Can the Michigan Wolverines bounce back from an 8-4 year and run the table in 2013?
There were not too many believers in the Notre Dame Fighting Irish prior to the start of the 2012 college football season, and there are not likely going to be a lot of newcomers to the Michigan Wolverines' bandwagon in 2013, but the Maize and Blue have a chance to run the table for two reasons.
First off, the Wolverines have a favorable schedule next season which features seven home games, headlined by pivotal Big Ten Conference clashes with the Nebraska Cornhuskers and Ohio State Buckeyes.
Notre Dame will also make the trek to Ann Arbor next September and are 1-6 against Michigan at the Big House since 1999.
The other reason the Wolverines can win all of their games next year is because of how weak the Big Ten is going to be for a second straight campaign, which is also the main reason why Michigan's schedule does not exactly look like the gauntlet Brady Hoke had to prepare Team 133 for this season.
Although Michigan will be tasked with replacing three fifth-year senior offensive linemen, and more than likely junior left tackle Taylor Lewan, who recently garnered first-team All-American honors and is ranked No. 13 on ESPN analyst Mel Kiper, Jr.'s big board, the incumbent starters are expected to be better than the departing group.
Former 4-star prospect Erik Magnuson is expected to replace Lewan, starting right tackle Michael Schofield may shift to one of the vacant guard spots to make room for a rising stud in freshman Ben Braden and redshirt freshman Jack Miller should be a serviceable replacement for Elliott Mealer.
The young offensive line platoon will need some time to come together, especially without Denard Robinson's 2,485 total yards and 16 touchdowns masking some of Michigan's problems up front.
Thankfully, the Wolverines will open the season against the Central Michigan Chippewas before taking on the Fighting Irish.
Many will say prior to the 2013 campaign that the Notre Dame game should be chalked up as a loss. Those folks have a legitimate argument, but the Wolverines were nearly able to trip up the Fighting Irish in South Bend this season in spite of six turnovers.
Plus, starting quarterback Devin Gardner has more than enough talent and experience to turn in a great game against a Notre Dame defense without middle linebacker Manti Te'o.
Gardner threw for over 1,000 yards and accounted for 15 touchdowns in his only four starts of the year, so do not be surprised if the Inkster High School product is able to lead Michigan to a victory against the Fighting Irish in the second game of the 2013 season.
If the Wolverines get off to a 2-0 start, they will be heavily favored to win their next three games against the Akron Zips, Connecticut Huskies and Minnesota Golden Gophers.
After that is a trip to Happy Valley, though, where Michigan will have to survive one of the nation's toughest environments in order to top the upstart Penn State Nittany Lions.
Head coach Bill O'Brien managed to salvage an 8-4 year thanks to the dedication of players who decided to stay at Penn State even in the wake of the harsh sanctions levied by the NCAA back in July. However, O'Brien will have a much tougher time succeeding in his second year with a true freshman quarterback rather than fifth-year senior Matt McGloin.
Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison should be able to dial up enough exotic looks to confuse the Nittany Lions starter and make Penn State one-dimensional by shutting down its rushing attack with an impressive corps of returning linebackers.
Mattison will also have the luxury of blitzing more often to apply pressure on opposing quarterbacks with the return of cornerback Blake Countess and two other starters in the secondary.
Assuming Michigan finds a way to top the Nittany Lions, the Indiana Hoosiers will be next up for the undefeated Wolverines.
The Hoosiers made great strides in Kevin Wilson's second season in Bloomington, though we will pencil this one in as a victory for Michigan since Indiana has only beaten the Wolverines nine times in 61 tries.
Michigan should be able to skip past the Michigan State Spartans in East Lansing given the current state of head coach Mark Dantonio's program.
Championships are won in November, though, and the Wolverines will play two of their toughest opponents in the final month of the season.
Nebraska got the better of Michigan this season in Lincoln, but the Wolverines dominated the Cornhuskers 45-17 at the Big House in 2011 and their offense will have rounded into form by this time.
A road game in Evanston, Ill. against the Northwestern Wildcats hardly qualifies as a hostile crowd, and Gardner has already proven he can pick apart the Purple and Black's defense. The 6'4", 203-pounder piled up over 300 total yards and scored four touchdowns in Michigan's victory this year over Northwestern in Week 11.
There is no recovery in sight for the Iowa Hawkeyes, who finished last in the Legends Division with Minnesota this year, which makes Kirk Ferentz's team no more than a tune-up opponent for Ohio State.
Will Michigan win all of its games in 2013?
All bets are off when it comes to rivalry games, and nothing will change next season when the Buckeyes and Wolverines meet at Michigan Stadium in what could be an appetizer for a rematch in the Big Ten title game.
Urban Meyer and his staff definitely outcoached Hoke and the Wolverines this season in Columbus. However, Michigan is 14-0 in as many games at home since 2011 and defeated Ohio State at the Big House a year ago.
Aside from Notre Dame, the Buckeyes will be the toughest team Michigan lines up against all season long and will make it even tougher for the Wolverines to capture perfection if the two meet in Indianapolis on Dec. 7th.
With Gardner at the helm of the offense next season, offensive coordinator Al Borges will be able to run more of a pro-style offense and Devin Funchess will likely emerge as Michigan's top pass-catcher.
The running game will struggle early in the year until the offensive line comes into its own, which means the Wolverines will need to rely on their defense to win early season games—much like the Fighting Irish did this season.
Don't go placing any bets on Michigan to win all of its games in 2013, but at first glance the Wolverines have the potential to catch lightning in a bottle with the current state of the Big Ten and make it through a moderately difficult schedule unscathed.
No one thought Notre Dame could play for a BCS national title after finishing 8-5 in 2011. No one will believe Michigan can do it next season, coming off of an 8-4 year.
As we've seen over the years, though, college football seasons are always full of surprises.
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