2014 isn't a hot seat year for Michigan coach Brady Hoke per se, but it's an important year nonetheless.
The Wolverines have trended downward since Hoke took over the program in 2011. Last season, Michigan lost six of its final eight games, including the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl to Kansas State, after starting 5-0. Offensive coordinator Al Borges was shown the door and Doug Nussmeier, formerly of Alabama, was brought in as the splash hire.
With a new offensive coordinator and playbook, how will Michigan's offense look, and how quickly will it come together? Nussmeier had immediate success with Alabama in 2012 after a stint with Washington. Can he immediately transform the Wolverines' offense? These are just some of the questions and challenges Hoke and his team will face this spring.
What are some of the others?
Shoring Up the Offensive Line
The good news for Michigan is that most of the offensive line from last year returns, and there's some young talent that already has game experience. Guards Kyle Bosch, Kyle Kalis and Erik Magnuson are former blue-chip recruits who played last year as freshmen and combined for 17 starts.
(Magnuson, however, will be sidelined for the spring as he recovers from shoulder surgery.)
The bad news is that Michigan's offensive line was one of the worst in the Big Ten. The Wolverines finished 11th in the conference in sacks allowed (36) and last in tackles for loss allowed. Against Michigan State and Nebraska, Michigan finished with a combined minus-69 yards rushing.
There's not much else to say; the offensive line has to grow up together. That's going to take time and reps. The (other) good news is that there's a high ceiling for this group.
The O-line must also find replacements for Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield, who started every game at the tackle positions last year.
Replacing the Wide Receivers
Only three wide receivers caught double-digit passes last year: Jeremy Gallon, Drew Dileo and Jehu Chesson—and Gallon and Dileo are gone. Chesson made some nice contributions as a redshirt freshman, but with only one touchdown, he has room to grow. He'll need some help from younger players, too. So, who steps up?
The biggest returning stars in the passing game are tight ends Devin Funchess, and possibly, Jake Butt, who is also out for spring practices with an ACL tear. Without a doubt, tight end will be a safety net for quarterback Devin Gardner.
Which leads to another question: will Gardner be the starting quarterback at all? Or, will it be sophomore Shane Morris? Gardner is back in the fold after missing the bowl game with a foot injury. Morris filled in admirably but doesn't have the experience Gardner does.
Maybe it's Gardner's job to lose and there is no open quarterback competition. Until a starter is named, though, it will be an interesting spring storyline.
Moves on Defense
Michigan's defensive front seven has the most questions to answer. Defensive tackles Jibreel Black and Quinton Washington are gone, but Willie Henry looks capable of filling in at that spot.
Jake Ryan will move from outside linebacker to middle linebacker, which Hoke says will make the senior a bigger part of the defense.
"He's one of our best football players instinctively, but when he's playing SAM and you face those detached formations, it gets him away from the action at times," Hoke said via . "Just think back to the Ohio (State) game, where we had a guy who is a pretty daggone good football player and he's out of the box not (being able to) make plays."
How will that move work? There will be some new faces, and some old faces in new positions, in Michigan's defensive front in 2014. The challenge will be making sure it's a seamless transition.