Years after he finished his coaching career, legendary Ohio State head coach Woody Hayes was asked which of his teams he thought was his best. He quickly replied his 1969 team that went unbeaten except for a 24-12 loss to Michigan. He then paused, looked into the crowd and said, “Damn you, Bo, you’ll never win a bigger game.”
The man he looked at and referred to was Bo Schembechler, his former protégé and the man who upset his greatest team. It was Bo’s first year at Michigan, hired to replace a floundering Bump Elliott whose team had lost to Ohio State 50-14 the previous year.
Ohio State entered the matchup riding a 22-game winning streak and the defending national champions. They were thought to be unbeatable. Many considered them one of the greatest teams ever. Michigan was a measly 7-2 entering the contest and was given no shot. OSU was a 17-point favorite, but on that day, an inspired and disciplined Michigan team not only came to play, but sent the Buckeyes home with a 12-point loss.
Tomorrow when Michigan steps on the field against Alabama, the expectations from everyone outside Ann Arbor will be very similar. The national perception of Michigan is that it overachieved last year and is in store for a slight decline this season and doesn’t stand a chance this Saturday because of a tougher schedule and the loss of three starting defensive linemen, despite having a senior third-year starting quarterback, an experienced offensive line, and a proven running back. All the while, the perception of Alabama is that the defending national champs are serious contenders to repeat and will dominate Michigan on Saturday with a powerful offensive line, a returning game managing quarterback and….enough replacements to make Keanu Reeves jealous.
While both of those perceptions have some truth to them, I think they’re not as drastic as we’re being led to believe. But does Michigan have any chance at winning? Let’s examine how the two teams match up.
When Michigan has the ball
Everybody assumes this year’s Alabama defense will be just as good as last year’s despite replacing seven starters. There’s no question that last year’s defense was as dominant as it gets in college football and this year’s certainly has enough talent to make a name for itself. But Michigan is in the best possible position it could be entering this matchup: opening the season. The new Tide defenders haven’t had a chance to shake off the rust and get acclimated to their starting spots. But Michigan brings a third-year starting quarterback and an experienced offensive line to the table along with two proven receivers and an unknown x-factor in Devin Gardner.
Look for offensive coordinator Al Borges to spread it out early on and utilize a short passing game and a lot of misdirection to test ‘Bama’s new outside linebackers. The middle of the defensive line will be the Tide’s strength, so Michigan will need to open it up to keep Kirby Smart from stacking the box. I fully expect a more confident and precise Denard Robinson, enough to keep the defense honest with his arm.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying it’s going to be a cakewalk by any means – but Michigan will move the ball better than most expect.
When Alabama has the ball
As I mentioned in yesterday’s Friend vs Foe, the strength of the Alabama offense is it’s line. Center Barrett Jones is the best lineman in college football and right tackle D.J. Fluker isn’t far behind. Four of the starters have a combined 95 career starts and the fifth is former five-star Cyrus Kouandjio. Unfortunately, Michigan’s defensive line is where the most turnover occurred this offseason.
When the two-deep was released earlier in the week, most were surprised to see Quinton Washington listed as the starter at nose tackle with Will Campbell at defensive tackle and Jibreel Black starting at weak-side end instead of Brennen Beyer. But what it does is beef up the line and that’s exactly what Michigan’s defense needs if it wants any shot at stopping the ‘Bama run.
Running back Eddie Lacy is a first-year starter, but he has enough experience to be a proven back. Last season, he rushed for 674 yards, averaging 7.1 yards per carry in a backup role to Trent Richardson. If there’s a weakness on the Alabama offense it’s receiver, which returns just 36 percent of its production. The leading returning receiver, Kenny Bell, was the team’s fifth-leading receiver last year with just 17 receptions for 255 yards and two touchdowns.
Quarterback A.J. McCarron has Alabama fans thinking he’s the second coming becuase of his BCS National Championship game performance, but he’s little more than a game manager. With a host of unproven receivers, he’ll have to hope they step up or rely on the run game. That’s where the big defensive line comes in. Greg Mattison will aim to stop the run and force McCarron to get every ounce of production possible out of his wideouts. And I like Michigan’s odds in that case. The back seven are the strength of the team and can handle a group of inexperienced pass catchers. But that’s all reliant on the line stopping the run, which is a very tall task.
In the grand scheme of things, this game means virtually nothing to Michigan’s season. Of course they’ll do everything they can to win, but Brady Hoke has said since the day he was hired that the goal is to win the Big Ten championship each year and that can still be attained regardless of what happens tomorrow. But it’s an important game for Michigan as far as national prestige and conference bragging rights go. The Big Ten hasn’t done itself any favors as of late and the fact that the SEC has won the last six national titles has the south on top of the college football world. Michigan has been the only Big Ten team that has had the upper hand against SEC foes, but is still getting no respect in this one. And that’s just fine with Hoke. He’ll have the team ready to play and they’ll put up an effort worthy of respect, showing the rest of the teams on the schedule that Michigan is for real.
Regardless of who gets the ball first, I think it’s imperative that Michigan not only score first, but punch in a touchdown first to set the tone of the game. Alabama doesn’t think Michigan can score on its vaunted defense and thinks it can slow down Denard, so an early touchdown would do wonders for the confidence of Michigan and let doubt start to creep in for Alabama. But when it comes down to it, I just don’t see Michigan being able to stop the Alabama run efficiently enough to win the game. It will be closer than most people think and Michigan will score enough to make it a ballgame, but Alabama’s line will outlast Michigan in the end.
Alabama 27 – Michigan 23
Check back this afternoon for our full staff previews and don’t forget to register for this week’s 5-Spot Challenge for a chance to win a $20 M Den gift card.