ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Even with an entirely new coaching staff for the 2011 season, the Michigan football team has reached familiar territory: perfection through non-conference play.
The Wolverines were undefeated in the previous two seasons heading into Big Ten play, going 4-0 in 2010 and 3-0 in 2009.
But with the conference schedule creeping up, the Wolverines know what that territory has felt like the past two years as well. They went 4-12 in conference play, finishing seventh in the Big Ten in 2010 and 10th in 2009.
"We've been here before as a team," senior defensive tackle Mike Martin said. "We have to make sure we build on this week, and make sure we keep on taking steps forward and improving as a team and not getting caught up in the hype of being 4-0."
Two of the team's four conference wins in the 2009 and 2010 seasons actually came in the Wolverines' Big Ten openers, both against Indiana. Michigan spent a few weeks in the top 25 both years, then went into a downward spiral through the rest of the conference slate.
Minnesota, Michigan's opponent in the Big Ten opener Saturday, already looks to be in a downward spiral of its own, dropping to 1-3 with a loss to North Dakota State this weekend. But the Big Ten is a different animal, and coach Brady Hoke has kept Michigan focused on that from day one.
"Everything is in comparison to the Big Ten," senior defensive end Ryan Van Bergen said. "We have to play better, or we won't compete against the Big Ten. We have to be better up front, or we won't be able to play in the Big Ten. The Big Ten standard is higher than any other expectation. In order for us to be competitive in the Big Ten, the way Coach Hoke wants us to be, we have to step it up."
Martin said the team has a more physical mindset this year, which allows Michigan to step up and be more competitive.
That mindset has helped the Wolverines win the turnover battle for the most part through the early part of this season, with the exception of the San Diego State game.
"Defensively, we caused three turnovers and then we turn it over four times," Hoke said. "You can't win anything -- you can't win your Pop Warner league if you turn the ball over."
As the team prepares to make improvements heading into the Minnesota game, Van Bergen said he believes the intensity will pick up in practice.
But Hoke said he doesn't expect any significant difference.
"I don't know if your mindset and how you go about your job, for those kids, is any different," Hoke said after the win over San Diego State. "We're going to put this game to bed, as coaches and players, and move to Minnesota."
Chantel Jennings covers University of Michigan sports for WolverineNation. She can be reached at email@example.com.