This is the latest in a series of articles previewing Big Ten football in 2012. A schedule of previous and upcoming preview articles is provided at the end of this article.
What a difference one year makes. Although Rich Rodriguez was certainly starting to get his type of offense rolling in Ann Arbor in 2010, the defense never got better and that was not acceptable for Michigan. It may have turned out that Michigan would have turned it back around anyway, but Brady Hoke took all that talent and modeled it to a more traditional Big Ten team in 2011.
The result was ripping through a relatively favorable schedule to end up 11-2 with a Sugar Bowl win over Virginia Tech. The only game that Michigan was truly not in right until the end was the Michigan State game, which ended up deciding the Legends Division title for the first time.
Now Michigan comes into 2012 with sky high expectations and a much more difficult schedule. The Wolverines kick off with a bang in the game of the opening weekend down in Dallas against defending national champion Alabama. Then road games follow at Notre Dame, Nebraska, and Ohio State.
This will also be the final rodeo for a true Heisman candidate in Denard Robinson. While Shoelace probably had a much better chance of putting up the ridiculous numbers necessary to win the Heisman under Rich Rodriguez, he still has the opportunity to break 4000 total yards with better passing numbers in 2012. That just might be enough to get him to New York.
Will Robinson go out with a Big Ten title after four long years of program improvement? Will Brady Hoke have the luck to manage double-digit wins again despite a much tougher schedule? Can Michigan knock off the Spartans and Buckeyes in the same season? Let's take a look:
Although the offensive numbers fell by nearly 100 yards per game in 2011, the offense still put up a solid 405 yards per game to go with 33 points per game. One major difference was winning the turnover margin battle after three seasons of being -10 or worse in that statistic. In other words, the yardage became points much more often under new offensive coordinator Al Borges.
However, one type of turnover that did not quite go away in 2011 were the interceptions by Denard Robinson. Robinson threw 15 interceptions to go with his 20 touchdowns, and that decision making has to improve for Michigan to stay at the top of the Big Ten. This could be tough with the loss of top receiving target Junior Hemmingway.
Two of the top three receivers do come back though in senior Roy Roundtree and junior Jeremy Gallon. Roundtree racked up 355 yards a year ago while Gallon added 453 on 31 receptions. A couple of talented underclassmen could contribute as well as the season progresses: freshman FB Joe Kerridge and sophomore Jerald Robinson. Denard will need all the help he can get from this crew of receivers to improve in 2012.
The running game should be strong as always at Michigan, especially with the top three rushers back from a season ago. Robinson led the way with 1176 yards and 16 touchdowns, but expect Fitzgerald Toussaint and Vincent Smith to carry more of the load in 2012. As long as Toussaint stays on the right side of the team rules, he could very well end up with 1000 yards again in his junior season.
The running game will be helped by three offensive linemen returning from a much improved line a season ago. Brady Hoke has coached up a solid group of juniors and seniors led by tackles Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield. Although the two-deep is a bit thin at this position, the running numbers should only improve if the line stays healthy.
The offense has been thriving thanks to a revamped defense, and that should continue in 2012. With an experienced senior quarterback and a good set of starters on the offensive line, the high levels of production should continue in year two under Brady Hoke.
The defense brings back seven starters for the third straight season, but the excitement is much higher in Ann Arbor thanks to the miracle working that new defensive coordinator Greg Mattison performed in 2011. Under Mattison's tutelage, a defense that surrendered 451 yards per game and 35.2 points per game improved dramatically to 322 yards per game and 17.4 points per game.
Those point per game numbers were only matched in the last decade by the 2006 team that almost made the National Championship game. While matching those numbers may not happen again in 2012, the pieces are falling into place to make this defense far more consistent than under Rich Rodriguez.
The improvements on defense all started with the defensive line, but that could be a point of trouble in 2012. Three new starters must be plugged in to join senior Craig Roh. Fellow senior William Campbell will look to pay off on his top recruit potential in his final college season, and he has the talent to perhaps play at the next level with a good season this year.
Playing a couple of freshmen linebackers as starters last season will pay off as the entire linebacker crew is back in 2012. The stellar sophomores are Jake Ryan, who had 3 sacks a season ago, and Desmond Morgan, who nabbed 63 tackles to go with 3 sacks of his own. Senior Kenny Demens led the team in tackles last year with 94 and should be the leader in the middle of the defense once again. As long as the defensive line plays moderately well, the linebackers will pick up the slack and keep Michigan tough against the run.
