Tilt with Tide will set Big Ten tone
Michigan's season opener will shape national opinion of conference
With all due respect to the rest of the Big Ten, the biggest game of the season for the conference doesn't even involve two conference teams.
But there is no more crucial matchup than the season opener between Michigan and defending national champion Alabama on Sept. 1 at Cowboy Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
The SEC has won eight of the 14 BCS national championship games, including six in a row. In fact, it's 8-1 when playing for the BCS title, and the only loss came last year when it was beaten by ... another SEC team. Five different SEC schools have won titles: Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Florida and Tennessee.
The Big Ten has won one, when underdog Ohio State shocked Miami on Jan. 3, 2003. The Buckeyes played for two others, but they were beaten soundly by SEC teams following the 2006 and 2007 seasons.
No other Big Ten team has even sniffed the BCS brawl for it all. Nebraska lost the title game against Miami on Jan. 3, 2002, but the Huskers were years from joining the Big Ten at that point.
The national perception of the Big Ten is that it's a plodding league that lacks the speed to contend with the SEC. If the SEC is a Corvette, the Big Ten is a Taurus. Perhaps more appropriately, if the SEC is a cheetah, the Big Ten is a gazelle. With a bad hamstring.
Teams from the Big Ten and SEC have met 14 times in bowl games over the past five seasons. The Big Ten is 5-9 in those games, including 1-2 last year.
So it is against that backdrop that the Wolverines will venture into neutral territory to play the Crimson Tide. Anybody in maize and blue who doesn't consider the prospect daunting is lying. Brady Hoke and his staff no doubt watched Alabama dismantle LSU in the national title game. They saw the Tide defense shut out the Tigers -- the first shutout in a BCS title game. They saw LSU muster only 92 total yards and five first downs and cross midfield only once.
Fortunately for Michigan, it won't face the same defense. Three Tide defenders went in the first round of the NFL draft, a fourth was a second-round choice, and still two more went in the fifth round. That's six players off one defense, or as many Michigan defenders as have been selected in the past four drafts.
Despite the losses, not much of a drop-off is expected on the defensive side around Tuscaloosa, while the offense could very well be better despite losing a first-round pick of its own -- running back Trent Richardson.
Alabama is the vision of where Hoke wants Michigan to go. It runs his preferred pro-style offense. It also is run first, run downhill, control the ball -- elements to which the Wolverines aspire.
But Michigan won't be any of that until Denard Robinson is gone. For one more season, including this game against Alabama, Michigan will live and die with its senior signal-caller taking shotgun snaps.
The hope for the Wolverines -- and for the Big Ten -- is that they will do more living against the Tide than getting spiked under a crimson cleat. Michigan doesn't have to beat Alabama, it just has to show the country it belongs on the same field.