DALLAS—It’s finally time. Alabama and Michigan kick off tonight at 7 p.m. at Cowboys Stadium. That’s right, tonight.
After an entire off-season breaking down one of the most dynamic athletes in college football in Denard Robinson, the Crimson Tide get to see him in person, tonight.
“I think everyone is a little tired of practicing against each other,” Alabama head coach Nick Saban said. “It’s time to sort of see where we’re at, regardless of how we do in the game, we know what we need to do, to work on to improve. I don’t worry so much with this team about the character, the attitude, the way they’re going to go out there and try and compete. But the experience that we have on the field, the leadership, the intangibles, those things are just going to have to grow with this team. We’re going to have to play well enough, and have enough leadership, to have resiliency to overcome anything that happens.”
Earlier this week, Saban flattered Robinson by comparing him to Cam Newton, calling him “as significant of a player they’ve seen” 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.”
The 6-foot, 197-pound Robinson is shifty, sneaky and slippery and if Alabama’s defense bites on a pump fake or jumps up to bat balls down, the Michigan quarterback will, as Saban said, “take off running and you’ll say, ‘Well, how did that happen?”
Linebackers Adrian Hubbard and Xzavier Dickson, two of the Tide’s most prolific pass rushers, were both listed as starters on this week’s depth chart, so Robinson will have those two coming at him. But it’s not all about the rush when facing a player like Robinson.
“It’s about pass rushing and making good choices and decisions about how you rush the guy and just be in control of what you’re doing, so you kind of control a little bit what he’s going to end up doing,” Saban said. “That can put a lot of pressure on the defense. If you get pushed by the quarterback, he’s not one of those guys you want to play with 10 guys…I’m pleased with the pass rush, but I think experience, knowledge, being smart and how you rush a guy like this is really important. And a lot of it comes down to decision making.”
Alabama has a sophisticated, disciplined, NFL-style defense, and it will be interesting to see if they can resist the temptation of going with their first instincts to maybe jump up to bat balls down and remember who they’re playing and stay on their feet and contain.
On the other side of the ball is Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron who enters this season with one year starting, a national championship and title game MVP under his belt. He said he doesn’t feel any differently than he did at this time last year, even though he was in a quarterback competition with Phillip Sims all preseason, but heading into Michigan, McCarron has seemed nothing but calm and cool.
“I expect great things,” center Barrett Jones said. “I think he’s going to do a really good job. I think we’re putting more on him this year, giving him more responsibility, letting him make more decisions at the line.
“He’s responded well so far. A lot of times we talk about what we’re seeing, whether I’m helping him learn something about the defense. He’s really starting to understand why I’m making my calls and he’s starting to understand more about fronts and defense in general. It’s kind of like the next step for a quarterback. You want them to learn coverages and then you want to learn what the whole defense is doing.”
McCarron spent long hours over the summer and during fall camp watching film on every opponent Alabama will face this year with graduate assistant Jeff Norrid.
“But probably in the past two, two-and-a-half weeks, we’ve watched a ton of film on [Michigan],” McCarron said. “Then me and him are up here at least three-and-a-half, four hours a day. We’ll come an hour or so before practice and then the rest after. So we’ve done a tremendous amount of breaking them down. It’ll be fun come Saturday.”
In the post-Jim McElwain era, new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier implemented some of his own wrinkles into Alabama’s scheme this year, and he and Saban have trust in McCarron to sling it to the list of capable receivers out wide.
Injury-wise, Alabama is good to go with running back Eddie Lacy (turf toe, sprained ankle and knee), wide receiver Amari Cooper (foot) and backup center Ryan Kelly (ankle).
And as far as opening the season playing a fellow top 10 team in Michigan inside the spaceship known as Cowboys Stadium, the Tide is anxious to start the year where they finished off—on the big stage.
“It’s still 100 yards long and, what, 53-something yards wide,” McCarron said. “There’s no difference. Just a few more seats. A few more fans to yell at you. It’ll be exciting to play there.”
Matchup: No. 2 Alabama vs. No. 8 Michigan, Cowboys Stadium, 7 p.m. ABC
On the line: This game will set the tone for the season. Alabama is trying to win its third national title in four years and 15th overall. A loss here puts a damper on those goals. The Tide also want to prove that despite losing so many players from last year’s squad, they can come back just as strong. If Michigan beats Alabama, quarterback Denard Robinson will soar to the top of the Heisman talk. The Wolverines have been swimming upstream for years and want to capitalize on their Sugar Bowl victory from last season.
Alabama will win if…The defense contains Robinson and makes Michigan one-dimensional, is tight and disciplined in gap responsibility, the young secondary makes minimal mistakes, and AJ McCarron picks up where he left off in the national championship game.
Michigan will win if…Robinson is able to fake out Alabama’s stout defense and the team as a whole is able to keep things close. If the Tide has a big lead at halftime, the game could be over. But if the Wolverines keep things close heading into the fourth quarter, the game will be up for grabs. Head coach Brady Hoke announced Friday that starting running back Fitz Toussaint, who ran for 1,041 yards and nine touchdowns last season, will not play. He was arrested in July for driving under the influence, but has been practicing with the team and was recently listed as the top running back on the depth chart. Thomas Rawls will start in his place. Defensive end Frank Clark (legal) has also been suspended for this game. It’s still unknown if wide receiver Roy Roundtree (knee) will play. He had his knee scoped on Aug. 10.
Prediction: Michigan is missing (at least) two of its starters against the reigning national champions. This will put more pressure on Robinson especially if Alabama’s defense can get him rattled early.
Alabama 28, Michigan 13
For more Alabama coverage, follow Laken Litman on Twitter!