Alabama vs. Michigan: The 10 Factors Critical for Success
Week 1 of the 2012 college football season mostly features matchups pitting top-ranked teams against opponents of lesser caliber. However, there’s one marquee game on this weekend’s schedule that every true college football fan has been waiting for.
The defending national champion Alabama Crimson Tide will take on the eighth-ranked Michigan Wolverines at Cowboys Stadium on Saturday night.
The Tide have a lot to prove after losing so many veteran starters from last year, but it’s clearly going to take a monumental effort from the Wolverines to knock off Nick Saban’s squad.
Here’s a breakdown of the 10 factors critical for success in the Week 1 megamatchup.
Containing Denard Robinson
Michigan's Denard Robinson is without a doubt one of the most dangerous running quarterbacks in college football.
Robinson is the type of athletic, dual-threat signal-caller that will always keep a defense on its toes, especially if that defense happens to be breaking in a bunch of new starters, as Alabama's is this season.
This offseason, the Tide had to replace four of their top five tacklers from last year's top-ranked defense. Plus, the unit lost a total of six NFL draft picks, including three first-round selections.
Alabama will have plenty of talent on the defensive side of the ball once again this year. However, the question is whether or not Kirby Smart's crew has the overall discipline, focus and awareness needed to properly defend a dynamic and versatile playmaker like Robinson.
Is Michigan’s Defensive Line Ready for Battle?
A big reason why the Michigan defense was able to make such a huge improvement last season was the play of the defensive line.
The Wolverines gave up just 131 rushing yards per game in 2011, which ranked third in the Big Ten, as opposed to the 188 yards on the ground they gave up per game the year before.
The problem is that three key starters from last year's front four, including DT Mike Martin, a third-round pick in this year's NFL draft, will have to be replaced.
DE Craig Roh is a vital veteran leader, and his presence should benefit the new starters.
Still, the inexperience up front has to be a major concern.
The team's three new starting linemen—William Campbell, Quinton Washington and Jibreel Black—are all former highly touted high school recruits who have yet to live up to their full potentials.
Alabama's offensive line, which will feature three potential All-Americans in Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack and D.J. Fluker, is arguably the strongest unit in the country.
The Wolverines have plenty of talent in the trenches. The new starters better be prepared for a battle on every snap, though, because the Tide's powerful offensive front can be truly overwhelming once it gets into a groove.
Can Eddie Lacy Carry the Rushing Load?
Alabama's new starting running back, Eddie Lacy, has some big cleats to fill this season, replacing Trent Richardson, who was the No. 3 overall pick of the 2012 NFL draft.
Richardson was the MVP of the Alabama offense and the best running back in the country last year. He rushed for over 1,600 yards and scored 24 total touchdowns in 2011.
Luckily, Lacy happens to be a seemingly perfect fit for the Tide's downhill, power-rushing attack.
The 6'0'', 220-pound junior is a big, strong and physical back who hits the hole hard and knows how to get to the second level once he bursts through the line.
Last year, Lacy carried the ball only 95 times, but he made the most of his limited opportunities, averaging 7.1 yards per carry and scoring seven touchdowns.
With a strong and experienced offensive line opening up holes for him, Lacy should flourish as the new starter in the Alabama backfield.
It also doesn't hurt that the Tide have three other talented backs—Jalston Fowler, T.J. Yeldon and Dee Hart—who are all capable of doing major damage, as well.
Which Wide Receivers Will Step Up?
Both of these teams' wide receiver corps are filled with gifted playmakers. However, admittedly, there's some uncertainty and mystery surrounding both groups.
Michigan has two talented receivers—Roy Roundtree and Jeremy Gallon—who underperformed in their first season spent in Al Borges' West Coast-style offensive system last year.
As far as pure talent is concerned, Roundtree and Gallon are two of the best receivers in the Big Ten, but they combined for just 50 catches and five touchdowns in 2011.
As for Alabama, the Tide don't have a receiver on their roster that caught more than 17 passes last year.
DeAndrew White, Kevin Norwood, Kenny Bell, Christion Jones and Amari Cooper are all potentially dangerous weapons, but they still have to show that they can be reliable and dependable targets.
Ultimately, it should be interesting to see which receiver makes the biggest impact on Saturday night, since they all have a lot to prove this season.
Is A.J. McCarron Ready to Be a True Leader?
Last season, Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron played the role of game manager basically to perfection.
McCarron knew, since he had a star running back and a dominant defense on his side, that he didn't have to go out and be a star passer in order for the Tide to win games in 2011. Instead, he simply had to make wise decisions and limit his mistakes.
The 6'4'', 205-pound junior handled his role exceptionally well, as he completed nearly 67 percent of his passes, for 2,634 yards, and threw 16 touchdowns, compared to just five interceptions.
