By Jim Weber
We are just three days away from the marquee game of college football’s opening weekend and people aren’t even bothering to ask who will win Saturday’s matchup between No. 8 Michigan and No. 2 Alabama at Cowboys Stadium.
The question on everyone’s mind is whether the Wolverines can just keep it close against the defending national champion Crimson Tide, currently a whopping 14-point favorite according to USA Today’s Danny Sheridan.
And Michigan’s ability to do that comes down to one thing: How much has Denard Robinson improved as a passer?
Sure, there are plenty of other big storylines going into the game. Will Michigan RB Fitzgerald Toussaint play just days after pleading guilty to drunken driving charges? Will Michigan’s inexperienced defensive line hold its own against the best offensive line in the country? Will Alabama RB Eddie Lacy be healthy? And how quickly will Alabama’s defense be able to reload after losing eight starters, four of whom were among the first 35 picks in last April’s NFL draft?
In case you missed it last January, Robinson followed up a Heisman Trophy-worthy effort against Ohio State in the regular season finale with an absolutely awful game in New Orleans vs. the Hokies.
Michigan won, but Robinson completed just 9-of-21 passes for 117 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. And those numbers weren’t even indicative of how poorly he played. One of Robinson’s two touchdown throws should have been picked off after he chucked the ball off his back foot, only to get miraculously bailed out by WR Junior Hemingway. Without any fear of Robinson’s passing, Virginia Tech stacked the box with defenders all game and limited him to just 13 rushing yards on 13 carries.
If Robinson was no match for Bud Foster’s attacking Virginia Tech defense, wait until he gets a load of Nick Saban’s group. Like Foster, Saban loves to load the box with defenders by cheating his “Rover” safety up toward the line of scrimmage. (Michigan can at least count itself lucky that ‘Bama safety Mark Barron, the king of this, is now in the NFL .) In addition, Saban bring lots of pressure, disguise coverages and force quarterbacks into difficult throws toward the sidelines.
This could especially spell disaster for a quarterback who completed just 55% of his passes last year while throwing 15 interceptions. Robinson has difficulty reading defenses and a propensity to throw the ball up for grabs off his back foot when pressured. (On a side note, Nick Saban comparing Robinson to Cam Newton is an absolute joke, even for coach speak standards. Call me when you see Robinson make throws like this on Saturday.)
I’m guessing the Wolverines would have been just as impotent offensively as LSU last January if Michigan had faced Alabama last January instead of Virginia Tech. And that’s saying something considering that the Tigers crossed midfield only once vs. ‘Bama in the BCS Championship Game.
Now, let’s look at ‘Bama’s current defense.
As I’ve already mentioned, Alabama’s “D” lost a lot of parts from the 2011 squad and certainly won’t be as dominant on Saturday as it was last season. But it still has stars in NG Jessie Williams, LB Nico Johnson and S Robert Lester, plus a host of blue-chip recruits that have been waiting in the wings for their time to shine. Even with an inexperienced group, there’s no doubt that Saban will go with the same attacking scheme that was so successful vs. LSU.
LSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson threw for a total of 53 yards facing that defense. The question now becomes: Can Robinson avoid a similar fate?
Michigan’s coaches have spoken glowingly about Robinson’s improved passing accuracy during the offseason and Robinson certainly appears sold on his own progression. He has clearly put in the work this offseason to improve as a passer and it will definitely help that Robinson is now in Year 2 of Al Borges’ offense.
We’ll find out immediately how much he’s improved because if Robinson can get into a passing groove early, it will keep the Crimson Tide defense off balance and allow for much more running room for Robinson and his running backs. When the Michigan offense is two dimensional, we’ve seen just how dominant Robinson can be. In the aforementioned Ohio State game, he was 14-of-17 passing for 337 total yards and five total touchdowns.
Will Robinson show the same woeful accuracy he displayed during a Michigan basketball game on ESPN last February or will the senior captain show the fruits of his labor with accurate passing, good mechanics and smart decision making?
We’ll find out soon. If it’s the latter, otherwise Saturday’s game is going to look a lot like last season’s national title smackdown:
Jim Weber is the found of LostLettermen.com. His column appears Mondays and Wednesdays. You can follow him on Twitter at @JimMWeber.