ANN ARBOR -- The Michigan football team opens its fall practices Monday, but the countdown has already begun. Players, coaches, and fans have circled Sept. 1 on their calendars, and less than a month remains until the Wolverines face Alabama in the Cowboys Classic in Arlington, Texas -- one of the nation's marquee nonbowl games.
But before the Wolverines can consider boarding a plane for Texas at the end of the month, they have to go through the course of two-a-days this month, and they ultimately have to look at a handful of questions to address and to answer entering the 2012 preseason:
■ Does Michigan believe it can hold its own against Alabama?
When Michigan opens the season against the Crimson Tide, the Wolverines will face not just an SEC opponent but the defending BCS champion.
Alabama running back Eddie Lacy is expected to fill the hole left after Trent Richardson turned pro, while the Wolverines praised Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron for the rapport he has with his receivers.
But the Cowboys Classic could ultimately prove how Michigan not just compares, but how it prepared.
"Not only are we representing ourselves and the university, we're representing the Big Ten," safety Jordan Kovacs said. "They'll be a true measuring stick of what we've done in the offseason."
■ Who will be in the backfield if Fitz Toussaint remains suspended for the opener against Alabama?
Toussaint remains suspended indefinitely after he was arrested July 21 in Ann Arbor on charges of operating a vehicle while intoxicated. Entering preseason practices, Thomas Rawls appears to be the leading candidate to fill in for Toussaint, who was Michigan's second-leading rusher last season with 1,041 yards on 107 carries.
While Rawls, a sophomore, saw minimal time on the field last season, he distinguished himself with a powerful running style and was impressive in April's spring game, scoring a pair of touchdowns and finishing with 42 yards on 10 carries.
Sophomore Justice Hayes and senior Vincent Smith could also be in the fold if there's a long-term vacancy.
■ How will a tinkered offensive line affect quarterback Denard Robinson?
While the focus this season clearly is on Robinson, a likely Heisman Trophy candidate, part of his success hinges on how well a revamped offensive line meshes and performs in front of him.
The offensive line lost 2011 Rimington Trophy winner David Molk to the San Diego Chargers, and Ricky Barnum will move into that important position. He'll most likely have to learn on the fly: Barnum, a redshirt senior, moves from guard and has played in only nine games at Michigan.
■ How will this freshman class fare?
Rivals.com ranked Michigan's incoming freshmen class seventh in the nation, while Scout.com ranked it fourth in the nation.
Almost all of the freshmen have been on campus for the bulk of the summer, as a way not only to adjust to college life, but to adjust to college life as a Division I football player. It means balancing academics with a schedule of meetings, weight training, and conditioning programs. Some adjust to the learning curve, and some freshmen set the curve for the other freshmen.
■ Will the Wolverines compete for the Big Ten title?
Despite last season's Sugar Bowl victory over Virginia Tech, Michigan Coach Brady Hoke called the 2011 season "disappointing" -- because the Wolverines didn't win the Big Ten championship and reach the Rose Bowl.
Earning a ticket to Indianapolis, the site of this year's Big Ten title game, and then to Pasadena, the city that hosts the Rose Bowl, are the goals again this season.
Michigan, ranked No. 8, is one of four Big Ten teams ranked in the USA Today preseason coaches poll released Thursday, which also includes two Legends Division teams: No. 13 Michigan State and No. 16 Nebraska. Hoke, however, dismisses the polls.
"We don't put too much stock in that," Hoke said. "It's like anything in life, it's not where we start but where we finish."
Contact Rachel Lenzi at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6510 or on Twitter @RLenziBlade.