Friday, August 31, 2012

Alabama Preview: Banking On The One

Brief note: I will attempt ("attempt" being the key word) to have these preview posts up on Friday each week around lunchtime. The grad school thing may prevent that from happening, but we'll see how it goes. I should be good to go for about the first month...after that, things might get a little dicier. 

The Exposition

Time: 8 ET, ABC
Place: Cowboys Stadium--Arlington, TX
Line: Alabama -13.5
Mood: !!!!!!!+unceasing anxiety

I spent my high school years in Alabama, coinciding exactly with the Mike Shula era. This was a few months after the Mike Price fiasco, not to mention Dennis Franchione's controversial departure for Texas A&M a few months before that. Add NCAA sanctions to the mix and a new head coach in Shula* (who had been a career NFL guy to that point, and never a head coach), and you could say that things were not turning up Milhouse.

At the same time, my high school years as a Michigan fan were about as good as you could ask of your program within a 4-year window. John Navarre went out and won a Big Ten championship in 2003 to spite his squawking detractors, and Chad Henne rode piggybacked on Braylon Edwards's back in 2004 en route to another one. The 2005 season, "The Year of Infinite Pain", according to Brian, was a paper cut compared to the total system breakdown that was the Rich Rodriguez era. My final season as a high schooler was the 2006 season, of which I don't need to tell you about.

Michigan going 0-4 in its bowl games during that time put a bit of a damper on things, but it was an all around great time to be a Michigan fan, especially one living in Alabama. In retrospect, it seems almost unthinkable for Alabama to have a 4-win season and two 6-win seasons in a 4-year span, but it happened between 2003 and 2006.

Enter Nick Saban, and that's enough of that whole losing and not being mistake-free cybernetic organisms thing. Say what you will about oversigning, but there is no denying that Saban is one of the best defensive minds in the game. In five seasons, Saban has compiled a 55-12 record; half of those losses came in his first season. Simply put, Alabama has been the best team in the country since Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa.

Needless to say, in nine years, a whole lot has changed; this isn't 2003, anymore.

*Amusingly, he is now the QB coach for the Carolina Panthers, coaching one Cam Newton. Life has a funny way of working out sometimes.

Michigan Offense vs. Alabama Defense 
A note: I started writing this on Tuesday. I am assuming that Toussaint is not going to play, for what it's worth. The same goes for Frank Clark. 

It's hard to decide which Michigan unit has a better chance of getting anything done in this game. As I detailed throughout the summer, this Alabama team is about as talented and athletic as you would expect. So, what's the catch? There is a catch, right?

Maybe, maybe not. Ask any Alabama fan about their defense and they will talk to you about RELOADING and 5-star recruits everywhere and how this ain't 2010 (when Alabama had to replace a similar amount of premium defensive talent and then went on to have a "disappointing" 3-loss season). Well, most of it is in fact true. Alabama is talented, and at certain positions, they will rotate guys in and out with relative ease.

However, some Alabama fans are just being unreasonable. I'm sorry. That's not to say that Alabama's defense won't be good (keep in mind that that 2010 defense was still very good) because they absolutely will, or that a defense that is a cut or two below last year's wouldn't still hold Michigan to a relatively low point total.

The simple fact is, no, Alabama fans, your defense will not be as good as last year's was. Then again, last year's defense was historically good, not just good in the context of the 2011 season. Some slippage can be reasonably expected, especially when replacing 7 defensive starters. Yes, I do understand that some of the players replacing these guys have seen some game action (for example, starting corner Dee Milliner), but not all of these guys have gotten meaningful playing time. Adrian Hubbard at SLB, Quinton Dial (was a rotational type guy last year that will be a half-starter along with Ed Stinson at one end position), Deion Belue is a JUCO guy in his first season in Tuscaloosa and a starting corner, Vinnie Sunseri is a true sophomore who did play some last season but has enormous shoes to fill at strong safety, etc.

