Anticipation keeps growing

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- At SEC media days in Hoover last week, time was taunting the crowd. Forty-six days was all that stood between them and the start of the football season. Spring and summer evaporated and suddenly a handful of weeks was all that separated the offseason from Day 1 of college football.

Already, there was a sense of urgency.

For the University of Alabama, a little more than a month remained until kickoff against Michigan. A little more than a month to figure out Brady Hoke and Denard Robinson. A little more than a month for the Crimson Tide to create their own identity.

The Tide won't get a tune-up game like last season when they thrashed Kent State at home before traveling to State College, Penn., to face the Nittany Lions. This year it's full-steam ahead.

As far as season openers go, Alabama's tilt with Michigan on Sept. 1 is about as big as they come. And it will take place in one of football's largest venues: Cowboys Stadium. The mega-structure in Arlington, Texas, seats 80,000 fans. Throw in a primetime national television audience and the number of eyes on Alabama football swells well into the millions, the target on the program's back becoming that much more visible.

It's why Alabama players are both excited and anxious for the matchup. As defensive end Damion Square explained, "You have to put your best foot forward now. You don't have time to make crazy mistakes."

That means more than just what happens on the field. One bad practice, one lazy workout, one missed class could threaten the outcome. After one particularly lackadaisical practice this spring, UA coach Nick Saban questioned whether his players were ready for the challenge Sept. 1. He threatened to call Ann Arbor and "ask them if they were going to take days off when they get tired."

"It gives you that little bit of extra motivation in the offseason because you know what you're working toward," said center Barrett Jones. The fifth-year senior and defending Outland Trophy winner has spent the spring and summer transitioning from left tackle to center. "When you open up with someone else, you can think you might have a few weeks to work everything in and get it right, but playing a team like Michigan, it gets you through those days in camp when it's 110 degrees outside when you can remind each other about Michigan and the opener and playing in the Jerry Dome."

As fall camp approaches, the race toward kickoff gets faster and faster. It's a familiar feeling for players like Jones and Square. In their five seasons at Alabama, they've been a part of opening day games against Virginia Tech and Clemson. The past two seasons they've faced Penn State in Week 2.

"Playing an opponent like Michigan in the first game out on that big stage, you have to speed it up a little bit," Square said. "You have to run a little bit harder, you have to lift a little bit harder, you have to game-plan a little harder because you don't have time to make mistakes."

Square, who hopes to earn his third championship ring before he hangs up his jersey at Alabama, expressed some anxiousness about this year's game in particular.

"That's going to be a game that's played for 60 minutes," Square said. "Michigan is going to compete for 60 minutes. They're going to expose if you didn't prepare properly for the game.

"We don't want to get exposed."