If anyone thought the road to redemption would be easy for the University of Michigan football team this season, you had better take another look at the schedule.
And start with the first game.
The Wolverines will face the Western Michigan University Broncos on Sept. 5 on its home turf, however, the non-conference tussle and first game of the season against the Mid-American Conference opponent should prove to be a tough one.
The Broncos are coming off one of its best seasons in recent memory.
Western Michigan rode quarterback Tim Hiller and a high octane offense to a 9-4 record and a trip to the Texas Bowl in 2008.
Led by Hiller and the Bronco offense, WMU finished No. 11 in the nation in passing offense and No. 28 in offense overall.
While the squad is missing several top performers from the 2008 squad—including record-breaking wide receiver Jamarko Simmons, wideout Schneider Julian and tight end Branden Ledbetter—the team has some key components returning.
Running back Brandon West is returning for his senior season—already having broken the school record for all-purpose yards—and will start at tailback and likely return kicks in a dual role he thrived in last season.
Returning is junior wide receiver Juan Nunez, who came into his own last year as Hiller's deep play threat. Nunez caught a career-high 57 passes for 701 yards and seven touchdowns in 2008 and should be the top target for Hiller in the upcoming season.
The biggest player returning is the leader of the offense, however.
Hiller, who has already shattered and rewrote numerous records in the WMU record book is back for a highly anticipated senior season. He is considered by many as one of the top quarterbacks for next seasons NFL Draft and many believe he could join MAC successes like Ben Roethlisberger and Chad Pennington as the next great NFL quarterback.
The fifth year senior started all 13 games for the Broncos in 2008 and his wealth of experience playing for WMU should lead the team to several more victories in 2009. Perhaps the biggest thing Hiller has going for him is that he led his squad over Big Ten foe Illinois at Ford Field just last season.
He has the experience and ability to lead his team in big games on a big stage.
Granted, Ford Field doesn't come close to the electrifying atmosphere of the Big House and 110,000 fans, however, if anyone will be ready for the environment and swagger that U-M holds it has to be Hiller.
While Michigan is struggling to find a quarterback and questions surround what kind of production the position will get this season, WMU doesn't have any question marks surrounding it's player under center.
This could prove to be unsettling to Michigan fans in the very first game.
While the Michigan defense has the talent to stop Hiller, it'll be hard to keep him down all game. Plus, Michigan lost to a Toledo team last season that was considered by many in the MAC to be one of the worst.
Western Michigan is in the top echelon of teams in the MAC and should be right up there again in 2009 (if not at the top).
One area where the Michigan Wolverines might be able to exploit WMU is with it's offense. Western Michigan loses several key starters on defense from last season—including NFL draft picks Louis Delmas and E.J. Biggers—and even with several talented players, the team struggled on defense in 2008.
Besides defensive back Mario Armstrong, linebackers Austin Pritchard and Mitch Zajac, defensive end Justin Braska, and a few others, the team is relatively young and inexperienced. This should play against Western Michigan all season and should produce several shoot-outs as well.
Even with a young defense on its side, Western Michigan won't be waiting around to see what Michigan's got. The squad will blitz and throw around different packages all afternoon and their athletic ability could pose problems for the Wolverines.
There is no doubt that Michigan is ready to seize the 2009 season like they were unable to in 2008. Months of practice and anticipation will unfold on the playing field in Ann Arbor in the early days of September.
However, don't mark up win No. 1 right away.
Western Michigan shocked Illinois a year ago and will be looking to do so again this year. They have three games against Big Ten opponents and they'll be looking to take out all three.
Michigan can't take this game lightly.
Or else they'll be 0-1 and Ann Arbor will be in a state of panic once again that has become all too familiar.