Senior College Football Columnist

Michigan's motto for opener opposite Alabama: Win one for the Big Ten


Last season Brady Hoke led Michigan to a Sugar Bowl victory over Virginia Tech. (US Presswire)  
Last season Brady Hoke led Michigan to a Sugar Bowl victory over Virginia Tech. (US Presswire)  

CHICAGO -- Deep into his Physics II class this summer, Michigan safety Jordan Kovacs would flip open his computer and get even deeper. Into Alabama's offense.

"I shouldn't admit it but I watch [film] in class a little bit," Kovacs said Friday at Big Ten media days. "Every now and then you just shake your head. They're the best team I've ever played."

As an offseason of scandal fades (hopefully), Michigan-Alabama is coming into view. Actual football. Neutral site opener in Jerry Jones' Texas pleasure dome. Just in time. Let the hype begin. Five weeks from now, we will not only get another tasty opener in Cowboys Stadium but also a national referendum.

Denard vs. AJ. Brady vs. Nick. SEC vs. Big Ten. Defending champ vs. defending honor.

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That's what this is mostly about. Historically, this is a match of the No. 1 (Michigan) and No. 8 (Alabama) teams in all-time wins. Realistically, Michigan is lugging a heavy burden into Texas.

"There's no doubt that the Big Ten has had its doubts, particularly against the SEC," Kovacs said. "It's a huge game for us. It's a huge game for this conference. Not only are we representing ourselves, we're representing the university, we're representing the Big Ten which is nothing to carry lightly."

The (college football) world is watching. Alabama will come into the game ranked in the top five and chasing a third national title in four years. You might have heard about the SEC's stranglehold in that department. Two of those six consecutive title-game wins have come against Big Ten teams. Speaking of Ohio State, the Buckeyes had been 0-9 against the SEC in bowl games until beating Arkansas a couple of years ago.

Rich Rodriguez' last game was an embarrassing 38-point loss to Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl only 19 months ago. The SEC actually holds only a modest advantage in head-to-head bowl meetings since 2000, 19-15. But there there's that stereotype that stretches from here to Tuscaloosa.

"The defenses, they're the ones that get the knocks in the Big Ten," Kovacs said. "They aren't particularly fast or they can't really hang with the SEC."

And that comes from a guy who plays defense in the Big Ten.

While this isn't a bowl game, it's about the closest thing to it. Jones loves college football inventory for his mega-stadium. If that helps him land a playoff game or two beginning in 2014, all the better. LSU used a win over Oregon at Cowboys Stadium to make a national championship run last season. Kovacs' computer holds the evidence of how that run ended, 21-0 'Bama in the BCS title game.

"I should have been paying attention to Physics II," Kovacs said.

So are the Wolverines ready for a game that could define their season, their program and their conference?

"Michigan never went anywhere, never took a break," Wolverines offensive tackle Taylor Lewan said. "We were the same guys two years ago as we were last year."

There are those who would beg to differ. Lewan speaks out of blind loyalty. Brady Hoke arrived just in time to pull the program out of one of the worst three-year periods in its history. Michigan's Sugar Bowl win against Virginia Tech marked their second 11-win season since 1997. It also officially closed the books on the Rodriguez era. There are no lingering effects, it seems.

Hoke has restored the faith going into a season in which Michigan should be favored to win the Big Ten's Legends Division. He has also seen the same film as Kovacs.

"I'm concerned about their managers being better than ours," he said.

SEC Speed. They are familiar with the term, all of the Wolverines who were here for the media days.

"I've heard it quite a bit," Kovacs said. "They always talk about the SEC speed on defense, particularly on defense. Maybe it's true."

Lewan countered with Michigan's speed component: "We have [quarterback] Denard [Robinson] speed. I understand, I get it. The SEC is known for its speed and the Big Ten known to be a little slower. I'm excited to see what the difference is."

Michigan's one clear advantage might be its quarterback. Tailback Fitz Toussaint, a 1,000-yard rusher, is indefinitely suspended. Robinson is a Florida native who was recruited by the Gators and Auburn. If he could have played in the SEC, he certainly can play against it.

"I'm from the South, that's what everybody is talking about," Robinson said. "The SEC is the best football, the SEC is the fastest."

D-Rob's challenge: To cut down on his interceptions and what offensive coordinator Al Borges calls "indiscriminate decision making." Robinson threw a career-high 15 interceptions and completed only 55 percent of his passes. Hoke may want to shape is quarterback into more of a pocket passer -- his rushing total dipped by more than 600 yards -- but Robinson is best when he improvises.

Borges knows that. Hoke knows that. The Tide know that. That's why they're watching film too. Summer school is over. "That's the only thing we've been thinking about for quite a while now," Kovacs said.

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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