Revisiting three questions for the second-ranked Crimson Tide following its 41-14 win over No. 8 Michigan.
Dee Milliner made the most of his opportunities Saturday night.
How will the Alabama defense fare against Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson and company?
TRips Friday: Robinson averaged 17 carries and 20 pass attempts per game in 2011. That's the kind of balance Wolverines offensive coordinator Al Borges would love to see from the quarterback position in Arlington.
But is it realistic? Not unless Robinson gets a good deal of help, with some of it coming in the form of uncharacteristic mistakes by this week's opponent.
Look, no one is disputing the fact that Robinson is a big-time talent. Compared to players the SEC has produced in recent years, I'd probably put him up there with guys like Percy Harvin, the former Florida Gator who was a threat to score from anywhere on the field, and Dexter McCluster, operator of Ole Miss' briefly popular "Wild Rebel" offense a few years back.
But even Harvin had help. In fact, he had so much of it that Florida was good enough to beat Alabama in the 2008 SEC Championship game without him.
For Michigan to pull the upset, running back Fitz Toussaint and wide receiver Roy Roundtree will need to be more than upper echelon Big Ten skill players. They'll need to be more on par with Tyrone Wheatley and Braylon Edwards.
And that's before we address the decided advantage UA will have where it matters most: the line of scrimmage. The Wolverines don't have a Steve Hutchinson-like talent at guard to deal with Jesse Williams and his cohorts.
For the Alabama defense, composure will be key. Faced with the aforementioned talent deficit up front, Borges will likely attempt to use the Crimson Tide's athleticism and aggressiveness to his own benefit. That means screens, reverses, throwbacks, perhaps even a little option -- anything to help Robinson and his skill mates find room to work.
In some ways, defending Robinson is like covering a punt down after down. Outside guys, an area, given what UA must replace, UM would seem most likely to attack, must contain, inside guys must maintain the integrity of the front and everybody else must tackle.
TRips Sunday: Michigan's game plan almost had the feel of a coaching staff attempting to preserve the health of its best player for the long haul. How else do you explain two designed runs and 17 pass attempts for Robinson in the first half Saturday night?
The decision to put the game largely on Robinson's right arm from the outset may have been related to Toussaint's suspension, too, although I'm fairly certain he would have met the same kind of resistance as the two guys -- Vincent Smith and Thomas Rawls -- who replaced him (combined 19 carries for 42 yards).
Or perhaps Borges was thinking along with the rest of us. Maybe even he realized that with or without Toussaint, Robinson was going to have to make plays through the air.
To his credit, Robinson hit long passes of 71 and 44 yards. He also gave up a pick six to CJ Mosley after throwing an interception to Dee Milliner, who, in picking off a pass and breaking up four others, got his hands on more passes than any of Robinson's receivers.
If there was a surprise from a personnel standpoint for UA, it was that the Crimson Tide used four safeties -- Robert Lester, Vinnie Sunseri, HaHa Clinton-Dix and Nick Perry -- in its dime package. With just two corners in the look, something I don't previously recall seeing in Nick Saban era at Alabama, it makes you wonder what is going on behind Milliner and Deion Belue, who had his welcome-to-major-college-football moment in the second quarter Saturday night.
Scheme-wise, Alabama played its corners to the boundary (Milliner) and field (Belue), which was a change from the left and right designations we've seen in the past. Post-game, Milliner said the decision to alter things had to do with Michigan's tendency to run Robinson into the boundary. Given the plan to slow down Robinson the runner, even the Alabama defense had to be surprised to see Robinson playing the role of Tom Brady instead of, well, Denard Robinson.
While the Michigan passing game wasn't extremely efficient, the two deep balls Robinson did hit will undoubtedly lead to upcoming opponents taking shots down the field. But, hey, it's not like the Arkansas offensive staff has ever needed a reason to believe it can get vertical, so that was coming regardless of what happened in the opener. The question will be, can teams that don't have a run threat like Robinson behind center protect the quarterback from a UA pass rush that won't be as cautious in its approach?
