The Michigan Wolverines have burst back onto the national scene under first-year head coach Brady Hoke.
Not too many experts expected the Michigan Wolverines to finish the 2011 season with 11 victories and a Bowl Championship Series victory in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, which has now set the table for high hopes and much larger expectations in 2012 after head coach Brady Hoke brought the Wolverines back to national prominence in his first season in Ann Arbor.
The 2011 squad was led by a group of seniors who had endured the trials and tribulations of the Rich Rodriguez era and fought tooth and nail every day to leave Michigan as winners.
Defensive linemen Mike Martin, Ryan Van Bergen and former walk-on Nate Heineger were the spearhead of this group and all played their final game in a Michigan uniform when the Wolverines knocked off Virginia Tech 23-20 in overtime of the 2012 Allstate Sugar Bowl.
The Wolverines will also lose All-American center David Molk and their leading wide receiver Junior Hemingway on the offensive side of the ball, but there is still plenty of talent returning and soon to be arriving for the 2012 season.
Seven starters will return on defense and six return on offense, which should provide the Wolverines with a great corps of savvy veterans in addition to a recruiting class currently ranked No. 4 in the nation according to Rivals.
Are the Wolverines poised to make another BCS run next season?
Only time will tell, but here is a first look at who will likely be hitting the field first for Michigan when they open their 2012 campaign against the Alabama Crimson Tide at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, TX.
Denard Robinson may not have been at his best in the Sugar Bowl, but he gives Michigan the best chance to win games right now.
Starter: Denard Robinson (Senior)
Backup: Devin Gardner (Junior)
Robinson's performance in the 2012 Allstate Sugar Bowl may have earned him more critics than supporters, but one thing that cannot be denied is that the Michigan Wolverines won 11 games and their amazingly fast yet wildly inaccurate quarterback was one of the biggest reasons why.
The Michigan coaching staff slowly began to transition from the spread to a pro-style offense and as the season went on Robinson became more comfortable in the system and flourished.
In arguably Michigan's two most important regular-season games against nationally ranked Nebraska and arch-rival Ohio State, Robinson racked up 600 total yards and nine total touchdowns. In addition, Robinson led the Wolverines in rushing yards for the second consecutive season as he finished the 2011 season with 1,176 yards and 16 rushing touchdowns.
Many have clamored for highly touted backup Devin Gardner to take over as the Wolverines starter, but there is more to the quarterback position than having a good arm.
Gardner may be the better passer out of the two quarterbacks, but what Robinson lacks in accuracy he makes up for with his game-breaking ability and two years of experience as Michigan's starter.
It may not always look pretty and every time Robinson throws a deep ball next season Michigan fans will more than likely be holding their breath, however he gives the Wolverines the best chance to win the Big Ten championship in 2012.
Fitzgerald Toussaint is primed for a breakout season in 2012, which will be much needed to keep Denard Robinson healthy.
Starter: Fitzgerald Toussaint (Redshirt Junior)
Reserves: Vincent Smith (Senior) and Thomas Rawls (Sophomore)
The emergence of Toussaint, who was one of the top 10 all-purpose backs coming out of high school in 2009, will allow the Wolverines to run more plays of the I-formation and other power sets next season.
Toussaint rushed for over 100 yards in five of the 12 games he appeared in and averaged 5.6 yards per carry during Michigan's 2011 campaign. The redshirt sophomore finished the year with a total of 1,041 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground.
Vincent Smith was mainly used as a blocker in shotgun sets, a third-down back and was Michigan's best pass-catcher out of the backfield with 11 receptions for 149 yards and two scores this season. Do not expect Smith's role to change much for the Wolverines in 2012.
The dark horse for playing time is Thomas Rawls, who saw limited playing time in 2011 due to youth and inexperience.
Rawls was highly recruited out of high school and with senior Michael Shaw departing, he will have a chance to step up and assume the role of the third-string tailback for the Wolverines.
Fifth-year senior Darryl Stonum will likely be back in 2012 after off-field troubles in 2011 that forced head coach Brady Hoke to redshirt him.
Starters: Roy Roundtree (Redshirt Senior) and Darryl Stonum (Redshirt Senior)
Reserves: Jeremy Gallon (Redshirt Junior), Jeremy Jackson (Junior), Drew Dileo (Junior) and Amara Darboh (Freshman)
Denard Robinson's safety net, and arguably the Michigan Wolverines' best wide receiver, Junior Hemingway, is one of three wideouts graduating in the spring.
With Hemingway's departure, fifth-year seniors Roy Roundtree and Darryl Stonum will need to have big seasons for the Wolverines and more than likely bail Robinson out of some bad throws downfield.
Roundtree was a second-team All-Big Ten selection in 2010 after he led the conference in receiving yards and will have to rediscover that game after hauling in just 19 passes for 355 yards and two touchdowns this year.
