Michigan officially unofficially kicks off the 2014 season with the Mott Spring Football Game this Saturday at 2:00 p.m. ET, hoping to chase the burn of the 2013 campaign and see some much-needed improvement from its players.
This will be the public's first proper look at first-year offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, who came to Ann Arbor from Alabama this offseason; and as befitting for a new, high-profile coach and a unit that struggled historically a season ago, the offense is what most fans are eager to see this weekend.
Starting with the quarterback competition—waged primarily between Devin Gardner and Shane Morris—it is reasonable to expect some good things from both sides. Gardner is ahead of schedule in rehab for the foot he broke at the end of last season, so don't expect to see him scrambling around the field, but he has worked well from the pocket all spring and is ready to display his new-found competence to the masses. He thinks this job should be his.
Bleacher Report's Barrett Sallee disagrees:
From Morris, it is unrealistic to expect Jameis Winston from Florida State's spring game in 2013. It's not that unrealistic, though, once you really think about it. Morris is as far removed from high school as Winston was at the time, and he was just as highly regarded as a prospect. Why shouldn't he come out and light Michigan Stadium aflame?
There is almost nothing Morris can do on Saturday to make himself the front-runner for the job. That will be Gardner's role heading into fall camp. What he can do, however, if he shows more confidence and less check-down tendencies than he did against Kansas State, is pull more or less even with Gardner and make this conversation feel less media-contrived for the rest of the summer and fall.
It is reasonable to expect (or at least hope for) that to happen.
Elsewhere on the offense, it is unfair to expect a raised-from-the-dead running game. Nussmeier did a great job with running backs and offensive linemen at Alabama, but these things take time. It is fair to expect improvement—a unit that's a work in progress—but crazy to expect a group that was so bad in 2013 to lose Taylor Lewan, Michael Schofield and (for the time being) Graham Glasgow, then come out in the spring game and bash skulls.
Having said that, anything other than marked improvement from running backs Derrick Green and DeVeon Smith would be disheartening. According to Nick Baumgardner of MLive.com, head coach Brady Hoke praised both for their form in spring camp and remarked on Green's improved fitness after a slow freshman year.
"(Green is) in shape, and just experience (has made him better)," Hoke said. "He understands the expectations a little more with clarity. And that's part of it."
The other big question on offense, of course, is at receiver. Drake Harris' injury puts a damper on what would have otherwise been a massively important day, but a first glimpse at fellow early enrollee Freddy Canteen should keep the audience compelled.
If he's as good (and as confident) as the reports coming out of camp seem to indicate, Michigan might not struggle quite so much to replace Jeremy Gallon, Drew Dileo, Jeremy Jackson and Joe Reynolds.
And boy, wouldn't that be a relief?
The defense is far more stable than the offense, so we'll spend less time speculating what things we might see on Saturday.
Greg Mattison's unit held the team together in 2013 and stands to get better this season, though watching Jake Ryan transition from outside to inside linebacker should be interesting.
(Because he is Jake Ryan, however, it is fair to expect the best.)
One more realistic expectation: There will be a palpable feeling of incompleteness in the stadium, and it won't go away for the better part of the summer—until Jabrill Peppers arrives on campus.
There will be signs and a genuine aura hanging about the crowd in anticipation of his arrival. And with good reason, too. Michigan always recruits well, but it seems like eons since it's landed someone this highly touted. Peppers is the kind of player who can change a program from the first snap of his first day of practice. Especially after Vernon Hargreaves III's freshman season at Florida, Wolverine fans can justify expecting an immediate All-American in the secondary.
You'll be able to feel Peppers' absence on Saturday, but it won't be a sad sort of feeling. Not in the slightest.
It will be one that is oozing with hope.
Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeighDAT