Despite its slide in preseason rankings, Devin Gardner has the skill to make Michigan one of the better teams in college football this season.
Why the eight-place discrepancy?
It would appear that coaches took into account what they face this fall, not necessarily the caliber of the guy they have under center.
Nursing a torn ACL, star linebacker Jake Ryan is expected to be out until October. Three new starters—freshman guards Ben Braden and Kyle Kalis, along with sophomore center Jack Miller—will take their place on the offensive line.
Fitz Toussaint, the No. 1 running back, is coming off knee surgery. Top corner, Blake Countess, hopes to rebound from an ACL tear. And Gardner, a redshirt junior who enters his first full season as starter, won’t have receiver Roy Roundtree, one of the team’s most reliable set of hands over the past four years.
Oh, and the blur with braids won’t be there to break 50-yarders like they’re going out of style, either. Now with the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars, Denard Robinson’s mastery of big plays will be missed.
Only compounding matters, offensive coordinator Al Borges has to further develop a scheme built for Gardner, who has just five starts on his resume.
Considering all of that, Michigan’s chances of finishing 2013 as a top-10 team could come across as somewhat bleak.
But they’re not.
Changing of the Guard
Growing pains are to be expected. Not many quarterbacks easily transition into their new role, but Gardner may be the exception.
At 6’4” and 210 pounds, he has an accurate arm and fleet feet complementing his ideal pro-style frame. Borges won’t have to force the offense with Gardner, it should all come naturally—he’s built for the scheme.
Having a reliable receiver helps, and Gardner has one in Jeremy Gallon. During the 2013 Outback Bowl, the pair hooked up for nine completions, 145 yards and two touchdowns—they have chemistry, and it likely grew stronger during the offseason.
Drew Dileo, Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson, along with a stable of youngsters, create more options for Gardner. Call it coincidence or a lucky roll—he faced Minnesota, Iowa and Northwestern—but Gardner went 3-0 this past season when throwing for more than 234 yards.
With a corps of receivers such as his, hitting that mark doesn’t appear to be a problem. The Wolverines will be a much different team when led by Gardner’s arm than it was when led by Robinson’s feet.
Find Rhythm Early in Season
Notre Dame will be Gardner’s most challenging non-conference opponent.
He already has experience against Ohio State, ranked No. 2 in the coaches poll, and South Carolina, ranked No. 7. Despite limited experience, Gardner doesn’t lack big-game exposure.
Beating the Irish, who are ranked No. 11 and visit Ann Arbor on Sept. 7, could lead to top-10 consideration. In Week 3, Gardner faces Akron. That one should be quick and easy. In Week 4, he faces UConn—same scenario as Akron.
It’s possible that Michigan could enter conference play at 4-0.
When looking at the 2013 schedule, Nov. 30’s date with Ohio State poses the biggest threat. If Gardner catches fire early and beats the Irish, the rest of the season could serve as tune-ups for the bash with the Buckeyes, which could be a prelude to the 2013 B1G Championship Game.
Gardner's impressed by throwing for 1,219 yards and 11 touchdowns (18 total)...in five games. Imagine what he'll do as the full-timer.
Michigan tends to have success when it disposes of the Spartans, who have won four of the past five in the series. Gardner didn’t start in 2012, but he’ll have to play a significant role if his team is to win for the second consecutive season.
The in-state rivals clash Nov. 2, and it’s logical to assume that Michigan will come out on the winning end this fall. The Spartans, who didn’t make the coaches poll’s cut, will be without star running back LeVeon Bell, and they’re experiencing a little confusion at the quarterback position.
Knocking off the other rival—the rival—is another challenge all together. Hoke is 1-1 versus Ohio State, but he’s never beaten Urban Meyer, who enters his second year as Buckeyes coach.
For Michigan to end up in the top 10, Gardner has to beat the teams that he's supposed to and post a winning mark against the four top threats: Notre Dame, Nebraska, Michigan State and Ohio State.
Follow Bleacher Report’s Michigan Wolverines football writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81