Denard Robinson, after struggling against best defenses, key to Michigan upset (with prediction)
ANN ARBOR -- Brady Hoke was thinking about this game when he took the Michigan job 19 months ago. Safety Jordan Kovacs was watching film for this one in physics class -- last winter.
Linebacker Kenny Demens said Ohio State wasn't Public Enemy No. 1 this summer, as is typically the case. It wasn't Michigan State, nor even Notre Dame.
"Alabama," Demens said. "It was all Alabama."
After months of anticipation, it finally is upon us: No. 8 Michigan flies to Dallas today, and Saturday will become the first challenger to face reigning national champion Alabama (8 p.m., ABC).
It perhaps is the most-anticipated opener for the Wolverines since 1989, the last time they faced a defending national champion. They lost that game to top-ranked Notre Dame 24-19.
To achieve a different result against the No. 2 Crimson Tide, they must find a way to channel the energy that has built over the last months. That starts with quarterback Denard Robinson, Michigan's most important player.
Robinson has a history of being too jacked before games -- and he didn't anticipate those matchups for months. He has this one.
"I know that's my weakness," Robinson said. "I've been working on it. At practice, I've been trying to amp myself up and then try to calm myself back down."
He found a trick in the middle of last season, when he began listening to slower pregame music -- a lot of R&B -- which helped calm his play. And Michigan will hope his iPod is packed with slow jams.
If Robinson comes out jittery against Alabama, which is favored by 12.5 points, Michigan has no shot at pulling the upset.
The Wolverines' fortunes rise and fall with their star quarterback. Last year, new offensive coordinator Al Borges tried to blunt Michigan's reliance on Robinson by introducing a lead tailback.
Fitz Toussaint ended up breaking the 1,000-yard barrier, and absorbed carries that previously went to Robinson along the way. He became a legitimate second weapon.
And yet, when Robinson struggled, so did Michigan.
Three of Robinson's worst games came against Michigan State, Illinois and Virginia Tech. He didn't complete 10 throws in any of those games, nor reach 125 yards passing.
He completed 43.6 percent of his passes in those games, and 58.1 percent against everyone else. He averaged 110.7 yards passing in those games, and 184.1 against everyone else.
Those three even took away Robinson's vaunted running game, holding him to just 2.0 yards per carry and 28 yards per game. He averaged 6.1 yards per carry and 109.2 yards per game against everyone else.
They were awful games for Robinson.
How Michigan fared: Got thumped by Michigan State, beat a bad Illinois team because of defense, eked past Virginia Tech because of defense.
The kicker: Michigan State, Illinois and Virginia Tech were the three best defenses Michigan faced. Each used aggressive schemes to get to the quarterback, and Robinson struggled with that pressure.
Alabama, of course, had a better defense than any of them last year, and is expected to again be formidable. And it's as good at attacking the quarterback as anyone in the country.
Its schemes are nearly as complex as some NFL teams.
The blueprint to stopping Robinson appears to be take away the run and let him try to beat you through the air. Alabama likely will mimic that approach.
Robinson knows it, too, and says he's confident the passing game has developed enough that he can make defenses pay. The key, he says, is whether he'll have the time to do it.
"We got some great receivers, and I'm looking forward to throwing them the ball, but it all starts up front with the offensive line," he said. "If we get good time with the offensive line blocking, and I have enough time to make plays, I know receivers are going to make plays."
The Wolverines' offensive line, though, was recast this offseason after they lost David Molk, the best center in the country, and Mark Huyge. They shuffled guys around, landing on a lineup that features new starters at left guard (Elliott Mealer), center (Ricky Barnum) and right tackle (Michael Schofield).
Will that group give Robinson enough time?
And what about whichever tailback ends up playing? Will he have holes to hit?
Michigan is dealing with the uncertain status of Toussaint, who was arrested in the offseason and eventually pleaded guilty to a DUI. He comprised half of the Wolverines' one-two rushing punch last year.
If he misses time, it would further accentuate Robinson's importance in this game.
Prediction: Michigan needs Robinson to play well, and he hasn't against elite defenses. Robinson can't afford to throw picks -- giving up field position and possessions against an Alabama defense that provides few opportunities -- yet that's been a consistent problem for him. That's particularly true when he faces attacking defenses, and no one in college football attacks better than Alabama. No one disguises their attacks better than Alabama.
The Crimson Tide will dominate both sides of the line of scrimmage, helping them control the ball on offense and stem Michigan's running game on defense. The Wolverines will hang around, but won't have enough to pull off the upset. Alabama 24, Michigan 14