Coach Brady Hoke has the Michigan Wolverines football program on the upswing—back to where it should be in the eyes of the college football world: relevant.
Four straight losses to in-state rival Michigan State clouds what's really going on in Ann Arbor. Hoke, though, has just one of those losses on his resume. Sure, beating the Spartans and ending a four-year skid will be a test in itself, but there won't be any overlooking Mark Dantonio's team this fall.
However, facing Alabama on Sept. 1 at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington will be Hoke's greatest endeavor and challenge as the Wolverines' head man. Being a big fish in a big pond has always been Michigan's mode of operation. And with setbacks to Michigan State, many questioned whether Michigan was the best team in its own state, let alone one of the country's elite.
With a preseason No. 8 ranking and a BCS bowl win under their belt, the Wolverines enter 2012 as a team considered worthy of capturing a Big Ten title. Another BCS bid is expected. Are the Wolverines national title-worthy? That depends on who you ask, but there's no doubt that the Wolverines are locked, loaded and ready to square off with No. 2 Alabama.
But before the BCS talk can begin, before whispers of a Big Ten title can be uttered and before the slightest thought of a national title crosses their minds, the Wolverines must beat Alabama—or at least compete with the defending champion, Crimson Tide.
Hoke can ill afford a lopsided loss to Nick Saban's group. Whether it's a close loss or a slim win, the Wolverines need to impress on Sept. 1 for their own sake. In order for them to be recognized as a legitimate contender, the Wolverines have to carry forward the momentum they established near the end of the 2011 season.
The importance of Michigan's duel with Alabama echoes among proud alumni. Former Michigan star quarterback Steve Smith knows the Crimson Tide will present a challenge.
"My initial thoughts (about Alabama) were, 'Oh, boy. They're going to have their hands full,'" Smith recently said. "As a Michigan fan, if they can go out and win that game, that will be the statements of all statements. But that will be a tough one."
The Wolverines vs. the Crimson Tide will be one for the ages. Smith understands that. He's confident in the way Hoke prepares and has the utmost faith in the Wolverines' coaching staff.
"To put it mildly would be that I'm extraordinarily happy (with Hoke)," Smith recently said by phone, laughing. "He's brought some really good people with him. What they did in one year with essentially the exact same players (as former coach Rich Rodriguez) was incredible. I'm extraordinarily happy; he's bringing it back to what Michigan's all about."
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