Alabama vs. Michigan: Clash of traditional titans

Colossal college football programs Alabama and Michigan have

combined for 1,709 wins and 25 national titles but seldom tangle on

the field.

When they do, it’s usually at some big bowl game not starting

the season on Sept. 1.

The second-ranked Crimson Tide and No. 8 Wolverines are gearing

up for their opener Saturday night at Cowboys Stadium with an

address that fits the iconic history of these programs: One Legends

Way.

Alabama receiver Kevin Norwood knows it well. He has a picture

of the stadium on his phone.

”I’ve been looking at that stadium for like months now,”

Norwood said Monday.

That both these teams open the season in the Top 10 is, in some

ways, just a nice bonus in this rare meeting of storied

programs.

For all their outsized history, Michigan and Alabama have only

met three times, all in January bowl games and two won by the

Wolverines. The total margin: Michigan 77, Alabama 75 with the last

meeting being the Wolverines’ 35-34 overtime win in the Orange Bowl

on Jan. 1, 2000.

Tradition aside, the Tide is trying to show it’s a legitimate

contender for a second straight national title and third in four

years.

Michigan is aiming to build on an 11-win season and BCS bowl

victory over Virginia Tech but not – coach Brady Hoke wants to make

this clear – to reestablish that powerhouse reputation for a

program three years removed from losing a school-record nine games.

That never went away, Hoke says.

”I don’t buy into that and never have,” he said. ”But I do

think it’s a great marker for where we’re at as a program and what

we can be. I think every first game every year though you learn a

lot about yourselves, because every team is different.

”I went back and thought about last year at this time. 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.”

That’s what openers are for, right? A learning experience. Some

are built these days for TV ratings, too.

There’s no grace period for Alabama or Michigan to ease into the

season or for new starters and key backups to get acclimated to new

roles. The Tide has gotten used to it, with early nonconference

games against Penn State the past two years and previous openers

against Virginia Tech and Clemson. They’re 4-0 in those games.

Alabama coach Nick Saban said opening with these types of games

provide a boost in offseason work.

”It really gives the players something to look forward to in

the first game and it gives the fans a lot to look forward to in

the first game,” said Saban, who coached Michigan rival Michigan

State from 1995-99. ”I think it’s good for college football when

we have these kinds of games. We enjoy playing in them. It’s going

to be very challenging for us and we’ll certainly see where we are

as a team.”

Alabama linebacker Nico Johnson likes it this way.

”You kind of learn a lot playing against a team like this, a

good team early,” Johnson said. ”You learn a lot, instead of

waiting on down the line to learn those lessons you need to learn.

By playing Michigan, we’re going to learn a lot. Who knows what

it’s going to be, but I know we’re going to learn something.”

Here’s something the Tide players might not have known about

Michigan. The Wolverines are college football’s winningest team,

with 895 victories, 42 conference titles and some piece of 11

national titles.

Alabama has won 814 games – after 29 were stripped by the NCAA –

and 22 Southeastern Conference championships and counts 14 national

titles.

A reporter asked Johnson which he’d prefer, to be the winningest

program or the one with 14 national championships.

”I’ll take 14 national titles,” he responded. ”Yeah, it

really doesn’t matter. As long as we win, hey, we’re good. All the

hard work we put in, it pays off at the end of the day.”

Alabama guard Chance Warmack is a Detroit native, though he

moved to Atlanta at 7. He’s heard about Michigan’s tradition from

his father and other family members.

He calls Michigan Heisman Trophy winner Desmond Howard ”an

all-time favorite.”

”I watched football, but I didn’t have a particular favorite

(team),” Warmack said. ”But Michigan was always in the back of my

mind, because I’m from there. My cousins and my father’s family are

from there. They let me know, `Don’t mess with Michigan.”’

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AP Sports Writer Noah Trister in Ann Arbor, Mich., contributed

to this story