ARLINGTON, Texas — If you believe the song, the stars are big and bright in the heart of Texas.
Since the Cowboys Stadium roof is expected to be closed on Saturday night, the Michigan football team won’t be able to confirm that lyric when it opens its season against No. 2 Alabama in the Cowboys Classic. But while there won’t be any starlight to speak of, the Wolverines will still very much be in the nation’s spotlight come game time.
That’s what happens when you open the season against another storied program, one that won the national championship a year ago, in primetime, at one of the most recognizable stadiums in the country.
After playing in both the first night game in Michigan Stadium and in the Sugar Bowl last season, this year’s Michigan team can at least say it has experience in these types of atmospheres.
“All the outside stuff, it can serve as a distraction,” said fifth-year senior offensive guard Patrick Omameh. “We really want to keep the focus on the game itself and being as successful as we can in that area.”
Perhaps the quality of the Wolverines’ opponent makes it easier to focus.
As has become the norm under head coach Nick Saban, Alabama enters the 2012 season as one of the favorites for the national championship after taking home the trophy last January.
The Crimson Tide lost a lot from that team — running back Trent Richardson was the third overall pick in the NFL Draft, and three others went in the first 35 picks — but Saban has proven that his program simply reloads.
Nowhere is that more true than with Alabama’s defense. Saban has a reputation for being one of the top defensive minds in the game, and his unit’s annual performance back that up. The team led the country in total defense last season, holding opponents to nearly 80 fewer yards per game than runner-up Louisiana State, and seems poised to have a similar performance this year.
It’ll be an uphill battle for the Michigan offense, led by senior quarterback Denard Robinson, and which may be without redshirt junior running back Fitzgerald Toussaint after he pled guilty to driving while visibly impaired on Tuesday.
“(The Crimson Tide) have enough within their package to keep the quarterback off balance with the passing game, which is really NFL-esque,” Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges said. “But with them I think the devil’s in the details. Sometimes it’s not always that they have some fancy blitz, although they have a few of those, too.
“Just how they play the scheme and knowing how to play their scheme and how they make their keys and what the reactions are to those keys, and all those things.”
Given the Wolverines won’t likely be able to put up many points, the pressure on the Michigan defense is even greater.
Alabama, led by returning quarterback A.J. McCarron, isn’t known for having a high-octane offense, but it always seems to get the job done. The Crimson Tide will probably be content to grind out the game with new starting running back Eddie Lacy and its veteran offensive line, which both Michigan coach Brady Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison have called one of the best lines, if not the best, they’ve ever seen.
It’s may be a bit worrisome, then, that the Wolverines will combat that unit with a defensive line that has three new and unproven starters in redshirt junior Quinton Washington at nose tackle, senior Will Campbell at defensive tackle and junior Jibreel Black at rush end.
Mattison said he won’t know if his defense is truly ready until the game itself. Beyond just the defense, this season opener — probably more than any other — could tell a lot about whether the Wolverines are truly ready to compete with the nation’s elite after a breakout 11-2 season a year ago.
“I went back and thought about (a year ago) 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.”
Despite all their success in Hoke’s first year, the Wolverines know that most observers view them as sizable underdogs against Alabama. But that hasn’t stopped the players from expressing confidence about their chances when Saturday night — and the new season with it — finally arrives.
In the off-season, while starting fifth-year senior linebacker Kenny Demens was on vacation visiting friends in Texas, he took the opportunity to drive past the unique monstrosity that is Cowboys Stadium, pondering the game that lay ahead. He admitted that he’s been dreaming about a win over Alabama on Saturday, enjoying the thought of what that would do for the Wolverines to start off the season.
For Demens, Michigan and everyone else, the long wait of the summer months is over.