In what has to be considered the crown jewel of opening weekend, #2 Alabama squares-off against #8 Michigan at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on Saturday night (8:00 PM ET).
The marquee matchup not only offers the chance to see the defending champion during opening week but also the opportunity to see a team that many expect to win the Big Ten this season. For both teams this is sure to be a tough contest.
Having wrestled the title away from LSU in 2011, Alabama opens the season with the crystal football very much in mind. Success this season would mark the Crimson Tide’s third championship in four years and a seventh straight victory for the SEC.
For the team from Tuscaloosa, the biggest challenge this season will be adapting to new faces. With the departure of Trent Richardson, Dont’a Hightower and Mark Barron, Nick Saban will be slotting a fair few new players in on both sides of the football.
Advantageously for Michigan, at least six of these new faces will be on the defense. Having kept teams to an average of 183.6 yards and eight points last season, Alabama was a defensive juggernaut and things look to be the same again this season. Getting the Tide early on in the season means Michigan may be able to take advantage of some defensive inexperience though.
On the offensive side of the football, Eddie Lacy replaces Trent Richardson and his 2,000 yards and 24 touchdowns. Lacy may not be Heismann-material, but his seven touchdowns and 11.9 YPG average – which was actually higher than Richardson – demonstrates that he has the potential to do more than just plug the gap.
Meanwhile, Michigan will be looking to recapture the glory of the 2011 season – the first under head coach Brady Hoke – in which the team compiled 11 wins. Not much had been expected of the Wolverines prior to the season, but Hoke’s coaching stirred a fire, and a confidence, in his team.
The outstanding play of quarterback Denard Robinson – who threw for 2,173-yards, rushed for 1,176-yards, and tallied 36 all-purpose touchdowns – led the team to the Sugar Bowl and a 23-20 win over Virginia Tech. Robinson returns for his Senior season hoping to add a Big Ten championship and National Title to his résumé.
The showdown also offers Michigan the chance to win the Big Ten some important bragging rights. The much-fancied SEC continues to dominate National Championship talk, and with six consecutive championships, why wouldn’t it? But while many bestow the title on the SEC – or USC for that matter – the Big Ten is quietly becoming one of the best conferences in college football. Five teams reached the AP preseason poll with only the Big 12 and the aforementioned SEC having more representatives (six apiece).
What’s more, a strong showing on the field from Michigan may have a few people looking away from the conference’s torrid offseason towards the action on the gridiron.
Despite its setting and importance to both teams, Alabama enters the game as considerable favorites, with most lines having the Crimson Tide to take the game by two touchdowns. No doubt Michigan’s odds took a tumble when starting running back Fitzgerald Toussaint was suspended for one game on Friday after pleading guilty to drink-driving. With Toussaint off the field, Alabama’s inexperienced defensive corps can focus on the dual-threat of Robinson.
Still, if Robinson can avoid tackles and attack Alabama on the ground, whilst managing some proficient and accurate throws – yes, that’s a lot to ask – the Michigan offense could still be in with a chance.
When all is said and done and the dust settles at Cowboys Stadium, Alabama may well be victorious but the chances are it will come after a much tougher battle than some have anticipated.