Head coach Brady Hoke was just about in for a ticker-tape parade after 2011.
The Ohio native took a Michigan team that had gone 3-9, 5-7, and 7-6 three years previously and went 11-2 his first year, owing mostly to an explosive quarterback in Denard Robinson and a lot of fumbles bouncing their way. The Wolverines regressed slightly in 2012, with Robinson hampered by injuries and the team performance wildly inconsistent: in losses to Alabama, Notre Dame, and Nebraska the Rines scored just 14, 6, and 9 points, before taking South Carolina to the wire in the Outback Bowl. Thirteen games, and about thirteen different Michigan teams.
In 2013 Robinson is gone and the Wolverine faithful are hoping some stellar recruiting pays off.
All eyes are on returning quarterback Devin Gardner, and for good reason: the success of the Wolverine offense pretty much begins and ends with him. Sure, running back Fitzgerald Toussaint returns but after a killer 2011 he didn’t do much in 2012 (Robinson was the team’s leading rusher by far). Gardner will be throwing to wide receiver Jeremy Gallon, a dependable target who was good for 79 catches and 800+ yards last year.
But really, we have to look at Gardner. He doesn’t have the supporting cast that Robinson had in 2011 or 2012. While he lacks Robinson’s uncanny ability to turn a broken play into an 80-yard touchdown run, he’s a more efficient passer (if only a little: Robinson had a 53.3% completion rate for 9 TDs and 9 picks; Gardner, 59.5% for 11 and 5) and will probably be less turnover-prone (hard NOT to be). The Michigan offense will depend on Gardner’s ability to manage the game and take what the defense gives him.
An offensive line, stellar in 2011 and 2012, is likely to regress as graduation takes its toll. A bevy of new (albeit highly touted) recruits is set to take over.
This was a great defense in 2012, and it’s thanks to them an 8-5 year wasn’t a 5-8 year (of course, they wouldn’t have played in a bowl with a 5-win season, so 5-7, but come on, I do this for free). The defense held onto close wins and clamped down when behind, allowing come-from-behind wins against Northwestern and Michigan State.
That said, in 2013 they lose some key contributors that could hurt the unit’s consistency. Linebacker Jake Ryan, who basically considered “beast mode” to be “resting” in 2011 and 2012, is out with a torn ACL for an unknown length of time. With a defense devoid of star power, the Wolverines will need some new recruits to step up and lead.
MICHIGAN SPECIAL TEAMS
Brendan Gibbons was perfect on field goals in 2012, so you can pretty much guarantee the Wolverines three points once on the good side of the 50. Dennis Norfleet was a solid kick return man, though Michigan struggled at punt returns.
SO WHAT NOW?
The early buzz on the Wolverines is that 2013 is going to be a great year. Many press outlets are predicting them to win the Legends Division, although a lot of that buzz seems to be based solely off of solid recruiting rankings. Recruits’ star rankings don’t always correlate to success on the field, especially not right away. Notre Dame waits in week 2, and an early season visit to Connecticut could prove problematic, and in-conference the Wolverines visit Penn State, Michigan State, and Northwestern, not to mention the annual matchup with Ohio State to end the season. This is a team that might be happy to achieve 9-3.
NAMES TO REMEMBER: QB Devin Gardner, RB Fitzgerald Toussaint, LB Jake Ryan (who will most likely be back once Nebraska heads to Ann Arbor)
Nebraska plays Michigan in Ann Arbor on November 9, 2013. Michigan leads the all-time series 4-3-1. They last met in Lincoln on October 27, 2012, and Nebraska won 23-9.