The Michigan Wolverines come off an impressive season where they faced one of college football's most demanding schedules.
Taking on the two eventual BCS Championship Game participants in Notre Dame and Alabama, Michigan also squared off against Ohio State (12-0), Nebraska (10-4), Northwestern (10-3) and South Carolina (11-2).
As a result, that just prepared coach Brady Hoke's squad even more for the 2013 campaign.
Michigan also enters with the No. 2 (Scout.com) and No. 5 (Rivals.com) ranked recruiting class. Clearly the Maize and Blue have been back on the upswing, not to mention they were not significantly impacted by the 2013 NFL draft.
Although every school does lose some key talent, Michigan still possesses the personnel to challenge for the Big Ten title. The following players, however, will be the most important pieces to solving the puzzle.
Devin Gardner, QB
The development of Devin Gardner is crucial to Michigan's overall offensive production.
Fortunately, he transitioned rather well in 2012 by tossing 11 touchdowns to only five picks, including a 59.5 completion percentage. From an all encompassed perspective he drastically outplayed Denard Robinson when conducting the Wolverines' orchestra.
Gardner will also have ample time to survey when dropping back. Taylor Lewan and the offensive line allowed a mere 18 sacks in 2012, so that potential will help sustain balance.
In addition, KC Joyner of ESPN.com (subscription required) wrote of Gardner at the helm for this season:
Getting Gardner and his receivers a full offseason worth of work in this system should dovetail well with a schedule that, unlike 2012, doesn't include Alabama, has Notre Dame and Ohio State both visiting the Big House and includes a meeting against a Nebraska defense that is returning only four starters.
Provided he continues to spread the field that simply keeps a defense occupied enough to set up the run.
Fitzgerald Toussaint, RB
Fitzgerald Toussaint average 5.6 yards per rush when he notched 1,041 yards on the ground in 2011.
Obviously 2012 ended is unfortunate fashion, but according to ESPN.com's Michael Rothstein on March 28, Toussaint looks to be on track with his health:
Michigan running back Fitzgerald Toussaint said he is "85 to 90 percent" recovered from a broken left tibia and a fractured left fibula suffered in the first quarter against Iowa on Nov. 17.
The recovery for the redshirt senior, who had surgery to repair the broken bones that day, is ahead of schedule.
And that was in late March, which currently puts us now almost two months ahead of that time. Given that the season remains a summer away and it only helps regarding Toussaint's potential preparation.
The Wolverines have to establish a physical ground attack because that will keep play action relevant. Plus, it becomes as a competitive advantage inside the red zone and on any short-yard situation.
Toussaint's experience and prior production are evidence of his capabilities. This season, though, will require a greater impact.
Frank Clark, DE
Frank Clark offers the talent to really break out in 2013.
After recording nine tackles for a loss and defending three passes a season ago, Clark proved a knack for disrupting behind the line of scrimmage.
He has the acceleration and top gear to really shine with additional opportunities throughout the fall. What comes next is actually taking advantage and seizing those opportunities. Clark established that last year and has matured, as Adam Rittenberg of ESPN.com writes, to take his game to another level:
"Playing last year and having a bigger role than my freshman year, it forced me to change my mindset," Clark said. "I've got a new set of goals. I've got things I know I've got to help my team out with a little bit more. I've got to be more of an impact player on the defense. I've got to help bring the defense together in the absence of one of our leaders, Jake Ryan."
Factor in Clark's athleticism and Michigan's pass rush will hit uncharted territory this season.
As a team the Wolverines managed only 22 sacks in 2012, so it's up to Clark to lead and improve this area. If anything, simply applying more pressure creates additional turnover opportunities. Whether it's forced fumbles or ill-advised throws, Clark must destroy backfields to complement the secondary.
Thomas Gordon, Safety
Thomas Gordon has been one reliable defender for Michigan the past two seasons.
With seven defended passes, three forced fumbles and 148 tackles between 2011 and 2012, 2013 has immense potential. Gordon's experience in the secondary is a favorable edge for the Wolverines as well, since he has contributed to multiple areas.
In an article by Kyle Meinke of MLive.com on March 26, Gordon knows how vital his leadership is to Michigan:
"I got to come in with my head right to get this team going no matter the circumstances," Gordon said.
"I feel like the guys tend to come to me for a lot of advice, and I'm just being natural (about leading)."
This is what any coach wants to see from a veteran playmaker. Gordon's instincts back deep and dependability will minimize the occurrence of blown coverage and big plays allowed.
Mesh that with the pass rush and his impact vaults for generating turnovers.
Include Michigan's offensive outlook and more possessions provided from the defense will enhance Coach Hoke's Big Ten championship odds.