When opposing offenses go to the passing game, the defensive backfield will be about the same as a season ago. Three starters return, but the best player might be the new starter in the bunch, sophomore cornerback Blake Countess. Countess actually started half of the games last season and had 44 tackles, which will prepare him to lock down opposing receivers this year. Safety Jordan Kovacs could improve on his one interception from 2011 assuming he has a chance to read plays and play center field against big pass plays.
The Wolverines could struggle early on the defensive line, but the back seven players are pretty much all veterans ready to continue the solid play from 2011. If Michigan is as opportunistic at making turnovers as in 2011, then they may overcome the brutal schedule and pull off a couple of big upsets.
If there is one area where Michigan still needs to improve dramatically in 2012, it is special teams. What looked like a good set of skill players on special teams all underperformed, and the biggest disappointment was punter Will Hagerup. Hagerup missed four games due to a suspension and dropped to 36 yards per punt after being over 40 as a true freshman.
Now it sounds like sophomore Matt Wile will take that starting job away after playing in the four games Hagerup missed last year. Wile has a strong leg and will once again handle kickoffs as well as the occasional long field goal attempt.
Kicker Brendan Gibbons improved dramatically last season to 13 out of 17, but his longest success was 43 yards and he continues to be limited in range. Unlike last year, Hoke may not be so hesitant to pull out Wile for yet another aspect of special teams when a long field goal is needed. Of course, the defense is playing so well that Hoke might just punt in these situations and rely on field position.
Jeremy Gallon had respectable punt return numbers last year and he will be tasked with improving the woeful 21-yard average in kickoff returns this season. Junior Hemingway will get the first snaps to replace Gallon on punt returns, but there are four players listed that will likely share time until someone breaks out in the return game.
Michigan needs to improve in special teams to take the next step from a good program on the rise to a national championship contender. While it does not seem like this year will have that high level of improvement, there is a lot of experience here to work with.
The Wolverines' schedule for 2012 looks like this, with predictions on wins and losses in parentheses:
9/1—Alabama (at Dallas) (loss)
9/8—Air Force (win)
9/22—@ Notre Dame (win)
10/6—@ Purdue (win)
10/20—Michigan State (win)
10/27—@ Nebraska (loss)
11/3—@ Minnesota (win)
11/24—@ Ohio State (loss)
Projected record: 9-3, 6-2 Big Ten
Although one has to applaud Michigan for taking on a team like Alabama, this will be a particularly tough assignment to open the season. However, anything can happen in these neutral site opening games, so Michigan could propel themselves into national championship consideration with an upset in Week 1.
That does not seem likely to happen, which will leave Michigan to face a very strong out of conference schedule and a tough Big Ten start. The last two weeks of October could decide the division as Michigan State comes to Ann Arbor and Michigan pays a visit to Nebraska. A split here seems likely, although the games could go the opposite way of what I have indicated here.
A relatively easy November builds up to a huge battle against an Ohio State team looking to re-establish dominance in this rivalry after a down season in 2011. I project that Michigan will be playing for a division title against the Buckeyes, but Ohio State has just enough to protect the home field and play spoilers.
However, Michigan will take the opportunity to win the division with the trip to Columbus. If the Wolverines lose that game, a trip to Indianapolis would not be any consolation. Even with three losses, Michigan could be in the BCS bowl mix again thanks to name recognition from a season ago and the lack of competition from the Leaders Division for bowl games.
One would have to consider two BCS bowls in two years a huge success, regardless of whether Michigan defeats one or both of the Spartans and the Buckeyes.
Thanks for reading! If you have any comments or questions about this or other articles in the 2012 Big Ten football preview series, please contact David on Twitter.
Big Ten Season Preview 2012 Summary
Team Previews: Minnesota preview, Indiana preview, Northwestern preview, Illinois preview; Iowa preview; Penn State preview; Michigan State preview; Purdue preview; Nebraska preview; Ohio State preview; Michigan preview; Wisconsin preview
B1G Scouting Reports: Sun Belt/WAC report
That's it for the preview...thanks for reading and now the season is here!