Michigan preview: Tide’s defense will have to defend more than just a championship
By Jess Nicholas, TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief
Aug. 29, 2012
Alabama has never shied away from tough non-conference games under Nick Saban.
The question is, whether Michigan qualifies as a tough non-conference opponent.
The Wolverines had a rebirth in 2011 under head coach Brady Hoke, who took them to an 11-2 record following the disaster that was the Rich Rodriguez era. Now, Michigan is looking for respectability on the national stage.
In Alabama, Michigan gets the ultimate chance to do just that, facing a team coming off a national championship that also is having to replace roughly half its starters from a year ago. The matchup that is selling the most tickets is that of Michigan QB Denard Robinson versus an Alabama defense that has been death to quarterbacks for much of the past five years.
Michigan has its own issues, namely a defensive line lacking in size and an offensive line replacing three starters. But the ultimate key to this game will be Alabama’s defense putting the brakes on a potentially explosive Wolverine attack.
Both teams run some variant of the pro-style offense, but exactly what it those variants will look like is as of yet unknown. Alabama has a new offensive coordinator, Doug Nussmeier, but it’s unlikely Nussmeier will stray much from the offensive system utilized under Jim McElwain. Michigan is still shaking off the vestiges of Rodriguez’s spread attack, and is running a pro-style attack (sprinkled with a bit of Al Borges’ West Coast offense) with a quarterback whose best position is probably running back or wide receiver. The most glaring difference in the two teams is the offensive line; namely, Alabama’s veteran unit against a Michigan outfit trying to plug holes. A year ago, Michigan ran the ball very well (13th nationally), but couldn’t throw it (93rd).
Denard Robinson certainly lives up to his billing as a human highlight reel. He is swift, throws the ball well and makes a ton of plays under center despite not being quite 6 feet tall or 200 pounds. But he also throws a lot of interceptions, and has been far more effective as a runner than as a pure passes thus far in his college career. Robinson has drawn comparisons to Seneca Wallace, who Alabama faced in 2001 when Wallace was at Iowa State. The key for the Tide defense will be to mitigate damage, much the same way it kept Tim Tebow in check in the 2009 SEC Championship Game after letting Tebow control the rhythm in the same game a year before. Depth is good, with Devin Gardner giving Michigan some experience off the bench if needed. Alabama counters with A.J. McCarron, who is coming off one of the best performances by an Alabama quarterback in a national championship game. McCarron is much more a pocket passer than a dual threat, although he has reasonably good escapability. Depth isn’t so good, though, as Phillip Ely probably isn’t ready and Blake Sims has battled injuries for practically an entire calendar year. McCarron is a better passer than Robinson, but Robinson is more dynamic and Michigan has better depth. Advantage: M ichigan
As of press time, no decision had been made on 1,000-yard rusher Fitzgerald Toussaint, who was arrested recently on impairment charges. Although Hoke has not said whether Toussaint would or wouldn’t play, bet on seeing him. If he can’t go, Michigan is in trouble. While Toussaint is 220 pounds and can run between the tackles, his backup, Vincent Smith, goes about 5’7”, 170 pounds. Russell Bellomy, a freshman, would be next. As for Alabama, Eddie Lacy gets the call to replace Trent Richardson. If he can stay healthy, there’s no limit to what he can accomplish. Alabama has a solid edge in depth, with super freshman T.J. Yeldon and junior behemoth Jalston Fowler the first names off the bench. Scatback Dee Hart and the do-everything Blake Sims are also available. Michigan uses a fullback, set to be junior Stephen Hopkins, but Alabama uses none. Fowler will play there in certain situations. Without Toussaint, it’s no contest. Even with him, Alabama has Michigan out-gunned. Advantage: Alabama
Roy Roundtree comes with a lot of hype, but the fact is he trailed a part-time starter, Jeremy Gallon, in production last year and has yet to show signs of breaking out. Roundtree and Gallon are the starters for 2012, with Jerald Robinson and Drew Dillo the likely backups. Gallon and Dillo are smaller receivers and not necessarily the most physical. Backup quarterback Devin Gardner will probably see time here, and his size could be an asset. Michigan has a new starter at tight end, senior Brandon Moore, backed up by Ricardo Miller. Neither is a particularly big body. Alabama is replacing three of its four starters, the two receiver slots and the H-back position. Kevin Norwood, who broke out in a big way against LSU in the BCS Championship Game, and DeAndrew White are set to start, with Kenny Bell and extraordinary freshman Amari Cooper the next in line. Christion Jones will start in the slot when Alabama goes three-wide, and Danny Woodson Jr., Marvin Shinn and Cyrus Jones will back up all three positions. Tight end Michael Williams is an assassin as a blocker and is getting better in the passing game. The real wild card here is H-back, where walk-on Kelly Johnson appears to have beaten out Brent Calloway and Harrison Jones for the job. Johnson is a good athlete who played on kickoff coverage at times last year, but the question is how involved he’ll be in the offense, or whether Alabama spends more time in three-wide sets. Brian Vogler and Malcolm Faciane back up Williams at the Y position. This one is close because of Michigan’s advantage in experience, but Alabama has better depth and a much better situation at tight end. Advantage: Alabama
The right side of the Michigan line returns, namely tackle Michael Schofield and guard Patrick Omameh. Left tackle Taylor Lewan is also back. In the middle of it all are new starters Joey Burzynski (left guard) and Ricky Barnum (center). The first thing that strikes you about Michigan’s line is how small it is compared to Alabama’s, as the Wolverines have but one player, Lewan, who weighs in above the 300-pound mark. Depth is almost entirely made up of freshmen, save for guard Elliot Mealer. Alabama counters with Outland Trophy winner Barrett Jones at center, flanked by guards Chance Warmack and Anthony Steen and tackles Cyrus Kouandjio and D.J. Fluker. Only Kouandjio lacks starting experience, and it’s possible Warmack, Jones and Fluker are all first-round prospects in next April’s NFL Draft. Depth-wise, the two teams are about even; Kellen Williams and Austin Shepherd will back up Alabama’s tackle slots, while Chad Lindsey, Ryan Kelly and Arie Kouandjio handle guard and center. No one on Alabama’s second unit is particularly experienced, but the Tide starters far outclass Michigan’s. Advantage: Alabama
Michigan runs a 4-3 base set coordinated by veteran coach Greg Mattison. The Wolverines put up respectable total defense (17th) and pass defense (16th) numbers in 2011, but was just mediocre against the run (39th). Heading into 2012, Michigan must replace three starters on the defensive line, and the group is undersized. Alabama, meanwhile, counters with its 3-4 over/under scheme that has frustrated just about everyone the last five years. While the Tide is replacing seven starters from a year ago, in almost all cases, the new players played a bunch during crunch time and are veterans in the system.
