Michigan Football: Most Important Matchups for Denard Robinson's Heisman Hopes

Tyler Conway@jtylerconwayFeatured ColumnistAugust 21, 2012

NEW ORLEANS, LA - JANUARY 03:  Denard Robinson #16 of the Michigan Wolverines throws a pass against the Virginia Tech Hokies during the Allstate Sugar Bowl at Mercedes-Benz Superdome on January 3, 2012 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

With the eighth-ranked Michigan Wolverines less than two weeks away from opening their football season, all eyes are squarely focused on quarterback Denard Robinson.

Despite having the NCAA's third-best Heisman odds at 15/2 (via Bovada.lv), Robinson comes into the 2012 Wolverine season hoping to atone for a 2011 campaign that saw him take a step back in nearly every category.

After completing 62.5 percent of his passes for 2,570 yards while throwing just 11 interceptions in 2010, Robinson saw a downtick in completion percentage (55.0) and yards (2,173) in addition to tossing 15 picks.

Even the quarterback's vaunted rushing prowess saw a massive decline from 1,702 yards to 1,176 last season.

But it wasn't all dark for Michigan and its quarterback in 2011.

In the Wolverines' first season under head coach Brady Hoke, the team's success on the scoreboard far overshadowed the star quarterback's woes.

After going 7-6 under Rich Rodriguez in 2010, Hoke led Michigan to an 11-2 record and a Sugar Bowl victory in January, the school's first BCS bowl win since 1999's Orange Bowl.

This season, Hoke will rely on Robinson heavily as the Wolverines return just six offensive starters from last year's team.

And with Robinson set as a Heisman favorite and Michigan as the prohibitive Big Ten favorite, there are plenty of vital games for the 21-year-old quarterback.

Here's a quick look at his most important matchups:

Vs. Alabama (Saturday, Sept. 1, 8 p.m. ET)

While Heisman trophy candidates will be on stat-padding missions against cupcake opponents in the season's first week, the Wolverines and Robinson will have a massive opening test against second-ranked Alabama.

For Heisman purposes, early-season contests are roundly ignored by the in-the-moment voters most of the time. But for Robinson, he'll be getting the first opportunity to stake claim to the favorite spot if he can come away with a brilliant performance in a Michigan win.

Opening night will likely be the best time to take down an extremely talented but inexperienced Alabama defense. The Crimson Tide return just five starters from college football's best defensive unit, and the losses of Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw leave lingering questions in the team's linebacker corps.

If Robinson can come out and throw a big-time, dual-threat Heisman performance on a neutral site, he could take a significant lead before the other favorites even play a meaningful game.

On the other hand, if Robinson struggles and Michigan goes down, he could completely ruin his chances before the season even gets off the ground.

At Notre Dame (Saturday, Sept. 22, 7:30 p.m. ET)

Though the yearly preseason pontification from analysts saying, "I SWEAR Notre Dame will actually be good this season" has seemingly become a running joke in college football, Notre Dame may actually be good this season.

The Fighting Irish return 15 starters from last season's squad, seven of which come from the nation's No. 19-ranked scoring defense. If head coach Brian Kelly can figure out the team's secondary and quarterback situations, Notre Dame-Michigan may actually have long-term implications instead of unnecessary hype.

For Robinson, his focus must be on that weakened secondary. The Irish lost cornerback Gary Gray and safety Harrison Smith to graduation, and Gray's replacement Lo Wood will miss the 2012 season with an Achilles injury (via Irish Illustrated).

If the Fighting Irish and Wolverines come into the Sept. 22 contest undefeated, all eyes will once again be on the Michigan quarterback.

At Ohio State (Saturday, Nov. 24, Noon ET)

For Michigan, the team's next important matchups come in a two-week stretch against No. 13-ranked rival Michigan State and at No. 17 Nebraska in October.

But for Robinson's Heisman hopes, the Wolverines can lose one of those contests without hurting the quarterback's chances one iota.

Heisman voters are sympathetic to midseason losses against top-tier opponents. Voters won't be nearly as understanding if Robinson throws up a stinker at The Horseshoe against his biggest rival in the last regular-season game of his Michigan career.

And for the Buckeyes, a matchup against Robinson and the rival Wolverines will be the biggest game of the season for the bowl-ineligible Ohio State squad.

If Michigan comes into Ohio Stadium with a spot in the Big Ten championship game or an undefeated record on the line, there will be no louder crowd in all of college football this season than the kids in Buckeye red.

In a season full of Heisman-worthy opportunities, winning in the most hostile environments could prove to be the clincher for a Robinson trophy.


The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.