JOHN ZENOR,AP Sports Writer
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) — Colossal college football programs Alabama and Michigan have combined for 1,709 wins and 25 national titles but seldom tangle on the field.
When they do, it’s usually at some big bowl game not starting the season on Sept. 1.
The second-ranked Crimson Tide and No. 8 Wolverines are gearing up for their opener Saturday night at Cowboys Stadium with an address that fits the iconic history of these programs: One Legends Way.
Alabama receiver Kevin Norwood knows it well. He has a picture of the stadium on his phone.
“I’ve been looking at that stadium for like months now,” Norwood said Monday.
That both these teams open the season in the Top 10 is, in some ways, just a nice bonus in this rare meeting of storied programs.
For all their outsized history, Michigan and Alabama have only met three times, all in January bowl games and two won by the Wolverines. The total margin: Michigan 77, Alabama 75 with the last meeting being the Wolverines’ 35-34 overtime win in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 1, 2000.
Tradition aside, the Tide is trying to show it’s a legitimate contender for a second straight national title and third in four years.
Michigan is aiming to build on an 11-win season and BCS bowl victory over Virginia Tech but not — coach Brady Hoke wants to make this clear — to reestablish that powerhouse reputation for a program three years removed from losing a school-record nine games. That never went away, Hoke says.
“I don’t buy into that and never have,” he said. “But I do think it’s a great marker for where we’re at as a program and what we can be. I think every first game every year though you learn a lot about yourselves, because every team is different.
“I went back and thought about last year at this time. 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.”
That’s what openers are for, right? A learning experience. Some are built these days for TV ratings, too.
There’s no grace period for Alabama or Michigan to ease into the season or for new starters and key backups to get acclimated to new roles. The Tide has gotten used to it, with early nonconference games against Penn State the past two years and previous openers against Virginia Tech and Clemson. They’re 4-0 in those games.
Alabama coach Nick Saban said opening with these types of games provide a boost in offseason work.
“It really gives the players something to look forward to in the first game and it gives the fans a lot to look forward to in the first game,” said Saban, who coached Michigan rival Michigan State from 1995-99. “I think it’s good for college football when we have these kinds of games. We enjoy playing in them. It’s going to be very challenging for us and we’ll certainly see where we are as a team.”
Alabama linebacker Nico Johnson likes it this way.
“You kind of learn a lot playing against a team like this, a good team early,” Johnson said. “You learn a lot, instead of waiting on down the line to learn those lessons you need to learn. By playing Michigan, we’re going to learn a lot. Who knows what it’s going to be, but I know we’re going to learn something.”
Here’s something the Tide players might not have known about Michigan. The Wolverines are college football’s winningest team, with 895 victories, 42 conference titles and some piece of 11 national titles.
Alabama has won 814 games — after 29 were stripped by the NCAA — and 22 Southeastern Conference championships and counts 14 national titles.
A reporter asked Johnson which he’d prefer, to be the winningest program or the one with 14 national championships.
“I’ll take 14 national titles,” he responded. “Yeah, it really doesn’t matter. As long as we win, hey, we’re good. All the hard work we put in, it pays off at the end of the day.”
Alabama guard Chance Warmack is a Detroit native, though he moved to Atlanta at 7. He’s heard about Michigan’s tradition from his father and other family members.
He calls Michigan Heisman Trophy winner Desmond Howard “an all-time favorite.”
“I watched football, but I didn’t have a particular favorite (team),” Warmack said. “But Michigan was always in the back of my mind, because I’m from there. My cousins and my father’s family are from there. They let me know, ‘Don’t mess with Michigan.'”
AP Sports Writer Noah Trister in Ann Arbor, Mich., contributed to this story.
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