Michigan coach Brady Hoke did his best to play polite visitor as his team arrived in Arizona for the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.
“We are very excited about being in the desert.”
Excited was the word of the day as Hoke addressed the media.
Excited to be in Arizona, excited for West Coast-based Michigan alums to be able to see their team, excited about playing Kansas State. Excited, excited—while looking anything but.
The truth was written all over his face.
The trip he wanted was one that ended in southern California. The game he wanted isn’t in the desert—it is the one played in the Rose Bowl. He wanted injured quarterback Devin Gardner to be under center, kicker Brendan Gibbons with the team and pro prospect offensive tackle Taylor Lewan not playing under a cloud of suspicion related to a possible assault charge.
The game he really wanted is being played by instate rival Michigan State.
Hoke desperately wants a trip to the Rose Bowl.
But after an epic collapse, where Michigan stumbled to 1-4 record in November, fans are left to wonder how long until the Wolverines return to Pasadena.
Looking ahead to next season, Michigan has a challenging schedule with tough road games against Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State. Notre Dame doesn’t figure into the Big Ten standings, but it will be an early-season test nonetheless. Michigan has struggled on the road during the Hoke era, a trend that needs to reverse itself for the team to challenge for the Big Ten title.
Devin Gardner will return with Shane Morris expected to be his backup, giving Michigan depth and experience at the position for the first time under Hoke. With Gardner out for the bowl game because of a foot injury, Morris has received all the primary snaps in practice and will start. Russell Bellomy, who missed all season because of a torn ACL injury in spring practice, has also returned to practice and will add extra depth to the quarterback rotation.
No group failed more spectacularly than the offensive line, which loses NFL talent left tackle Taylor Lewan and right tackle Michael Shofield. Michigan shuffled nine players through the five offensive line positions this season, trying in vain to find a serviceable combination. The good news is that seven of those players will return stronger after another offseason of weight training and fully aware of the challenge ahead.
The offensive line showed signs of finally jelling against Ohio State. Time will tell whether they can build on that success while replacing Lewan and Shofield. There is no position group more important to the team’s overall success next season.
Derrick Green and Deveon Smith showed flashes of brilliance during the backstretch of this season. Along with Justice Hayes and Thomas Rawls, Michigan appears to be well stocked at running back for next season.
Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison is quick to praise the depth of his linebackers, but Michigan needs more pressure from its defensive line to compete for a Big Ten title.
Mattison was especially thrilled with the progress of linebacker Ben Gedeon to mlive’s Nick Baumgardner. "Give him an offseason. Get the freshman out of him. And all of a sudden, boy, you've got a linebacker," Mattison said last week. "(Fans) will be very happy with Ben Gedeon, I'll put my name on that one -- this guy's going to be a heck of a football player."
The depth at linebacker will allow Brennan Beyer to move exclusively to the defensive line, joining Frank Clark and Willie Henry. Michigan loses Jibreel Black and Quinton Washington and will need Taco Charleton and Ryan Glasgow to step up and play significant snaps next season.
Hoke has preached that good defense begins with strong play from the defensive line, and Michigan will need more consistent pressure next season to prevent opposing teams from having time to throw downfield—something that teams did with alarming frequency this season.
Next season Michigan has the pieces to compete for the Big Ten title and return to the Rose Bowl, but the schedule is not favorable—Michigan plays both Ohio State and Michigan State on the road.
Brady Hoke will be in his fourth season, and most of the roster will be players he recruited; he won’t have any excuses if Michigan has another November collapse.
Next season might not be Rose Bowl or bust for Michigan, but Hoke needs to prove that he has the team on track for a return to national prominence.