This year, McCarron will be asked to step up and become more of an offensive leader and more of a playmaking passer.
Judging from his outstanding performance in the BCS National Championship Game against LSU, McCarron now appears ready to become the true face of the Alabama offense in 2012.
While he still has a long way to go before he can be considered a truly elite quarterback, the Tide signal-caller could really open up some eyes against Michigan, just as he did against the Tigers back in January.
Can Michigan Overcome the Loss of Fitzgerald Toussaint?
After choosing not to address the issue for the past week, Michigan head coach Brady Hoke finally announced that running back Fitzgerald Toussaint was indeed suspended for the Alabama game.
Toussaint plead guilty to DUI charges this week, stemming from an incident that occurred back in July.
Following his arrest, it was announced that Toussaint would be suspended indefinitely from the team, but at the time, Hoke had not clarified what exactly that meant.
Last year, the 5'10'', 202-pound junior led the team with 1,041 rushing yards, on just 187 carries (5.6 yards per carry), and scored 10 total touchdowns.
Toussaint's absence will obviously have an effect on Michigan's rushing attack. Backs like Thomas Rawls and Vincent Smith, who combined to carry the ball just 63 times in 2011, will now be asked to step up.
Michigan needs to establish a consistent ground game in order to counter Alabama's power-rushing attack, but now that Toussaint isn't available, that will definitely be much more difficult.
Consistency in the Kicking Game
I'm sure everyone remembers Alabama kickers Jeremy Shelley and Cade Foster melting down in the "Game of the Century" against LSU last year.
The team's four missed field goals ended up being the difference between victory and defeat.
Shelley managed to redeem himself in the BCS National Championship Game by knocking through five of his seven field-goal attempts.
Still, there's some doubt lingering about whether he's really got a clutch leg or not and whether or not he can really handle pressure-packed situations.
Michigan kicker Brendan Gibbons turned out to be more reliable in 2011 than either Shelley or Foster, as he nailed 13 of his 17 attempts, including a perfectly straight 37-yard overtime game-winner that beat Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl.
Gibbons is obviously the kicker that you would rather have on the field with the game on the line, and he could end up playing a pretty big role in the outcome if this game is close in the fourth quarter.
Opportunistic would be a great word to describe Michigan's 2011 defense.
Last year, the Wolverines ranked 17th nationally with 29 total turnovers (20 fumble recoveries and nine interceptions), which was one of the main reasons for the unit's drastic improvement.
Alabama's defense didn't rely as much on turnovers for success last season, as the Tide ranked just 77th in the country with 20 turnovers (13 interceptions and seven fumbles).
Both of these defenses are loaded with playmakers who can come up with game-changing turnovers.
Alabama safety Robert Lester, who has 10 interceptions, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery in his career, is the biggest ball hawk that you're going to see on the field in this game. However, Michigan defenders such as DE Craigh Roh, LB Kenny Demens and CB J.T. Floyd could also cause a critical turnover, as well.
In a game like this, just one turnover could mean a huge shift in momentum, and it's a key area that both teams will have to focus on.
In terms of producing explosive plays during the 2011 season, obviously, no one was going to confuse either Michigan's or Alabama's offense with those of the likes of Oregon or Oklahoma State.
Still, the Wolverines and the Tide did produce their fair shares of big plays last season.
In fact, they produced nearly the same number of plays of 10 yards or more (Michigan had 188, Alabama had 187), as well as plays of 20 yards or more (Alabama had 71, Michigan had 65).
In this type of matchup, a big, explosive play that shifts the field-position battle in a certain team's favor could really change the complexion of the game.
The Wolverines will obviously have the most explosive athlete on the field—QB Denard Robinson. However, the Tide have receivers such as DeAndrew White and Kevin Norwood, who are definitely capable of making big things happen once they get the ball in their hands.
Norwood, who averaged 17 yards per catch last year, is an especially dangerous threat.
It's likely that the team that comes up with the higher total of plays of 10 yards or more will ultimately be the one that comes out on top.
Nick Saban vs. Brady Hoke
Everyone wants to focus on the tremendous amount of talent that both of these teams possess, and rightfully so.
What's really intriguing about this matchup, though, is the coaching battle that will take place.
Alabama's Nick Saban and Michigan's Brady Hoke are two very different kinds of head coaches. Saban is a control freak who obsesses about every little detail of the game plan, while Hoke is clearly more loose and goes with his gut instinct more often.
Although their personalities may contrast, each coach has found a great deal of success with his methods.
Overall, these are two of the most disciplined and well-coached teams in the country, and both Saban and Hoke will have their teams mentally and physically prepared to win.
Obviously, Saban is no stranger to the big stage. He has much more experience in big games than Hoke does. Nevertheless, the Wolverines' skipper is the type of confident, intelligent and fearless leader who certainly won't be afraid of his more esteemed coaching counterpart.
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