Meanwhile, Stonum redshirted in 2011 after two alcohol-related issues and is expected to return to the team in 2012 and take Hemingway's place as the Wolverines' biggest target when Robinson wants to go long. As a junior, Stonum recorded 633 receiving yards and four touchdowns on 49 receptions.
Jeremy Gallon has been reliable for the Wolverines on shorter routes over the middle of the field and has shown off some great speed and elusiveness on bubble screens. Gallon was one of the more underrated receivers for Michigan in 2011 and could have a breakout season in 2012.
Junior wideouts Jeremy Jackson and Drew Dileo will most likely be on the field when the Wolverines want to have a four-receiver set and true freshman Amara Darboh could see some action either in the slot, or on the outside.
Can fifth-year senior Brandon Moore fill the void left by Kevin Koger (pictured), or will Michigan have to turn to two true freshmen?
Starter: Brandon Moore (Redshirt Senior)
Reserves: A.J. Williams (Freshman) and Devin Funchess (Freshman)
The loss of senior tight ends Kevin Koger and Steve Watson will not hurt the Wolverines as much in the passing game, but it has the potential to have major ramifications for Michigan's running game.
Fifth-year senior Brandon Moore will have no problem getting out in the flat or catching passes down the middle of the field, but it will be his blocking that will be most needed in 2012. Tight end is one of the most critical positions to the pro-style offense, because it adds an extra blocker at the point of attack and Koger was excellent in that department.
Depth at the position is also slim with two true freshmen, A.J. Williams and Devin Funchess, expected to be behind Moore on the two-deep when next season gets underway.
Williams is the most likely of the two freshmen to see the field as Funchess will need to put on some weight in order to be able consistently block the much heavier defensive linemen and linebackers of the Big Ten Conference.
Redshirt junior Taylor Lewan will once again be one of the best offensive tackles in the country in 2012.
Left Tackle: Taylor Lewan (Redshirt Junior)
Right Tackle: Michael Scholfield (Redshirt Junior)
Reserves: Kyle Kalis (Freshman) and Erik Magnuson (Freshman)
Offensive tackle is one position that should not concern Michigan fans heading into 2012. Taylor Lewan started every game at left tackle for the Wolverines in 2011 and Michael Scholfield has also seen plenty of action at the other end of the offensive line.
The only concern with the bookends of Michigan's offensive front is the fact that two true freshmen will be backing them up.
Kyle Kalis is a 5-star offensive tackle and will be a contender for early playing time at right tackle if the Wolverines are forced to make some position changes due to the departure of Rimington Award-winning center David Molk (more on that next).
Erik Magnuson is also a highly coveted recruit who may need to fill out a little bit more in order to see the field in 2012, which would put the Wolverines in a tough situation if Lewan or Scholfield have to miss any time due to injury.
Center is a position of concern entering the offseason for Michigan due to the graduation of All-American center David Molk.
Left Guard: Ricky Barnum (Redshirt Senior)
Right Guard: Patrick Omameh (Redshirt Senior)
Center: Rocko Khoury (Redshirt Senior)
Reserves: Elliot Mealer (Redshirt Senior), Jack Miller (Sophomore) and Caleb Stacey (Freshman)
Michigan's opening drive of the 2012 Allstate Sugar Bowl showed the nation how crucial All-American center David Molk was to the Wolverines offensive line.
During Molk's absence, backup center Rocko Khoury had two awful shotgun snaps and the Wolverines were forced to punt on three plays due to a clearly shaken offensive line.
The fifth-year senior is the most likely candidate to replace Molk, but the battle for the starting job will likely be going on up until the opening kickoff of the 2012 season. Sophomore Jack Miller is the only other center currently on the roster, however there is the possibility left guard Ricky Barnum may shift to the middle of the line next season.
Patrick Omameh will return as the starting right guard and whether or not Barnum changes position may depend on whether or not one of the nation's highly coveted and uncommitted offensive linemen, Joshua Garnett, decides to join Michigan's 2012 recruiting class.
Garnett already has the size, talent and build to be a starting guard for Michigan and has said the Wolverines are one of his three finalists along with Stanford and Notre Dame.
If he signs with the Wolverines in February it will certainly shore up some of the depth concerns on the offensive line.
Michigan will need Will Campbell to live up to his 5-star ranking in order for the Wolverines to be effective up front defensively in 2012.
Defensive Tackles: Will Campbell (Senior) and Quinton Washington (Redshirt Junior)
Defensive Ends: Craig Roh (Senior) and Frank Clark (Sophomore)
Reserves: Chris Wormley (Freshman), Ondre Pipkins (Freshman), Jirbeel Black (Junior), Nathan Brink (Redshirt Junior), Chris Rock (Redshirt Freshman)
Replacing three starting defensive linemen will be the most difficult task for Michigan in 2012 and the success of the Wolverines defense next season will more than likely hinge on how well the unit responds to the challenge.
