Tough openers are strategic

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Kevin Norwood has been looking at Cowboys Stadium for a while now. Every time someone calls the starting receiver for the University of Alabama or sends him a text message, he flips open his phone and sees Jerry Jones' modern coliseum in the background, tempting him, teasing him with its expansive dome and brilliantly excessive Jumbotron.

"To tell the truth, I've had that stadium on my phone," Norwood admitted. "I've been looking at that stadium for, like, months now. It's something we've been preparing for."

Damion Square, a native of the Lone Star State, looks at it a different way. The senior defensive end isn't blown away by the magnitude of the game. Finding tickets for all the friends and family who want to go is what troubles him. The battle for seats is even worse than the BCS National Championship game this past January, he said.

"Playing in the stadium, first and foremost," Square said of the game's appeal. "And the fact that I'm playing in the state of Texas, there's a lot that's going into it."

Square said he has resorted to bribing teammates for their tickets, bartering everything from a home game against Mississippi State to Alabama's Nov. 3 rematch at LSU, a game that topped TipIQ's 10 most expensive games in college football this season.

"You have people who want to come and you've got this amount of tickets," Square explained. "So you have to select your top 10, the ones that love you most."

Mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, and every relative in between are coming out of the woodwork for a spot at what has the potential to be Alabama's most hyped season opener in more than a decade.

No. 2 Alabama versus No. 8 Michigan.

Tradition versus tradition.

The winningest program in college football history versus the school with the most national championships.

Said a jovial Nico Johnson, "I'll take 14 national titles." The senior linebacker for the Crimson Tide was in a good mood to start game week. In his fourth year at Alabama, he has been through games like this before.

Alabama played No. 5 Virginia Tech in Atlanta to kick off his freshman season. In the last two years he has faced San Jose State in Week 1 before a home-and-home series with Penn State.

If he had it his way, he'd rather just cut to the chase.

"Oh yeah," Johnson said when asked whether he'd prefer Michigan to the fighting Spartans of San Jose State. "You kind of learn a lot playing against a team like this, a good team early. You learn a lot, instead of waiting on down the line to learn those lessons.

"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."

Alabama coach Nick Saban has become a proponent of high-profile matchups to start the season. He said the Michigan game and openers like it are good for college football.

"The players look forward to that," Saban said. "I think the fans look forward to that. I think it's great for the offseason program, for the development of your team. 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."

But the payoff is two-fold. The quality of the opponent is one thing, the exposure quite another.

When Alabama and Michigan go head to head in Arlington, the ratings will be through the roof, a prime-time game on national television. Last year's game pitting LSU and Oregon in Cowboys Stadium drew 7.8 million viewers. It was sixth among the most-watched television programs that week.

The attention the game brings helps build the brand, showing the world -- and, maybe more importantly, recruits -- that a particular football program is a destination.

"The exposure for our football players and our program is tremendous," Saban said.

It's why Week 1 of the Alabama schedule is already laid out through 2015. UA will take part in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game for the next two seasons in Atlanta, facing Virginia Tech in 2013 and West Virginia in 2014.

The Tide have scheduled games against ranked non-conference teams in each of the last five years. That's not counting bowl games. The attention that has drawn goes beyond calculations. It's just one ingredient in the formula that has produced a top-three recruiting class for Nick Saban in every year since 2008.

"We've had a lot of national exposure that has really enhanced the development of our program, especially in the early years, by playing neutral-site games against very good national competition, whether it was Florida State in Jacksonville our first year, Clemson in Atlanta, or Virginia Tech in Atlanta, Penn State home and home the last couple years," Saban said at SEC Media Days, yet another nationally televised forum. "Now having the opportunity to go play Michigan in Dallas, and we're going to come back to Atlanta and play Virginia Tech and West Virginia in the next two years.

"These are the kind of games we look for."

Win or lose, Alabama and Michigan will be better off. Playing the top competition not only gets a team ready for Week 2, but it can set up a program for years to come.