What Needs to Happen for Michigan Wolverines' Return to College Football Elite?

Andrew Coppens@@andycoppensContributor IDecember 4, 2013

Nov 9, 2013; Ann Arbor, MI, USA; Michigan Wolverines head coach Brady Hoke during the game against the Nebraska Cornhuskers at Michigan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Visions of Stagg Trophies, Rose Bowl berths and national championship contention danced through the heads of many a Michigan fan when Brady Hoke was hired before the 2011 season. 

Three years later, there are no Stagg Trophies in the trophy case, no Rose Bowl berths and the Wolverines are closer to .500 than a national title. 

The optimism of Hoke's hire has been replaced with the skepticism of wondering if he is the man to lead Michigan back to the elite of the college football world. 

Wolverines athletic director Dave Brandon has put his faith in Hoke going forward, but what exactly needs to happen for the Maize 'N Blue to get back to its perch amongst the giants of college football? 

It's not as if the blueprint is all that unfamiliar to Hoke and the coaching staff. Year one under Hoke saw some things go right: The Wolverines won 10 regular season games, beat Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl and ended the season ranked No. 8 in the country. 

ANN ARBOR, MI - NOVEMBER 30:  Quarterback Devin Gardner #98 of the Michigan Wolverines avoids a tackle by cornerback Bradley Roby #1 of the Ohio State Buckeyes during a game at Michigan Stadium on November 30, 2013 in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  (Photo by Grego
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Since that start though, things haven't been able to stay at that level. Michigan dropped to 8-5 in 2012 and sits at 7-5 heading into its bowl game this season. 

There's nothing Hoke or anyone else can do about the last 25 games, but moving forward the results have to change or Michigan runs the risk of becoming something it never thought possible—nationally irrelevant.

As the calendar turns to December, the focus in Ann Arbor should be on figuring out what changes will equal success for college football's winningest program.

The biggest change that can help this program get back to national prominence is transitioning young, inexperienced and inconsistent players into experienced and consistent men. 

Michigan had 21 underclassmen listed on the 46-man two deep roster to end this season. 

That alone could contribute to some major inconsistencies. But, after 12 games of experience under those 21 guys' belts, the results weren't getting all that much better by season's end.  

The hope around the Michigan program must now rest on those players getting a full spring to get in the weight room and playbook again.

A noticeable jump needs to occur with the youngsters, otherwise Michigan will be right back where it started this season.  

Nowhere else is that jump going to be needed more so than at offensive line, which was a mess for most of the 2013 season. That group led the way for a running game that averaged 130.8 yards a game, which ranked 11th in the Big Ten. 

Michigan football under Brady Hoke is supposed to be about a solid run game and solid defense. Ranking next to last in the run game isn't where he wants to be. 

The good news is things looked brighter for the run game over the last three weeks than they did earlier in the season. After recording minus-21 yards against Nebraska, the Wolverines averaged 117 yards a game in the final three contests. 

It may not seem like much, but considering it was coming off of back-to-back games of negative rushing totals, breaking the 100-yard barrier was a huge achievement. 

As long as the group grows up and figures out each other's roles, this offensive line could turn things around. 

There's no lack of talent behind them either as freshmen running backs Derrick Green and DeVeon Smith showed promise with more extensive action later in the season. 

Nov 16, 2013; Evanston, IL, USA; Michigan Wolverines running back Derrick Green (27) runs with the ball as Northwestern Wildcats safety Traveon Henry (10) tackles during the first half at Ryan Field. Mandatory Credit: David Banks-USA TODAY Sports
David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Green hadn't rushed for over 25 yards in a conference game until the last three games, where he rushed for a combined 149 yards and went over the 50-plus yard mark twice.

Those 149 yards were more than his total for the other seven games he recorded stats in, combined. 

Smith didn't even see the field in Big Ten play until two of the final three games, and he ran for 98 yards in those two games. 

Overall, the two young backs showed promise late in the season, and that's a good thing for a team needing to find an identity in the rushing game. 

Beyond creating a solid run game, the Wolverines also need some of the young talent they have developed on defense to step up and become leaders. 

Gone next season will be defensive tackle Jibreel Black, nose tackle Quinton Washington, linebacker Cam Gordon and strong safety Thomas Gordon. 

That's pretty much the entire spine and heart-and-soul of the Wolverines defense from this year. 

It also could be a blessing-in-disguise for Michigan, as it will mean Brady Hoke's recruits will be fully integrated into the rotation on defense. 

That leads into the biggest thing that will get this program back to the top: recruiting and coaching those recruits into top-level Big Ten players. 

Hoke has had 247sports' No. 6 ranked 2012 class, the No. 4 ranked 2013 group and the currently ranked No. 12 class for 2014.

Michigan is not lacking for quantity or talent heading to Ann Arbor these days.

The defensive coaches have proven to have the ability to build solid players, with guys like Frank Clark, Brennen Beyer and Desmond Morgan making good strides each and every year in the program.

Behind them there's budding talent in names like Mario Ojemudia, Taco Charlton and Dymonte Thomas. 

The problem has been taking young talent and making them into immediate impact players on offense. Outside of Devin Funchess and possibly Jehu Chesson, the young offensive players have yet to break out into the stars who are needed to get back to national prominence. 

As the program moves forward with Hoke at the helm, this offseason will go a long way in dictating where this program goes.

The pieces are in place for this team to potentially break out, but without the final piece—talent turning into trophies—nothing else will matter. 


*Andy Coppens is Bleacher Report's lead writer for the Big Ten. You can follow him on Twitter: @ andycoppens


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