup.
Michigan ranked 39th against the run in 2011. It surrendered 130 or more yards against all ranked opponents and also in its loss to Iowa. Lacy and his 6’0’’, 220-pound frame must play hard, smash-mouth football behind his offensive line against a Michigan front that has seen wholesale changes (via The Detroit News).
Jones and his fellow linemen will have the upper hand on the Wolverines defensive line. Lacy and the phenom freshman T.J. Yeldon will then capitalize on that advantage for the Crimson Tide.
Jesse Williams, NT
As with Jones and the offensive line, Jesse Williams’ position on his side of the trenches is vital to Alabama’s success.
Williams’ responsibility as a nose tackle is to occupy multiple Wolverine linemen so that Johnson and the other linebackers are free to make plays. Said plays will come against Robinson and the Michigan running backs, whether Fitzgerald Toussaint plays or not (per AL.com).
Who will provide the greatest impact for Alabama?
Controlling the inside position as the NT often goes unnoticed since it doesn’t qualify as one of the glamorous duties on the gridiron. That perception unfortunately detracts from the position's importance in winning the battle at the line of scrimmage.
As a projected future professional in the NFL, Williams, it is fair to say, has his eyes solely on the prize—the prize being an impactful role in Alabama's winning this critical matchup.
Christion Jones, WR/PR
Quarterback A.J. McCarron deserves the popular pick as a central player in this game. His acumen in playing smart, turnover-free football as he did so successfully all of last year will undoubtedly be a major part of Alabama’s game plan.
That said, his impact lies more on what he doesn’t do than what he produces.
Christion Jones, on the other hand, will finish what the Crimson Tide’s dominant defense starts. After at least one stalled Michigan drive via the Alabama D, Jones will create favorable field position through a great punt return into Wolverines territory.
He’ll then be on the receiving end of a touchdown when offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier calls for a rarely utilized three-receiver set as a misdirection play in the red zone. Michigan will gear toward the run, and McCarron will hit Jones (the No. 3 WR) in the end zone.
So, in the end, it’ll be a McCarron-to-Jones combination, with just a little more overall credit going to the wideout.
Robert Lester, Safety
The leader positioned on the back end of the Tide’s defense will also have a meaningful impact on this game.
Mr. 10 Interception himself will increase his career total against a quarterback with a susceptibility to this particular turnover. One should expect Robinson to try to prove his worth as a passing quarterback, thereby causing unnecessary deep throws into tight coverage.
Lester will be waiting in the wings for his 11th career pick.
If this occurs as part of a planned aerial assault in the early goings or as a seal-the-win pick late in the fourth quarter, Lester will have proven his worth as a ball-hawking defensive back.
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