- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
- 0 Shares
Jim Delany has never suppressed his desire for Big Ten members to test themselves outside the conference.
It's why the commissioner puts together unquestionably the nation's toughest bowl lineup each year. It's why he spearheaded the short-lived scheduling alliance with the Pac-12.
Even as the Big Ten's losses in nationally significant games pile up and its last national title in football gets smaller in the rear-view mirror, Delany wants teams to measure themselves against the best.
Michigan has gotten the message, loud and clear.
The Wolverines open the season Saturday night against defending national champion Alabama in Arlington, Texas. Alabama has hoisted the crystal football in two of the past three seasons. The Tide boast a 55-12 record under coach Nick Saban and haven't dropped a nonconference game since the 2007 season, Saban's first in Tuscaloosa.
The big blue banner isn't the only one Michigan will carry onto the field Saturday night. The Wolverines are playing for their beleaguered conference, too.
"Saban is probably the coach of the decade, and Alabama's probably the team of the decade with two national championships in the last three years," Delany told ESPN.com on Monday morning. "Michigan's trying to re-establish a program and a team, and Saban has done a fabulous job of returning Alabama to its programmatic height. So for us, it's a big game. I don't think you can minimize it. It's an important game, a big game, a big stage, and those are the kinds of games we want to play."
Delany caused a stir in Tide Country during the playoff negotiations this summer when he appeared to take a shot at Alabama, telling the Associated Press that he didn't have much regard for teams that didn't win their division (Alabama failed to win the SEC West in 2011 but shut out LSU in the national title game). While he later explained he wasn't targeting the Tide, the damage had been done.
But the commissioner made it clear Monday that Alabama is the standard bearer in college football. The Tide provide Michigan with an excellent barometer and opportunity following an 11-2 season in coach Brady Hoke's first year.
"Alabama has put its stamp by winning two championships in the last three years, and Saban has won three in the decade with his win at LSU," Delany said. "I would call him the dominant coach of the decade. Alabama is at the very top of its prowess, and the SEC has won six [championships] in a row. You're dealing with a program that's in total full throttle.
"We're hoping to be competitive, we're hoping to have some success, but quite honestly, it's the biggest challenge you can possibly take on at this time for a coach who's going into his second year, a program that was just a couple years away from losing seasons."
Still, Michigan is embracing the opportunity. The Wolverines made major strides under Hoke last season, transforming their historically poor defense into one of the Big Ten's best. They boast a Heisman Trophy candidate in senior quarterback Denard Robinson, a strong secondary, a core of talented young players and a team that has adjusted to Hoke and his staff.
Although Hoke and his players scoff at the notion that Michigan is back -- Michigan never left, they insist -- the Wolverines must show they can compete with the nation's best. A Sugar Bowl win against a Virginia Tech team many thought didn't belong in New Orleans doesn't cut it. Dramatic victories against perpetually overrated Notre Dame teams don't, either.
Michigan's last win against a top-10 opponent came in the 2008 Capital One Bowl, as the Wolverines sent coach Lloyd Carr out a winner by beating Urban Meyer, Tim Tebow and the Florida Gators, the defending national champs. The Big Ten hasn't recorded many marquee wins since, and very few against the SEC's elite. The league's best win against the SEC -- Ohio State's victory against Arkansas in the 2011 Sugar Bowl -- was later vacated because of NCAA violations.
The Wolverines and the Big Ten are joined at the hip Saturday night. Will they sink or swim?
"You hear a lot of hoopla about the SEC and stuff like that," Michigan safety Thomas Gordon said last week. "I'm not taking nothing away from it, it's a great conference. But we're representing our conference against theirs. We're looking forward to a good game."
So is Delany, who will tune in Saturday night. He sees Michigan on the rise once again under Hoke, but he's also aware of what Saban has created in Tuscaloosa.
Alabama has made Big Ten teams look bad in recent years. The Tide crushed Michigan State 49-7 in the 2011 Capital One Bowl and recorded easy wins against Penn State the past two seasons.
"Michigan has got a great historic program," Delany said. "It dipped, and Brady Hoke has done a fabulous job of re-establishing it, but it's a program that's re-emerging. It's probably a couple years away from being everything it's going to be in terms of recruitment. ... Going into that game, you're hoping for the best, but you realize these programs are in very different stages of development. This is two coaches and 85 players, and they'll decide what happens. But it's pretty clear that Alabama has separated itself, not only from the rest of the country, but also from people in the SEC."
At some point, the Big Ten needs to start closing the gap to regain relevancy. Conferences get two opportunities to make national statements -- the nonleague portion and the bowl season. The latter carries far more weight, and a Michigan win against Alabama won't mean much if the Wolverines struggle in Big Ten play.
But it will shock the college football world and shift the spotlight away from the mighty SEC, if only temporarily.
"It's the biggest challenge you can possibly have if you're Michigan," Delany said.
And if you're the Big Ten.
16hBrian Bennett and Austin Ward