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Is Michigan for real? It's up to Robinson to show us against Alabama

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Denard Robinson won the Sugar Bowl, but beating Alabama is a different beast altogether. (Getty Images)  
Denard Robinson won the Sugar Bowl, but beating Alabama is a different beast altogether. (Getty Images)  

In eight days Alabama starts defending its national championship against an opponent defending its honor. In a game so big Cowboys Stadium qualifies as the other Big House, the national perception of Michigan and Big Ten football is on the line. And, mostly, on Denard Robinson.

Despite this being an arranged-marriage, neutral-site opener, 'Bama earned its way to Arlington, Texas, for the most significant game of college football's first week. Michigan arrives on reputation. Its best chance starts with perhaps the fleetest quarterback feet in the country. Check another body part. From a Big Blue point of view, there is more pressure-per-square inch on Robinson's shoulders than on any pillar in Jerry Jones' massive palace.

If Michigan's quarterback doesn't realize the stakes by now, well, there won't be any be sense an Alabama linebacker can knock out of him. Three years into it and one season from the end of it, Robinson is about to play the biggest game of his career.

Alabama is how we will remember him. It will be his legacy, part of Michigan's history whether the Wolverines win the Rose Bowl or finish third in the Legends Division. Winning a Sugar Bowl over a Virginia Tech that had doubtful BCS credentials isn't good enough. In slightly over a week, arguably the Big Ten's best player will make history -- probably. One way or another.

A season-opening blockbuster that begins with an overarching question -- Is Michigan back? -- already has one man's answer.

"Michigan," Robinson said, "never left. We always have the Block M and winged helmets. We're always going to be Michigan. Nothing changed." Tuscaloosa, your rebuttal will have to wait until Sept. 1. You already have your talking points. The quarterback dervish good enough to run for 1,700 yards two seasons ago, also committed 20 turnovers last season. The dual-threat superstar who in 2010 became the first player to pass for 2,500 yards and run for 1,500, last season had the program's highest interception-per-attempts ratio (one every 17.2) in a decade. (Robinson's 15 interceptions were the sixth-most in the country.)

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Michigan will take its chances with its only chance under center.

"We're the underdogs," Robinson said. "I love being the underdogs. This is why you come to Michigan, to play in big games."

The Wolverines just haven't won many of them lately. They are 3-10 against ranked teams since 2008 and haven't beaten a top-10 team in almost five years. You may have noticed also that SEC stranglehold on the crystal football and the Big Ten's going-on-decade drought without one.

Michigan can say it is back, but general credibility will be lacking -- unless it beats Alabama.

Leading indicators at the moment: Thousand-yard tailback Fitz Toussaint remains indefinitely suspended. Alabama is the first of four top-10 defenses from 2011 the Wolverines will face. One game into his final season, we may never think of Denard Robinson the same way again.

"I can't honestly say I've had anybody like him," said the man charged with shaping "Shoelace" into the quarterback Brady Hoke prefers.

Al Borges has been around more than a quarter century shaping quarterbacks. A West Coast guy most of his career (Portland State, Boise State, Oregon, UCLA, Cal, San Diego State), Borges has groomed primarily stand-up, drop-back types. It's safe to say the current reshaping of Robinson is one of the biggest challenges of his career.

"We don't want him hit," Borges said, summarizing the makeover. "It's disconcerting when that much of your offense runs through one player. You want him to be the centerpiece but to point that much onus on one kid is an accident waiting to happen."

So what's the right balance for a quarterback with 22 fewer career carries than a Heisman finalist, Wisconsin tailback Montee Ball?

"That's the big thing," Borges added, "It's going to take him a year or two in our offense."

Robinson has 12 more games -- 14 most likely if Michigan plays in the Big Ten title game. Even before the games begin to dwindle, Borges gets annoyed when he hears that he is making Robinson into more of a pocket passer.

"That is way too simplistic," he said. "He throws the ball in the pocket. He threw in the pocket before. We try to develop his skills inside the pocket. You can't roll out every time, for goodness sakes."

While tip-toeing around semantics, let's call Robinson a "quieter" quarterback under Hoke/Borges. Less running, more thinking. But in making the transition from the more liberal Rich Rodriguez offense, Robinson has become less accurate. Michigan State last season forced Robinson into one of the worst games of his career with an attacking defense.

The same label can be safely applied to Alabama's unit that finished last season No. 1 in rushing, passing, scoring and total defense.

"The problem when you're outside the pocket is there is good and bad. The bad is when you pull defenses into receivers," Borges said. "It's also bad because you inhibit the amount of running space you can maneuver into. They're more likely to pin you [in a confined space]."

Layman's translation: As good as Robinson is, when he rolls out against a defense like Alabama he is cutting off half the field. Those 12-yard scrambles become five-yard runs. Short completions become incompletions or worse, tackles for loss.

"It's an NFL package defense," Borges said of Alabama. "In the NFL everything is about playing defense against the quarterback, not playing defense against the coaches."

Forget, then, about him being faster than Usain Bolt. (The quarterback suggested he could beat the Olympic sprinter in a 40-yard dash). How about Robinson being quicker than Alabama defensive end Damion Square?

"They want to give him the ball first," Square told reporters earlier this month, "and that's what we're coming to stop."

The Michigan practice field has become a laboratory, with urgency. The idea going forward is to relieve that massive burden on Robinson. But how? Hoke/Borges don't want to take away from their guy's creativity; they want to make sure he is more efficient. It's a work in progress going into Robinson's senior season. In 2011, he rushed for 526 fewer yards while dropping down to a 55 percent completion rate -- more than five percent below the national average and 7.5 percent lower than his 2010 numbers.

Robinson has heard the labels: Is he a rushing quarterback who throws or a conventional quarterback with legs?

"A conventional quarterback who has mobility," he said. "I feel like a lot of people think there are designed runs that we get. Most of the time, they are broken plays."

Borges' biggest advantage in eight days may be his experience. In the middle of that West Coast career, he spent four years in the SEC at Auburn (2004-7) as part of a staff that beat (an admittedly down) Alabama four straight times. Nick Saban went down twice (once at LSU). In those five games Borges' offenses averaged 19.6 points.

"Fistfights", he calls them. Those defensive grinders when the first OC to double digits has had a hell of a day.

"It doesn't bruise my ego not to score a lot of points as long as the amount of points is one more than the team we're playing ...," Borges said. "Have we had prolific offensive games against them? No we haven't. Not many people do. We're beyond the genius stage here. We're just out to see if we can't help each other win a game."

That's the crossroads where Michigan's season meets D-Rob's career. He is the Wolverines' best hope to defend that honor, to answer that ultimate question that will be debated from here to Jerry Jones' luxury suite on opening night.

Is Michigan back?

Check the fleetest feet, check the pressure-per-square inch, check that awesome Alabama D.

Then check with Michigan to see if it held on by a Shoelace.


Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.
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