UM-Bama has history, high stakes

Originally Published: August 31, 2012
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

Alabama and Michigan are two of college football's traditional heavyweights.

The programs have combined to win more than 1,700 games and claim a whopping 25 national championships between them.

The Crimson Tide started delivering knockouts again shortly after Nick Saban arrived on campus in 2007, winning two of the past three BCS national championships.

[+] EnlargeBrady Hoke
Rick Osentoski/US PresswireBrady Hoke has breathed new life into Michigan, leading the Wolverines to 11 wins in his first season as head coach.

After taking it on the chin under former coach Rich Rodriguez, the Wolverines picked themselves up off the mat last season, finishing 11-2 and defeating Virginia Tech 23-20 in overtime in the Allstate Sugar Bowl in coach Brady Hoke's first season.

On Saturday night, the No. 2 Crimson Tide and No. 8 Wolverines will meet for only the fourth time -- and their first regular-season encounter -- at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

"It's Alabama and the SEC," said Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, who helped guide Florida to a BCS national title in 2006. "That's a good conference. They take great pride in their conference. The Big Ten is a great conference. This is what it's all about: the Big Ten versus the SEC [and] Michigan versus Alabama. We look forward to it."

The marquee game on the opening weekend of the 2012 season is actually about even more than that.

It's the North versus the South, a blue state versus a red state in an election year. It's about size versus speed -- and maybe not how you think.

Saturday will be the first time the Crimson Tide have taken the field since defeating then-No. 1 LSU 21-0 in the Jan. 9 Allstate BCS National Championship Game.

The Wolverines will take the field on the fifth anniversary of their most famous defeat, a 34-32 loss to Football Championship Subdivision foe Appalachian State on Sept. 1, 2007. They're hoping the outcome will be better this time.

Although the SEC has been lauded for its speed during its streak of six consecutive BCS national championships, Alabama's greatest advantage against Michigan might be its mammoth offensive line and menacing defensive front.

Michigan's best chance to win might be quarterback Denard Robinson, who probably will be the fastest player on the field.

"They're a physical front," Hoke said. "They're a big front."

The Crimson Tide, with their punishing running game and physical defense, look a lot like traditional Big Ten teams. Their experienced offensive line, led by reigning Outland Trophy winner Barrett Jones, who has moved from tackle to center for his senior season, might be their greatest strength.

That's not to say that Alabama doesn't have great team speed -- or that Michigan is any slower.

Regardless, opening the season against what has been college football's most dominant team is a heck of a measuring stick for Michigan.

"I do think it's a great marker for where we're at as a program and what we can be," Hoke said.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
AP Photo Butch DillAlabama has new personnel at several positions. Nick Saban will learn a lot about those new contributors against Michigan.

Saban hopes to learn a lot about his team too. The Crimson Tide have to replace nine starters, including eight who were drafted by NFL teams. Running back Trent Richardson, safety Mark Barron, cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick and linebacker Dont'a Hightower were first-rounders. Alabama brings back only nine scholarship seniors, which is the fourth fewest among Football Bowl Subdivision teams. (Only Indiana, Colorado and Rice have fewer.)

If Alabama can't slow down Michigan, how is it going to defeat Arkansas or LSU?

Although the Crimson Tide are ranked in the top five to start the season and are again expected to compete for an SEC title and BCS national championship, playing an opening opponent such as the Wolverines will give Saban a barometer of where his team is. When the Tide last tried to defend a BCS national championship in 2010, they finished 10-3.

A loss to the Wolverines will put a serious dent in Alabama's hopes of becoming the sport's first repeat national champion since Nebraska in 1994 and 1995.

An ugly loss to the Crimson Tide would be a setback for the Wolverines, which hope to continue to improve in Year 2 of Hoke's rebuilding job.

"We like [playing Alabama] as a program," Hoke said. "We like it, and I like it personally. When you want to be the best and be champions, you have to play the best and the programs on that high level. As a team, we think it will make us better when we get into the Big Ten."

What a confidence boost a Michigan victory would be for the Big Ten, a league that has been perceived as a punching bag for the SEC in recent seasons.

Hoke has reinvigorated Michigan with some of the swagger it lost during the Rodriguez years, but if the Wolverines are dealt a humiliating defeat and sent back to Ann Arbor with their tails between their legs, it would reinforce the notion that the gap between the SEC and the rest of the country is as wide as it has ever been -- and perhaps is growing.

But a win over the defending champions? It would be a warning shot that this season might not be another four-month coronation until another SEC national champion is crowned.

Mark Schlabach | email

College Football and Basketball