Despite strides in the right direction, it’s OK to doubt the Michigan Wolverines heading into this fall.
In 2011, Brady Hoke’s program won 11 games, including the BCS Sugar Bowl. However, in 2012, the Wolverines fell short of expectations with a lukewarm 8-5 record.
Hoke has recruited well. He’s done a great job at assessing needs of his team, too.
But there are issues surrounding the Maize and Blue. Evaluating those areas will paint a clearer picture of how 2013 could turn out for one of the Big Ten’s heavy hitters.
BCS or Bust?
It may be a year early to forecast a BCS bowl appearance, let alone a BCS national championship. Quarterback Devin Gardner guaranteed a win against Ohio State, but that statement won’t mean a thing if the Wolverines head into the last Saturday of the season fighting for bowl eligibility.
Gardner said the following to Angelique Chengelis of the Detroit News:
We always have room for improvement, but this is definitely a championship-caliber football team that will win in the Big House against Ohio State. We don't feel we're inferior to anyone in the country, and we're going to give it our all
Gardner, a junior, is right about his team: It’s not inferior to anyone. But after an 8-5 record in 2012, the “championship caliber” of Michigan comes into question.
His confidence is a positive sign of growth. Gardner knows that his team has a favorable upcoming schedule, so getting past Ohio State at The Big House could be the season-deciding bout.
Expect the Wolverines to fight tooth and nail for a Big Ten championship. If successful, a Rose Bowl awaits them.
An Outback or Capital One berth may be more attainable, though. The Buckeyes look like they’re ready to build upon this past year’s 12-0 season, making them the obvious favorites to win the conference title and be first in line for a Rose Bowl selection.
According to SB Nation’s predictions, Michigan will face Florida in the Outback Bowl.
How Will Manning Fare with LBs?
Before leaving for Oklahoma, Jerry Montgomery coached the Wolverines’ defensive linemen and linebackers.
Position coaches sometimes have years of experience at one school. Take running backs coach Fred Jackson for example; he’s coached the group in Ann Arbor for over 20 years. Replacing a guy like him would be difficult.
Hoke, though, didn’t have that problem with Montgomery, who spent two years with Michigan.
Enter Roy Manning, a former Michigan linebacker who knows the ins and outs of the Big Ten. At 31, Manning is young enough to relate to players but far enough removed from the game to be an effective coach, not a glorified big brother.
Manning has the challenge of working without Jake Ryan, the heart and soul of the defense. Starting off the season without his star probably wasn’t the way Manning wanted to debut, but that’s how the cards were dealt.
Cam Gordon, a senior, had the job before Ryan, a junior. Brennen Beyer, a sophomore, is expected to tandem with Gordon in an attempt to Band-Aid the middle of the field until Ryan returns.
Manning has to feel the pressure. The way linebackers perform directly influences the way his effectiveness is viewed by fans, media and his coaching staff.
A strong middle gets Michigan one step closer to the ultimate prize, a BCS title berth. In 2012, the Wolverines gave up 150 rushing yards per game. The opposition may choose to exploit Ryan’s absence and attack the Wolverines’ ailing weakness.
Give Manning time to get his feet wet.
Months after suffering a broken leg, Fitz Toussaint is slated to return to full action this fall. Injuries like his are difficult to overcome, so expecting Michigan’s leading rusher to bounce back without a hitch is unrealistic.
Derrick Green, a freshman, is challenging for the No. 1 role. Thomas Rawls, Drake Johnson and DeVeon Smith are in the race, too.
Minus Denard Robinson, who had 1,266 of 2,386 rushing yards, Michigan’s ground game was average at best.
Shifting from a one-dimensional philosophy to a multi-back set is one of Michigan’s biggest gaps to close this fall.
Successfully running the ball and stopping other teams from doing so is a necessity. Michigan is behind in both categories.
Follow Bleacher Report’s Michigan Wolverines football writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81.