ANN ARBOR -- At this point, Brady Hoke can't say it enough. Neither can his players.
It's the Big Ten title or bust for the Michigan football team.
Fall short of that goal, and the season might as well be considered a failure.
The Wolverines open the season Saturday against Alabama in the Cowboys Classic in Arlington, Texas, one of the highest-profile games of the season. But since spring practices, in every interview, every appearance, and every mention on television or radio, Hoke has hammered home a point: Win the conference championship.
Hoke's players prescribe to the same agenda. Clearly, it's the only goal they're willing to publicly discuss.
"Obviously, we've got our goals that will stay in-house, offensively and defensively," said safety Jordan Kovacs, a Clay graduate and one of Michigan's two captains. "But at the end of the day, you come to Michigan to win Big Ten championships. That's one thing Coach Hoke emphasizes, as well as the rest of the seniors. That's all we've ever cared about, since I've been here.
"Our expectations have always been the same. The team, the team, the team. And the Big Ten championship."
The Wolverines have won 42 Big Ten football championships, but Michigan hasn't won a Big Ten title since 2004. That year, the Wolverines shared the conference title with Iowa but earned a berth in the Rose Bowl by virtue of defeating the Hawkeyes that season.
The Wolverines have made 20 Rose Bowl appearances, but haven't played in the Rose Bowl since the 2006 season -- a 32-18 loss to then-Pac-10 juggernaut Southern California. Even then, the Wolverines earned that Rose Bowl berth by earning an at-large BCS bid after they finished second in the Big Ten.
Even in 2011, a berth in the Sugar Bowl, one of five BCS bowls (including the national championship game), wasn't enough to satisfy the Wolverines.
"You have to win your conference," offensive tackle Taylor Lewan said. "Everyone talks about national championships and stuff. You can't win a national championship if you don't win your conference."
Yet Saturday's opponent, Alabama, didn't win the Southeastern Conference but went on to win the national title in January.
"That's an impressive thing to do," Lewan said. "But when's the last time that happened?"
Saturday's tilt against Alabama is part of a nonconference slate that includes Air Force on Sept. 8, Massachusetts on Sept. 15 and Notre Dame on Sept. 22 in South Bend, Ind. Hoke believes the nonconference schedule will prepare the Wolverines for its Big Ten schedule, which begins Oct. 6 at Purdue.
"The better competition you play, the more it pushes you and it pushes you as a player, the improvement part of it," Hoke said. "I think it's a mindset. We want to get better every week throughout the season. If you go backwards, then you really struggle.
"It helps us in a lot of different areas. From the environment we're going to play in, and being able to be focused and the preparation. The mental part of it. Because, come Saturday, it's all mental. It really becomes all mental. There's physical abilities guys have, but it becomes all mental. It becomes mental, and how do you determine how you're going to play and how you're going to react? I think it helps us."
Yet while preparation factors into being successful, winning the Big Ten championship will not be an easy path for the Wolverines, or for any team.
To earn the Big Ten championship, the Wolverines have to first win the Legends Division.
If Michigan does that, it will face the winner of the Leaders Division for the Big Ten championship Dec. 1 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. The winner of that game -- the Big Ten champion -- will earn the conference's automatic berth to the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1 in Pasadena, Calif.
Hoke and the Wolverines' seniors have already taken the trek out to California this summer, as the seniors worked with youth football camps, took part in leadership workshops, and trained with the Navy SEALS as part of a team-building exercise in preparation for the 2012 season.
All of those experiences collectively served as a metaphor; the Wolverines had to come together in order to strive towards a common goal and work through adversity.
"That helped me in many ways, not just football-wise," senior quarterback and co-captain Denard Robinson said. "When we were out there with the Navy SEALS, we had a team. You had to have everybody be accountable to the team. If one guy was slacking, you could feel his burden. That's something that we have to use to move forward on the football field and move forward in our lives."
But Michigan's contingent didn't leave California without taking a side trip to Pasadena, Calif., the home of the Rose Bowl. Surely, a few of the seniors took mental pictures, for what they hope will be a return trip in January as Big Ten champs.
Because for this year's Wolverines, it's California or bust.
Contact Rachel Lenzi at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6510 or on Twitter @RLenziBlade.