ARLINGTON, Texas -- In January, Elliott Mealer was one of a handful of Michigan football players who met at a teammate's house and watched the BCS championship game
It wasn't just a chance to watch football on a Monday night. It was a chance for the Wolverines to scout their opponent for the 2012 season opener, given that Michigan and Alabama had already agreed in November of 2010 to play in this season's Cowboys Classic.
Nearly eight months later, Michigan will see the Crimson Tide firsthand. Michigan opens the season tonight against Alabama, the defending national champions, in the Cowboys Classic in Arlington, Texas. The Wolverines will experience this meeting without the magnification of plasma flat-screens and without the championship confetti that fell upon Alabama after it won its second national title in three seasons.
For the Wolverines, it's less about relishing a bowl-game atmosphere and more about taking a business-trip mentality.
"We have to go in and expect to win, but there's things we've got to get done," said Mealer, Michigan's starting left guard from Wauseon. "Our focus is going out there, playing our best, and being prepared for Alabama."
Alabama coach Nick Saban, meanwhile, noted Michigan's discipline and its emphasis on details as one of the strongest attributes of the program.
"Their team is fundamentally sound in everything they do," Saban said. "They've got a really good scheme defensively. Offensively, they've got a really good scheme that features the players they have. They do a great job on special teams. They do an outstanding job and that's got to be, to some degree, a reflection of his leadership and the way [Hoke] directs his staff."
But when Michigan faces Alabama for only the fourth time in history, the Wolverines will face a certain pace of game that many call "SEC speed" - the perception that the SEC's rushers are, collectively, faster than any other conference - an athletic and imposing offensive line that opens the right holes for that speed to be effective, and quarterback A.J. McCarron, who threw for 2,634 yards and 16 touchdowns, going 219 of for 328 with five interceptions in 13 games last season.
"He's decisive, I think he does a nice job of going to the right guy and he's got good touch on the ball," Michigan coach Brady Hoke said of McCarron. "He can make all the throws. In the pocket, he feels it. He's elusive with it. He's a heck of a quarterback, and you would expect that from a national champion team."
If the offensive line succeeds for Alabama, then Eddie Lacy will step in. The successor to Trent Richardson, who now plays for the Cleveland Browns, Lacy had 694 yards and seven touchdowns on 95 carries last season, and will play despite suffering ankle and knee sprains during a preseason scrimmage.
"I really hope that our front seven can match theirs," Michigan linebacker Kenny Demens said. "They have great receivers and a great quarterback, but they like the run game. If we can get penetration and push their offensive line, that'll be key for us, to help us win."
But the bottom line -- do the Wolverines believe they're ready to meet Alabama face-to-face?
"We've practiced a bunch," Michigan cornerback J.T. Floyd said. "We're anxious. We've been anxious for Sept. 1 to get here. We've been going at it, for what feels like forever now, dating back to winter conditioning and summer workouts."
"But we're going to be a focused bunch. It's a business trip. We have an objective in mind. That's to go down there and play Michigan football."