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.