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CHICAGO -- Brady Hoke sees a benefit of having a marquee program like Alabama as the opening game on this year's schedule. The second-year Michigan football coach believes it fulfills an expectation that he has for not just this year's team, but for his program as a whole.
"You go to Michigan and you coach at Michigan to play against the best," said Hoke, whose team opens the season Sept. 1 against the defending BCS champion in Arlington, Texas. "If you want to be the best, I think you have to do that. For us, It's a great opportunity. It's going to be a fun game. We'll learn a lot about us, win or lose, and I think that's a big benefit."
Thursday at the Big Ten media days, Hoke and three of Michigan's players discussed their approach to the first game of the season, as well as the expectations they have for 2012 -- including winning the Big Ten championship. Again, that's the goal for this season. Because despite winning the Sugar Bowl in January, Michigan's three representatives in Chicago, -- quarterback Denard Robinson, offensive tackle Taylor Lewan and safety Jordan Kovacs -- believe they failed in 2011 by not winning the conference title.
"We didn't do what we set out to do last year," said Kovacs, a Clay graduate. "We hope to do it this year."
Are the expectations for this year's team higher than they were in 2011?
"They should be," Hoke insisted.
But with an NCAA-mandated hands-off period during the summer, Hoke has only been able to actively monitor so much, as far as his team's progress goes in preparation for the 2012 season.
"I think you can see the three guys we brought are just a part of that with Denard and his development, and I think Jordan Kovacs is an amazing story, number one, but how his leadership has grown," Hoke said. "And then Taylor Lewan, who is going to be a junior for us. But I think he's really taken a lot of responsibility."
Still, Hoke praised his leadership, saying that the class of 2012 set a foundation for this year's seniors.
"Those guys who were juniors understand now the expectations are in their hands," Hoke said.
But Robinson has been the focal point of this year's team. Robinson ran for 1,176 yards and 16 touchdowns on 221 carries and completed 142 of 258 passes for 2,173 yards and 20 touchdowns in 13 games last season, and is a likely Heisman Trophy candidate this season.
Robinson said Thursday he's made improvements in his timing in working with Michigan's receivers, as well as his footwork and speed.
Hoke has also seen improvement in Robinson's grasp of the Wolverines' offense, including its terminology, as well as Robinson's conditioning level.
"And I think from that point of it, and probably more specifically is how he has really become a guy you can count on when it comes to leadership and how his work ethic is and those things that he's done," Hoke said.
That will all be put to the test on Sept. 1, when the Wolverines, wearing uniforms specifically designed for the Cowboys Classic, face the Crimson Tide.
But first-day presentation, Robinson said, only goes for so much. Because if his team loses, then it won't mean much.
"It's not what you wear," Robinson said, "but how you play."
STILL IN LIMBO: Hoke said the statuses of tailback Fitz Toussaint and defensive end Frank Clark have not changed, either for the start of fall practices Aug. 6 and/or the season opener against Alabama. Both remain suspended indefinitely after Toussaint was arrested and charged last weekend with operating while intoxicated and Clark was arrested in June for theft and charged with second-degree home invasion.
"They're going to pay the price for poor judgments, which a lot of 18 to 23-year-old kids make, and then we'll make a decision down the road," Hoke said.
Also, cornerback Terrence Talbott has left the Wolverines.
Contact Rachel Lenzi at: email@example.com, 419-724-6510 or on Twitter @RLenziBlade