By Greg Hargrave
Michigan’s most anticipated non-conference game in decades kicks off their 2012 season on the first evening in September. No matter the outcome of the game, being challenged by Alabama is the best thing that could happen to the program.
It may be a cliché, but the season opener against the defending national champion is a true measuring stick.
Just how good are the Wolverines after one year with Brady Hoke? Was last year’s 11-2 team a fluke that benefited from home games against Notre Dame, Nebraska, and Ohio State? Is Denard Robinson truly an improved passer with another offseason in Al Borges’s offense?
Inviting Directional Michigan to the Big House to lose by 30 points doesn’t shed any light on these questions. Playing Alabama does. If Michigan gets embarrassed, they know how much further they have to go before being considered an elite program.
A close loss, while still disappointing, could have some positives drawn from it, and I think there are plenty of Michigan fans who would feel good about the Wolverines’ prospects in 2012 if they fell just a touchdown short of the Tide.
But if the unthinkable happens and Michigan pulls off the upset, it’s a true statement win for Hoke and Denard Robinson, Michigan is instantly in the national championship picture, and Denard is a Heisman front-runner. The best part: Michigan is playing with house money, because most people expect them to lose, and lose big.
Brady Hoke is still mum on running back Fitzgerald Toussaint’s playing status for the game. My guess is that a decision, while perhaps all readymade, won’t be announced until 8:07 p.m. on Saturday, much like when Lloyd Carr was asked when he would announce a starting quarterback between Tom Brady and Drew Henson and responded “What time is the game on Saturday?”
If Michigan wants to show they’re a big-time program again, their offense can’t fall apart with the absence of one running back. Great programs have stables of running backs 3- or 4-deep. Michigan State in recent years has had Edwin Baker, La’Veon Bell, and Larry Caper. USC was bursting at the seams with high school All-American runners. Heck, look at Virginia Tech, who had freshman Darren Evans run for 1,200 yards in 2008, saw him tear his ACL before 2009, only to plug in another first-year player in Ryan Williams and he runs for over 1,600 yards and 21 TDs!
Michigan needs Vincent Smith to step up and have the offense humming just as if Fitz was standing behind Denard. And when they go to the NEXT guy, Thomas Rawls, HE needs to be just as effective as Smith. How well backup players fill in for starters is an indicator of program depth.
Does Michigan have a chance against Alabama? Sure, they do. After all, they ARE playing the game. With no pre-season and so much at stake, Week 1 of the college football season is the great unknown. Alabama will be breaking in a new left tackle, and while they do have more 4- and 5-star defensive recruits than most programs know what to do with, the Crimson Tide might feel a leadership void left behind by Mark Barron, Dont’a Hightower, et al.
That being said, their new left tackle is deemed good enough to move last year’s starter and Outland Trophy winner Barrett Jones over to center, and Nick Saban has had months to prepare for Denard Robinson, whom he said is the best quarterback Alabama has faced since Cam Newton. You saw what the Tide did with a whole month to prepare for LSU in last season’s BCS National Title Game. It was frightening excellence.
I think Toussaint ends up not playing Saturday night, and I think Alabama is going to jump on Michigan early, giving Wolverine fans a bad feeling about the rest of the game. However, I believe Denard Robinson will make enough big plays to keep Michigan hanging around. They’ll stay close, but not really threaten to win the game. In the end, Alabama’s offensive line, which could be the best in the country, wears down the Wolverine defense and wins 27-17.