By RICKY LINDSAY, Sports Editor
The countdown is nearing its end. On August 31, college football will return to Ann Arbor as the Michigan Wolverines usher in the 2013 season.
Michigan continued to make strides last season with a hard-fought 8-5 record. However, they couldn’t overcome road woes for the second straight year, falling to five teams that boasted a combined 60-6 record. The Wolverines managed to snap Michigan State’s four-game winning streak in the series, but failed to start one of their own against bitter rival Ohio State.
When Brady Hoke returned to Ann Arbor to become Michigan’s head coach prior to the 2011 season, a lofty expectation from his days as an assistant was immediately instilled on a Wolverines team coming off a 7-6 campaign — win a Big Ten championship.
It’s been nine years since the Wolverines emerged as Big Ten champions, but as the team enters the 2013 season, the expectation three years in the making has become legitimate for the first time during the Hoke era.
Even with a relatively inexperienced roster, the Wolverines’ schedule screams nine wins at first glance. The team’s most threatening opponents have to make the difficult trip to the Michigan Stadium, but consistent play on the road will play a key role in the season’s direction.
Though the expectation is nothing less, if the Wolverines do fail in their quest for a Big Ten title, brighter days are quickly approaching Ann Arbor. Recruiting and player progression have become two key mixtures for continued success.
Leaders and Best
Gone are the days when Jordan Kovacs, Denard Robinson, and Roy Roundtree would sport the winged helmet on Saturday afternoons. The Wolverines are now led by the likes of Jeremy Gallon, Devin Gardner, Taylor Lewan, and Jake Ryan, which could prove to be both good and bad this season.
The task of leading a youthful wide receiver corps faces Gallon in his senior year. He caught 84 passes for 829 yards and four touchdowns last season.
Gardner is unproven over the course of a full season at the college level, but the redshirt junior has shown that he’s a worthy option for quarterback while replacing Robinson as center last season. He threw for 1219 yards with 11 touchdowns and five interceptions during the final five games of the 2012 season. Gardner should have an even larger impact in Michigan’s freshly implemented pro-style offense thanks to passing game weapons Drew Dileo, Devin Funchess, and Gallon.
Lewan shocked the world this January, passing up the NFL’s riches to return to Ann Arbor for his fifth season as a Wolverine. The 2012 All-American left tackle was the team’s lone representative on this year’s preseason list. Just as he’s done all training camp, the Wolverines’ captain will continue to help anchor and mentor a young offensive line throughout the season.
The Wolverines will be without Ryan until October. The linebacker tore his ACL this past Spring. Though he won’t be able to play, the junior will still provide an impact to his teammates as one of the team’s four captains.
The next wave of maize
The perks of a return to national prominence have benefited the Michigan program greatly. Top-notch recruits from across the nation have flocked to Ann Arbor since Hoke became head coach. The Wolverines have been in the top 10 of Rivals’ recruiting rankings in each of the past two seasons, a sizable jump from 21 in 2011.
Former top recruits, such as freshmen Taco Charlton, Derrick Green, Shane Morris, Dymonte Thomas, will all take the field for the first time in their college careers on August 31. The group, besides Morris, whom is currently stalled by Gardner, has the chance to provide a sizable impact this season, exemplifying the direction of Michigan’s program. Green could eventually wind up as the feature back by November, while Charlton and Thomas could earn more reps as they progress.
This new wave is far from over.
The Wolverines continue to reel in the nation’s top talent, maintaining an impressive spot in recruiting rankings. The team enters the 2013 season with 58 freshmen and 23 sophomores, easily outnumbering the 16 juniors and 16 seniors on the roster. Only 12 starters from last season returned to the program in 2013, allowing the youth movement to eventually affect the depth chart.
The Wolverines benefit right from the start with their scheduling. Notre Dame, Nebraska, and Ohio State, three teams Michigan fell to last season, visit the Big House in 2013.
The lone challenge on the schedule comes in early November, when Michigan travels to East Lansing to face rival Michigan State. By that time, however, the Wolverines could be sitting pretty with a perfect 7-0 record.
National championship runner-up Notre Dame will headline the season opening homestand when they make their final scheduled trip to Michigan Stadium for Under the Lights II. Central Michigan and Akron are sure to bring the MACtion to the Big House on August 31 and September 14, respectively. The Wolverines then hit the road to take on Connecticut, rounding out the September schedule.
Minnesota and Indiana visit Michigan Stadium with a trip to Penn State wedged in-between in October. Both the Golden Gophers and Hoosiers have improved since last season and could emerge as a dark horses in the Big Ten, while the Nittany Lions could play the role of spoiler as their season is meaningless with NCAA sanctions still in effect.
November arrives with a bang, proving to be one of the most grueling months across college football on paper. The Wolverines will look to start a winning streak of their own over Michigan State, a strong possibility with the Spartans’ inexperience on offense.
Nebraska visits the Big House the following week in a game that could determine the outcome in the Big Ten Legends division. The Cornhuskers have a strong offense, but Michigan’s young defense would have eight games of college football under their belt, setting up what could be a must-see battle.
If the Wolverines wind up falling to Nebraska, two mid-November trips westward would quickly serve as do-or-die bouts. Northwestern has evolved into a contender under coach Pat Fitzgerald, while Iowa has been a hiccup in Michigan’s dreams during their past encounters in Iowa City.
And all that sets up The Game on the final day of November. Both Michigan and Ohio State could very well enter their showdown with perfect records, setting up a rematch the following week in Indianapolis for all the Big Ten Championship roses.
Prediction: 10-2, overall, 6-2 conference