Countdown to Alabama begins

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- With spring practice over and months separating Michigan from the beginning of fall camp and preparation for the upcoming season, it makes sense if the minds began to realistically wander a bit.

Michigan's first opponent easily could cause that.

For the fourth time in its modern history, the Wolverines will open the season against the defending national champion when they face Alabama on Sept. 1. That excitement can't help but start to set in.

"Definitely," Michigan running back Fitzgerald Toussaint said. "Always. That's a big team, won a national championships, so what's not to be excited about?"

Michigan has many reasons to be excited to open against the defending national champions, a pillar of success in college football and the SEC, in a neutral site game in an NFL stadium.

There is also a chance to flip a somewhat dubious history against defending national champions. The last time Michigan opened against a defending national champion was 2007, when defending FCS champ Appalachian State pulled off one of the biggest upsets in college football history, beating a Michigan team ranked No. 5 in the country, 34-32.

The last time Michigan opened against a defending FBS or Division I-A national champion was in 1989, when the Wolverines lost to Notre Dame, 24-19. Before that, Michigan beat Miami (Fla.), 22-14, in the 1984 season opener.

None of that should matter in August, when coaches can start working with Michigan's players again, or in September when the teams play on the field.

"Right now, we are worried about us," quarterback Denard Robinson said following Michigan's spring game. "We've got to get better right now, taking advantages of these practices that we had to get better. We'll start right now to get ready for Alabama."

Over the summer, much of that preparation will fall to Robinson and Jordan Kovacs, since coaches cannot work out players. Michigan coach Brady Hoke, though, has seen both positives and negatives of where his team is following spring practice.

"We're tougher as a team than a year ago at this time," Hoke said. "The way they come out and play with no pads on, pads on, whatever, that's an improvement.

"The one thing that we feel at the point of attack defensively, especially up the middle, is not near where it has to be before we get to September 1. That's bothersome."

While Michigan has holes it needs to figure out between now and Sept. 1 -- notably at tight end, left guard, on the defensive line and at wide receiver -- the Wolverines will be a fairly experienced team entering next season, returning four starters on the offensive line, its quarterback, running back and its entire back seven on defense.

Alabama, however, has to replace running back Trent Richardson, its top four pass catchers from last season and its top three tacklers.

But Michigan knows there is a long way to go before it faces the Crimson Tide, both in time and in what the Wolverines need to do to win.