Former 5-star defensive tackle Will Campbell has been labeled as a bust up to this point in his career, but if he can be a force up front for Michigan it will make it a little bit easier to replace whomever will be lining up next to him.
Quinton Washington is the favorite to assume a starting role at defensive tackle, but incoming freshman Ondre Pipkins already has the size and brute strength to play immediately and will undoubtedly make a push for a starting job in the summer.
Senior Craig Roh is the lone returning starter and will be the leader of the Wolverines defensive front and at the other end of the line, sophomore Frank Clark may be poised to win a starting job after his outstanding performance in the Sugar Bowl in which he had an interception and a tackle.
Another incoming freshman generating a lot of buzz with his size, strength and speed coming off the edge is Chris Wormley, who is listed at 6'5" and 250 pounds.
Do not be surprised if both Pipkins and Wormley break into the lineup consistently for Michigan midway through 2012.
Jake Ryan was a pleasant surprise for Michigan fans in 2011 and played well as a redshirt freshman.
SAM Linebacker: Jake Ryan (Redshirt Sophomore)
WILL Linebacker: Desmond Morgan (Sophomore)
Middle Linebacker: Kenny Demens (Redshirt Senior)
Reserves: Cam Gordon (Redshirt Junior), Brandin Hawthorne (Senior), Mike Jones (Redshirt Junior) and Joe Bolden (Freshman)
Freshmen outside linebackers Jake Ryan and Desmond Morgan were both key players in the Michigan linebacking corps that was one of the Wolverines' biggest question marks coming into 2011.
Ryan and Morgan combined for 100 tackles during the 2011 campaign and 17 in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, while middle linebacker Kenny Demens led all Michigan players with 94 tackles this season.
None of the three are expected to relinquish their starting positions and backups Cam Gordon and Brandin Hawthorne, who were also contributors early on in 2011, will also provide both depth and experience to Michigan's defense.
Incoming freshman Joe Bolden has been impressing scouts so far in the Under Armour All-American Game practices and could see the field as a freshman because of his hard-hitting mentality.
Fifth-year senior J.T. Floyd will once again anchor the Michigan secondary with former walk-on Jordan Kovacs.
Cornerbacks: J.T. Floyd (Redshirt Senior) and Blake Countess (Sophomore)
Free Safety: Thomas Gordon (Redshirt Junior)
Strong Safety: Jordan Kovacs (Redshirt Senior)
Reserves: Ramon Taylor (Sophomore), Courtney Avery (Junior), Terry Richardson (Freshman), Marvin Robinson (Junior) and Jarrod Wilson (Freshman)
Michigan's passing defense in 2011 was statistically one of the best in the nation (No. 17 among Football Bowl Subdivision teams) and will return all but one starter from the talented unit in 2012.
Troy Woolfolk will graduate this spring, but redshirt junior Thomas Gordon saw action in all 13 of Michigan's games this season and started nine of those. Gordon only lost his starting job for a few games because of the emergence of Blake Countess at cornerback, which moved Woolfolk back to free safety.
The secondary should not miss a beat with Countess, fellow sophomore Ramon Taylor and fifth-year senior All-Big Ten honorable mention J.T. Floyd all returning next season.
Under Armour All-American cornerback Terry Richardson will need to get a little bit stronger before he can match up with Big Ten receivers as a true freshman, but the 4-star cornerback will definitely be in the mix for early playing time because of his outstanding coverage skills.
Kicker Brendan Gibbons went from zero to hero for Michigan in 2011.
Place-kicker: Brendan Gibbons (Redshirt Junior)
Punter: Will Hagerup (Junior)
Reserve: Matt Wile (Sophomore)
What was an Achilles heel for Michigan in 2010 became a much-needed strength in 2011 when redshirt sophomore Brendan Gibbons made 13-of-17 field-goal attempts, including the 37-yard game-winning kick in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.
Gibbons should have a full head of confidence in 2012 as long as he keeps dreaming about brunette girls when he lines up for his field-goal attempts.
"Every time we were like struggling in kicking, coach tells me to think of girls on a beach or brunette girls," Gibbons said in his Sugar Bowl postgame press conference. "So that's what we did. Made the kick."
Punting the football is an altogether different story for the Wolverines this season though, as Will Hagerup was suspended for the first four games of the year and never found any consistency when he returned.
Hagerup was down to 36.0 yards per punt this year after he averaged 43.6 yards per boot in 2010. Matt Wile averaged 41.6 yards per punt, but Hagerup most definitely has the bigger leg at this stage of their respective careers.
The struggles of Hagerup more than likely have Michigan fans remembering former Wolverine punter Zoltan Mesko, now with the New England Patriots, who would bomb a punt on one possession and follow it up with a dud on his next try.
Mesko eventually came around as an upperclassman and his consistency earned him first-team All-Big Ten honors as a junior and senior and second-team All-American honors in 2009.
Hagerup has a strong enough leg to be an All-Big Ten punter, but he will need to regain his confidence and consistency in order to do so.