Alabama vs. Michigan: 3 things to watch

The showcase contest of the 2012 college football season's opening weekend will take place Saturday night in Arlington, Texas, as Michigan battles defending BCS national champion Alabama in a Top 10 clash.

Brady Hoke took his Wolverines to the Sugar Bowl in his first season in Ann Arbor, so the expectations are sky-high for his squad. Meanwhile, Nick Saban's defense suffered some key personnel losses, but as we all know he simply reloads.

Let's take a look at three things to watch in the tilt between the Wolverines and the Crimson Tide on Saturday evening.

1. The game of his life: As I mentioned in this morning's Saturday Tailgate piece, this has to be a Denard Robinson game if the Wolverines have any chance to topple the Tide. The dual-threat signal-caller will need to play one of the better games of his career if the Big Ten is to claim a marquee win over the SEC. Think back to the game "Shoelace" had in 2010 at Notre Dame Stadium -- that's the type of effort that will be needed. While it may not be fair to put so much on his plate, the suspension of tailback Fitz Touissant makes it imperative that Robinson pick up some of that rushing slack. He remains the one player on the field that can be a true difference-maker for the Wolverines, and he must play turnover-free after tossing 15 interceptions in 2011. The Tide will be breaking in three new starters in the secondary, so there could be a big play or two waiting to happen through the air -- if Robinson has time to throw.

Adrian HubbardUS PRESSWIREAdrian Hubbard leads a reloaded Alabama defense.

2. No Hightower, no Upshaw, no problem: Much has been made of the key defensive losses the Tide suffered from their title-winning 2011 team. Mark Barron, Dre Kirkpatrick, Dont'a Hightower, Courtney Upshaw and Josh Chapman are all gone from Tuscaloosa. But Saban did a great job last season of using key reserves in nickel and dime situations as well as on special teams. And those players are ready to step in and become the new stars of the defense. Keep an eye on Adrian Hubbard, C.J. Mosley, Nico Johnson and Xzavier Dickson at linebacker because Brent Musburger and Kirk Herbstreit will be calling their names all night on the TV broadcast. And Jesse Williams could be up to the task of replacing Chapman at nose guard. Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart expect to see a lot of read-option from Robinson, and they've had an entire offseason to prepare for it. The only question is whether the Tide can be disciplined in their assignments, because one mistake could lead to a quick six points. The major concern for Wolverine fans will be whether Robinson can make it through four quarters, because he's been known to get nicked up.

3. A diversified offense: With Doug Nussmeier as new Tide OC, expect a little bit more of a varied offense. The Tide will still run the football with their deep corps of backs -- Eddie Lacy, Jalston Fowler, T.J. Yeldon and Dee Hart. But the team has receivers ready to emerge as well, such as Kenny Bell, Kevin Norwood and Christion Jones. Behind the best offensive line in the country, quarterback AJ McCarron should be able to pick up where he left off in the title game against LSU. And Michigan's revamped front four should get worn down over four quarters.

Email dave.miller@nationalfootballpost.com or follow me on Twitter at Miller_Dave

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