Michigan Vs. Alabama Preview: An SB Nation Roundtable

NEW ORLEANS, LA - JANUARY 03: Denard Robinson #16 of the Michigan Wolverines throws an interception to Kyle Fuller #17 of the Virginia Tech Hokies in the first half during the Allstate Sugar Bowl at Mercedes-Benz Superdome on January 3, 2012 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

The biggest game of Week 1 is in Dallas, so we brought in a blogger from Michigan and one from Alabama to get the inside scoop on the two teams squaring off at Jerry World.

Todd Jones is one of the main writers over at Roll Bama Roll (@rollbamaroll), SB Nation's Alabama blog. Zach Travis (@zach_travis) does the same over at Maize n Brew (@maizenbrew), SB Nation's Michigan blog.

How has Brady Hoke differed from Rich Rodriguez so far as a head coach? Do you think that was the right decision?

Travis: I was a fan of Rodriguez until things kind of jumped the shark at the end, but the man had some pretty big flaws that look even more glaring in hindsight. He was terrible with the media and the alumni, he focused too intently on his offense to the detriment of the defense, and when he did step in to work with the defense it was usually undermining to his coordinators.

Hoke is as close to universally liked by the fans and media as you could hope to find. He is more of a program manager than a guru, instead opting to hire great coordinators and let them do their jobs. Finally, Hoke is a defensive guy himself, and what he brings to coaching the defense fits in very well with the rest of the staff because everyone works together and is comfortable.

How much of a drop-off on the defensive side of the ball should we expect after Alabama had 4 players taken in the top 35 picks? Any?

Jones: There's obviously going to be a drop off from any defense that loses three first round drafts picks (and an early second rounder) that were key components, so it's just to be expected, but the real measure is whether or not the drop off brings the defense back to Earth to such a degree that they could lose a game with their performance. The 2011 defense was one of the best defenses in the history of college football, so measuring against that level of dominance is wholly unfair. No one but LSU came even close to challenging them, and even then it was the Tide's sputtering offense that cost the first game, not the defense. So even though there is going to be drop off, will it be enough to sink the defense to a level where we can't lean on them to win a game is the real question. My gut instinct is no.

Will AJ McCarreon be given more freedom on the offensive side of the ball this year? Or is he better suited in a more conservative role?

Jones: I really think that the idea of McCarron (or any Bama QB for that matter) as a "game manager" is one of those lazy labels that people who don't actually pay attention to a given team beyond the Sportcenter highlights fall back on far too often. Depending on who you ask, McCarron was running the show by the end of the season and had a large degree of freedom in checking the offense in and out of plays, but because the roster wasn't particularly suited to running wide open (i.e. strength was at running back and TE), we just didn't. That's one of the things I love about our team and staff, we don't have a system on offense so much as a game plan to utilize the roster's strength in the most effective way possible. To put it another way, you'd be an idiot to throw the ball 50 times a game with Trent Richardson in the backfield and not a lot of consistency at wide receiver.

Yeah, so obviously that question kinda gets under my skin sometimes. The fact is, we based our entire offensive game plan in the BCS Championship Game on McCarron's arm, and he delivered against one of the best defenses in the country as a first year starter. All the talk out of spring and fall is that he has continued to develop as a passer, while a young crop of receivers are finally showing up to give Alabama the kind of multiple downfield threats we just haven't had over the past few years (plus a new OC from Pac-12 country) so look for the offense to rely more on his ability to create big plays in the passing game.

Can Denard Robinson put together a Heisman season in 2012? How would you compare him to RG3?

Travis: The biggest problem facing Denard has little or nothing to do with him. He is an explosive athlete and a solid quarterback that is capable of reaching levels of production and greatness that most others aren't because his ability to create big plays on the fly. The problem is that his team is facing down one of the toughest schedules in the country, his starting running back is suspended, and his offensive line is one injury away from having to have a serious discussion about starting a true freshman.

That being said, I absolutely think Denard is going to be a better quarterback in 2012. He isn't RGIII. Robinson is more of a runner than RGIII, and plays in an offense that ran the ball something like two-thirds of the time a year ago. While that ratio has to even out some, Robinson isn't going to be anywhere close to a 3000 yard passer, much less the 4000+ yards Griffin put up. Without the gaudy passing stats, and with a smaller role in the run game, Robinson's only chance to win the Heisman is for A) his team to win a lot and B) for him to cut down on his turnovers drastically on the way to becoming an efficient, mistake-averse quarterback. The first is a long shot and the second is wishful thinking.

What do you think will be Alabama's plan to slow Robinson down?

