Michigan coach Brady Hoke aims at Big Ten title
ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Brady Hoke's leadership. Denard Robinson's talent. An improved defense and the first win in a BCS bowl since 2000.
Michigan has restored some of its lost luster and just three years after losing a school-record nine games, college football's winningest program is nationally relevant again.
When he was hired to replace Rich Rodriguez, Hoke scoffed, "This is Michigan for God's sake," after being asked about the Wolverines slipping. Nineteen months later, he couldn't fathom the idea that more people hold the program in a higher regard now than they did during the Rodriguez era.
"I don't understand why anyone wouldn't respect whenever anyone says, 'This is Michigan,'" Hoke said. "This is Michigan football — it's 11 national championships and 42 Big Ten championships."
Michigan, though, hasn't won a conference championship since 2004 in what has been its longest drought between winning Big Ten titles in 1950 and 1964.
While many praised the Wolverines during the 11-2 season capped by a Sugar Bowl win, the players are still beating themselves up about losing to Michigan State and Iowa to spoil their chances of competing for the league title they covet.
"Last year was a failure for Michigan," offensive tackle Taylor Lewan said. "A lot of people were patting us on the back, but we weren't happy because we wanted to win the Big Ten title and we didn't."
Michigan should have a shot to win the conference championship if it can avoid a five-game losing streak to the Spartans on Oct. 20 at home, beat Nebraska the next week on the road and close the regular season with a second straight victory against Ohio State on the road in what will the NCAA-sanctioned Buckeyes' final game of the year.
The Wolverines will improve their chances in those key games if Robinson can strike a balance with the running game that he's a big part of by making defenses respect his arm and the defensive line exceeds expectations.
Robinson ran for 1,176 yards — 5-plus yards per carry — and 16 touchdowns. But he had 15 interceptions with his 20 throwing TDs and his completion percentage slipped to 55 percent. He stayed healthy, unlike the previous year, because Fitzgerald Toussaint ran for more than 1,000 yards and nine touchdowns.
Toussaint, however, was suspended for the first week of practice because of a DUI charge and Hoke hasn't said if he'll play against defending champion Alabama on Sept. 1 at Cowboys Stadium in suburban Dallas.
Returning reserve running backs Thomas Rawls, Vincent Smith, Justice Hayes, along with freshmen Dennis Norfleet and Drake Johnson, will get a chance to play more than anticipated if Hoke benches Toussaint longer than a game.
Michigan's receiving game, which relied on senior Junior Hemingway last season, took a couple hits in the offseason. Darryl Stonum was dismissed for breaking one too many team rules and Roy Roundtree needed knee surgery this month. The Lewan-led offensive line is hoping some candidates emerge to replace All-American center David Molk and offensive tackle Mark Huyge.
Mike Martin, Ryan Van Bergen and Will Heininger left big voids on the defensive line, leaving the Wolverines are counting on Will Campbell, Craig Roh and Jibreel Black to fill them. Campbell has lost about 20 pounds to get down to 308, trying to live up to the hype he had arriving on campus three years ago.
"I'm trying to live up to those expectations," he said. "This is a huge opportunity for me."
Roh and Black, meanwhile, packed on pounds to push pockets and stop the run.
"The biggest thing is that their weight gains have been pretty good and substantial and they've done it the right way," Hoke said. "Now, can they take the 70 plays of knock-'em-back football?"
Michigan's top players in the back seven are linebacker Kenny Demens, who easily led the team in tackles last year, along with cornerback Blake Countess and safety Jordan Kovacs.
Kicker Brendan Gibbons returns after making 13 of 17 field goals, including one in overtime to beat Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl. Will Hagerup and Matt Wile are competing to be the team's No. 1 punter.
With the Crimson Tide up first, it won't take long for Michigan to find out how good it is this year.
"You come to play football at Michigan to play in those kind of ballgames," Hoke said. "You're expected to play and perform. Playing the defending national champs is always something that is a great challenge and a great opportunity. Going to play the game in a venue like the Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, I think is going to be a lot of fun.
"You don't get a second chance to make a first impression."