Without a doubt the weakest unit on the Michigan side, suspensions and injuries have added to the drama. Michigan was set to start Craig Roh and Brennen Beyer at ends and Jibreel Black and Will Campbell at tackle, with Ondre Pipkins the primary backup inside and Frank Clark the primary backup at end. But Clark is currently suspended, although like RB Fitzgerald Toussaint, coaches haven’t given a final word yet. Pipkins suffered a neck injury in practice recently, and although he is expected to play, he won’t be 100 percent if he does. That leaves Nathan Brink as the primary backup at end and Quinton Washington and Chris Rock at tackle. The main issue is size; namely, the starters have it but many of the backups don’t. Alabama counters with Jesse Williams at nosetackle and Damion Square and Quinton Dial at the ends. Ed Stinson and Jeoffrey Pagan will back up the end positions, while Brandon Ivory handles tackle. Also expect to see youngsters LaMichael Fanning and D.J. Pettway. Advantage: Alabama
All three starters return for the Wolverines, but the depth chart may not be settled for some time. Senior Kenny Demens starts in the middle, but he’s being pushed by Joe Bolden. Desmond Morgan and Jake Ryan start at the outside positions. Again, size is an issue, primarily with the outside backers. Alabama, meanwhile, counters with veterans Nico Johnson and C.J. Mosley in the middle and relative newcomers Adrian Hubbard and Xzavier Dickson outside. Hubbard played more than Dickson did in 2011, and has positioned himself over the offseason as a player to watch. There aren’t many linebackers going 6’7”, 250 in college football these days. Trey DePriest is also available at inside linebacker along with Tana Patrick, while Jonathan Atchison, Anthony Orr and true freshman Denzel Devall back up the outside positions. Experience is a wash, and Alabama simply has more talent. Advantage: Alabama
Michigan expects to have a solid secondary, and this is finally one area where size isn’t an issue. Blake Countess and J.T. Floyd start at the corner positions, while Jordan Kovacs and Thomas Gordon handle the safeties. Countess is the lone player who wasn’t a starter in 2011, and he may be the best of the bunch. Depth is in fine shape with juniors Terrence Talbott, Courtney Avery and Marvin Robinson in the two-deep. Alabama counters with returning starters Robert Lester at safety and Dee Milliner at cornerback, but the two most intriguing names are the two new starters, safety Vinnie Sunseri and cornerback Deion Belue. Belue was in junior college at this time last year, but has consistently shown out in practices and may have passed Milliner – a preseason all-conference selection – for consideration for the title of Bama’s best corner. Sunseri became a fan favorite for his hustle and special teams prowess last year, then took over at dime for the injured Will Lowery down the stretch in 2011 and never looked back. Depth is somewhat of a concern; safety Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix backs up Sunseri while Nick Perry backs up Lester, but at corner, it will come down to little-used junior John Fulton or a true freshman, Geno Smith. For pure athleticism, give it to Alabama, but experience and depth favor the Wolverines. Advantage: Michigan
Alabama returns all its kickers, including kickoff specialist Cade Foster, placekicker Jeremy Shelley and punter Cody Mandell. Mandell looks much improved in offseason work, while Shelley is reliable from 40 yards in. With kickoffs moving up five yards, Foster should be adequate, but Alabama must still find a long-distance field goal kicker. Michigan, meanwhile, isn’t bad, but the kicking situation is somewhat unsettled as Brendan Gibbons and Matt Wile continue to fight for the job. Wile is set to punt. In the return game, Alabama has a plethora of dangerous talent onhand, while Michigan was horrible in the return game last year. The Wolverines also weren’t too sporty in punt coverage. The kickers are mostly a wash; Alabama wins everything else. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama leads in six categories, Michigan in two. Both of Michigan’s category wins are close calls over Alabama. As far as OL/DL matchups, Alabama wins both by a longshot.
And there’s where this game will be decided, the trenches. As good as Denard Robinson might be and as dynamic as he can look, he doesn’t have the body or the stamina to personally control the ball for 50 snaps in this game, which is what it will probably take. The Wolverines will have to find another way through the Alabama defense other than the direct path, even if Toussaint is playing and Robinson’s head stays connected to his torso.
Where Alabama will find itself in trouble is if the new personnel on offense have a bad day. If this is a low-scoring affair late into the fourth quarter, Robinson is good enough to turn the game on a single play. If Michigan falls behind by a couple of scores early, it will be tough to attack the Crimson Tide defense from under a large deficit.
Look for Alabama to play containment defense on Robinson and use its size advantage at the line of scrimmage to control the clock. Let the title defense commence.