ANN ABBOR, Mich. -- After a decade of cushy openers -- all at home in The Big House -- that included the likes of Central Michigan, Northern Illinois, Connecticut and Vanderbilt, Michigan will step into the ring with defending national champion Alabama to kick off the 2012 season with a bang.
With the season's first game taking on the aura of a big-time bowl game, the Wolverines will travel to Cowboys Stadium and face the Crimson Tide with what is arguably the best Michigan team in many years.
Brady Hoke moves into his second season as head coach at Michigan riding a very positive wave, thanks to the 11-2 mark he posted last year, a record that included a Sugar Bowl win over Virginia Tech.
That 2011 Michigan team averaged 33.3 points per game on offense and allowed just 17.4 points per game on defense -- both second-best in the Big Ten. With a number of the top performers from 2011 back, the Wolverines are ready to step onto the national stage and test their mettle with the likes of 'Bama.
Senior quarterback Denard Robinson is queued up for a season that should put him back in the Heisman Trophy discussion. A lot of Michigan's fortunes ride on Robinson, his freakish athleticism and his boundless charisma. Hoke says Alabama will see a much-improved Robinson.
"I think his maturity and leadership and how he approaches the game from being a quarterback," Hoke said. "What he's done in the offseason -- watching football, watching technique, watching fundamentals -- I think in all that part of it I've seen growth. I've seen him take a more vocal, active role. I think that's important. And from a fundamental standpoint I think he's improved. He's improved in a lot of ways. I'm really proud of him."
Alabama coach Nick Saban has only the past to base preparations on, but said in his Monday conference call that Robinson has all of their attention.
"They have as significant a player as we've seen since we played Cam Newton (in 2010), in terms of what he can do in a game, and how the offense is built around and features him," Saban said.
Running back Fitzgerald Toussaint was listed as a possible starter for the game but the coaching staff gave no guarantee on his status. He was suspended this summer and could still have his playing time reduced. If he plays, he gives Michigan a solid workhorse in the backfield over the long haul. Toussaint rushed for 1,041 yards and nine touchdowns on 187 carries as the Michigan starter. Hoke insisted no decision had been made on whether his top rusher would play against Alabama.
The offensive line has a record of providing Robinson the protection he needs in the passing attack, and the blink-long openings he requires to scoot through the first wave of defenders. WR Roy Roundtree is coming back from minor surgery and might not be as effective against Alabama, but his long-term production should be substantial.
On defense, the quantum leap in improvement the Wolverines took last year should keep them on course, but Alabama will offer the group a most severe test. Senior DT Will Campbell is finally flirting with reaching his sky-high potential, which should lift the entire unit.
Hoke contends that the national-profile opener on the big stage against the defending national champion will be good for his team.
"You come to play football at Michigan to play in those kinds of ball games," Hoke said. "You're expected to play and perform. Playing the defending national champs is always something that is a great challenge and a great opportunity."