NEWS

Big 10 Preview: Michigan stars back on the field for ‘unfinished business’

John Supinie

Embargoed for Sunday (Aug. 19) release.

Weighing his options between returning to Michigan for his senior year or jumping to the NFL, Michigan senior running back Mike Hart saw the scale easily tip to one side.

Two other teammates who also pondered a move to the NFL -- quarterback Chad Henne and tackle Jake Long -- were coming back for senior seasons, and the Wolverines would likely be the team to beat in the Big Ten Conference.

"There were a lot of things that went into it,'' Hart said. "Jack came back. Chad came back. I knew we'd have a great team, and there's some unfinished business.

"I want to get greedy, and I just wasn't ready to leave.''

As for that unfinished biz, "I have to beat Ohio State. I have to win a bowl game,'' he said.

Michigan entered the Big Ten season as the league favorite, according to a media vote conducted by the Big Ten office. But there's more that must be done than just winning a conference championship. As freshmen, Hart and Henne helped Michigan win a Big Ten title. Otherwise, Michigan came up empty.

The Wolverines have lost five of their past six games against Ohio State, including the past three meetings. Michigan is also 1-5 in its past six bowl appearances, having lost the past four. Despite an 11-2 record last season and a No. 8 ranking in the final poll, Michigan finished last season unsatisfied. The checklist is also clear for Henne.

Going out the right way means Michigan must "win a bowl game, beat Ohio State and win the Big Ten,'' Henne said. "We haven't won the Big Ten the last two years. We haven't reaped the benefits for all the work in the offseason.

"We want to go out the right way. We're putting pressure on ourselves to lead this team to a championship. That would send us off with a bang.''

If Michigan wins the Big Ten and makes a run at its first national title in 10 years, the Wolverines will do so behind a balanced offense.

"It's the best offense on paper,'' Hart said. "On paper, this offense could score 50 points a game.''

With 3,679 yards rushing, Hart is the nation's leading active rusher. The fifth-place finisher in last season's Heisman Trophy voting, Hart needs 175 carries and 794 yards to break Michigan career marks (924 attempts, 4,472 yards) set by Anthony Thomas.

Henne threw for 2,508 yards and 22 touchdowns with eight interceptions last season. He needs 100 completions and 1,478 yards passing to break Michigan career marks (765, 9,254) set by John Navarre.

Big Ten coaches selected Long as offensive lineman of the year last season. Junior wide receiver Mario Manningham was an all-Big Ten first-team pick after catching 38 passes for 703 yards and nine touchdowns. But second-year defensive coordinator Ron English has work to do with a defense returning four starters from a unit that finished No. 2 overall in the Big Ten.

Michigan plays at Wisconsin and hosts Ohio State in the last two weekends of the regular season.

Entering his 13th season as Michigan coach, Lloyd Carr, 62, also answers questions about rumors of illness that would force him to retire.

"To the best of my knowledge, I'm healthy,'' he said. "I don't think there's anything to that. At some point, we're going to all retire, and there's always an appropriate time to speak to that issue."

In the Sporting News preseason college football magazine, an unidentified Big Ten coach said, "It wouldn't surprise me if this was Lloyd Carr's last year. You hear rumors about his health."

Replied Carr: "I heard that three or four years ago. The older you get, the tougher it gets. Or the tougher you get. One or the other."

For his players, they won't leave satisfied without big wins in November.

John Supinie covers college football for GateHouse News Service. He can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com.