Alabama vs. Michigan: Early analysis

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Even as the Crimson Tide practiced in shells and shorts this April, coach Nick Saban had opening day on his mind.

While the rest of the country waited on a groundhog to usher in the start of spring, the University of Alabama coaching staff prepared for a pack of wolverines.

The colossal Alabama-Michigan matchup at Jerry Jones’ equally enormous Cowboys Stadium won’t be left wanting for anticipation or, as it turns out, preparation. Tickets for the 80,000-seat venue are nearly sold out (a handful of $30,000 suites remain if you’re into that sort of thing), hotels are slammed and travel routes are already being arranged as two of the country’s most storied programs go head-to-head for the first time in more than a decade.

Saban, who has ties to the Great Lakes where he spent 10 years as both an assistant and head coach at Michigan State, isn’t doing anything to stall the hype machine. Several times during spring practice he said he’d begin introducing next year’s opponents, specifically citing the Michigan game.

In fact, following Alabama’s A-Day scrimmage, the fiery coach let it be known just how serious he’s taking the season opener. If anyone expected a glimpse of the game plan that day, they were wrong.

“You didn’t see anything new,” Saban snapped at reporters. “Unless you want to just email Michigan what we’re doing.”

If U-M coach Brady Hoke received any messages regarding the Tide, he too has kept them confidential. While both coaches have spoken openly about the excitement surrounding the Cowboy Classic, neither has divulged much in the way of what to expect when the ball is teed up.

That’s where we step in. In our way-too-early look at the college football opener, here are four things to watch for as we count down the days until the Metroplex turns into a sea of crimson, white, maze and blue:

1. How will the Tide contain Denard Robinson?

Expect every preview from here on to begin and end with mention of Denard Robinson. While the game will come down to more than that, it’s still the best place to start. Robinson is a playmaker the likes Alabama has not seen since Cam Newton in 2010. Robinson’s scrambling ability will test the UA defense, putting the most pressure on a secondary that has experienced a complete overhaul from last season.

Consider this: Saban has four months to prepare for Robinson and has lost just three opening games in 16 years as a college head coach. Saban's last opening-game loss was in 2002 when he was with LSU. Hoke is 5-4 in opening games.

2. Who wins the line of scrimmage?

We could spend all day talking about the flashy guys , but as the cliché goes, “The game is won and lost in the trenches.” In a sea of spread offenses and gimmicky schemes, Alabama and Michigan stand above the fray as offenses built with an emphasis on winning the battle up front. UA has the defending Outland Trophy winner Barrett Jones while Michigan boasts All-Big Ten second teamer Taylor Lewan.

Consider this: Michigan has just one projected starting offensive lineman that weighs in at more than 300 pounds. All five UA starters break that mark with the lightest being Jones at 302 pounds.

3. How does Alabama replace five potential first-round picks?

Talk about getting thrown into the fire. Trent Richardson, Mark Barron, Dont’a Hightower, Courtney Upshaw and Dre Kirkpatrick ain’t walking through that door. Neither is the heart of both the offensive and defensive lines in center William Vlachos and nose guard Josh Chapman. Against Michigan, a new Tide will rise with little time to adjust to their new surroundings.

Consider this: Michigan returns more starters on offense and defense than the Tide.

4. Can the Michigan secondary stand up to McCarron and Co.?

Robinson will get the top billing for this showdown, but watch out for AJ McCarron. The second-year starter under center will undoubtedly play with a chip on his shoulder against Michigan and look to make a statement about being more than just a bystander on the Tide’s championship run in 2011. With new weapons on offense and a new coordinator calling the shots, McCarron is poised to become a household name in 2012.

Consider this: Last season Michigan finished in the top 20 in pass defense and allowed less than 200 yards per game. Meanwhile, Alabama ranked 69th nationally in passing and threw for 215 yards per game.