As you probably know by know, Nick Saban is an evil genius whose defenses run with Gradgrindian efficiency; it's going to be "hard times"** for Michigan indeed if the OL consistently lets rushers through en route to clean shots on Denard. That cannot happen, especially early on in the contest. Nick Saban's Alabama defenses are known for their base 3-4, but Alabama is a fairly "multiple" team. The will also likely throw the 4-3 at us, the 5-2 (with two "Jack"*** linebackers on the field at once), and passing downs have their own special wrinkles for nickle packages. Alabama will throw a lot of different things, and Borges has ostensibly does his homework on all of them. That said, being ready to combat and execute these defensive looks is another battle entirely. FWIW, here's a useful video of Saban explaining the basis for the "Star" and "Money" positions in Alabama's nickel and dime looks.

Some Crimson Tide defenders to focus on at each level of the defense: 6'4'' 320 lb. senior NG Jesse Williams (he's a position switcher moving over from end, although he did play nose in his JUCO days), 6'2'' 232 lb. junior CJ Mosley at ILB (he's not nominally a starter but he basically is based on how much he will actually play, especially against a spread spread-ish team like Michigan), and 6'0'' 215 sophomore strong saftey Vinnie Sunseri (son of a coach!). Mosley in particular is a player to pay attention to when he's on the field. He's not technically a starter, but he's probably Alabama's best linebacker, and he will be on the field in passing situations. He's also Alabama's fastest backer, so expect him to do a lot of this when Denard does dump it off:

Don't get me wrong, I love Vincent Smith, but I'm not sure he will be able to shake Mosley on the edge. However, I think a guy like Justice Hayes could do some damage in this capacity, although that is admittedly based purely on recruiting hype at this point.

If Michigan (i.e. Barnum+Omameh/Mealer) cannot contain the Balrog that is Jesse Williams from getting into the backfield or render him irrelevant by attacking the edges and taking our chances there, it's going to be a long, long day. Remember this picture?

With the pressure that Alabama is sure to bring with the Jack linebacker, bringing Sunseri down into the box, and all other sorts of defensive sorcery, things could very well look like the picture above. I think Denard would agree with me: that is not something we want to happen. Alabama has spent the last few weeks talking about how they're coming for Denard, and why wouldn't they? Unless propelled by magic (4th quarter of the ND game, the entire VT game), if you key on Denard and force him to pass, things probably get ugly. Obviously, that is easier said than done, since not every team has the pure talent to force Michigan's hand in that way. Alabama, like Michigan State, certainly does.

Analogy time! Hoke:defensive line coaching::Nick Saban:defensive backs. Saban and DC Kirby Smart have supreme confidence in their DBs, which is not unreasonable given the talent they have at their disposal and the fact that Saban might be the best and most meticulous teacher of DB technique in the country. It's his special pet project amongst all other coaching duties, much like the DL is to Hoke.

A perfect example of this confidence is the Cover 1 Robber defense, which Chris Brown of Smart Football discussed in his book released earlier this summer (and summarized excellently by this MGoBlog diary). Alabama will put its corners in man coverage with regularity, and this decision is only strengthened by the fact that Michigan's top two receivers are Roy Roundtree and Jeremy Gallon. No offense to either player, but I imagine that neither exactly strikes fear in Saban's robot ersatz heart.

Want to see the Cover 1 Robber in action? You have seen it before, and I apologize in advance for this. If you'll remember, I recently linked to this excellent post from The Only Colors on the now infamous Double A-Gap blitz. Therein, a discussion of one variant, the Cover 1 Robber, was explained in detail. Guess which play that was:

As surprisingly complicated and variegated as that particular blitz is, you can be sure that Alabama has many like this one lined up and ready to go. Denard et al need to have their hot route cues down pat, or the above will very likely occur at some point.

