Alabama replaces seven starters on defense this year but will still likely boast one of the nation's most athletic groups, one of the biggest challenges the Michigan offense will face this year. U-M offensive coordinator Al Borges has watched plenty of film on the Crimson Tide, and though he acknowledges the personnel will be different, he expects to see much of what Alabama has shown in the past.
The core schematic will be the, same, Borges said, but he expects few nuances to accommodate an athletic quarterback like Denard Robinson.
"There will be some things I'm sure they'll do in that regard. They're not going to reinvent the wheel, nor should they with the type of productivity they've had in the past," Borges said. "I don't know that it's more complex, but it's certainly sound. They have their bases covered, and they have enough within their package to keep the quarterback off balance with the passing game, which is really NFL-esque.
"With them, the devil's in the details. It's not always that they have some fancy blitz, though they have some of those, too, but just how they play their schemes, knowing how to play their scheme, how they make their keys and what the reactions are to those keys. All those things, they're coached in a very, very detail oriented way. That's really what makes the defense."
Borges isn't going into the game expecting a close to the vest, defense dominated game.
"It depends on how the game goes. It could end up like that," he said. Playing in these games before - an SEC fistfight, I used to call them - I don't think you can go into a game thinking that. I think you go in thinking that we're going to let it rip, run our offense, do what we do. As the battle changes, you make your adjustments.
"We're lining up with the intent that we're going to try and score some points, do what we've got to do to win. If it's not as many as we like but still one more than them, we'll all be excited."
Sophomore running back Thomas Rawls wasn't spotted playing during scrimmages this weekend but is in good shape, Borges said.
"Thomas Rawls is fine," he said. "[Why he was out] is injury information, not my area. Thomas Rawls is fine - that's all that matters."
Robinson has cut down on his mistakes in practice, Borges said. Reducing turnovers has been a focus since spring.
"He really has," Borges said. "I'll save judgment until we do it under fire, because that's really when you find out if you reap the benefits of your efforts. He's made a conscious decision to try to improve every phase of his game, not the least of which is our passing game.
"Through the fall he has done what appears to be a very good job of that. But the bullets will fly in a few days, and we'll see just how much that carries over. It is different."
Robinson will remain the focal point of Michigan's offense, to an extent.
"When we came here it became real apparent that he was the centerpiece of the offense. We didn't want 90 percent of the offense based on his production for obvious reasons," Borges said. "If you lose him, you lose too much. We've been sending that message since we got here. We have to have other people involved with our run game, our passing game, and I think we've done a pretty good job of doing that. I hope like heck we do the same thing this year.
"At the end of the day, we don't want to lose sight of the fact that he is the centerpiece of the offense. When push comes to shove, he is going to play a big part in whether we win or lose."
Redshirt freshman running back Justice Hayes has continued to show improvement.
"He's a dynamic runner. He's got very good lateral quickness, he's got some receiving skills, and he's learning our offense," Borges said. "He's much further along at this time than obviously last year with spring football and fall camp.
"He's shown up and done some very nice things. A bigger version of Vince Smith might be accurate, although I think he has some things Vince doesn't do, Vince does some things that he doesn't do. They run similar styles."
The tight ends are coming around, Borges said.
"None of them have played a heck of a lot in games, but they've been pretty good," he said. "They're starting to gain confidence what to do on a fairly consistent basis. We're not getting the errors, the assignment errors. Once you can play without paralysis through analysis, you tend to play a lot better. A reacting player is a lot better than an analytical player.
"In a sense, that's the way our tight ends were early on. You're getting less of that. I'm looking forward to seeing what they can do when the lights go on."
Walk-on Mike Kwiatkowski has emerged as No. 2 on the depth chart.
"He's a good receiver, No. 1, and he's strong, so he does some good things that way," Borges said. "He knows our offense pretty well. He's a little like Steve Watson was a year ago. You'll see him in a game, and I think he'll hold up pretty good."
Fifth-year senior left guard Elliott Mealer earned his spot both with his play and his cohesion with teammates, Borges said.
"It was a combination of both. Elliott came to compete," he said. "That was the most exciting thing to me - not that he hadn't in the past, but I think he took the next step that way. With that, he learned to work in concert with the other guys, got in there enough with the other guys to have that work. That's really a key component, too, because he has to play with those other guys enough that they feel good about each other."
Borges on whether he's excited for Saturday: "Hell yes. This is why we coach. This is what it's all about. This is fun to play the best. If you want to be the best you've got to play the best, and then play your best when you play them."