College football's most hyped game of Week 1 undoubtedly will happen Saturday night at Cowboys Stadium, as the Alabama Crimson Tide takes on the Michigan Wolverines in a battle of two top-10 teams.
The No. 2 Crimson Tide come into this contest fresh off winning the national championship in January and are led by head coach Nick Saban and junior quarterback A.J. McCarron. Though the 2012 Alabama team will look far different than its predecessor, look for much of the same this season as jersey numbers, but not the scheme, change in Tuscaloosa.
Head coach Brady Hoke's No. 8 Wolverines come into 2012 hoping to build on a surprising run to a Sugar Bowl title last season. Led by Heisman candidate Denard Robinson, Michigan should have one of the more explosive offenses in the country this year.
No matter, this matchup is shaping up to be a dandy. With that in mind, here's a preview of Saturday night's game.
Where: Cowboys Stadium, Arlington, Texas
When: Saturday, September 1, 8 p.m. EDT
According to Bovada.lv, Alabama is a 14-point favorite over the eighth-ranked Wolverines.
Considering the game will be held at a (relatively) neutral field and this is a contest between two BCS bowl contenders, that seems a bit high. That is before you remember Saban's penchant for coaching up his boys in the team's biggest games.
Fourteen points seems high and Michigan is the pick if you're making one, but tread lightly in this contest.
Again, Bovada's over/under line of 47 points shows you how in-tune with the game these oddsmakers are. That line is essentially saying something we all know: No one knows how good either defense will be in Week 1.
Alabama's secondary and Michigan's defensive line both lost a ton of starters, meaning it could be two cases of experienced offenses taking down the inexperience on the other side of the ball.
But if you think either squad will be able to replenish well enough to stop the opposition, jump on the under.
Alabama Injury Report (via USA Today)
RB Eddie Lacy, Knee and Ankle, Probable
WR Amari Cooper, Foot, Probable
WR Bradley Sylve, Hand, Questionable
WR Chris Black, Shoulder, Out
DB Jarrick Williams, Knee, Out for Season
Michigan Injury Report (via USA Today)
WR Roy Roundtree, Knee, Probable
OL Chris Bryant, Leg, Out for Season
LB Kaleb Ringer, Knee, Out for Season
LB Antonio Poole, Pectoral, Out
It's not unreasonable to say whichever team wins this game (especially if it's Alabama) will walk into Week 2 as the No. 1 team in the country and a favorite to win the national championship.
For both sides, this will not only have strong early-season rankings implications but also be a shining star on both teams' strengths of schedule so long as both stay strong through the season.
On the bright side, that makes a loss survivable for both teams when it comes to the ultimate goal of winning a BCS championship. Three of the past five national champions have had at least one loss heading into the final game, and this is a loss that both teams can survive.
It's (obviously) better to win, but a close loss isn't the death knell.
Keys for Alabama
There's no question that losing five players to the NFL in top 35 picks means that the 2012 Crimson Tide will be worse than their national champion predecessors.
Nevertheless, Saturday is the first step in figuring out how much worse Saban's bunch will be this year.
Eddie Lacy should be able to step in and more than adequately replace No. 4 pick Trent Richardson. He had 631 yards and averaged 7.5 yards per carry last season in relatively limited action. And while his explosion will subside with an expanded role, Lacy is more than talented enough to man the backfield.
The true question comes on defense, where four of those draftees resided—three in the secondary. Playing against the Heisman hopeful Robinson certainly won't be your standard early-season cupcake for the inexperienced bunch.
Keys for Michigan
For the Wolverines offense, it will all come down to how far their star quarterback can take them this year.
Robinson comes into the 2012 season at 15-2 (via Bovada.lv) to win the Heisman, giving him the third-best odds of anyone in college football. Nevertheless, for Robinson to actually make the leap into true contention, he'll have to limit his turnovers. His 15 interceptions last season tied the Wolverines signal-caller for sixth most in the FBS, and he tossed those in just 258 pass attempts.
Saturday will be the dual-threat's first opportunity of 2012 to show his growth as an actual quarterback against an inexperienced secondary. For anyone to take Robinson seriously as a Heisman candidate, he'll have to perform well.
Regardless of how Robinson plays, Michigan can't win the game without stopping the run. The team lost all four of its starters on the defensive line, and Alabama will have easily the most talented group of linemen blocking them on Saturday.
Hoke's quarterback can be dominant. But if the Wolverines coach's defense is unable to stop the run, his offense won't be able to get on the field enough to make a difference.
I went with Michigan against the spread in that portion of the column, but there's no chance I'm picking the Wolverines to actually come back victorious.
While the Crimson Tide is certainly less experienced than last season's national championship squad, they still have a seemingly never-ending well of talent in Tuscaloosa. With Robinson yet to prove he can be dominant in a big stage, I see a close Alabama win here with Lacy as the player of the game.
Score: Alabama 24, Michigan 20