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August 31, 2012Hail! to the victors valiant
Hail! to the conqu'ring heroes
Hail! Hail! to Michigan
the leaders and best
Hail! to the victors valiant
Hail! to the conqu'ring heroes
Hail! Hail! to Michigan,
the champions of the West!
- chorus of "The Victors," written by University of Michigan music student Louis Elbel in 1898 following a last-minute 12-11 Wolverines victory against rival Chicago, securing UM's first Western Conference football championship.
It is perhaps the best fight song in all of college sports. Legions of Notre Dame fans may protest in favor of "The Notre Dame Victory March" and Alabama supporters will surely lobby for "Yea Alabama," but "The Victors" is immediately recognizable to any knowledgeable college football fan. It's quite catchy, too.
Musical tastes aside, there is, however, no debating the University of Michigan's place in the record books.
No. 1 in all-time college football wins. Eleven national championships. Forty-two Big Ten titles. One hundred and twenty-six first-team All-Americans. Three Heisman Trophy winners.
But for all of that historical achievement and significance, it's been a while since the Wolverines were in the legitimate national championship discussion. UM, ranked No. 8 in the preseason Associated Press Top 25, was last slated a preseason top 10 team in 2007, Lloyd Carr's final season in Ann Arbor and Nick Saban's first in Tuscaloosa. National title aspirations quickly fizzled out that season when FCS member Appalachian State toppled No. 5 Michigan, 34-32, in the Big House.
It's no surprise then that Michigan faithful eagerly await tonight's matchup against the No. 2 Crimson Tide. It provides everything a fan desires: A chance to prove you belong in the national title discussion. A chance to prove Michigan is back. Two of the most storied programs in the history of the sport on primetime television.
"It's very exciting. I think everyone is looking forward to this game," said Michigan great Desmond Howard, who won the Heisman Trophy in 1991. "Obviously, coming off of an 11-2 season, people are excited to see just what the Wolverines will look like in 2012. To go up against the defending national champs kind of sets the tone and lets you know where you stand early in the season. I think people are very, very excited about this matchup."
They have combined for a quarter-century's worth of national titles, and the names associated with the programs are synonymous with the game: Paul W. "Bear" Bryant, Joe Namath, Derrick Thomas, Shaun Alexander, Mark Ingram. Bo Schembechler, Dan Dierdorf, Anthony Carter, Charles Woodson, Tom Brady.
The allure of the programs' respective historical success combined with expectations for 2012 culminate in a delicious way for both fan bases to kick off the season.
"It's a combination of both," Howard said. "You can't think of either program without thinking of its history. Both programs are so rich in history. Both programs have contributed so much to college football and the greatness of college football. You can't think of Michigan without thinking of Bo Schembechler and the great players like Anthony Carter, Charles Woodson, and all the great players and great teams that have come through there. The same thing with Alabama. You can't think of Alabama without thinking of Bear Bryant.
"And then you think about where they're at now, too. You think of Brady Hoke, it seems like he's straightening the ship now. He has Michigan going in the right direction coming off of an 11-2 season. Not just that but the brand of football they're playing. You look at Alabama, Nick Saban coming off of his second national championship with the Tide. It's why this game is highly anticipated and showcases what's great about college football."
Hoke roused Michigan in his first season, taking a program that combined to go 15-22 in the three previous seasons under Rich Rodriguez, to an 11-2 mark and its first BCS bowl game since 2006, including wins against rivals Notre Dame and Ohio State. It was the first win over the Buckeyes since 2003.
Hoke did it by shoring up a defense that had gotten embarrassingly bad by UM standards. In 2010 the Wolverines ranked 110th out of 120 in total defense, allowing 450.8 yards and 35.2 points a game, including 65 points to Illinois and 52 to Mississippi State. Under Hoke the Wolverines rose to 17th nationally, reducing those numbers to 322.2 yards and 17.4 points per game.
The change has energized the fan base, leading some to postulate championships are likely to follow.
"I think the time frame is not too far away," Howard said. "Even when I watched Coach Brady Hoke when he was first hired and he did his first press conference, we knew that Michigan has brought in the right guy. Just the way he spoke, the things he said, how he said them, you knew, 'OK, this is the guy who will turn us around.' You look at Michigan's athletic director, Dave Brandon, and you applaud him for going out and bringing in the right guy to straighten out the ship."
Michigan hasn't played in such a highly ranked contest to begin a season since Sept. 12, 1992, when, ranked No. 6, it played Notre Dame to 17-all tie. Alabama began that season ranked ninth and eventually won the national championship. Crimson Tide fans are accustomed to beginning the season with marquee matchups under Saban. UA started the 2009 season ranked No. 5 and knocked off No. 7 Virginia Tech, 34-24, on its way to a 14-0 national championship season.
The teams have previously met three times - all bowl games in the state of Florida, all thrillers - with the Wolverines holding a 2-1 series advantage. Michigan beat Bill Curry's 1987 squad 28-24 in the Hall of Fame Bowl in Tampa. Gene Stallings' 1996 team returned the favor in his swan song game, upending UM 17-14 on New Year's Day in the Outback Bowl. Three seasons later they squared off again in the Orange Bowl when a Tom Brady-led UM team fended off Alabama's first BCS bowl team 35-34 in overtime.
The teams' first meeting was a classic. Michigan senior running back Jamie Morris staked the Wolverines to a 21-3 lead in the third quarter before Alabama got 21 unanswered points on a touchdown by Howard Cross and two from Bobby Humphrey to put the Tide ahead 24-21 with less than four minutes remaining. But UM rallied back with a six-play, 62-yard drive, highlighted by Demetrius Brown connecting with John Kolesar on fourth down for a 20-yard touchdown with 48 seconds on the clock for the win. Morris carried the day with 234 yards and three touchdowns on 23 rushes.
"They jumped out on us pretty good," All-American safety Kermick Kendrick said. "But we came together as a team, like an Alabama team does, and took the lead. They made a play on fourth down. Give them credit.
"I remember feeling disappointed I didn't get to meet Coach Bo Schembechler, who missed the game with health problems."
The second meeting was slow going for a half with Michigan holding a 6-3 intermission advantage. The Wolverines looked poised to take a two-score lead deep in Alabama territory in the fourth quarter when quarterback Brian Griese's pass was picked off by Dwayne Rudd, who returned it 88 yards for a score and a 10-6 UA lead. Shaun Alexander added a 46-yard touchdown and the Tide won 17-14 as Stallings was carried to midfield by his players in his final game.
"That was my last game in college, Coach Stallings' last game," said John Causey, a three-year starter at center. "We felt pressure to get Coach his 70th win. He didn't want to be carried because it was never about him, always about the players. Well, for 15 seconds we were going to make it about him. We almost dropped him.
"It was a defining moment, the kind of moment you talk about all the time. It's one of my favorite moments."
The last meeting was just as remarkable as the previous two and featured two future National Football League MVPs (Alexander and Brady). Brady threw for 369 yards and four touchdowns and David Terrell caught 10 passes for 150 yards and three scores as Michigan outlasted Alabama 35-34 in overtime. Alexander rushed for 161 yards and three touchdowns, Freddie Millons added a 62-yard punt return for a score and A.C. Carter hauled in a 21-yard touchdown pass from Andrew Zow.
Tonight Alabama has an opportunity to draw the series even. Michigan has a chance to make a statement that it belongs in the conversation of the nation's best teams in the weekend's premier game. Hoke isn't letting one game determine the season, but he does recognize the significance of such a high-profile opportunity.
"I do think it's a great marker for where we're at as a program and what we can be."
Reach Aaron Suttles at email@example.com or at 205-722-0229.