Following Monday night's BCS National Championship Game, the Michigan Wolverines found themselves at No. 24 in the final Associated Press poll of the 2012 season, but how high should the Maize and Blue be ranked to start their 2013 campaign?
Given the fact the Wolverines finished 8-5 this year, have to replace three starting offensive linemen, are lacking an explosive playmaker at running back and have questions to answer along the defensive line, there is no reason for Michigan to check in higher than No. 19 in the preseason polls.
There are several encouraging signs for the Wolverines as they begin to prepare for 2013, though, including starting quarterback Devin Gardner's development over the final five games of the year and a group of returning linebackers that will arguably be the best in the Big Ten Conference next season.
The 6'4", 203-pounder racked up 1,219 yards through the air and 18 touchdowns in five starts for the Wolverines after outgoing senior Denard Robinson injured his elbow in a loss to the Nebraska Cornhuskers.
Gardner has also managed to bring out the best in junior wide receiver Jeremy Gallon, who averaged 102.2 yards per contest with the Inkster High School product at the helm of Michigan's offense.
Unfortunately for Gardner, the Wolverines do not have many proven weapons coming back outside of Gallon.
Michigan's No. 2 receiver Roy Roundtree is out of eligibility and junior wideout Drew Dileo has been reliable, but is not the kind of big-play threat the Wolverines are used to having in their passing attack.
True freshman tight end Devin Funchess will have to turn in a breakout year for the Wolverines in 2013 in order to make up for the lack of explosiveness in the receiving corps. Funchess only hauled in 15 receptions this season, but led Michigan with five touchdown catches.
Additionally, all of Michigan's running backs combined for a mere 946 rushing yards in 2012, while Robinson finished with 1,266 yards on the ground.
Things will be rough early on for the Wolverines rushing attack next season with veteran offensive linemen Patrick Omameh, Ricky Barnum and Elliot Mealer all out of eligibility.
Thankfully, left tackle Taylor Lewan decided to return for his senior season, which means Michael Schofield will remain at right tackle and give Michigan's offensive line a little bit of continuity heading into next season.
Projections from TheWolverine.com have two sophomores and one freshman replacing the three departing linemen.
The Wolverines are going to go through some growing pains offensively in the early portions of 2013, but their defense will be good enough to ensure victories in all of Michigan's non conference tilts aside from the primetime game with the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in Week 2.
Redshirt sophomore linebacker Jake Ryan will lead Michigan's defense in what will be his third season atop the depth chart, while potential starters Ondre Pipkins and Jibreel Black could improve the Wolverines subpar pass rush.
Michigan has won its last 14 games at the Big House, which is where seven opponents, including the Ohio State Buckeyes, Nebraska and Notre Dame, will have to face the Wolverines next season.
Outside of those three games, the Northwestern Wildcats and Penn State Nittany Lions are the only opponents on Michigan's 2013 schedule that won more than seven games this season, so there are not too many contests the Wolverines will not be favored in.
All in all, Michigan is likely going to finish the 2013 campaign with an 8-4, or 9-3 overall record. If the offensive line comes together quicker than expected, the Wolverines will have a shot at taking 10 or 11 games.
However, given the number of question marks surrounding Team 134 at the moment the Wolverines should be ranked in the Top 25 to start the season, but should be near the back end of the polls.
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