GAME NOTES: The marquee matchup of the first week of the FBS schedule takes place in Arlington, Texas, as the second-ranked and defending national champion Alabama Crimson Tide begin their quest for back-to-back titles, as they take on the eighth-ranked Michigan Wolverines at Cowboys Stadium.
Nick Saban's squad has won two of the last three national crowns and a third would put the team in dynasty status. There is plenty of reasons to believe that could happen, as the team returns some serious talent from last year's squad.
Behind a devastating defense, the Crimson Tide recorded three shutouts on the season and finished at 11-1, with the sole loss, a 9-6 decision against LSU during the regular season costing Alabama a chance at an SEC title. However, the Tide would get their revenge, dismantling LSU in the BCS Championship Game, 21-0.
Brady Hoke's first season in Ann Arbor couldn't have gone much better, as he took a team that struggled with direction under Rich Rodriguez and led the Wolverines to their own 11-win campaign. The team did not win the Big Ten, but did beat arch-rival Ohio State for the first time since 2003 and returned to national prominence with a BCS Bowl bid, knocking off Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl, 23-20 in overtime.
This marks the fourth meeting between these two teams. Michigan holds a 2-1 series advantage, with all three prior games taking place in the postseason. The last meeting was the 2000 Orange Bowl, as the Wolverines topped the Crimson Tide 35-34 in overtime.
Michigan had plenty of offensive success in 2011, finishing second in the Big Ten in rushing (221.9 ypg) and third in total offense (404.7 ypg). The team scored 53 offensive TDs, with 31 coming on the ground.
Star quarterback Denard Robinson was a big part of that, rushing for 1,176 yards and 16 TDs. To maximize Michigan's potential though, Robinson has to become a more polished passer, after completing just 55 percent of his throws in 2011, for 2,173 yards, with 20 TDs and 15 INTs.
Hoke is confident in Robinson's grasp of the system and his growing maturity under center.
"He has really become a guy you can count on when it comes to leadership and how his work ethic is and those things that he's done." .
Wideouts Jeremy Gallon (31 receptions, 453 yards, 3 TDs) and Roy Roundtree (19 receptions, 355 yards, 2 TDs) will try to help Robinson in his quest to be a better passer.
Despite an offseason arrest and subsequent suspension, junior Fitz Toussaint is listed as the top tailback for the opener. Toussaint came on strong toward the end of last season and finished with 1,041 yards on the ground -- the school's first 1,000-yard tailback since Mike Hart in 2007.
The offensive line must replace a pair of starters including center David Molk, the 2011 Rimington Award winner. Junior left tackle Taylor Lewan (6-8, 302) is now the anchor up front.
The good news for the Michigan defense is that all three starting linebackers return, along with all four members of the secondary, which started in the Sugar Bowl. Fifth-year senior Kenny Demens will man the middle once again after leading the team with 94 tackles in 2011. He will be flanked by a pair of sophomores in Jake Ryan (37 tackles, 8 TFLs) and Desmond Morgan (63 tackles).
In the secondary, fifth-year senior Jordan Kovacs (75 tackles, 4 sacks in 2011) is a natural leader. Junior Thomas Gordon will man the other safety spot, while senior J.T. Floyd and sophomore Blake Countess round out the secondary at cornerback.
Alabama suffered another purging by the NFL, but the loss that could hurt the most is Heisman finalist Trent Richardson, who rushed for a school-record 1,679 yards and 21 touchdowns in 2011.
Saban does have a proven backup at his disposal in Eddie Lacy, who was effective in limited playing time in 2011 (694 yards, 7 TDs), and could become the next featured back in Tuscaloosa.
Saban is optimistic about his backfield situation.
"Eddie Lacy has done extremely well over the summer. I do think that we have a couple running backs that will probably create some competition. But we've always played more than one running back. We had Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson sharing time as players. Hopefully we'll be able to find somebody as productive as those two guys have been to share that role again sometime in the future."
There is more stability under center with the return of junior A.J. McCarron. He was solid in 2011, completing 66.8 percent of his passes for 2,634 yards, with 16 TDs against only 5 INTs.
With the loss of several key contributors on the outside, it is now wideout Kenny Bell's (255 yards, 2 TDs) time to shine, along with tight end Michael Williams (191 yards, 2 TDs).
The story for Alabama in 2011 was without question its defense, which ranked first in the FBS in total defense (183.6 ypg), scoring defense (8.1 ppg), rushing defense (72.1 ypg) and pass efficiency defense (83.7).
The squad lost a number of high-impact players in the offseason, including Dre Kirkpatrick, Mark Barron, Courtney Upshaw and Dont'a Hightower - all of whom went in the first 35 picks of the 2012 NFL Draft. Still, the cupboard isn't exactly bare.
Linebacker Nico Johnson returns after ranking fourth on the team in tackles (47), with 6.5 TFLs, a sack, an interception and a fumble recovery.
Robert Lester plans to lead the secondary and hopes to improve upon his 39- tackle, two-interception from a season ago. He is a maturing defensive back that continues to earn the praise of Saban as he career progresses.
"Robert has been a really good player for us for two years now and continues to be more vocal in terms of his ability to communicate and run the secondary, make the checks, not depend on somebody else to do it for him and show leadership. I can't say enough about how this is an example of a guy who has worked hard and had all of the right stuff, in terms of perseverance, resiliency in overcoming adversity, as a player."
This looks to be a real treat to kick off the college football season, as both teams have realistic shots at playing for the national title.
Robinson is dynamic and although he faces Big Ten defenses on a regular basis, he doesn't face SEC ones, especially the likes of Alabama.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Alabama 27, Michigan 17