Can Hoke lead Michigan back to national title contention?
Who knew one coach and one blip of time in the storied history of Michigan football could do so much damage? Yet that's exactly what happened when the Wolverines made the mistake of hiring Rich Rodriguez to head their program from 2008 to 2010.
When Rodriguez was let go following the 2010 season, it was time for the Wolverines to hire a "Michigan Man" once again. In stepped Brady Hoke, a seemingly perfect fit on all levels. He would run the pro-style offense and play tough-nosed defense.
It was an equation that would lead the Wolverines back to national title contention and soon—or so the story went for some of the diehards around the country.
The formula took off in 2011 as Michigan went 10-2 during the regular season and went to the Sugar Bowl, defeating Virginia Tech 23-20. To some, that signaled Michigan football was back. Surely the Wolverines would become instant national title contenders moving forward, right?
However, many national pundits and some in Maize 'N Blue nation got a rude awakening when 2012 started with a thud against reigning national champion Alabama en route to an overall disappointing season. Michigan finished the regular season 8-4, losing every game it played against a big-time program (Alabama, Notre Dame, Nebraska and OSU).
It also took one on the chin (literally, thanks to Jadeveon Clowney) against South Carolina in the Outback Bowl.
So, if you've been keeping score, the Wolverines bookended their season with losses against SEC powers. The reality of the national landscape of college football these days dictates that in order to be taken seriously, teams outside of the SEC need to win the games against SEC teams.
Michigan failed to do that twice last year.
As we enter 2013, some have Michigan as the likely winner of its division in the Big Ten and making its first trip ever to Indianapolis. In fact, some pundits are pitting the Wolverines against bitter rivals Ohio (State, because I don't want to anger Brady Hoke; that guy scares me) in back-to-back weeks.
Ten years ago, those prospects would have meant a trip to the national championship game for the winner, but this is 2013 and not 2003. The reality is that unless Michigan goes undefeated and does so impressively, neither the Wolverines nor anyone else outside the SEC are going to the national championship game.
Of course, there's the fact that Michigan is once again going through transition as it eschews the offense it ran with Denard Robinson in favor of the true pro-style that offensive coordinator Al Borges has wanted to play all along.
For that style to be successful, the Wolverines need two things to happen: a quality running game and playmakers in the passing attack.
Sure, Michigan has Fitzgerald Toussaint back at running back and appears to have one of the better incoming freshmen in the country, Derrick Green, but he hasn't exactly lit camp on fire. Furthermore, Toussaint hasn't been as consistent as he needs to be so far in his career.
He has rushed for 1,625 yards in his three years at Michigan, but in 10 games last reason, he ran for just 514 yards, averaging four yards a carry. For his career, he averages just 58.6 yards a game and has only 15 touchdowns in 28 career games.
Those aren't exactly earth-shattering numbers, especially for a team looking to become a national title contender once again.
The wide receiver corps is nothing to write home about either, especially with its one deep threat, Amara Darboh, out for the season.
According to a report by Nick Baumgardner of MLive.com, that means Michigan will turn to the likes of Jehu Chesson, Joe Reynolds and Jeremy Jackson. That's not exactly a confidence-building trio of names if Michigan is to contend for a Big Ten title, let alone a national championship.
There's also the matter of Michigan's defense. While the Wolverines have improved over the disaster that was the Rich Rod experiment, Greg Mattison's bunch are not yet elite. With Jake Ryan out for part (if not all) of the 2013 season, the defense lacks true difference-makers with experience.
When will Michigan be a true national championship contender?
The best talent on the defensive side comes from freshmen like safety Dymonte Thomas and end Taco Charlton. One has to wonder just how much of an impact they can have in just their first season.
However, what gives most people hope that Michigan is going to contend on the national level sooner than later isn't going to happen on the field in 2013; it's what Hoke and Co. are doing on the recruiting trail.
Michigan's 2013 class was ranked fourth nationally by 247Sports and fifth by Rivals, while the new 2014 class is off to an equally stellar start, sitting 10th in the 247Sports rankings and 16th by Rivals.
So, while Michigan may be seen as a contender in the Big Ten, it may take the Wolverines a year or two to cycle in all the talent they are recruiting to Ann Arbor. If all of that alleged talent can make an impact, expect 2014 to be the year that Michigan can truly think of itself as a contender on a higher level.
Until then, the Wolverines need to climb the Big Ten championship mountain first.