Previewing three matchups for the Alabama offense in the second-ranked Crimson Tide's meeting with No. 8 Michigan.
Healthy and heavier, Norwood is ready to lead UA's wide receivers.
1.] Alabama wide receivers Kevin Norwood (6'2, 195, rJr.), DeAndrew White (6'0, 185, rSo.), Christion Jones (5'11, 185, So.), Amari Cooper (6'1, 198, Fr.) and Kenny Bell (6'1, 180, rJr.) vs. Michigan cornerbacks Blake Countess (5'10, 180, Jr.), J.T. Floyd (6'0,183, rSr.) and Courtney Avery (5'11, 173, Jr.)
From the UA perspective: Based on the depth chart UA released on Tuesday, Alabama's top three receivers -- White, Norwood and Jones -- have amassed a combined total of 17 career receptions.
While not the most decorated bunch heading into the season, it's not a group totally without experience, either. Of the top five, Bell and Norwood are entering their fourth years in the program, while White is heading into year three.
In terms of potential, Alabama's top five might prove to be the most productive group Nick Saban has had in the Tuscaloosa. The arrivals of Jones and Cooper over the past 13 months have only intensified competition for spots in the rotation and veterans like Norwood and White have responded favorably to the push.
The group UA will put on the field Saturday night is a diverse collection of speed (Bell and White), open field ability (Jones), size and athleticism (Norwood) and all-around ability (Cooper). Combine those attributes with a talented quarterback who has time to throw and big things are expected from the passing game.
From the Michigan perspective: Experience isn't an issue for the UM secondary as corners Floyd, Countess and Avery join safeties Jordan Kovacs and Thomas Gordon as defensive backs who have made multiple starts during their collegiate careers.
Nickel back Avery and right corner Floyd shared the team lead in interceptions a season ago with two apiece. Despite intercepting just nine passes, the Wolverines ranked 16th nationally in pass defense in 2011.
Who gets the nod?: This is an area UM has to feel especially good about. After all, the Wolverines return their top five defensive backs, while Alabama must replace its top two wide receivers.
While that would seem to favor the underdog, if the Michigan defense can't slow down the UA running game without committing extra people to the cause, AJ McCarron will have favorable matchups against corners who are a bit on the smallish side.
Here's guessing UM defensive coordinator Greg Mattison will take some chances with his experienced cornerbacks in man coverage against UA's unproven receivers. This approach should present some opportunities to McCarron down the field.
The matchup I'll pay closest attention to, though, will be Avery on Jones when the Crimson Tide works from its three wide receiver set. While Jones was somewhat quiet during fall camp scrimmages, the sophomore can do major damage after the catch.
With the exception of LSU, this might be the only time all season that UA's receivers are perceived to be at a disadvantage heading into a game.
2.] Alabama running backs Eddie Lacy (6'0, 220, rJr.) and Jalston Fowler (6'2, 240, Jr.) vs. Michigan middle linebacker Kenny Demens (6'1, 242, rSr.) and weakside linebacker Desmond Morgan (6'1, 227, So.).
From the UA perspective: The Lacy era at Alabama is underway, but will the carry breakdown resemble what we saw a year ago, when Trent Richardson's carry total nearly doubled those of Lacy and Fowler combined?
In the past four years, three starting running backs -- Glen Coffee, Mark Ingram and Richardson -- have finished seasons with no fewer than 233 carries, with the injury-plagued 2010 season that Ingram (151 carries) suffered through serving as the lone exception. So if Lacy is healthy and productive, Fowler, T.J. Yeldon and Dee Hart would seem to be looking at somewhere in the neighborhood of 210 carries between them. Who gets the majority of those carries is where things will get interesting, with most of the late money coming in on Yeldon.
From the Michigan perspective: Demens serves as the rock of the Michigan defense. The fifth-year senior led the Wolverines in tackles a season ago, racking up 94 total stops on his way to earning honorable mention All-Big Ten honors.
As a true freshman in 2011, Morgan came on in the second half of the season, finishing with 63 total tackles. In season-ending wins over Ohio State and Virginia Tech, the Big Ten All-Freshman selection recorded 20 tackles, including three for loss.
Who gets the nod?: The names come and go in the Alabama running game but the production remains the same. While he's capable of putting up similar numbers, Lacy doesn't need to be Ingram in 2009 or Richardson in 2011. Alabama fans aren't greedy; they'll take a Coffee-like 1,300-yard, 10-touchdown campaign from Lacy and be perfectly happy.
More so than how Demens and Morgan play the run -- and they'll likely get an assist from strong safety Kovacs -- I'll be interested to see how the Michigan defense responds when Alabama spreads the field. You get feeling the Crimson Tide might be able to expose UM's linebackers in space when the Wolverines are forced to go to their nickel package.
Ultimately, UA can go five deep at running back. Michigan doesn't have that luxury behind Demens and Morgan. Edge to Alabama.
3.] Alabama center Barrett Jones (6'5, 302, rSr.) and guards Chance Warmack (6'3, 320, Sr.)and Anthony Steen (6'3, 303, rJr.) vs. Michigan defensive tackles Will Campbell (6'5, 308, Sr.) and Quinton Washington (6'4, 300, rJr.).
From the UA perspective: To the surprise of no one, talk of Jones struggling with the transition to center subsided once fall camp got underway. Not that making the switch to snapping and stepping is ever easy but seeing as how he had worked there in the past, it's not like the position is foreign to the senior.
As good as he is, Alabama's top NFL prospect up front might be to Jones' left. Warmack is not only physically gifted, he enters his final season at UA armed with the wisdom that comes from having made 26 consecutive starts.
To Jones' right will be Steen, a guy who, in terms of his development, is basically where Warmack was a season ago. The key will be keeping the first five healthy as there isn't a one-man swing guy like Alfred McCullough to prevent a reshuffling of personnel if injury/poor performance strikes.
From the Michigan perspective: In anticipation of UA's powerful running game, the UM defensive staff elected to go heavy at the defensive tackle spots, getting 300-pounders Campbell and Washington on the field together in the Wolverines' four-man front.
Campbell has been a contributor during his time in the program, but he's yet to live up to the five-star ranking that accompanied him to Ann Arbor. The true senior has appeared in 38 straight games, but Saturday night will mark the first start of his Michigan career.
Looking back, a redshirt year in 2009 probably would have been the best move for both parties. Instead, Campbell bounced between the defensive and offensive lines in his first two years with the Wolverines before settling in at defensive tackle a year ago.
In what could have been viewed as a trade during the 2010 season, Washington moved from offense to defense while Campbell went from defense to offense. Two years later, Washington and Campbell are charged with playing large roles in slowing down the Alabama running game. Like Campbell, the opener will serve as Washington's first start in the maize and blue.
Who gets the nod?: We're talking nearly six seasons worth of starts between Jones, Warmack and Steen compared to zero for Campbell and Washington. If Campbell and Washington can keep Demens and Morgan fairly clean, they will have done their jobs. If they can't, Lacy and the rest of Alabama's back will more than do theirs. Edge to UA.
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