I don't think that Michigan will have much success attacking the middle with the ground least early on. Alabama stuffed everyone, even LSU's paleolithic but effective power running game, and I think that we should expect different results. I don't think that Borges is foolish enough to do this, but if Michigan lines up in the I and attempts to run any sort of traditional power run, you can bet that thousands of Michigan fans will all be throwing up their hands in unison. Unless we're in a short yardage or goal line situation, Michigan cannot afford to waste precious plays by plugging away up the middle. This isn't the 1990s: lightning bolts will not rain down on your head if you don't run to set up the pass.

The problem with that is Michigan has Denard Robinson, who, aside from being a transcendent runner with a fantastic smile, has had some basic mechanical issues in the passing game, not mention trouble reading defenses and reacting to pressure. All of these things do sound like a recipe for disaster against a defense like Alabama's, but we have to assume that Denard has improved throughout the offseason. Playing like he did against Nebraska and Ohio State would be a start, but that's all it would be. The same gaping holes that were there against the Huskers and Buckeyes likely won't be there against Alabama, and if they are they will be closing up a little more quickly.

So, what are the options? Really, there aren't many that don't involve pinpoint execution and, quite frankly, not getting blown back at the point of attack. If either happen, it's over. An UTL-esque miracle is just not going to happen against this team.

***FYI, the JLB is basically the pass-rushing linebacker; last year, it was Courtney Upshaw.

Michigan Defense vs. Alabama Offense 
We've had a couple relatively surprising moves on the defensive side of the ball come to light in the last week. First, Quinton Washington will be playing at the nose position and starting. Next to him is William Campbell, who was going to be play nose until the coaches eventually came to the realization that Black at the 3-tech just wasn't going to work. As such, BWC to the 3-tech and Black back to WDE it is. We won't truly know what the two-deep is actually like until the games begin, but, for now, Black's move is one more obstacle between Mario Ojemudia having to take the field against an Alabama team with a Brobdingnagian offensive line.

Speaking of the offensive line: they are huge. I previewed this position group way back in early April, and not much has changed (actually, nothing has). If you didn't already know, 2011 All-American LT Barrett Jones made the move to center to make room for Cyrus Kouandjio, which speaks to how highly the coaches think of the latter. This is the second move that Jones has mode (he was once a guard), so while position switches are often uncomfortable propositions, Jones has always been lauded as a smart guy and should be more than alright.

Alabama has a bevy of talented tailbacks and wide receivers. Like the secondary and linebackers, experience is the primary issue with most of these guys, although they are by no means completely green. None of these guys are Trent Richardson or Julio Jones, but they might not need to be if the ground game has worn Michigan down as I'm sure Alabama is intending to do.

You probably know about Eddie Lacy by now. He was Alabama's #3 in 2010, Richardson's backup last season, and should be the feature back this season. A pesky injury kept him out of most of spring ball, IIRC (including the A-Day scrimmage), and has still seemed to be banged up as recently as the last week or two. I linked to a video of him doing a short drill with a fairly significant amount of tape on his ankle, which may or may not mean anything.

Saban has used the words "day-to-day", and the fact that he'd be "ready to go in 5 or 6 days"...he said this on August 18th. The more time that passes, the more I get the feeling that he won't be 100% on 9/1. If that is the case, our old friend RS freshman Dee Hart and true freshman TJ Yeldon become the next guys in line. Jalston Fowler, Alabama's #3 last year and the Tide's top mooseback, appears to have made the move to H-back, where walk-on Kelly Johnson has won the starting role in what can be considered the shocker of fall camp (it hasn't been that exciting of a fall camp). Johnson has big shoes to fill, as the H-back is a very important player in Alabama's offense, which should basically stay the same despite the hiring of former Washington OC Doug Nussmeier (last year's OC, Jim McElwain, departed for the Colorado State head coaching job). Brad Smelley was a big time target for McCarron last season on key third downs (he was Alabama's second-most productive receiver in 2011). It's unreasonable to expect Johnson to be as good as Smelley, but he did win the starting nod, so he must be doing something right.

