Commentary

Michigan seeks a return to glory

Originally Published: January 3, 2012
By Adam Rittenberg | ESPN.com

NEW ORLEANS -- If blue confetti falls from the rafters of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome late Tuesday night, the temptation will be there.

If Michigan hoists the Allstate Sugar Bowl trophy as "The Victors" blares and team dance expert Fitzgerald Toussaint shows off his moves at midfield, the temptation will be there.

Whenever a team emerges from a dark period to win a high-profile game on a high-profile stage, there's an appetite to proclaim that the team is back. When the team is the winningest program in college football history emerging from the darkest stretch in its 132-year past, the appetite becomes insatiable.

[+] EnlargeMichigan Band leader
AP PhotoMichigan fans are happy to have something to celebrate after spending the last several years mired in mediocrity.

It can be a dangerous declaration. Notre Dame has been "back" four or five times during the past decade, only to fade away again. So have Miami and Florida State.

Is Michigan back if it beats Virginia Tech on Tuesday night?

"That's fair to say," Wolverines senior defensive tackle Mike Martin said, "but we still haven't done what we want to do as a program."

Michigan senior center David Molk questions the question itself. So does head coach Brady Hoke.

"Michigan never left," Molk said. "Michigan is Michigan. Michigan doesn't change."

Defensive end Ryan Van Bergen agrees with them. Although Michigan disappeared from the nation's elite the past three seasons and often didn't resemble the program that won or shared 42 Big Ten championships, the program's identity remained for the players inside Schembechler Hall.

But Van Bergen also knows what it will look like to the outside world if Michigan beats Virginia Tech to record only its fifth 11-win season in the modern era and claim its first BCS bowl victory since Tom Brady called signals for the Wolverines.

"The image of Michigan nationally will be much stronger, absolutely," he said. "It'll only help in the future with recruiting and stuff like that. It will get the Big Ten recognized if we can pull off a win in this game."

A Michigan win Tuesday night should be viewed with moderation, a condition few are practicing this week in the Big Easy.

Resist the temptation to say Michigan is back, but acknowledge the steps the program is taking toward that goal. Michigan will have improved its wins total by four from 2010 and defeated nine teams playing in bowls, which would be the most in the nation this season. It will have made significant strides on defense after the worst two-year stretch in program history. It has a head coach and a staff of assistants who seemingly have the arrow pointed up both on the field and on the recruiting trail.

Winning the Sugar Bowl would feel pretty sweet, especially for a senior class that has endured plenty of hardship.

"There's a momentum that any team has when you win that last opportunity you have to play," Hoke said.

While true, it will take more than a win against a Virginia Tech team that most think shouldn't be here for Michigan to be back.

"We won't be back until we win the Big Ten championship," junior safety Jordan Kovacs said. "That's what this program's about. We're proud of what we've done so far. We're proud of our body of work this year, but at the same time, we're about Big Ten championships, and that's what we're shooting for."

Hoke made winning Big Ten championships his top goal from the moment he took the job, saying at his introductory news conference, "If you don't win your conference championships, there's no way in heck you're going to win a national championship." Such a statement might sound limiting to certain fan bases, but Hoke was echoing past Michigan coaches, the ones who have helped the program win eight more Big Ten championships than any of its league brethren.

[+] EnlargeMike Martin
Lon Hordwedel/Icon SMIFor seniors such as Mike Martin, an appearance in the Sugar Bowl is an opportunity to leave a lasting impression from their time at Michigan.

Michigan last won or shared the Big Ten title in 2004. Team 132 accomplished a lot, but it fell short in the conference.

Hoke's emphasis on league championships is one of many ways he connected with Michigan fans, who immediately embraced the former Wolverines assistant after three turbulent years under Rich Rodriguez.

"You really could have said any name and people in Ann Arbor would have rejoiced because, for some reason, that environment wasn't promoting success for the coach that was there at the time," Van Bergen said. "Michigan's got strong traditions, and it wasn't taken too kindly to change. I think going back to a guy who had coached at Michigan, who ran a similar offense to Coach [Lloyd] Carr's, who was defensive-minded -- he had all the right characteristics for people in Ann Arbor and alums to buy into that.

"It promoted a great environment for him to be successful."

Hoke claimed 2011 Big Ten Coach of the Year honors, blended schemes with players he didn't recruit, and, most important, beat Ohio State. But the true gauge for Hoke and his Wolverines likely won't come until next year.

Michigan opens the season in JerryWorld against Alabama, the standard-bearer in college football. The Wolverines also will make trips to Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State, which will be wrapping up its season against its archrival because of a bowl ban.

If Michigan gets through the gauntlet and wins the Big Ten, the b-word would be appropriate.

Until that point, the Wolverines can keep checking items off their to-do list. Sending the seniors out with a BCS bowl win is a big one.

"This is my last game, and after this I'm not going to have any power to affect this program," Martin said. "These younger guys are going to [try] to win the Big Ten championship. We didn't do that this year. We took a step.

"Winning this football game would be taking a huge step."

Adam Rittenberg covers Big Ten football for ESPN.com. He can be reached at espnritt@gmail.com.