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SAN ANTONIO - This bowl season is different for Michigan. San Antonio is an unlikely destination for the No. 20 Wolverines, especially when you consider UM had appeared in nine previous New Year's Day bowl games.
Tonight's Alamo Bowl against unranked Nebraska probably wasn't what UM coach Lloyd Carr and his players had in mind.
But it is what it is. The Wolverines have made their peace with their 7-4 record and are taking on a new challenge - albeit an unfamiliar one.
"I was told that this will be the third-most-watched bowl game by far [behind the Rose Bowl and Fiesta Bowl],'' Carr said yesterday. "And so, by an exposure standpoint for the program, and certainly in terms of recruiting, both teams understand this game will be watched by every college football fan who can possibly see it. So, I think from that standpoint it's important.
"The most important standpoint from my perspective is the fact we have 21 seniors who will be playing their last game for Michigan," Carr said, "and to send them out as winners and as Alamo Bowl championswould be a tremendous thing for them and for our football team."
For the first time in nearly a decade, the Wolverines, who also played in the 1995 Alamo Bowl, are discovering how the other half of college football lives.
For those players who are returning next season, the Alamo Bowl is a fresh start and a head-start for 2006.
For those playing their final college game, it's a chance for redemption and an opportunity to leave as winners.
"The way I look at it is every team in the country besides Texas and USC is a little disappointed and wants to be playing somewhere else," UM senior defensive tackle Pat Massey said. "We had high goals and would love to be playing in the Rose Bowl or a BCS bowl. But we look at this as a tremendous opportunity."
Carr said he wants to reward his team's seniors with one final victory. As one of those seniors, Massey chose a different tact, focusing on the need for the veteran Wolverines to take extra steps to make certain the program is left in capable hands.
"You want to leave a winning legacy for these younger guys. You want to keep that tradition going," Massey said. "I've been a part of teams where we lost a bowl game, and where we won a bowl game. Looking back, it definitely helps when you win your bowl game for the next year."
In other words, UM finishing with an 8-4 record looks a lot better than 7-5.
Carr has never lost five games at UM. The last UM squad to lose more than four games was in 1984 (6-6) under Bo Schembechler.
Carr said UM has tremendous respect for 7-4 Nebraska, which is making its first bowl appearance under second-year coach Bill Callahan.
Attending yesterday's press conference with Callahan, Carr had only good things to say about the Cornhuskers, who lead the nation with 46 quarterback sacks.
"We've played some outstanding defensive football teams and some very fine defensive fronts and I think this is the best that we've played," Carr said.
UM's up-and-down season had its benefits in the weeks leading up the Alamo Bowl.
Carr believes that the Wolverines' struggles this season, coupled with the fear of being embarrassed by the Cornhuskers, made it easier for the coaching staff to get the players' attention and maintain their focus during bowl preparations.
"Nebraska has been one of those teams we've always looked at, and so I think those factors have been a real asset to our team in terms of the way they've approached this game," Carr said.
Said senior wideout Carl Tabb: "If you take bowl preparation seriously, it's nothing more than an extended season and allows for actual development of a lot of things that you wouldn't be able to develop if you didn't have that time."
And so it comes down to this for Michigan, which isn't accustomed to playing bowl games in December. A season of unfulfilled promise doesn't have to end that way. The Alamo Bowl is a second chance for the Wolverines.
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