A thrilling 23-20 victory over Virginia Tech in the 2012 Allstate Sugar Bowl this week has led to a ton of optimism and momentum for the Maize and Blue heading into next season.
Wolverines coach Brady Hoke is expected to haul in a top-ten recruiting class and also anticipates the return of 13 combined starters, including quarterback Denard Robinson, running back Fitzgerald Toussaint and safety Jordan Kovacs.
The 2012 schedule is now out, and it is time to analyze Michigan, who will have some high expectations next season. The Wolverines will be looking to get back to Pasadenal for the 21st time overall, and the first since 2007.
The expectations will certainly be high for the Wolverines, and I already have them right around eighth or ninth in my own rankings (LSU, USC, Oregon, OU, UGA, Bama, Clemson likely ahead).
However, Denard Robinson will be electric next season with the majority of his receivers and backs returning. The Big Ten should be a joy to follow once again, and the hope in the Midwest is that they can battle with the boys from the SEC.
Be wary of Iowa, Nebraska and Michigan State to give the Wolverines their best shots, even though Brady Hoke's squad should be the odds-on-favorite to represent the Big Ten in Pasadena.
The opposite division will almost feel like the lower-tier division because Indiana and Minnesota are just trying to win some ball games, and the Buckeyes are not eligible for the Big Ten Championship (or bowl game). Penn State needs a whole new coaching staff, so Wisconsin should be the favorites to face off against Michigan, even though they will likely lose most (if not nearly all) of their superstars.
The Wolverines will be tested right out of the gates when they travel to Jerry's Place at Dallas Cowboys Stadium on September 1st to face Alabama. They will certainly be an underdog against the Crimson Tide, a likely top-ten.
The nation, and especially SEC country, will not give the Wolverines very much respect, but the game could go a long way in the Brad Hoke era.
A close loss would not be completely demoralizing, since some "experts" will be expecting a Crimson Tide comfortable victory.
Defensively, Michigan coordinator Greg Mattison is as good as it gets, and he will have his squad ready for the powerful rushing attack that will likely be led by Alabama backs Eddie Lacy and Dee Hart.
This may be the game where we find out if Denard Robinson is among the elite of college football (if he has a future in the NFL too), and whether he can pull off a slight upset over Alabama (or at least have it come down to the wire), which could help his Wolverines to start smelling roses.
Air Force and Massachusetts (a new FBS team, 124 schools in 2012) visit Ann Arbor the following weeks, which allow the Wolverines to regain their swagger.
The final game of September (9/22) against Notre Dame could be an ESPN College Gameday opportunity, since the Fighting Irish should be undefeated and ranked inside the top 20 (though it's not likely we'll see College Gameday highlighting an NBC-broadcasted game. Instead, they are more likely to go to Dallas for the season opener).
Overall, I do not foresee the Wolverines losing two ball games in the first month with a stingy defense and an offense that is far too explosive.
Way Too Early September Projection: 3-1 (Alabama)
Michigan should have a much smoother month ahead of them in October next season mainly because they should be favored in all of their games. However, there are perhaps two nailbiters ahead with Sparty coming to town (10/20) and then traveling to Lincoln (10/27) to play the Cornhuskers.
Purdue on the road is the first game of October, which should be an impressive victory since Michigan is coming off a bye. Then, Illinois comes to Ann Arbor, which will certainly gear up the boys for Michigan State and Nebraska to close out the month.
Sparty has Boise State at home in the opener and will be without QB Kirk Cousins, receivers B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin and TE Brian Linthicum.
The depth is still solid for MSU, but I like the Wolverines chances on seeking revenge.
The Huskers, however, can be a tricky team next season with quarterback Taylor Martinez and running back Rex Burkhead both returning.
Sure, Greg Mattison's defense can tee off on the Huskers again, but it will be a different atmosphere at the sea of red.
Way Too Early October Projection: 3-1 (Nebraska)
This will be the most important stretch of the season, as it will be for all FBS programs that vie for a spot in the conference championship.
Michigan travels to Minnesota before they host Northwestern and Iowa at home. The obvious choice for a trap game will be at home against the Hawkeyes, since the trip to Columbus is the following week.
Still, the Wolverines coaching staff is among the top five in the country for reason. They are always on their game in the clutch, and I look for the Denard Robinson Heisman campaign to take off during the final month.
Robert Griffin III put Baylor on the map, but he also went bonkers in his national spotlight games. Robinson will get his shot against the Hawkeyes, Buckeyes and either the Badgers or Nittany Lions (most likely) in the Big Ten Championship.
This team may lose a head scratcher during next season, but at the end of the day Denard Robinson has proven he can find ways to get the job done despite the struggles.
Way Too Early November/December Projection: 5-0
Give me the Wolverines in the Big Ten for the 2012 season, but as you can see (through my way too early projections) I am not expecting a national championship run just yet.
The offensive line will be losing the best center in the country (David Molk), and the same can be said with their defensive line star (Mike Martin).
Still, Hoke has solid depth, so these Wolverines will still have one of the best lines of scrimmage units in the entire Big Ten. I do not have them ranked in my top ten next season for laughs and giggles.
The linebackers and secondary will be much improved and Robinson has a ton of options, so they should be the obvious choice in the Big Ten.
Will they live up to it?
Yes, Brady Hoke is a coach on a mission right now, and I look for the 2012 Michigan squad to live up to the expectations by winning the Big Ten Championship and ultimately playing in Pasadena for the Rose Bowl.