The Michigan Wolverines have reclaimed their confidence, something Alabama did shortly after Nick Saban landed in Tuscaloosa and started winning national titles.
The eighth-ranked Wolverines have already earned some preseason acclaim going into Saturday night’s opening showdown with the similarly pedigreed and second-ranked Crimson Tide at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
Beating a team that has won two of the last three national championships from a league that has captured six in a row would be an especially huge statement for Denard Robinson & Co.
“They’re just trying to show the world that they can play,” Alabama safety Robert Lester said. “The SEC is such a dominant conference, and I guess just to get any credibility points, you have to go and beat a credible SEC team. They’re just trying to prove themselves.”
Saban and the Tide have some things to prove, too, even as nearly two-touchdown favorites.
The nation’s best defense a year ago gets quite a test for seven new starters facing the dangerous Robinson, the kind of double-edged weapon Alabama hasn’t seen since Cam Newton two years ago.
This game could do much to support Saban’s contention that there’s no sense of entitlement with this team, unlike the talent-laden 2010 group that dropped three games after a championship season.
“If this team is not successful it is not because of the character and attitude of the team,” said Saban, who is 18-6 against ranked opponents and 10-4 against Top 10 teams over the last four seasons. “It will be because of the lack of experience the team has in certain positions, and they may make too many mistakes to win. It will not get compared that way, I am sure, because this team has done everything the right way.”
So one storied program wants to prove it’s back, the other that it isn’t going anywhere.
Alabama has been ranked for 65 weeks and counting, the nation’s longest active streak. Michigan was unranked going into coach Brady Hoke’s first season before going on to win 11 games and beat Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl.
This is the first time Alabama and Michigan have met in the regular season.
The Wolverines would love to make a statement for the Big Ten, besieged by Penn State’s sex abuse scandal and encumbered by Ohio State’s bowl ban. Both teams will get some quick answers about where they stand.
“I went back and thought about last year at this time,” Hoke said. “I didn’t know if we were going to win two games let alone 11, because you don’t know until you get in the real deal as far as playing games.
“Honestly, we’ll find out. We’ll find out about ourselves.”
About 32 hours before kickoff, Hoke announced he was suspending starting running back Fitzgerald Toussaint and reserve defensive end Frank Clark for the game. Toussaint pleaded guilty Tuesday to drunken driving. Clark is accused of taking a laptop from a dorm room.
The Wolverines will likely use running backs Thomas Rawls, Vincent Smith, Justice Hayes perhaps along with newcomers Dennis Norfleet and Drake Johnson against the Crimson Tide.
Without Toussaint, there’s an even bigger burden on Robinson to try to outrun or outwit Saban’s defenders, who are seldom caught out of position.
Saban said Robinson has improved as a pocket passer. He has warned his pass rushers of what can happen if they leave their feet while approaching him.
“Well, this guy will ball fake you like Michael Jordan and take off running and you’ll say, ‘Well, how did that happen?’” Saban said.
The swift Robinson can make teams pay for mistakes, as evidenced by his 30 carries of 20-plus yards.
“He’s fast. You see that on ESPN watching the Top 10 (plays) week in and week out,” Alabama defensive end Damion Square said. “He’s a guy that players know of. He has an exceptional arm. He makes throws that need to be made for his team and he extends plays and makes big plays a lot. That’s what you want to come and stop — big plays.”
Alabama counters with the more traditional passer AJ McCarron, offensive MVP of the BCS championship game.
Tailback Eddie Lacy also makes his starting debut in place of Heisman Trophy finalist Trent Richardson. He has plenty of help, though, from big-play threats Dee Hart and T.J. Yeldon along with a veteran offensive line.
Michigan linebacker Kenny Demens doesn’t think there’s any room for error against Alabama.
“Zero. They’re a great team. They’re disciplined,” Demens said. “Any mistake can cost us the game.”
The Wolverines don’t seem bothered by the fact that Alabama is so heavily favored.
“The game is played on the field,” cornerback J.T. Floyd said.
Asked if he likes Michigan’s chances, he invoked the three-word catchphrase that has caught on since Hoke’s arrival.
“This is Michigan,” he said.
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