MIAMI -- Alabama. Michigan. The Orange Bowl. Tradition will be in abundance on New Year's night at Pro Player Stadium.
The only thing missing will be the fans. The game is not a sellout, and thousands of no-shows are expected when fifth-ranked Alabama (10-2) faces eighth-ranked Michigan (9-2).
Orange Bowl executive director Keith Tribble blames competition from South Florida's professional teams, but the empty seats also might reflect a lack of interest nationwide. The Bowl Championship Series paired No. 1 Florida State against No. 2 Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl, and critics contend the system diminishes the stature of other games.
"It seems like there's one major bowl, and there's all the others," said Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer.
This season, the Orange Bowl is one of the others -- a consolation contest. That's a step down for a game that has produced the national champion nine times since 1981.
The Crimson Tide and Wolverines say they don't mind. Even without a shot at No. 1, there's plenty of motivation to win, Alabama coach Mike DuBose said.
"You turn on the scoreboard to keep score," he said. "We're here with two objectives -- to have a good time, and to win."
Both teams are bidding for a top-five finish, an impressive accomplishment given the setbacks they suffered this season.
Alabama, already reeling from a sexual harassment scandal involving DuBose, lost Sept. 18 to Louisiana Tech and fell out of the top 25. The Crimson Tide regrouped, went 8-1 the rest way and beat Florida twice, including 34-7 in the Southeastern Conference championship game.
"Anyone who has watched Alabama, from the way they started the season, it says a lot about the kind of kids they have," said Michigan coach Lloyd Carr. "In a place like Alabama and Michigan, anytime you lose there's tremendous unrest, with criticism and speculation and all of the things that go into not living up to expectations.
"It takes a special toughness to maintain your course, stay with the things you believe in and continue to support each other. In those same circumstances you see a lot of teams fall apart. That team did not do that."
The same is true of the Wolverines. They lost back-to-back games at midseason to Michigan State and Illinois, then finished with four consecutive wins, including victories over Penn State and Ohio State to close the regular season.
The Wolverines, led by two-year starter Tom Brady at quarterback, probably will have to throw to win. Alabama ranked second in the nation in rushing defense, and allowed only 3.1 yards per carry.
"No one has run the ball against them," Carr said.
For Michigan's defense, the challenge will be to stop the run. Senior running back Shaun Alexander, the SEC player of the year, has scored 50 touchdowns for Alabama and wants to cap his career with one last big game.
The Wolverines won the national championship two years ago, but skeptics say this season's team is fortunate to be playing in a New Year's Day game. Six times Michigan won by a touchdown or less.
"We've got something to prove," said receiver Marcus Knight. "A lot of people don't believe we should be here."
For the Crimson Tide, the motivation is to show that they're on the rise following probation in the mid-1990s. This is the Tide's 50th bowl game, an NCAA record, but their first in a major bowl since they beat Miami in the Sugar to win the 1992 national championship.
Said defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin: "This is another step to getting our program back on top."
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