The Vegas oddsmakers may have installed Alabama as a 14-point favorite against Michigan this weekend, but once the final gun goes off at Cowboys Stadium on Saturday night, Denard Robinson and the rest of the Wolverines will be the ones celebrating a victory.
Despite their lofty national ranking, this isn't the same Crimson Tide team that rolled LSU 21-0 in the BCS National Championship Game back in January. Only five starters from that squad are back on defense, and the two best players for Alabama on that side of the ball last season—Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw—are now playing on Sundays.
Michigan, meanwhile, has eight returning starters on defense, including their entire linebacker and secondary corps. But the key returnee is Robinson: A dual-threat quarterback who is one of the most dynamic talents in college football history.
Even after Wolverines head coach Brady Hoke installed an entirely new offense last year, Robinson displayed the same Playstation-like, game-breaking ability that earned him the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Award in 2010. As evidenced by Alabama and LSU (among others), there is no conference in college football as talented as the SEC. That said, there is no player in the SEC who is as talented as Robinson. Just ask Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban.
"Offensively," said Saban, "[Michigan has] probably as significant a player as we've played against since Cam Newton in terms of the quarterback position, in terms of what he can do in the game, in the offense and how the offense is sort of built around and features him as a player."
While Robinson is known mostly as a runner, he has thrown for more than 4,700 yards over the past two seasons. Conversely, Robinson did toss a career-high 15 interceptions last year, and he can't afford those mistakes against an Alabama team that preys on opponents' miscues.
With the Crimson Tide defense spying on Robinson for most of the game, Michigan running backs Vincent Smith (who averaged six yards per carry last year) and Thomas Rawls could be in line for breakout performances on Saturday. Fitzgerald Toussaint was originally slated to start at running back, but he was suspended for the opener for violating team rules.
Playing shorthanded and with long odds against them is unfamiliar territory for a Michigan team that won 11 games last season. Even so, the Wolverines beat two top-20 teams last season and have plenty of experience playing in front of 100,000 people. A win over Alabama would not only do wonders for their BCS title hopes, but it will also bring a bit of prestige to a Big Ten Conference that has had its fair share of issues in recent years.
While most coaches would have avoided facing such a loaded team in the season opener, Hoke isn't afraid of the challenge. "When you want to be the best and be champions," said Hoke, "you've got to play the best."