At receiver, Alabama appears to be rolling with 6'0'' 185 sophomore DeAndrew White and 6'2'' 195 junior Kevin Norwood at the "X" and "Z" positions, with 5'11'' 185 sophomore Christion Jones taking the "H" receiver position (i.e. the slot). I was somewhat surprised to see White win the starting over Kenny Bell, Alabama's leading returning receiver, but I'm not sure that it matters much. Bell is a physical, athletic receiver, and McCarron looked to him downfield on occasion last year. AJ and Bell hooked up for a 39-yard and 41-yard TD against Tennessee and Auburn (a flea flicker, FWIW) respectively. Fast forward to 0:35 in the video below to see this in action.

Anywho, Alabama has more, but to continue to name them would be overkill. Here's the thing. Alabama's offense is a little more complicated than it may seem, but in the end this game will be all about those things that make us roll our eyes when guys like Merill Hoge talk about them: toughness, resilience, the ability to bend but not break, completely unironic GRIT. If Michigan is going to get this done, it probably won't be pretty. Alabama will pick up yards on the ground and, inevitably, through the air when Mattison is forced to bring increasingly crazier and riskier blitzes. However, if Michigan can hunker down once Alabama cross the M's 30, not unlike the Sugar Bowl, then I'm saying there's a chance.

I mentioned this back when I took a look at Alabama's quarterbacks and I'll say it again: McCarron is a better player than many Michigan fans are probably giving him credit for. He's a solid player, and yeah, sure, having that team around him certainly helps. However, all you need to do to realize that being a QB for such a team is not so easy is to recall LSU's 2011 season. The quarterbacking during the national title game was so rough that folks with no stake in the result of the game (me, for example) began to plead all over the Internet for Les Miles to PUT IN THE OTHER GUY, a guy who is often known as Jarrett "Pick 6" Lee.

I mentioned that moving QW to nose and Black back to WDE was kind of like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, but the more thought I give this configuration, the more I like it. That is 600+ pounds (607 according to MGoBlog's Fall Roster Overanalysis) of human being there in the middle. Will it be enough against an interior trio of Chance Warmack, Barrett Jones, and Anthony Steen? Maybe not, but I like Michigan's chances much better with QW than Black.

As for the ends, there was once a point when I was fairly optimistic about this group. Now, not so much. I'm having visions in my head of Beyer and Roh getting handled by Fluker and Kouandjio in the ground game and getting stonewalled in the pass rush, and who knows what kind of player Black will be after adding weight and spending so much practice time on the inside. At this point, any sort of pass rush that Michigan can get from the these guys is gravy, which is a pretty ominous thing to have to say.

With that said, things are rosier in the back 7 for Michigan. As far as tight ends go, Michael Williams is Alabama's starter. He doesn't seem to be anything extraordinary, but he is by no means a liability or anything. He was a red zone target against Penn State last season (and also the recipient of a fake field goal TD pass that Ace linked to here).

Otherwise, I feel pretty confident that Michigan's 'backers will match up in coverage. The only catch is the Williams is 6'6'' and a biscuit under 270. OF COURSE HE IS. When Alabama has Williams and an H-back in the game, odds are you are about to get smashed in the face. He's a blocker and possible red zone guy...basically, what we all hope AJ Williams will one day become.

I feel confident enough in Michigan's safeties not giving up the dreaded big play for the first half or so. But...after that, especially if Alabama has racked up enough yardage that plays like the above dart to Bell can happen? That is the moment that the game is over.