Jones: Alabama's plan for Robinson really depends on whether or not suspended RB Fitz Toussaint plays. He gives the Michigan offense a strong between the tackles presence that no one else in their backfield brings, so without him it allows the front seven to focus completely on keeping Robinson and the rest of the offense from using their lateral speed to get outside. We'll more than likely take the same approach as we did against Florida and Tim Tebow in the '09 SEC Championship Game and Cam Newton in the '10 Iron Bowl, namely forcing Robinson to stay in the pocket by not rushing as often and allowing their offensive line to push our linemen behind him where he can escape and do damage with his legs.

Travis: The same thing Alabama does to everyone: force third-and-long situations by concentrating on stopping the run on early downs. When Nick Saban looks at Michigan he sees a team that depends heavily on the run, and doesn't have a quarterback that is great on third-and-long. Saban is going to focus on bottling up the run game on run-downs and then make the game about Robinson beating the Tide defense to get tough third-down conversions. I think that both Nick Saban and I know how that is going to end.

How many national titles do you think Saban will end up winning in Tuscaloosa?

Travis: It depends on how much longer the 60-year old Saban wants to coach. If he coaches five more years I could see him winning one or two more. Ten years? Three. The thing about college football is that it is incredibly luck driven. The best team won't always win the national title, the team that has the best season will. I don't have any doubt that Alabama is going to be one of the two or three best teams in the country over the next five years if Saban is there and things continue as they have.

The thing is, injuries happen, upsets happen, and recruiting busts happen. Alabama under Saban will always be in the national title discussion, but just look at last year: it took a fluke loss by Oklahoma State on a Friday night to give the Tide a shot at the title. Does that happen every year? Do voters pick a second SEC team again in the next two years? Does Alabama have as much success in a four-team playoff? College football is a cruel mistress, and even Saban is going to have trouble taming her more often than not.

Jones: Not really concerned with the total count so much as the ability of Saban to keep Alabama at a national title contender level. Winning the BCS isn't about being the best team, it takes a tremendous amount of luck as well. Just in our own experience, the '09 team needed Terrence Cody to block TWO field goals against a middling Tennessee to survive, and I don't think I need to remind you of the bizarre circumstances that got us in the game last year. So as much as I want to answer "ALL THE TITLES," I'm just pleased with the fact that we're always in the discussion.

Is winning this game more important for Michigan than it is for Alabama? Or vice versa?

Jones: Michigan obviously has more to "win" on a perception scale here and an upset would significantly boost their stock, but reading a lot of the Michigan press surrounding this game you kind of get the feeling that Michigan and their fans are already conceding this game and instead focusing on winning the Big Ten. On the flip side, the Tide is a pretty heavy favorite at this point so even though I think both teams could weather a loss here without a lot of damage later in the season the growing national perception of Alabama and Nick Saban as an evil empire and ESPN's "will someone please beat the SEC?!" narrative makes this a must win for Alabama.

Travis: If Alabama loses it becomes a story about rebuilding a defense that lost a lot of contributors, and an offense that has nothing left from last year at receiver. From there, Alabama could win 12 games in a row (including the SEC championship) and there isn't a voter in the country that would keep the tide out of the top two based on reputation alone.

Meanwhile, Michigan is "back" but still very much un-established. A great season could have an incalculable effect on the next few years as it relates to recruiting momentum and general perception from the media that remember all too well the waning Carr years that exist independent of the Rich Rodriguez debacle. This game could make or break Michigan's quest for an improved national reputation, whereas Alabama is still Alabama, no matter what happens. Michigan needs this one more.

Give me a non-homer prediction for the game.

Jones: I think we'll probably see a pretty close game through the first half. Both teams are trying to find an identity in a lot of key areas, and there's bound to be some mental mistakes and blunders that keep either time from really pulling away, but I give the advantage to Alabama's offense in this one. Michigan's defensive front is young, inexperienced, and sorely lacking in depth while the Tide should have the best offensive line in the country. Unless Robinson has the game of his life and we can't figure out a way to stop him, I suspect the first comfortable lead will give Saban every reason to shut it down and let the backfield and offensive line grind out the second half.

Travis: Considering my homer pick for this game is Bama by two scores, I'm not sure what to say. Let's look at the matchups in a game that is going to depend heavily on both teams' ability to run the football: Bama's run game vs. Michigan's defense. The Wolverines are breaking in three new starters on the line while Alabama returns one of the biggest and most talented offensive lines in the country. Advantage: Bama.

Michigan's run game vs. Alabama's defense: Alabama lost a handful of players to the first round of the draft and is still one of the five most talented defenses in the country. Meanwhile, Michigan is missing its starting running back going into the game and will either be playing a true sophomore with a handful of career carries, or a third-down-back that is 5'6 180lbs. Advantage: Bama.

I just don't see any way Michigan is able to win this game barring a few lucky breaks in special teams, a defensive score, and a career day passing by Denard Robinson. Is all of that possible? Yes. Is it likely? No. Bama tops Michigan: 28-17.

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