Expectations are high for Michigan football in 2013, and for good reason, as the No. 17-ranked Wolverines in the AP poll are heading into the season deeper than last year with a full head of steam.
One thing's for sure about the Wolverines in 2013: This is not your 2012 team. For one, new faces are beginning to take over at important positions.
Secondly, the schedule is actually a bit kind when compared to last year's bruising, start-the-year-off-against-the-eventual-national-champion-Alabama, debacle. Michigan dropped two of its first four contests a year ago, but do not expect that to be the case again this year.
Michigan starts the season off with a warm-up against Central Michigan from the MAC, providing a much better forecast than starting against a team like Alabama. After that, it will be smooth sailing.
That's not to say there are not tough games on the schedule. For example, going into Evanston to take on what should be a much improved Northwestern team, which went 10-3 last season, will provide a major challenge.
That's one game to look out for, but here are the ones that will truly define the 2013 campaign for Michigan.
Saturday, September 7 vs. Notre Dame
Like it or not, when these two heated rivals clash early in the season, it will go a long way toward telling us what's in store for Michigan football.
Yes, stars like Manti Te'o are gone, and the outlook for Notre Dame isn't so great. Yet Notre Dame is ranked above Michigan at No. 14. It is also a rivalry, and the two will always play each other tough. Last year the Irish shocked Michigan with a 13-6 victory early in the season.
Michigan bounced back after the loss, but having to do so two years in a row will be a season-killer.
Devin Gardner is your starting quarterback now with Denard Robinson taking his talents to the NFL in Jacksonville. The early test against the Irish will serve as a meter for how well Gardner will play in 2013 (which will be at a very high level). Last year he threw for over 1,200 yards and 11 touchdowns despite playing in only four regular-season games.
He then put together a strong three-touchdown performance in defeat at the Outback Bowl.
Add in the return of talented running back Fitz Toussaint, who tallied over 500 yards and five scores a year ago, and the offense projects to be dominant. We'll find out if that projection is correct. Michigan mustered only two field goals in a loss last year.
Prediction: Michigan 20, Notre Dame 13
Saturday, October 12 at. Penn State
Bill O'Brien had quite the task in front of him last season at Penn State for obvious reasons but did the unexpected and led the Nittany Lions to an 8-4 overall record while winning games on the heels of his No. 16 overall defense.
Combine a young roster still improving under O'Brien's guidance with even more talent added via recruiting, and you have an under-the-radar team poised to shock a few teams in the conference.
Here's the thing about Penn State: The team has no shot at a postseason game. This means every chance to upset a major program is a bowl game for the players.
Michigan better beware. Traveling to Happy Valley is hard enough as is (Penn State was 5-2 at home in 2012), but doing so against an improving team with nothing to lose—literally—provides a recipe for disaster when it comes to Michigan's 2013 hopes.
Prediction: Michigan 17, Penn State 14
Saturday, November 30 vs. Ohio State
Obvious? Yes. Even more important than in recent years? You better believe it.
Last year was disappointing for Michigan as the Wolverines finished off the season narrowly missing on a major upset of the Buckeyes in Ohio Stadium, 26-21. This year has even bigger implications riding on the outcome.
See, the expectations are high for Michigan, but those pale in comparison to the expectations set on Ohio State this year. With Urban Meyer leading the way, Ohio State has its eyes set on a national championship and is the only team in college football that can actually compete with Alabama.
Braxton Miller is arguably the most talented player Michigan will face all year after throwing for over 2,000 yards and adding over 1,000 more on the ground a year ago. A talented crop of linebackers led by James Ross will have their work cut out for them if Michigan is going to keep up.
Home game or not, The Game could decide the fate of a BCS bowl bid for Michigan. Brady Hoke is now in his third year (1-1 vs. Ohio State)—the year Michigan coaches typically put it all together—and taking on this Ohio State squad will help define his legacy as coach.
Prediction: Ohio State 35, Michigan 24
Follow B/R's Chris Roling on Twitter for more news and analysis @Chris_Roling