Showdown in Dallas: Michigan-Alabama

The Michigan Wolverines arrived in Dallas Friday with big hopes for the upcoming season.

However, they will be quick to point out that those plans point to Indianapolis and Miami, not necessarily to Alabama.

“We start every season at the University of Michigan with one goal — we want to win the Big Ten championship,” Brady Hoke said. “We had some good things happen last season, but it wasn’t a successful year. We didn’t win the Big Ten championship, and we didn’t go to the Rose Bowl. That’s where we want to be every year.”

The Wolverines are decided underdogs against Alabama, but they believe that, as long as Denard Robinson is on the field, they’ve got a chance to win.

“We’ve all heard about Alabama and ‘SEC Speed,’ but there’s nothing like Denard speed,” offensive lineman Taylor Lewan said. “We’re used to our system, so we can play at a higher tempo, and we’ve got Denard. That means we’ve got a chance.”

Here’s a breakdown of how the Wolverines and Crimson Tide match up going into Saturday’s showdown:

MICHIGAN OFFENSE vs. ALABAMA DEFENSE

Michigan was always expected to struggle in this matchup, and that became official Friday when Hoke announced that Fitzgerald Toussaint would be suspended for the Alabama game.

Toussaint, who was arrested last month on drunk-driving charges, is on the depth chart as Michigan’s starting tailback.

That means that Thomas Rawls, Justice Hayes and Vincent Smith will split carries, but none of them have the breakaway ability of Toussaint. Robinson, of course, is as dangerous a runner as there is in college football, but Alabama coach Nick Saban knows how to deal with rushing quarterbacks.

In Cam Newton’s senior season, the Crimson Tide held him to 39 yards on 22 carries. In that case, it didn’t work, as Newton threw three touchdown passes as Auburn rallied to beat Alabama 28-27, but Saban will be more than happy to take that same chance with Robinson. If Robinson is kept in the pocket, he could revert to the player that threw 15 interceptions last season.

Alabama only gave up three rushing touchdowns last season, but are replacing six starters, all of whom are on NFL rosters. The new starters include both cornerbacks, which might give the Wolverines a shot at some big plays in the vertical passing game.

Roy Roundtree is healthy after arthroscopic knee surgery in fall camp, and converted quarterback Devin Gardner gives Robinson a big target with great athletic ability. Gardner’s new position also gives the Wolverines a chance for some trickery, as he would love to throw passes to Robinson. It was Gardner who originally proposed the idea of Robinson beating Usain Bolt in a 40-yard dash.

MICHIGAN DEFENSE vs. ALABAMA OFFENSE

Michigan’s defensive line was a major strength last season, but they lost three of the four starters to graduation. That means veteran DE Craig Roh will have lead a rebuilt group against what is probably college football’s best offensive line.

Will Campbell and Jibreel Black have looked good in fall camp, while Quinton Washington surprised everyone by winning a starting job at tackle. The foursome will have to come up big to put pressure on Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron, who was named the offensive MVP of the Crimson Tide’s BCS Championship Game win over LSU.

McCarron doesn’t have Robinson’s explosive skills, and isn’t likely to throw for 500 yards, but he will keep the passing game moving steadily and avoid making big mistakes.

Eddie Lacy has to fill Trent Richardson’s big shoes at tailback, but he has some impressive credentials of his own. Lacy rushed for 675 yards and seven touchdowns in fewer than 100 carries as Richardson’s backup, and fits perfectly as a power runner behind Alabama’s dominating offensive line.

Alabama is rebuilding at receiver, while Michigan has a secondary led by safety, inspirational leader and all-around good guy Jordan Kovacs. Like Roh on the defensive line and Kenny Demas at middle linebacker, Kovacs will have to lead his unit to great heights to stop Alabama’s multi-faceted offensive attack.

COACHES

Hoke is the ultimate Michigan man — a coach in his dream job who isn’t afraid to get corny to show his love of the Wolverines and his willingness to bring the school back to the glory days of Bo Schembechler and Lloyd Carr. Nick Saban couldn’t be more different, a hired gun who wanders the football world, selling his talents to the highest bidder.

If you want to make a long-time hire at your school, you could do a lot worse than someone like Hoke. He’s always wanted the Michigan job, he’s going to dedicate his life to it, and there’s not another job in the sport that would be likely to lure him away.

Saban, on the other hand, is like hiring Larry Brown to coach your basketball team. It isn’t going to last long and it probably won’t have a pretty ending, but you are going to win a lot of games in the meantime. Saban has won three national titles in the last nine years, and he’s got a Crimson Tide roster that has every chance of giving him No. 4.

PREDICTION

Michigan has a talented roster, and Denard Robinson can keep them in any game. But, as even the Michigan players acknowledge, there’s a reason they are two-touchdown underdogs. Alabama might have the best roster in the NCAA, and they almost certainly have the best coach. Saban has had months to get ready for Michigan, and he tends to do well with extra preparation time — just ask LSU.

Alabama 34, Michigan 17