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July 29, 2012

HURT: Michigan could steal the spotlight with a win

In an event that was destined to be dominated by the Penn State story, the Big Ten showed some media savvy by wrenching the spotlight away from Happy Valley, as well as it could, on Friday afternoon.

The beleaguered league had its own Media Days this week in Chicago - I have never attended but suspect it lacks the carnival atmosphere of SEC Media Days in Hoover - and chose, as its keynote speaker, a player who will get a huge amount of media coverage in the next five weeks, almost all of it sure to be positive.

The man of the hour - and the man who will be at the center of Alabama's August preparations - is Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson.

Throughout his eight-minute speech, Robinson touched on all the right notes. He talked about his own struggles - a virtuoso on the field, he comes from a modest background and had to overcome a fear of public speaking as his popularity grew.

He said little about the Wolverines' chances against Alabama, addressing larger themes. He countered Charles Barkley at one point, saying that athletes are indeed role models. It was the positive side of college football on display in a venue that desperately needed a positive force.

There can be no overestimation of how many times Robinson will be in front of the media over the next five weeks, and no way to overstate how important the game against Alabama will be for Robinson personally, for Michigan as a team and for the Big Ten as a league.

The reason, of course, is that Alabama, once again, is the symbol of big-time college football, a byword for all the positives and negatives of the sport.

It is why Nick Saban's face is on every magazine and most episodes off College Football Today, and also the reason his name comes up in a negative light from an attention-seeking, ax-grinding agent.

The Alabama defense that takes the field in Dallas, though, won't be the one people remember from New Orleans last January.

An electrifying scrambler like Robinson might be able to exploit that inexperience. If he can lead Michigan to what would be a substantial upset, he would instantly become the Heisman front-runner.

Far more important, though, would be the boost to Big Ten self-esteem.

It has been a tough offseason for all of college football, which heads into the season like a pedestrian who has been hit by a bus crawls to the sidewalk. The Big Ten is like that same pedestrian, except it was also hit by an 18-wheeler along the way.

Two marquee programs, Ohio State and Penn State, have been zapped by the NCAA. Michigan is the highest-profile program, with all due respect to Wisconsin and Nebraska, still standing.

After the long Midwestern drought - the BCS, not the rain - a Michigan win would be monumental, and Michigan's hopes rest with Robinson.

So it was a smart move by the conference to place "Shoelaces" - he even has the catchy nickname - at center stage. Whether he can keep that spotlight is uncertain, but it is up to Alabama to push him out.

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or 205-722-0225.



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