On Monday afternoon, when asked if he feels the Michigan football team will be the underdog against Alabama in the team’s season opener at Cowboys Stadium, head coach Brady Hoke did not hesitate before responding.
“No,” he said.
Hoke’s subsequent explanation was very simple and in many ways insufficient in clarifying how the Wolverines would not be an underdog to the defending national champions, who are a consensus top-three team in the preseason.
“I like Michigan,” Hoke said. There was a brief silence at the roundtable, and reporters quickly realized there was no further explanation coming, so they changed the subject.
It’s doubtful that Hoke spends much time reading college football headlines, and more doubtful that he keeps tabs on what the top betting sites have to say of the matter. But the reality is most analysts say the Wolverines aren’t nearly physical enough to match up with the Crimson Tide, and Vegas has Alabama as a comfortable 12.5-point favorite.
There was one hint on Monday that Hoke has felt at least a little pressured in making sure his players could match the physicality of the week-one opponent.
Since spring, junior defensive end Jibreel Black has been bulking up to prepare for a likely move inside to defensive tackle. Because Black is somewhat of a “tweener” of defensive-end size and defensive-tackle size, coaches liked the idea of having a speedier option up the middle to keep interior offensive lineman off balance.
On Monday, though, the team released its official depth chart, and Black was listed at first-string defensive end. Senior Will Campbell, who was formerly expected to start at nose tackle, was moved over to first-string defensive tackle, and redshirt junior Quinton Washington was slated to start at nose tackle.
Together, Campbell and Washington weigh 608 pounds.
“So we wanted a little bigger body, and there’s some things that they do that we think will be important to have a little more physical-ness,” Hoke said. “Jibreel can play (the three-technique) in certain situations, and he could still play the rush end. So I think it just gives us a little stronger-stouted front.”
Coaches hope they’ll provide the type of push Michigan’s defensive line will need against what many analysts and coaches regard as the best offensive line in the country. Alabama’s front five are massive, with an average weight of nearly 315 pounds, and it will be tough for Black to beat any of them up the middle.
Hoke agreed Monday that Alabama’s offensive line is among the best he’s seen, but one of Michigan’s own experienced offensive lineman — redshirt junior left tackle Taylor Lewan — isn’t convinced that being big translates to being physical.
“You can control how physical you’re going to be in a game,” Lewan said. “That’s on you. That’s a mental thing you have to take care of. That’s not just a physical thing — it’s also mental. So if you go into a game being confident, then the sky’s the limit.”
Lewan, like his coach, isn’t entirely sure Michigan should be considered the underdog on Saturday.
“I’m sure there’s some sort of spread or whatever that says we’re not going to win,” Lewan said. “I feel like the standard at Michigan is you expect to win every single game. And that’s how we’re going to go into this game — expecting to win because that’s what the goal is always.”
But there is at least one player who embraces the underdog label, possibly because he’s been an underdog for most of his college career.
“They’re the defending national champs, and that’s okay,” said fifth-year senior safety Jordan Kovacs. “We wouldn’t want it any other way.”
As a freshman in 2008, Kovacs was merely trying to walk onto the Michigan football team, and his journey culminated on Sunday with being named one of the two captains for the 2012 season.
Sometimes, underdogs claw their way to the top.