What Needs to Happen, Fergodsakes
On defense:
  • Say it with me now: bend but don't break. I'm sure Mattison has some tricks up his sleeve, but tricks can only do so much when the other team is simply bigger and faster. Michigan is not going to win the stat sheet battle. If Mattison's defense gives up 500 yards and manages to hold Alabama under 31, there is hope. Make them kick field goals (see: 2011 LSU game, Part 1). 
  • Countess and Floyd. Please be in pre-OSU/VT form. Alabama has quite a few talented players at receiver, but I'm not really convinced that there is a star among them (certainly not a Julio type). This goes without saying, but given the probably lack of a front four pass rush, JT and Blake will be on an island more fairly often. The good news is that, after a year of Mattison's diabolical blitzes and aggressiveness verging on over-aggressiveness, they're probably up to the challenge. 
  • Quinton and William. To put it simply, if these two look like they're on skates, there is simply no hope. Again, you can only scheme and mitigate your weaknesses so much. As Saturday approaches, I've become increasingly confident that they'll be able to hold up at least adequately; whether the linebackers can shed Warmack and Steen and tackle the ball carrier--whether an all-around talent like Lacy or a darty sort like Hart--is another story entirely. For the record, I'm fairly confident that Demens, Morgan, and Ryan will do a decent job. Jake Ryan, after QW and BWC, might be the most important player on Michigan's entire team in this game. 
On offense: 
  • No turnovers please. If Michigan turns the ball over, chances are a win is not happening. The margin for error is razor thin. 
  • Get the passing game going early. My nightmare is that Michigan comes out, plugs away on the ground, fails miserably and then sees everything spiral out of control as Michigan tries to pass its way back in the game with a guy like Denard. The slant will be there, and Borges will call upon that old standby, the throwback screen to Gallon to start pushing the Alabama linebackers and safeties away from the LOS. Naturally, if that happens, that's where Denard goes to work. If there's 9 in the box, forget about it
  • Devin Gardner. The wild card-iest wild card who ever wild card'd. If he is a legitimate force at receiver, that could change everything. To be quite honest, after Milliner, the rest of Alabama's corners don't impress me as much as Alabama's new linebackers do. Also, I need to see Sunseri and Clinton-Dix in action before I deem them the second coming of Ronnie Lott. I think that Michigan might get some mileage out of the so called "QB Oh Noes" play, as Brian calls it, what with Sunseri looking to be an involved and aggressive player in the run game. Borges needs to scheme against that position. 
  • Attack the edge, quickly. Yes, SEC speed and all that, but I think that it's just about a waste of time to try (past a token effort) to develop a between-the-tackles running game, at least in the first quarter or so. Michigan needs to be creative in its ground game, kind of like it was against Ohio State last November. Get numbers going to the edges and let's see how those pseudo-newbies at linebacker handle Denard. WR end arounds. Denard jet sweeps. 
  • Trick plays. Let's see 'em. Seriously, Al. 2008 Capital One Bowl Redux, this needs to be. 
Predictions of Negligible Worth 
Making these sorts of predictions, especially for a game like this, is a torturous thing. A prediction is not really one data point that you pluck out of thin air. It's a deliberate whittling down of all results from a giant marble slab of possibility. My point: could I see everything going perfectly, Alabama having a bad day, and Michigan eeking out an incredibly ugly yet satisfying Sugar Bowl-esque win? Yes, I honestly can. Alabama is talented, and it speaks to the state of things that Michigan is such an underdog in spite of all the big name players that Alabama lost. In two or three years, this game will be an even contest going in, but we're not quite there yet. Still, this is a good Michigan team, and not one that should be underestimated.

With that said, too many things have to go well for Michigan to win this game. Michigan will probably need to have a turnover margin of at least +2. How likely is this? If this game is played ten times, Michigan probably has everything fall into place maybe once. That's what it is. We're banking on that one, that unlikely scenario, the "Jareth Glanda catching a pass" of games.

As much as it pains me to say it, I just can't make that prediction. To be able to stick it to the reigning national champs, the team that I had to spend four years hearing about as a high schooler, would be something beyond tremendous, if such a superlative even existed.

In the end, Michigan keeps it close for the first half, but without Toussaint, Michigan just won't have enough juice to keep enough drives going to make it a game. Even with Fitz, I'm not sure that Michigan has enough. It won't be pretty, but it won't be an outright blowout. At the same time, I don't think it will necessarily be "close." Michigan is a 13.5 point underdog, which, sadly, is just about right.

Score: Alabama 31, Michigan 17

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