Devin Gardner's growth as a quarterback will be critical to whether or not the Michigan Wolverines exceed expectations in 2013.
The Michigan Wolverines failed to live up to lofty expectations in 2012 and with several starters departing, a realistic record for the Maize and Blue next season would be either 8-4 or 9-3.
However, every year in college football there are several teams that manage to overachieve.
The Notre Dame Fighting Irish, Texas A&M Aggies and Stanford Cardinal all went above and beyond expectations this season, but are the Wolverines capable of exceeding the preseason predictions the experts will place upon them in 2013?
Here are four reasons why Michigan could surprise college football fans next season:
Devin Gardner Enters the Offseason as the Starting Quarterback
After three full seasons of waiting behind star quarterback Denard Robinson, rising senior Devin Gardner is set to take the reigns of Michigan's offense for 2013.
Gardner started the final five games of the season for the Wolverines after Robinson injured his ulnar nerve in a loss to the Nebraska Cornhuskers, and the Inkster High School performed quite well given the fact he spent much of 2012 at wide receiver.
The 6'4", 203-pounder threw for 1,219 yards, tallied 18 total touchdowns and led Michigan to three victories as the starting quarterback last year.
Both Gardner and offensive coordinator Al Borges should benefit from the clarity at the quarterback position entering the offseason.
Robinson’s departure and Gardner’s passing abilities will help expedite the transition from the spread offense to a pro-style attack, and Borges will no longer have to worry about managing two quarterbacks worthy of the No. 1 spot on the depth chart.
This will be the first time in Gardner’s career he will have several months to prepare like a starter, and it could result in a breakout season.
If the Wolverines are going to shock anyone this fall, Gardner has to develop into an All-Big Ten performer since Michigan’s already less than formidable rushing attack does not look like it is going to get much better next season.
Taylor Lewan's Shocking Decision to Return
Nobody would have blamed redshirt junior left tackle Taylor Lewan if he chose to declare for the upcoming NFL draft, but the Scottsdale, Ariz. native's decision to return for his senior year gives the Wolverines a massive boost to start the offseason.
The All-American lineman will provide Michigan with some stability along the offensive line heading into next season, which is the top concern the Wolverines need to address prior to their Aug. 31st season-opener against the Central Michigan Chippewas.
Michigan still needs to replace three starting offensive linemen, but Lewan's return will keep Gardner's blindside protected and means rising senior Michael Schofield is going to be the starting right tackle for a second straight season.
If Lewan chose to turn pro, Schofield would have moved to the left side of the line to fill the void.
The Wolverines are going to have their fair share of problems along the offensive line in the early portions of the 2013 season, but Lewan coming back for a fifth campaign should help the three new starters jell much quicker than expected.
Greg Mattison’s Defense Will Keep the Wolverines in Every Game
Although the Wolverines finished No. 13 in the nation in total defense, there is still a lot of room for improvement heading into the 2013 season.
Thankfully, help is on the way for Michigan. Sophomore cornerback Blake Countess will take over the No. 1 cornerback spot after missing the entire 2012 campaign with an ACL injury and rising junior Raymon Taylor will be significantly better after starting 11 games.
Rising senior Thomas Gordon finished among the Wolverines' top-five tacklers, forced three turnovers and should be much more of a factor this fall after starting all 13 games for Michigan last season.
Former 4-star prospect Jarrod Wilson is primed to take over for departing senior Jordan Kovacs and will bring much more of a ball-hawking attitude to Michigan's secondary, which got exposed in the Outback Bowl against the South Carolina Gamecocks.
In addition to the improvements in the secondary, Michigan returns two of its starting linebackers, including rising junior Jake Ryan, who finished this season with 16 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks.
Michigan should have no problem stopping the run with the veteran linebacking corps, but the lack of an established pass rusher will undoubtedly get exposed at some point next season.
Overall, crafty defensive coordinator Greg Mattison will have more playmakers to work with than he did in 2012, and the strides the Wolverines make on defense next season will keep them in all of their games.
Michigan's Favorable Schedule
Undoubtedly the biggest reason the Wolverines could shock the world and make a major splash in 2013 is their favorable schedule.
Tilts with the Akron Zips, Connecticut Huskies, Minnesota Golden Gophers, Indiana Hoosiers, Iowa Hawkeyes and Central Michigan should all result in Michigan victories.
How many games will Michigan win in 2013?
A road contest against the Penn State Nittany Lions in mid-October looks like a trap game, though Bill O'Brien's team is losing numerous key contributors from this season.
Michigan also has the benefit of playing the Ohio State Buckeyes, Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Nebraska Cornhuskers at the Big House where the Wolverines have won 14 consecutive games.
Contests with major question marks around them right now are trips to East Lansing to take on the Michigan State Spartans and Evanston, Ill. to face the Northwestern Wildcats, who would have topped the Wolverines in 2012 had it not been for a hail mary pass in the final minute of the game.
If Michigan finds a way to steal a couple of games at home against its toughest opponents, avoids falling apart on the road and dispatches the lesser teams on its 2013 slate, there is no reason why the Wolverines cannot finish with a 10-2 or 11-1 record next season.
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