LARRY LAGE, AP Sports Writer
ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) — Michigan’s last Big Ten football championship is in a glass-covered display.
If the trophy was not enclosed, it would probably have a lot of dust: The Wolverines have not won a conference title since 2004, their longest drought since the stretch between 1950 and 1964 championships.
“I don’t see it as pressure,” quarterback Devin Gardner said. “I see it as an opportunity to be the team that wins a Big Ten championship for the first time in 10 years.”
Entering his fourth season in charge of the storied program, coach Brady Hoke reiterates that finishing first in the Big Ten is the team’s ultimate goal again this year. Michigan was fifth in its six-team division in 2013 and closed the season with five losses in six games, flopping to a 7-6 record.
The Wolverines will likely need to have success on the road — where Hoke is 6-8 over three seasons — at Michigan State and Ohio State to reach the Big Ten championship game for the first time.
Here are five things to watch when Michigan kicks off the season Aug. 30 at home against Appalachian State:
SAME QB, NEW OC: Gardner is entering his second opener as the No. 1 quarterback, and his first game with Doug Nussmeier calling plays. Hoke hired Nussmeier away from Alabama in the offseason. The Wolverines have kept their plans for the new-look offense under wraps, but Gardner would acknowledge he has more autonomy when making pre-snap reads.
“There is a lot more control for the quarterback to change protections or put us in the right plays,” he said.
PIVOT POINT: It is difficult to envision Michigan having a successful season if the offensive line does not improve, and the unit has to replace senior tackles, including first-round pick Taylor Lewan. The Wolverines struggled so much to open holes for running backs and to protect QBs last year that it was stopped for losses on nearly nine plays per game, ranking No. 121 out of 123 major-college programs.
“You can’t hide what happened last year, but at the beginning of summer, we pretty much said we’re not going to talk about last year, it’s behind us and we’re focused on this year,” guard Kyle Kalis said. “That’s when we started to come together as a team, more like a brotherhood opposed to last year when there were a bunch of individuals.”
All of the players on the offensive line, and Gardner, shaved their heads as a sign of solidarity before preseason practices began.
RUNNING GAME: Derrick Green has gone from weighing as much as 248 pounds last year to 220 thanks to cutting out juices and sweet treats.
“A year ago, he looked more like me,” said Hoke, who has not declared Green his top option early in camp.
Hoke said De’Veon Smith and Drake Johnson were the early leaders in the closely contested competition that also includes Justice Hayes. While Michigan may use a running back-by-committee approach, Nussmeier is hoping someone takes the No. 1 job.
PICKING PEPPERS: Highly touted freshman Jabrill Peppers is expected to play a lot right away, getting a chance to play defensive back and perhaps return kickoffs and punts. “Jabrill has got a lot of athleticism,” Hoke said. “He loves to play and compete. There’s an element you love about that.”
THE SCHEDULE: Michigan will play its last scheduled game against Notre Dame on the road Sept. 6 in a primetime game. The Fighting Irish opted out of three previously scheduled games to give them more scheduling flexibility going into the ACC. The Wolverines have a lackluster home slate of games other than a night game Oct. 11 against Penn State. Michigan State will host Michigan for a second straight year because Big Ten expansion led to many scheduling challenges, improving the Spartans’ chances of winning six of seven games in the series. The Wolverines will try to snap a six-game skid at Ohio State on Nov. 29.
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