Scouting report: Tailbacks, new starters among 5 things to watch in Michigan-Alabama
ARLINGTON, Texas -- The nation will turn its eyes to the Michigan football team Saturday night, as the eighth-ranked Wolverines take on defending national champion Alabama.
Here are five things to watch in the country’s only top-10 matchup of the week:
1. How will Michigan cope without Fitz Toussaint?
After weeks of indecision, coach Brady Hoke announced Friday -- the day before this game -- that starting tailback Fitz Toussaint will not play against the Tide after an offseason DUI arrest. That is a blow for Michigan, a run-oriented team that is facing the nation’s reigning No. 1 rush defense.
Toussaint eclipsed the 1,000-yard barrier last season, his first as a starter, and proved his mettle down the stretch. He rushed for more than 100 yards in four of the regular season's final five weeks.
Michigan is expected to turn to sophomore Thomas Rawls, a jackhammer who defensive teammates have come to fear. But he has only 13 career carries and lacks Toussaint’s seasoning.
Senior Vincent Smith is expected to get some snaps, particularly in third-down and passing situations, and coaches also have mentioned redshirt freshman Justice Hayes more in recent days. Fullback Stephen Hopkins, a former tailback, could also help carry the load.
They face an Alabama defense that allowed just 53 rushing yards per game -- and 1.8 yards per carry -- against FBS teams last season.
2. Can Michigan overcome its road woes?
The Wolverines were 8-0 at home last year, but just 3-2 away from Ann Arbor and labored in two of those wins. The offense was particularly feeble, playing its worst games at Michigan State, at Illinois and in New Orleans against Virginia Tech.
Alabama, as it happens, features the nation’s reigning No. 1 defense.
3. Will Denard sizzle or fizzle?
Quarterback Denard Robinson has proven to be a clutch player at Michigan. He engineered magnificent second-half comebacks against Notre Dame and Northwestern last year, and led Michigan on a last-minute drive against Iowa that fell just short. His best game of the year came against Ohio State, the Wolverines’ most heated rival.
But his play also ebbed against Michigan State, Illinois and Virginia Tech, three teams that feature attacking defenses similar to Alabama’s.
Which Robinson shows up?
4. Michigan searching for fast start
One would think the Wolverines were ransacked in night games last year, considering Hoke's loathe for them, but they actually went 3-0. Yet, they started slowly in each one, trailing Notre Dame 24-7 in the third quarter, Northwestern 24-14 in the third quarter and Virginia Tech 6-0 with less than a minute before halftime.
The flip side of that: Michigan showed great resolve, fighting back to win each of those games. Two of them were on national platforms, too, similar to what they'll face Saturday.
But against the Tide, there is less margin for error. Their defense is so good, it will be more difficult to mount a comeback.
5. Michigan breaking in 8 new starters
Eight positions will feature new starters, according to the Wolverines' depth chart: Left guard Elliott Mealer, center Ricky Barnum, right tackle Michael Schofield, tight end Brandon Moore, weak-side defensive end Jibreel Black, tackle Will Campbell, nose tackle Quinton Washington and strong-side end Craig Roh.
Seven of the eight play along Michigan's lines, which could be a concern. Alabama's greatest strength is offensive line, where it has four returning starters and three guys on various preseason All-America lists, and could control that battle.
Can the Wolverines get pressure? When they didn't last year, Greg Mattison dialed up the blitzes, especially from the safety position. But that could make U-M susceptible in the secondary against a veteran QB such as A.J. McCarron.