Brady Hoke has quite a job on his hands.
He's seeing Ohio State only get better under Urban Meyer, and the difference between Michigan and the elite of the college football landscape only grow larger.
2012 was a bit of a disappointment for the Wolverines, as they only finished 24th in the Associated Press Poll with an 8-5 record. Hoke will need his players to put in a much better performance next year for the team to return to a BCS bowl.
If that is to happen, here are four players who must step up in a big way in 2013.
Denard Robinson was a tremendous athlete and had a very accomplished career at Michigan. That said, the Wolverines might actually be better off with Devin Gardner under center.
Robinson was always a bit of a spotty passer. You can only rely on your feet so much before you have to be able to pass the ball. Robinson wasn't inept, but he did throw 39 interceptions over the last four seasons.
Gardner took over the starting duties last season and threw for 1,219 yards and 11 touchdowns. His completion percentage was a little over six points higher than Robinson as well (59.5 vs. 53.3).
Hoke should be just fine with Gardner as the starter. He's a more polished passer than Robinson and fits much better in Al Borges' offense.
However, If Michigan is going to win this year, Gardner is going to have to carry the load in a way in which he hasn't done so far in college. It's one thing to take over as starter in mid-season; being the starting QB from the first snap is a much different beast.
With a QB like Robinson, the wide receivers tend to get overlooked. That's exactly what has happened to Jeremy Gallon.
Gallon has the talent with which to be one of the better receivers in the conference and arguably the nation. Last year, he caught 49 passes for 829 yards and four touchdowns.
While not very tall (5'8", 187 lbs.), Gallon is the kind of receiver every quarterback loves. He's athletic enough to go deep yet can make the short catches over the middle.
The Michigan offense is bound to go a little more aerial with Gardner as the starter and the current situation at running back. That means Gallon is going to get more looks and will be asked to do much more in the passing game.
He should be more than up to the task.
It's not going to be easy to replace a player like Jake Ryan, but you have to love Cam Gordon's attitude regarding the situation, per MLive.com's Kyle Meinke:
"It's kind of bittersweet, to have one of my teammates go down. But just like any other position, someone has to step up and fill that void.
"I'm very confident. During the last part of the season, kind of stepped in and got a few snaps, so it's nothing really new of course. I feel like I'm a good guy for the job."
Ryan tore his anterior cruciate ligament back in March, but he might actually be ready by mid-October. Even if Ryan is able to make his return at some point in the season, that still leaves Gordon taking on a role which will be completely new to him.
He appeared in all 13 games last year but didn't make a start. He recorded 17 tackles, three of which were for a loss.
Although Gordon won't be able to replace Ryan's leadership, he needs to be as close to an equivalent performer against the run.
One of the Wolverines' biggest Achilles' heels last season was turnovers. They finished 99th in turnover margin, due in part to intercepting only seven passes (96th in the country).
Last year, Hoke was missing one his best secondary players, Blake Countess. He'll be able to count on the sophomore corner in 2013.
The pass defense itself wasn't a problem. Michigan only surrendered 169.5 yards a game through the air. It will need to force more turnovers, though, next year. A team cannot rank that low in turnover margin and expect to remain in the Top 10.
The Wolverines lost a couple of key players in Jordan Kovacs and JT Floyd.
Despite his relative inexperience on the field, Countess should be able to step right in and become one of the best cornerbacks in the Big Ten. He's a talented player and brings much-needed playmaking ability to the Wolverines' secondary.
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