ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) — Brady Hoke was about 10 minutes into a preseason news conference when the question was finally asked.
It’s been a while since Michigan last won the Big Ten, and now Ohio State — that biggest of rivals — enters this season as the favorite. Does that leave the Wolverines with a little more to prove?
“Our goal is to win the championship, and we haven’t done it,” Hoke said. “I think you’re always motivated when you talk about Ohio, no matter what’s being said, you’re motivated so that the last Saturday in November you play your best football.”
And yes, Ohio would be Ohio State in Hoke’s parlance.
Michigan may have recovered from its slide under Rich Rodriguez, but now the Buckeyes are upping the ante. They went undefeated last year, when they weren’t eligible for a bowl. Now, Ohio State is expected to win a Big Ten title, something the Wolverines haven’t done since 2004.
Hoke took Michigan to the Sugar Bowl in his first year as the Wolverines’ coach, but the team slipped to an 8-5 mark last season, and there’s still work to be done in Ann Arbor.
“This is Michigan,” quarterback Devin Gardner said. “We win Big Ten championships. We compete for national championships. That’s a big goal for us and we can’t wait to get the opportunity to do that.”
Michigan must now move on without Denard Robinson, who was such a big part of the offense. Last year, Robinson was limited by elbow trouble, which allowed Gardner to get a jump on quarterbacking the Wolverines. Gardner started the final five games at quarterback last season, and he’ll take over full time in 2013.
Michigan got some good news in January when offensive lineman Taylor Lewan, an All-American, decided to pass on the NFL and return for his senior season.
The Wolverines will have to travel to play in-state rival Michigan State, but the games against Notre Dame (Sept. 7), Nebraska (Nov. 9) and Ohio State (Nov. 30) are all at home. If Michigan wins the Legends Division, a spot in the Big Ten title game will await — with the Buckeyes, of course, expected to be the opponent.
Five things to look for when Michigan takes the field this season:
1. REPLACING ROBINSON: Michigan’s one-of-a-kind quarterback threw for 49 touchdowns and ran for 42 in his career with the Wolverines. Now Michigan turns the reins over to Gardner. The Wolverines will probably look more conventional on offense with Gardner taking snaps, and it’s worth noting that Gardner’s passing numbers were better than Robinson’s last year.
Gardner was 75 of 126 last season, for a completion percentage of nearly 60 percent. He averaged 9.7 yards per attempt, finishing with 11 touchdowns and five interceptions. Of course, Gardner only ran for 101 yards, and it’s that aspect of Robinson’s game that will be hard to replace.
2. CAN TOUSSAINT STAY HEALTHY?: Fitzgerald Toussaint ran for more than 1,000 yards two seasons ago, but he broke his left leg in November. He’s back now, and another big season from the 5-foot-10 running back would go a long way toward boosting the Michigan running game. Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith, a pair of true freshmen, could also contribute out of the backfield. Green was among the nation’s top running back recruits.
Thomas Rawls averaged 4.2 yards per carry last season and was Michigan’s top rusher besides Robinson and Toussaint.
3. WHEN CAN RYAN RETURN?: Another health-related item. Standout linebacker Jake Ryan went down in March with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. He’s hoping to be back in October, and the Wolverines would certainly welcome that. If Ryan can return on schedule, Michigan should still have plenty to play for with him in the lineup. The Wolverines play at Michigan State on Nov. 2.
4. LEWAN’S LINEMATES: Michigan gave up a conference-low 15 sacks last season, but the Wolverines have only two returning starters on the offensive line — Lewan and Michael Schofield. Can the men up front protect Gardner and give the Michigan backs room to run? “Obviously everyone’s going to question when a senior leaves, that stuff is going to happen but these guys are working so hard and they’ve done some really good things,” Lewan said. “The biggest thing we have now is we have depth. We have five, six guys that are really vying for that spot and all of them are capable of playing Big Ten football — it’s just who is going to step up and pull themselves apart from the rest of the team.”
5. HOKE AT HOME: In two seasons as Michigan’s coach, Hoke still hasn’t lost a home game. With so many of this year’s biggest games being played in Ann Arbor, simply keeping that streak alive may be enough for the Wolverines to ensure themselves a special season.
Predicted finish in the Big Ten Legends Division: First.