In addition to Milliner, Cody Mandell would be a good choice for defensive/special teams game ball honors. On four punts, the junior had a net average of 46.2 yards -- 10 more than his career average -- and dropped two punts inside the Michigan 10. In all, the Wolverines' average drive start following Mandell punts was its own 12.
TRips Friday: I'm going to go ahead and say no to this one. Oh, there may be a new wrinkle or two from a formation standpoint, but it will likely just be window dressing to help the Alabama offense do what it has done in the past: achieve balance between run and pass.
It will be interesting to see how much freedom A.J. McCarron is given, both in how Nussmeier calls the game and how McCarron runs the show at the line of scrimmage.
It's one thing to throw the ball a good bit on first down like he did his last time out, but will McCarron and his promising receiving corps look to attack more down the field early in the game?
If Alabama has things reasonably under control at halftime, history tells us that McCarron will revert to game manager after intermission -- and the college football world will become familiar with freshman running back T.J. Yeldon.
TRips Sunday: Working behind an offensive line that didn't struggle much with Michigan's seven-man box, the two-back look with Jalston Fowler leading the way for Yeldon was the fire starter for the Alabama offense. And as good as Yeldon was in becoming the first true freshman in program history to rush for more than 100 yards in his debut, Fowler was just as impressive while handling his dual role as blocker and ball carrier.
Between them, Yeldon and Fowler carried 19 times for 178 yards. Production like that eases concerns about where Eddie Lacy, a game-time decision as the starter for UM, currently sits from a health standpoint. While he may not be far from his previous form, it was fairly obvious Saturday night that the junior isn't quite 100 percent.
Who says there aren't enough footballs to go around? Alabama traveled five scholarship running backs to Texas and all five got at least one carry, including true freshman Kenyan Drake late in the game.
As for the passing game, McCarron did indeed take some shots. More than a few, actually. While the 51-yarder to DeAndrew White for a first-quarter touchdown was a thing of beauty, a couple of near misses intended for tight end Michael Williams and wide receiver Christion Jones could have made for an even more impressive stat sheet for McCarron.
Are either or both of these teams overrated?
TRips Friday: Going into the opener, I'd say both are ranked appropriately. If anything, top-ranked Southern California is overvalued at this point, but anywhere in the top three would seem about right for Alabama. No. 9 South Carolina wasn't overly impressive in nipping Vanderbilt on Thursday night, so it's probably not a stretch to think Michigan would keep things competitive with the Gamecocks.
Ultimately, Michigan's ranking is based largely on Robinson, while Alabama's is the result of Saban's dominance in every aspect of directing a program.
Robinson is worthy of Heisman consideration, but UA has a national championship quarterback in McCarron, something the junior will look to reaffirm on Saturday night. More importantly, McCarron has the nation's top offensive line in front of him and a multitude of skill weapons around him.
Unlike Robinson, McCarron won't be asked to win the game by himself. And really, that sums up the difference between these programs heading into Brady Hoke's second year on the job at UM and Saban's sixth at Alabama.
Michigan is working to become a program mentioned among the nation's elite on an annual basis. Alabama is already there.
TRips Sunday: On the opening Saturday of the season, the three teams -- Alabama, Southern California and LSU -- most expect to factor prominently in the national title hunt performed as expected, although the Crimson Tide's effort came against better competition than any of the other so-called legitimate hopefuls saw in week one.
While it will be interesting to see how voters respond to a dominant performance against a top 10 opponent, no one can accurately project the ceiling for this UA team after one game, much less whether it will maximize its championship potential.
The same is also true of LSU and Southern Cal. Heck, you could also throw Florida State in that mix, although I tend to think of the Seminoles as contenders more so because of their friendly schedule than how they compare as a football team to the Crimson Tide, Tigers and Trojans.
As for Michigan, I'm not convinced the Wolverines are overrated, especially if Toussaint is in the lineup for Notre Dame and the Big Ten slate. I am, however, all but certain No. 4 Oklahoma is.
Friday's prediction: Alabama 29, Michigan 13.
Saturday's score: Alabama 41, Michigan 14.
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