ARLINGTON, Texas — They agreed to meet in Texas, at Jerry Jones’s domed football palace built with oil riches. They will rendezvous here on Saturday, Michigan and Alabama, each bringing one of college football’s richest histories and biggest entourages of fans.

The Cowboys Classic. Jones called it the hardest ticket to get in the young history of the stadium that has hosted a Super Bowl. That may be a stretch, but you can see the appeal.

Under a simple crimson helmet with numbers on the side, the defending national champions, with a defense some considered the best ever last year and an offensive line that is likely the nation’s best.

Under a maize and blue winged helmet, last year’s biggest surprise, a program on the verge of rebirth searching for a marquee win.

Michigan is a two-score underdog, and it should be. The thought of a win, though, is intoxicating.

Michigan is going down to Texas, and it hopes to strike oil.

Michigan pass offense vs. Alabama pass defense

Let’s establish this from the beginning because it will become a pattern: on paper, Alabama is better than Michigan is most every facet of the game. Michigan’s air attack against Alabama’s secondary is no different.

Like most other defensive areas, Alabama’s pass defense was No. 1 in yards allowed in 2011. There will be very little drop-off in the pass rush. Both defensive ends return this year, and nose guard Jesse Williams will give Michigan trouble.

Michigan senior quarterback Denard Robinson, of course, is the wild card, with his ability to turn broken drop-back attempts into touchdowns. Two features of the Alabama pass defense will give Robinson trouble, though. The first is the speed to at least keep up with Robinson.

More importantly, Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges said the Alabama defense is effective because everyone knows his role and they all fit Alabama coach Nick Saban’s defensive scheme. Plus, the Tide doesn’t need to blitz to get pressure on the quarterback. Alabama will lose contain on a pass rush occasionally, and Robinson will exploit that, but expect those opportunities to be rare.

Michigan’s receiving corps is the weak link of the offense. The Alabama secondary could be vulnerable, though. Only one starter from an outrageously talented 2011 secondary remains. Alabama has loads of talent to replace the departed, but if Robinson has improved as a passer as much as his coaches insist, he’ll have some success when he’s given time.

Edge: Alabama

Michigan rush offense vs. Alabama rush defense

Ready for a surprise? Alabama’s rush defense is better than Michigan’s ground attack. Want another surprise? Alabama had the nation’s best rush defense in 2011.

There’s some good news for Michigan. Linebackers Courtney Upshaw and Dont’a Hightower are gone.

That’s about it for the good news. Nico Johnson and C.J. Mosley remain at linebacker and join Williams and the physical, run-stuffing Alabama defensive line. Michigan redshirt junior left tackle Taylor Lewan is talented enough to create running lanes. The other four lineman — maybe not.

Last year, the Tide surrendered just 938 yards on the ground. Robinson himself ran for more yards than that in 2011. So did running back Fitzgerald Toussaint. Something’s got to give.

Speaking of Toussaint, the redshirt junior, might not even play. Michigan coach Brady Hoke has yet to announce whether Toussaint will play after he was arrested for driving while intoxicated in July. Sophomore Thomas Rawls is a serviceable replacement who can physically punish the Alabama front seven, but the absence of Toussaint would tilt this matchup even further toward the Tide.

Edge: Alabama.

Alabama rush offense vs. Michigan rush defense

Once again, the drop off at the tailback position in Tuscaloosa is so small, you’ll need a magnifying glass to find it. Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram begot third-overall NFL draft pick Trent Richardson.

And Richardson begets junior Eddie Lacy. As a backup to a 1,775-yard rusher, Lacy just rushed for 717 yards in 2011 in about 100 carries and averaged .9 yards per carry more than Richardson.

Lacy also has the luxury of running behind perhaps the nation’s best offensive line. Last year’s Outland Trophy winner — given to the best interior lineman in the country — Barrett Jones is back, this time at center. Overall, the line averages 314 pounds.

Three new starters on the defensive front for Michigan — junior end Jibreel Black, redshirt junior nose tackle Quinton Washington and senior tackle Will Campbell — will likely struggle against Lacy and the Alabama line.

Edge: Alabama

Alabama pass offense vs. Michigan pass defense

The Michigan secondary benefits from several factors in this matchup. First, attrition: the Tide their top two receivers from 2011 and their best target at tight end in Brad Smelley.

More significantly, the Alabama pass offense simply isn’t asked to win games. Alabama wins with a dominant defense and running game. Redshirt junior quarterback A.J. McCarron is just asked to be a game manager.

That’s not to say he can’t throw the ball. McCarron was extremely efficient last year, completing 66.8 percent of his attempts for 2,634 yards and 16 touchdowns against five interceptions. DeAndrew White and an explosive Kevin Norwood will be McCarron’s new wide receiver targets this year, and they are plenty talented. Norwood gained nearly 80 yards against Louisiana State in the BCS National Championship game in January.

Michigan’s secondary, though, is the strength of the defense, and it will need to be great on Saturday, as the defensive line will likely struggle to generate pressure without blitzing. Fifth-year senior cornerback J.T. Floyd made big strides in 2011 and sophomore corner Blake Countess could be a future star. They’ll stick with the Alabama receivers.

Edge: Push

Special Teams

If nothing else, Michigan always has the help of brunettes on its side. That’s what redshirt junior kicker Brendan Gibbons said he was thinking about before kicking the game-winning field goal against Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl in January.

Overall, Gibbons was on par with Alabama’s primary place kicker, Jeremy Shelley. Gibbons was slightly worse on kicks under 40 yards and slightly better from 40 and beyond.

Gibbons wasn’t very often utilized, but he at least showed he can perform in pressure situations. Shelley, meanwhile, along with long-distance specialist Cade Foster, combined to miss four field goals in a regular season loss to LSU. Shelley rebounded with five field goals in the BCS National Championship game, which was played indoors, but some doubt lingers.

Michigan will use proven punt returner Jeremy Gallon, a redshirt junior, and first-timers redshirt sophomore Josh Furman and the speedy freshman Dennis Norfleet on kick return. For both roles, Alabama will go with sophomore receiver Christion Jones, who had very limited experience last year.

Edge Michigan


Not much separates each team in terms of intangibles. Granted, that’s likely because neither team has played a game, and each still lacks an identity.

Alabama benefits from playing at a neutral site that is just barely drivable for its fans (about 10 hours driving from Tuscaloosa, compared to almost 20 from Ann Arbor). They could enjoy a slight advantage in fan support. And the returning starters have played in plenty of big games.

Last year, Michigan forced an unusually high amount of turnovers (29). If Michigan pulls out the upset, it will likely be a result of a few decisive giveaways, usually a rarity for Alabama, which only lost 12 turnovers in 2011.

Plus, with its senior quarterback, Michigan not only has experience but also holds the game’s wild card. If Michigan can somehow stay within one score on the final possession, do not bet against the most electric player on the field, Denard Robinson.

Edge: Michigan

FINAL SCORE: Alabama 24, Michigan 10

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