When the 2012 season began, the name that most would have expected to appear in the title of this article would have been Denard Robinson, the explosive quarterback that was projected to be a Heisman candidate and lead the Wolverines to great things this season.
Neither came to fruition, however, and while Robinson remains a dangerous weapon for this Michigan team, he isn't the lynchpin he was once expected to be. That means a slew of other Wolverines will need to step up if the Wolverines are to salvage disappointing season with a big bowl win.
But who are these key Wolverines? Is Robinson still one of them?
Read on, my friends.
Devin Gardner, Quarterback
Since taking over for Robinson at quarterback, Gardner led the Wolverines to a 3-1 record, throwing for 1,005 yards, eight touchdowns and four interceptions. He may not present the danger in the running game that Shoelaces brings to the table, but Gardner is a much more efficient passer.
The ability to throw the ball and keep defenses honest is key to Michigan's success. When Michigan throws for 200 or more yards on the season, the team is 5-1, the lone loss coming against a vastly superior Alabama team.
When the Wolverines fail to reach 200 yards in the air, that record drops to 3-3. In other words, Michigan is very good when they are able to pass the ball and mediocre when they are limited to a rushing attack. A strong outing by Gardner is key for this Michigan team.
Denard Robinson, Running Back
Okay, okay, he's still one of the most important players on this team. He may not be the quarterback anymore, but he still leads the team in rushing and has 220 rushing yards and a touchdown in the past two games.
Oh, and he's done that on 23 carries. Yes, he's averaging 9.6 yards per carry since losing his job as the quarterback. He's still one hell of an athlete, and Michigan has taken advantage of that fact.
Other than Gardner, Robinson remains Michigan's most important skill position player. Expect him to finish his career with a bang.
Jake Ryan, Linebacker
Which player is the most important to Michigan's success?
Ryan may have gotten stiffed on the coaches' All-Big Ten team—he wasn't named on either the first or second team, a total joke—but he remains the best player on an excellent Michigan defense.
He finished the season with 84 tackles, 15 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, five forced fumbles and three defended passes. In other words, he does a little bit of everything in making an impact for this Wolverines defensive unit.
Michigan has largely remained a no-name unit known for playing solid team defense and swarming to the ball. But if there is one player on the defensive side of the ball capable of making a huge, momentum-shifting play, Ryan is that man.
Hit me up on Twitter—my tweets don't envision big things for the Big Ten this bowl season.