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Michigan vs. Alabama

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The defending national champions will begin their quest to win three titles in a four-year stretch when they take on Michigan at Cowboys Stadium on Saturday night. As of Wednesday afternoon, most books were listing Alabama as a 13 ½-point favorite with a total of 45 ½.

The Crimson Tide had been favored by 12 ½ for the last few weeks but the number moved up to 13 on Monday, to 13 ½ on Tuesday and some spots were at 14 on Wednesday. The total was 42 ½ at most offshores until most Las Vegas shops posted the tally at 45 on Monday.

Nick Saban’s team returns six starters on offense and five on defense. Gone from the defensive unit are four players that were first-round picks this past spring. The Alabama ‘D’ gave up just 8.2 points per game while going 12-1 in 2011, dealing out cream-cheese treatment to LSU in a 21-0 win at the BCS Championship Game in New Orleans.

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Even though the defense is still stacked with talent galore, it can’t help but miss the presence of four first-rounders and the leadership they provided. This bunch will have its hands full with Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson.

Alabama junior QB A.J. McCarron won’t have Trent Richardson to lean on anymore, nor will he have his top four pass catchers from last season. Nevertheless, the cupboard is far from bare with junior RB Eddie Lacy poised for a big season.

Lacy, who averaged 7.1 yards per carry and rushed for seven TDs in 2011, has been slowed by an ankle sprain recently but will get the starting nod. The Tide is looking for an immediate impact from true freshman RB T.J. Yeldon, who was an early enrollee that stole the show in the spring game.

There is a switch at offensive coordinator with Jim McElwain leaving to take the head-coaching job at Colorado St. McElwain has been replaced by former Washington o-coordinator Doug Nussmeier.

McCarron will try to build on his 2011 stats that weren’t too shabby. He completed 66.8 percent of his passes for 2,634 yards with a 16/5 TD-INT ratio.

Michigan enjoyed a return to prominence in Brady Hoke’s first season at the helm. The Wolverines had a disastrous three-year run under Rich Rodriguez, compiling an abysmal 15-22 record.

But Hoke turned things around quickly, going 11-2 with an overtime win over Va. Tech at the Sugar Bowl. The former head coach at San Diego St. and Ball St. took a defense that surrendered 35.2 PPG in 2010 and turned into a stout unit that gave up just 17.4 PPG last year.

Although R-Rod’s spread attack was better suited for Robinson’s skill set, he still produced huge numbers in a more pro-style system under o-coordinator Al Borges. Robinson rushed for 1,349 yards and 16 touchdowns, while also passing for 2,173 yards and 20 TDs. His accuracy isn’t his best trait, though, as evidenced by 15 interceptions and a 55-percent completion rate.

Michigan returns junior RB Fitzgerald Toussaint, who rushed for 1,041 yards and nine TDs while averaging 5.6 YPC last season. But his playing time could be limited this week due to a suspension from an off-the-field incident.

The Wolverines return six starters on offense and seven on defense. Two starting WRs are back in the mix, including junior Jeremy Gallon, who had 31 receptions for 453 yards and three TDs last year. Also, senior Roy Roundtree has 1,724 career receiving yards.

Michigan has nine of its top 11 tacklers back. Senior MLB Kenny Demens had 94 tackles and three sacks last year.

Michigan went 2-1 both straight up and against the spread in three underdog situations last year. Meanwhile, Alabama posted a 7-3 spread record in games as a double-digit ‘chalk.’

ABC will have the telecast at 8:00 p.m. Eastern.

**B.E.’s Bonus Nuggets**

--South Carolina escaped Music City with a 17-13 comeback win over Vanderbilt thanks to 110 rushing yards and two touchdowns from junior running back Marcus Lattimore, who found paydirt on a one-yard plunge with 11:25 remaining to give the Gamecocks the lead for good. Connor Shaw gutted out a shoulder injury that kept him out of the game early in the third quarter. Shaw returned to action and finished with 92 yards rushing, including a third-down scramble for first-down yardage that put the game on ice. The Commodores took the cash as 6 ½-point underdogs, while the 30 combined points fell ‘under’ the 44 ½-point total.

--UCF finished 2011 with a disappointing 5-7 record. Many are expecting a bounce-back season for the Golden Knights, who began the year in style with a 56-24 win over Akron as 24 ½-point favorites. Blake Bortles threw three TD passes for UCF, which will travel to ‘The Shoe’ to face Ohio St. in Week 2.

--Jim Mora Jr. picked up his first career win in the college ranks with UCLA’s 49-24 win at Rice as a 16-point ‘chalk.’ Johnathan Franklin rushed 15 times for 214 yards and three TDs, while redshirt freshman QB Brett Hundley scored on a 72-yard TD run on his first career snap. Hundley also connected on 21-of-28 pass attempts for 202 yards with two TDs and one interception. The Bruins host Nebraska next Saturday.

--Rice’s Cameron Nwosu set an NCAA record by blocking three extra-point attempts.

--BYU junior WR Cody Hoffman left Thursday night’s game against Washington St. with a quad contusion. Hoffman, who did not dress out in the second half, had a team-high 61 receptions for 943 yards and 10 TDs last year. The Cougars won’t need him in Week 2 against Weber St., but gamblers should check his status for a Week 3 game at Utah. BYU beat Washington St. by a 30-6 count as a 13-point home favorite.

--Minnesota kicked a field goal at 2:48 a.m. Eastern to beat UNLV 30-27 in triple overtime. The Rebels covered the number as 9 ½-point home underdogs. The real story from a gambling perspective is what happened with the total, which closed 52 at most spots. The game was 13-13 going to overtime, but both teams matched touchdowns in the first two OTs to give ‘under’ backers a gut-wrenching defeat.

Brian Edwards can be reached at briane@vegasinsider.com.

For daily sports gambling analysis, follow Brian Edwards on twitter at Vegasbedwards.

  
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