Michigan Football: 5 Important Storylines to Watch Develop Throughout 2012

Joel GreerCorrespondent IAugust 31, 2012

Michigan Football: 5 Important Storylines to Watch Develop Throughout 2012

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    While Michigan football returned to relevance during the 2011 season, several intriguing storylines developed.

    Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison rebuilt the defense, Fitzgerald Toussaint emerged as the go-to tailback and Denard Robinson battled an inconsistent throwing arm.

    Other items of interest included a victory over Notre Dame in the first-ever Big House night game, the long-awaited win over the Buckeyes, and the first major bowl win since 2000.

    Not to be forgotten was Michigan's outstanding 2012 recruiting class, and the possibility that the current class could finish tops in the nation.

    The 2012 campaign has already spawned a few interesting stories itself. Let's take a look at five of them.

Two Key Matchups in Quest for Legends Division Title

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    Michigan's recovery from the Rich Rodriguez era took great strides during the 2011 season. The Wolverines (11-2, 6-2) came from behind to edge the Fighting Irish, before shocking Nebraska and upending Ohio State.

    They capped off the season with a thrilling 23-20 overtime victory over Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl.

    For the Wolverines to have a real shot at the 2012 Legends Division title, they must end a four-game losing streak to Michigan State and a three-game skein to Iowa.

    Mark down Oct. 20 (at home with Michigan State) and Nov. 17 (at home with Iowa) as red-letter dates in the Wolverines' quest for a berth in the Big Ten Championship Game.

Denard's Run for the Heisman

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    Denard Robinson finished sixth in the Heisman voting as a sophomore, while becoming the first player to pass for 2,500 yards and run for 1,500 yards in a single season. He could have finished higher, if it wasn't for Michigan losing six of its last eight games.

    Despite a disappointing campaign as a junior, Robinson is a legitimate contender this fall. This time, Robinson has a tremendous ally in Michigan, which is expected to contend for the Big Ten title.

    At 10-1 odds, the likable senior merely needs a respectable outing against Alabama in the season opener Saturday night to join the Heisman conversation. Playing night games against Notre Dame and Nebraska can't hurt, either.

    The other favorites are QB Matt Barkley of Southern Cal (3-1), RB Montee Ball of Wisconsin (7-1), QB Landry Jones of Oklahoma (10-1) and QB Geno Smith of West Virginia (12-1).

Recruiting Wars

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    When Brady Hoke first took the Michigan job, he promised to concentrate his recruiting efforts in the Midwest.  He wasn't kidding. 

    In his first full class, Hoke signed seven players from the Michigan Associated Press All-State team, while the Spartans' Mark Dantonio could land only one. In Ohio, Michigan signed five of ESPN's top 10 players while State was totally shut out.

    In fact, Hoke has held his own with Ohio State, too.  Michigan's 2012 class was ranked No. 4 nationally by  scout.com while the 2013 class is ranked No. 1, slightly ahead of Southern Cal. Although we're still five months away from National Signing Day, Michigan has 23 commits, including nine from Ohio. 

    The Wolverines even have a commit for 2014. Michael Ferns, a highly regarded 6'3, 235-pound middle linebacker from St. Clairsville, Ohio, had 18 other offers, including Ohio State, Michigan State and Notre Dame.

New-Look Defensive Line

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    The official depth chart lists SDE Craig Roh, DT Will Campbell, NT Quinton Washington and WDE Jibreel Black as the starting defensive front. It's a far cry from a season ago when Mike Martin, Ryan Van Bergen, Will Heininger and Roh became a formidable group as the season progressed.

    All but Roh departed, so defensive coordinator Greg Mattison was left with manufacturing a unit to face defending national champion Alabama on opening night.

    But if someone had to do it, it might as well be Mattison. After all, he previously held the DC role at Michigan in the 90's before moving on to Notre Dame and Florida under the same moniker. 

    Mattison later refined his craft as a DC with the NFL's Baltimore Ravens

    If you look closely at the depth chart, you can see it's written in pencil. Don't be surprised if three of the youngsters get some playing time. True freshman Mario Ojemudia should get some reps at wide-side defensive end while redshirt freshman Keith Heitzman will spell Roh on the strong side.

    The huge question is whether Ondre Peewee Pipkins (6'3", 340 lbs) will sub for Washington or Campbell on the interior.

    And don't forget, Jake Ryan could move up to WDE from his linebacker slot. He filled in nicely in the Sugar Bowl.  

'Michigan Man' Must Reestablish the Culture, Too

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    Brady Hoke barely had his bags unpacked when the Michigan faithful assigned the title "Michigan Man'' to the new head coach.  He would be responsible for returning the culture of the football program to the style of Bo Schembechler, on and off the field.

    There would be no trouble with the NCAA and no leaky defenses. The players must realize "there is no I in team," and the Washtenaw County Jail should obviously be off limits.

    (UPDATE: Fitz Toussaint and Frank Clark were suspended Friday and will not play against Alabama, reported annarbor.com.) Both had scrapes with the law as did Marvin Robinson, Will Campbell and Jerald Robinson.

    “Obviously there’s a standard of performance we expect at Michigan from an academic standpoint to a community standpoint and to an athletic, competition standpoint,” Hoke told the Michigan Daily.

    Hoke knows all too well that his "title" and Michigan's culture are being tested.