Alabama versus Michigan. No. 2 versus No. 8. The most national championships versus the most wins. It just feels like a big-time matchup, doesn't it? It is also incredibly well-timed.
On January 1, 2000, No. 8 Michigan beat No. 5 Alabama, 35-34 in one of the greatest Orange Bowls in history. The Big Ten Network replays the game about 17 times per week. And in case you can't make it the 10 hours or so between showings, you can catch the entire thing on YouTube as well (First Half, Second Half).
By all means, that Orange Bowl battle, one of only three times these two storied programs have faced off, was an absolutely wonderful game and well-deserving of repeat viewing. But the game also took on added significance in the following years: it was just about the last time these two teams have been elite at the same time. Both teams were ranked in the Top 10 to start the following season (Alabama was third, Michigan sixth), but Alabama fell to UCLA in the opener and dropped to 13th, and the schools were not in the Top 10 simultaneously again until the 2012 preseason polls were released.
That's incredible, isn't it? Alabama was in the Top 10 for at least part of all but three seasons from 1971 to 1996. Michigan was in the Top 10 for part of every season from 1968 to 2007. But the Tide stumbled dramatically in the early part of the last decade, and around the time that Nick Saban was taking over in Tuscaloosa, Michigan was first falling to Appalachian State, then falling apart under Rich Rodriguez.
But none of that matters now. These programs are back where they belong, at least it pertains to preseason rankings. Alabama has won two of the last three national titles, while Michigan surged to a Sugar Bowl title and a No. 12 final ranking (their highest since 2006) last season. Did Alabama lose some key pieces on defense? Sure. Was Michigan a bit lucky in recovering 75 percent of all fumbles in 2011? Absolutely. But these two teams are probably as deserving as any of the preseason hype they have received, and they could put on an entertaining show at Jerry World.
Well, at least if Michigan can pass the ball a little bit.
When Alabama Has The Ball
Alabama's Biggest Advantage: The Trenches.
As good as running back Trent Richardson was last season, he had help. Alabama's offensive line, which is led by 2011 Outland Award winner Barrett Jones, ranked seventh in the country in Adj. Line Yards last year and returns four players with at least a year's worth of starting experience (97 career starts). Jones moves to center to replace three-year starter William Vlachos and should lead a ferocious front five.
The Michigan line, on the other hand, is doing a bit of rebuilding. The Wolverines' defense ranked just 51st in Adj. Line Yards in 2011 and must replace three starters, including both tackles (Mike Martin and Will Heininger). To be sure, there is a load of potential here, literally: senior Will Campbell (a former five-star recruit) and junior Quinton Washington (four stars) run about 600 pounds combined, and each showed major potential in fall camp. But it's still mostly potential, as the two combined for just 10.5 tackles last season and Campbell has live up to his recruiting hype.
Michigan's Biggest Advantage: The Forward Pass.
This might not matter if the Michigan line cannot get a push, but if the Wolverines can force Alabama to pass a bit, they could keep the Tide potentially keep the Tide off the scoreboard for the most part. The Wolverines return seven of their top nine defensive backs from last year, including corners J.T. Floyd, Blake Countess and Courtney Avery, who made quite a few plays on the ball in 2011 (combined: four interceptions, 12 passes broken up)) and helped turn out a Top 40 pass defense (according to Passing S&P+) despite only a Top 60 pass rush. Floyd was hit-or-miss against the Big Ten's best receivers in 2011, while Countess mostly held his own as a freshman and could be poised for a breakout.
Meanwhile, the Alabama receiving corps, like the Michigan defensive line, is full of potential and minimal proven production. Juniors Kenny Bell and Kevin Norwood made the most of last season's opportunities (combined: 44 targets, 33 catches, 549 yards) but saw barely three targets per game combined; sophomore DeAndrew White, meanwhile, was hit-or-miss as a freshman. If they can raise their respective games against better cornerbacks, and if the Tide can get some quality contributions from both some reasonably unproven former backups -- senior tight end Michael Williams' per-target production was rather average, sophomore wideout Christion Jones caught just three balls, and sophomore tight ends Harrison Jones and Brian Vogler combined to catch just two -- then all is well. But those they have more ifs than their defensive counterparts.
When Michigan Has The Ball
Michigan's Biggest Advantage: The First Quarter.
Alabama's defense was incredible in many ways in 2011. Of the 27 advanced statistical categories listed on their statistical profile, they ranked outside of the nation's Top 3 in just two of them -- first-quarter S&P+ (12th) and Adj. Sack Rate (20th). Granted, the Tide did lose some cogs from this incredible machine; linebackers Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw are gone, as are safety Mark Barron and corners DeQuan Menzie and Dre Kirkpatrick. But when you are that far ahead of everybody else, regression probably won't knock out out of the land of elite defenses.
That said, Michigan could find some success early on. The Wolverines were best early and late in games (fifth in the first quarter, seventh in the second, 22nd in the third, fifth in the fourth), and if Alabama is slow out of the gates (they were 12th in the country in the first quarter in their tortoise impression last year), Michigan could put up some early points. Nick Saban and company have had most of eight months to prepare for Denard Robinson, of course, but Michigan still better take advantage of early opportunities; they might not get any later opportunities.
Alabama's Biggest Advantage: Nick Saban.
It is conceivable that Michigan receivers Roy Roundtree or Jeremy Gallon (combined: 16.2 yards per catch last year) could burn Alabama for a big play, or even two. It is also conceivable that Denard Robinson could break off a couple of solid runs. But consistency will be the key for Michigan in this game. You have to do absolutely everything well against a Nick Saban defense; if you are one-dimensional, they will adapt and suffocate you. If the passing game isn't working both short and long, or if the running backs taking the place of suspended junior Fitzgerald Toussaint aren't taking advantage of everything they are given (and then some), the Tide will slowly bear hug Michigan into an unconscious state.
All of Michigan's weapons have to be fully functional, including some that weren't last year. For all of Michigan's big-play potential (13th in Passing PPP+, a Football Outsiders explosiveness measure), the Wolverines were too all-or-nothing (33rd in Passing Success Rate+, an efficiency measure) to consistently count on the passing game. Denard Robinson completed only 55 percent of his passes, and Roundtree managed only a 38.8 percent catch rate, the second-worst in the country for a frequently-targeted receiver (ahead of just Army's Davyd Brooks at 38.5 percent). Gallon is potentially great, and he could have some fun battles with Alabama corner Dee Milliner, but Robinson will need to find success in the shorter passing, be it to Gallon, a lesser-known receiver (Junior Drew Dileo? Sophomore Jerald Robinson? Part-time quarterback Devin Gardner?), tight ends Brandon Moore and Mike Kwiatkowski, or running backs Thomas Rawls and Vincent Smith. To beat Alabama's defense, you have to make sure you are using every inch of the field and every aspect of your offense. Robinson's legs are fantastic, but if that's all Michigan has going for it, the Wolverines won't be in this game very long.
Spread: Alabama -14
F/+ Projection: Alabama by 18.6
Bill's Pick: Alabama by 17
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