After Notre Dame's miracle run to the 2013 BCS Championship Game on the backs of QB Everett Golson, RB Cierre Wood and LB Not Appearing In This Story, it's only natural to wonder who the next team will be to make a similar rise from "good but with several losses" to "championship contender." It is not a terribly unusual phenomenon; five teams have won a BCS title the year after losing at least four games, and Ohio State was one sanction away from making it six (both OSU and Notre Dame lost four or more games last year).
With that, the Sporting News compiled a list of teams who just slogged through seasons with at least four losses but have the ability to compete for a national title, and would you look at who we've got here:
Michigan (8-5 in 2012): Those five losses are deceiving on a number of fronts. First and foremost, Michigan proved it can play with the elite of the nation when it nearly beat South Carolina in the Outback Bowl.
Only a handful of unthinkable plays—on both offense and defense—by the Gamecocks kept the Wolverines from entering 2013 with a ton of momentum. As it is, there is this: Michigan finally can focus on a complete, balanced offense now that Devin Gardner is the full-time quarterback and the temptation of giving Denard Robinson as many touches as possible is gone.
Gardner was the quarterback former coach Rich Rodriguez wanted to build his offense around, comparing him to Pat White as a complete runner and thrower. Gardner played well in the second half of the season, and Michigan’s offense will only get more multiple and more balanced with each repetition Gardner gets in practices and games.
The temptation to anticipate a return to greatness for Michigan is intoxicating; the Wolverine fan base has been yearning for a bona fide title contender for 15 years and counting at this point, and the 2013 schedule is much more title-friendly than the hell-gauntlet that greeted Michigan in 2012.
Let's just get it out right now: If four of Michigan's opponents in 2013 finish in the top eight of the final AP poll of the season, as happened to the Wolverines in 2012, Michigan will not be anywhere near undefeated, because that is a brutal slate for any team to go through.
But even with a more reasonably balanced schedule to face, there are enough questions about Michigan's personnel to think that a run at the crystal trophy isn't in the cards for next season. Basically, we don't quite trust Michigan that much yet.
Here are the key areas of concern as Michigan heads into 2013. They won't all be problems once the season rolls around, because players generally improve and you just hope that the improvement will be substantial. But they're all basically unknown quantities at this point, and as a whole this many question marks do not make a recipe for the ultimate success.
Devin Gardner was a sorely needed bright spot at times for Michigan in 2012, stepping into a potentially disastrous situation at quarterback with Denard Robinson out and re-establishing himself as the signal-caller of the future with play that was at times better than what Robinson brought to the table—especially in the passing game.
And yet, we often saw spells where it was obvious that this was the same kid who struggled in 2011 and the spring of 2012 before being moved to receiver. He faded late against Ohio State and was frequently off the mark in the Outback Bowl against South Carolina, two defenses that are very good but by no means elite. Those are performances a championship-caliber quarterback can't have often, especially with both games eventually decided by one possession—in the opponents' favor.
Gardner at least has two years to work on getting that consistency going, because his physical skills are freakish. He's more Terrelle Pryor than Denard Robinson when it comes to rushing the ball, but that's not exactly a bad thing. He just needs to be more trustworthy throwing the ball.
The offensive line
The Sporting News gracefully elided a harsh reality for the Michigan offensive line in 2013 when it just called it "physical" and moved right along. The reality is this: Michigan's offensive line was average by Big Ten standards in 2012, and if Taylor Lewan had left as most predicted he would, it would be in serious trouble in 2013.
As it stands, it's very nice to have a boulder like Lewan to sturdy the line, but he's still one man out of five. Right tackle Michael Schofield wasn't exactly awe-inspiring, and the interior trio of LG Ricky Barnum, C Elliot Mealer and RG Patrick Omameh are all graduating—and for as underwhelming as they were in 2012, imagine having to depend on their backups.
Guard Joey Burzynski should find himself in the mix somewhere, and former 5-star offensive line prospect Kyle Kalis should be ready to begin his Michigan career by pushing for a starting role. Jack Miller looks like the most logical candidate at center. But unless Kalis is ready to dominate in his redshirt freshman year and Burzynski and Miller can be substantially better than their 2012 counterparts, this is not an elite line.
Heck, the entire offense
Jeremy Gallon has developed into a dependable target at wideout and TE Devin Funchess has worlds of potential with his athletic ability, but Gallon's only 5'8" and Funchess either needs to move to wideout or pack on about 20 pounds to get himself in condition to be a dependable blocker; as it stands right now, he's a pass catcher and that's all. The depth behind each of these guys is a problem; TE AJ Williams played extensively in his true freshman season, but at 6'6" and 283 pounds he's basically a tackle whose jersey number starts with eight.
At wide receiver the cupboard's even more bare. Drew Dileo is not a difference-maker—and we'd still take him over the likes of Jeremy Jackson, Jerald Robinson and Joe Reynolds. Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson both have serious potential, but they'll just be redshirt freshmen next year. Someone's got to step up there. Perhaps they both will. But that's a "perhaps" at this point, and "perhaps" doesn't win titles.
Also, forgive us if we don't believe in the limitless wisdom of Al Borges just yet.
Replacing Jordan Kovacs
It seems odd that at a football factory like Michigan, replacing a former walk-on would seem like a gigantic task. And yet Kovacs was a consummate leader in the secondary, calling the shots and rarely playing from out of position, and it was no surprise when he was granted the formerly retired #11 jersey in honor of the Wistert brothers as part of Michigan's "Football Legends" program.
There are some options here for the Wolverines, as Marvin Robinson is back at strong safety and there's enough depth at free safety that either Jarrod Wilson or Josh Furman could slide over. Assuming Dymonte Thomas signs in a couple weeks, he could figure into the mix at safety as well.
Still, Kovacs is basically irreplaceable for all he brought to the defense, and it's up to the Michigan coaches to figure out where the leadership will be coming from in his stead.