Brady Hoke swears he's happy about his Wolverines opening the season against the defending national champions. Of course, the game with Alabama was scheduled before he was hired as Michigan's head coach, so what else can he say?
"We like it, and I like it personally," Hoke said earlier this week. "When you want to be the best, and you want to be champions, you need to play the best. Play the programs that are on a high level."
Trouble is, that isn't a habit in the Big Ten, and it certainly isn't the norm on opening weekend, when cautious coaches would schedule junior college teams if they were allowed to. But this year is different. This year, a couple of Big Ten title contenders, a couple of teams with serious ambitions about the BCS (and some pleasant daydreams about a national championship game) have decided to gamble with their reputations before they're even sure their uniforms fit.
Michigan State and its ferocious defense faces a serious challenge from the offensive savants of 24th-ranked Boise State on Friday night, followed a day later by the Cowboy Classic in Arlington, pitting Hoke's Wolverines against Alabama. It's the biggest, most dangerous-yet-potentially-rewarding opening weekend in more than a decade for the Big Ten.
Programs on a high level? Indeed. You can't get much higher than the Crimson Tide, which has won two national championships in the past three seasons and is ranked No. 2 entering the 2012 season. And Hoke, coming off an 11-2 debut season in Ann Arbor and a Sugar Bowl victory over Georgia, has the Wolverines ranked eighth already. That sets up the most anticipated regular-season game involving a Big Ten team since No. 1 Ohio State beat No. 2 Texas 24-7 in Austin in 2006.
Those were the days before SEC domination, when the Big Ten -- or at least the juggernauts of the Big Ten -- were perceived as equal to or better than the powerhouses of the South. But those days are gone, thanks to five consecutive national championships won along the Gulf Coast, and the Big Ten's lingering New Year's Day hangover.
That's why this weekend could mean so much from Lincoln to Happy Valley. Scandal at Ohio State and especially Penn State has damaged the league's reputation for integrity, and a string of bowl disappointments -- 4-6 last year, 2-5 the year before, and a 1-8 Rose Bowl record since 2001 -- has hurt its standing as a football power.
The coaches would like to change that.
"We're all in this together, so to speak," Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said. "You like to see the league's teams have success [nationally] because you know you get a chance to beat those teams every year."
Still, Michigan State's Mark Dantonio doesn't feel the weight of 11 other teams on his shoulders as he prepares for the Broncos on Friday. He's got too much else to do to get ready.
"We as a group will stand together at the end of the day," he said. "We're not going out there representing the Big Ten Conference, as much as putting on the green and white and representing Michigan State."