NEW ORLEANS — It’s the same question asked after every one of the Michigan football team’s 10 victories this season.

Michigan vs. Virginia Tech

Matchup: Michigan 10-2; Virginia Tech 11-2

When: Tuesday 8:30 p.m. EST

Where: Mercedes-Benz Superdome

TV/Radio: ESPN/ESPN3


The same question that Michigan coach Brady Hoke wants answered once and for all.

The same question that still hangs over the 13th-ranked Wolverines as they enter the Allstate Sugar Bowl tonight in New Orleans.

Is Michigan back?

Fifth-year senior defensive tackle Ryan Van Bergen arrived in 2007, a time when that question would never have been asked.

After Van Bergen and the Wolverines broke the program’s 33-year bowl streak with a 3-9 record the following season under then-Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez, the question answered itself with a resounding no.

But now he’s asked it, just before the biggest game of his career.

“If I say it’s back, that means Michigan went away, and I don’t want to say that,” Van Bergen said. “Michigan is going to be Michigan — always has been and always will be.

“We will probably add to the legacy that Michigan already has, but I don’t want to say that Michigan will be back.”

Hoke nearly echoed his senior’s words verbatim.

“I don’t think Michigan ever left,” he said. “Michigan was always Michigan. And will be.”

Van Bergen emphasized that the importance of a victory over No. 11 Virginia Tech (7-1 ACC, 11-2 overall) in the Sugar Bowl would boost the image of Michigan nationally.

But this game in the Big Easy will be anything but easy.

Across from Van Bergen and the defensive line is Hokies running back David Wilson, a likely first-round draft choice should he chose to forgo his senior season. Wilson earned ACC Player of the Year honors after rushing for 1,627 yards and nine touchdowns this season.

Wilson is coupled with quarterback Logan Thomas in the backfield. In his first season as a starter, Thomas passed for 2,799 yards, 19 touchdowns and a passer rating of 136.3.

The Hokie tandem faces a resurgent Michigan defense that underwent a schematic overhaul this season under defensive coordinator Greg Mattison. In 2010, the defense allowed 35.2 points per game. In 2011, that number was trimmed to 17.2 points per game.

The defense Mattison inherited worked under a scheme that was so different, so unsuccessful, that Mattison showed the players nothing but Baltimore Ravens film prior to the season.

“We had done pretty much everything incorrectly,” Van Bergen said. “But we came around this year and were able to right the ship.

“We don’t want there to be a negative stigma about our defense, when all is said and done. We want everything to be positive and not have anybody stand on a platform and criticize us.”

The Wolverines (6-2 Big Ten, 10-2) will be without fifth-year senior starting defensive end Will Heininger for the Sugar Bowl. Heininger suffered a foot injury and will be replaced by junior Will Campbell and redshirt freshman Richard Ash.

On the offensive side of the ball, Michigan will rely on the dual-threat backfield of junior quarterback Denard Robinson and redshirt sophomore running back Fitzgerald Toussaint.

Toussaint emerged midseason to capture the starting tailback spot and finished the season with 1,011 yards — joining Robinson in the 1,000 yard club.

Robinson is anything but the traditional Michigan quarterback, but hard-nosed and bullying, Toussaint’s style has him tabbed as the true reemergence to Michigan tailbacks of old.

The entire team has been lauded as a return to the classic Michigan football team. But then the same questions come.

Is Michigan back?

If the Wolverines can capture a BCS bowl crown, the doubters will be quieted and the questions will end. For a senior class that has ridden an unprecedented roller-coaster since 2007, that couldn’t come soon enough.

“We’ve been through the worst of fires,” Van Bergen said. “Pretty much anything a player can go through in a career — coaching changes twice — we went through that. We had a 3-9 season. We broke every record you didn’t want to break.”

“As far as a full-circle career, I think you can say that this is one of the most complete careers you can have as a senior here at Michigan.”

Late tonight in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, the full circle will finally come to an end for the seniors. They think Michigan is back. The question is whether it ever left.

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