Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press
Michigan senior quarterback Devin Gardner.
Prediction: 9-3, 5-3 (Tied for third in Big Ten East)
2013 is a year Brady Hoke and the Wolverines would like to forget. A 5-0 record to start the season quickly turned into a downward spiral. Michigan defeated hated rival Notre Dame and then had two shaky wins over subpar Akron and UConn teams by a combined seven points.
It went on to finish the season with a 2-6 record and lost four of those eight games by four points or less. Hoke, who appeared to be the savior of Michigan football after replacing Rich Rodriguez, is now feeling the heat and desperately needs a season of nine wins or more.
Quarterback Devin Gardner had a breakout performance in a 41-30 win over Notre Dame last season, as he passed for 294 yards, rushed for 82 yards and scored five total touchdowns. What appeared to be a sign of good things to come turned into inconsistent play throughout the season for the redshirt junior.
Gardner, who finished the season with 2,960 passing yards, 483 rushing yards and 32 total touchdowns, will be determined to reach his potential in his final season under former Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier.
Besides Gardner, the Wolverines return six other starters. One of them is 6’5" junior wide receiver Devin Funchess, who racked up 748 yards and six touchdowns. He is among the elite in the country after converting from tight end. Funchess will look to fill the void of Jeremy Gallon as Gardner’s main target.
The passing game will need to be complemented by a run game, which struggled by averaging just 125.7 yards per game (102nd in the country) in 2013. Nussmeier will focus heavily on the run game, which consists of former 5-star sophomore tailback Derrick Green, sophomore De’Veon Smith and redshirt sophomore Drake Johnson.
The line loses starting tackles Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield and will be an uncertainty heading into the season. Four starters, including left tackle Erik Magnuson and offensive lineman Graham Glasgow, are back and need to be stronger up front after giving up the most tackles for a loss (114) last year.
The Wolverines return eight starters and hope to improve after finishing 41st in the country in total defense (371.5). It wasn’t easy trying to keep a struggling Michigan offense in games last season, but fourth-year defensive coordinator Greg Mattison needs his defense to step up, especially in critical third-down situations.
The linebacking corps will be the most experienced unit with senior team captain Jake Ryan switching to the middle, while Desmond Morgan and James Ross start at the outside spots. Ryan should be one of the best defensive players in the Big Ten after missing the first five games in 2013 because of a torn ACL injury.
Junior All-Big Ten cornerback Blake Countess will be a big playmaker again on defense after finishing the season with six interceptions (tied for seventh in the country). Countess will be joined by cornerback Raymon Taylor, who led the Wolverines with 86 tackles last season, as well as strong safety Jarrod Wilson and 5-star recruit Jabrill Peppers. The defensive line loses just one starter and will be anchored by second-team All-Big Ten senior end Frank Clark.
It’s easy to look forward to the final game of a classic rivalry between Michigan and Notre Dame on Sept. 6, but the Wolverines can’t overlook Appalachian State after a huge 34-32 loss at The Big House in 2007. Michigan should be able to get by a Mountaineer team that struggled last season, though, before heading to South Bend.
Hoke’s team has a good opportunity to be 6-0 before hosting Penn State on the night of Oct. 11. The final three of five games consist of road games at Michigan State, Northwestern and Ohio State. The Wolverines haven’t won in East Lansing since 2007 and in Columbus since 2000. With a favorable schedule and an experienced team, there is no reason the Wolverines would lose more than three games.