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September 2, 2012

HURT: Different realities for Michigan, Alabama

Sometimes, particularly among those college football teams with a long history of success, it is hard to recognize the difference in "getting better" and "being there." At least until you get a cold slap in the face to remind you.

Michigan got that cold slap on Saturday night - the only thing that was remotely cold in the sizzling Dallas area - as Alabama almost off-handedly doled out a 41-14 beating.

Michigan had higher hopes. The Wolverines won 11 games last year and had an exciting quarterback and a fan base, not so very different from the Alabama fan base, that wants more than anything to proclaim themselves "back" at the elite level of college football. But the Wolverines aren't back, not from a full-roster standpoint, and Alabama, which has been there since 2008, showed them in stark terms what that level really looks like.

Michigan coach Brady Hoke understood when he said that his team was "on the short end of the measuring stick" against Alabama.

The Wolverines, he said, didn't play "Michigan football" but what he meant, or at least what his fans hear, when he says "Michigan football" is something from the past that hasn't been re-established yet. The good news for Michigan is that it can get there. He bad news is that it couldn't put off the Alabama game for four or five years.

The most disconcerting thing was that Alabama isn't incredibly deep at some positions and it isn't incredibly experienced at others. But it wasn't really threatened even with two of its seniors on defense, Jesse Williams and Robert Lester, sitting out all of the second half.

And while not all the old stars from a year ago are forgotten, suddenly there are new stars like T.J. Yeldon in the backfield and Dee Milliner - not entirely new, but now more prominent - to learn. Saban explained it with the "everyone at Alabama recruits" speech that he has used before, although there are other factors as well.

On top of that, all those athletes have a sense of mission, an understanding, born of success, that the things that Saban asks of them will pay off in success in the long run. That was what the Crimson Tide coach was saying in what seemed to be a brief digression in his post-game remarks.

"It's good to look good," Saban said. "It's good to wear the jersey. But it is the person in the jersey who makes the difference. So we have to keep working to a standard."

Alabama isn't alone at the top. LSU has similar physical prowess and perhaps USC and Oregon and maybe one or two others. But it is a different game in that stratosphere and you had better have lots of athletes - more than Michigan - to play there. The frightening thing, the one that will give future opponents cold feet, is the four running backs that all looked better than the best of Michigan's admittedly spotty reserves or the newcomers like Dillon Lee making plays at the end.

It was cold reality for Michigan - but the Wolverines are still playing catch up and if Alabama keeps improving, everyone else may again be in the same boat.

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com

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