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Know your opponent: Week 11 edition, Michigan

Breaking down any given team’s strengths and weaknesses doesn’t paint a complete picture. To truly gauge a team’s win-loss potential in the preseason, analyzing the schedule is arguably just as important. We will have detailed, timely, matchup-based write-ups on each opponent in the week leading up. In the interim, we present to you our Northwestern opponent summer look-ahead. It’s a little thing called “Know Your Opponent.” The title describes itself: take a peek at the schedule, read up and head into the fall having already completed part of your weekly opponent studying diet.

The basics
2012 record: 8-5 (6-2 Big Ten)
Returning starters: Offense – 6, Defense – 6
Coach: Brady Hoke, 3rd season

2012 capsule

Five losses may seem like a lot for a team coming off a BCS bowl, looking to re-cement its rightful place in the annual national title discussion, but none of Michigan’s losses were particularly egregious or damning. In fact, aside from the 13-6 loss to Notre Dame – which isn’t so much bad because of the opponent it came against (Notre Dame went to the national championship game; losses to national championship runner-ups can be forgiven) but for the way UM managed just six points and played some of the ugliest offense we saw from any team last season – all of Michigan’s losses came against good to great teams. The Wolverines may have finished 8-5, but with an easier schedule (something closer to the slate they faced in 2011), Michigan might well have returned to a BCS bowl. This was a good team – don’t let win-loss record obscure overall quality.

Offensive overview

The offense Michigan runs this season should be much different from the spread system coordinator Al Borges was stuck maneuvering the past two seasons. With Denard Robinson at quarterback, the Wolverines couldn’t run the pro-style offense Hoke and Borges planned to implement all along, but that should change with Devin Gardner becoming the full-time starter in 2013. Gardner is a more conventional pocket-passer with above-average mobility, and even if he isn’t the archetypal drop-back laser gun Shane Morris promises to be over the next few years, Gardner should allow Borges and Hoke to conduct a fluid scheme-player dynamic more in keeping with their pro-style focus. Gardner’s best receiving targets include Jeremy Gallon and Drew Dileo and tight end Devin Funchess. True freshman Derrick Green was the top-ranked running back in 2013, and he could push senior Fitzgerald Toussaint for carries right away.

Defensive overview

There are small doubts littered about Michigan’s roster, including on the defensive line, where Michigan must replace two starters. Juniors Frank Clark and Jibreel Black and senior Quinton Washington will anchor the unit, and the talent stocked at both end and tackle should ensure there isn’t too much dropoff from last season. The linebacking corps won’t begin the season at full strength thanks to Jake Ryan’s offseason knee injury, but once Ryan does return (he’s expected to be back in October), Desmond Morgan and co. will have one of the better units in the Big Ten. The secondary, like most of this defense, could be great, but might wind up being just ok; that could change if junior Blake Countess figures out how to tap into his immense potential and sophomore Jarrod Wilson steps up at safety alongside veteran Thomas Gordon. Highly touted freshman Dymonte Thomas could see time at either safety spot.

Three players to watch

Devin Gardner, junior QB – For the past two seasons, Hoke and Borges made do with the quarterback and basic spread system (with considerable tweaks) Rich Rodriguez installed during his late-aughts tenure. With Gardner under center, a pro-style system will be implemented and the Wolverines offense should have a new look.

Derrick Green, freshman RB – In Michigan’s rich history of success, running backs were a preeminent component of offensive operation. Green is the best freshman in the country at his position, and he should have a chance to translate his high school hype into game action this fall.

Jake Ryan, junior LB – If the Wolverines linebackers can hold serve for the first six or so weeks of the season, Ryan’s return could provide a nice jolt of mid-season energy. Ryan may never play at full health this season, and particularly not in the first couple of weeks after returning, but the Wolverines will throw him into the mix all the same. 

Behind enemy lines: MGOBLOG purveyor Brian Cook (@mgoblog), on what to expect from the Wolverines this season:

“Michigan enters 2013 with a new offense that badly hopes Devin Gardner's stunning QB debut (10 YPA, a passer efficiency that would have been top ten nationally if he'd had enough attempts) wasn't a small-sample size mirage; they'd also like it if the young but touted interior offensive line would block someone--last year's old but untouted outfit could not. The Big Ten's best tackle combo should keep Gardner clean as he targets Jeremy Gallon (whose production projects out to 80 catches for 1300 yards if Gardner had been the quarterback all season), Devin Funchess, and Amarah Darboh. Michigan gets Fitz Toussaint back from a horrible broken leg and adds the #1 tailback in last years recruiting class, Derrick Green.

On defense Michigan loses the ultimate fixer in Jordan Kovacs; they also will miss Jake Ryan with a torn ACL, though he is projected to return midseason. Michigan gets back starting field corner Blake Countess from his own ACL issue to soften the blow. Pass rush will be a problem; Michigan hopes a swollen Frank Clark can deliver on a mountain of offseason hype. But it's an older unit this year and should start developing from a pretty good outfit to one on the verge of great.

A lot rides on Gardner, and his health. Michigan has no backup. They'll be one of the most unpredictable outfits in the conference with a mean finish around 9-3.”

Final Thoughts

In its final season of existence, the Legends Division has one team that stands above the rest. It’s Michigan. The Wolverines may not win the division outright – Nebraska has an easier schedule, and a road game at division challenger Northwestern, to say nothing of the annual rivalry bout with Ohio State, is a perilous tripwire – but they have more quality depth than any other Legends team and are more than capable of challenging for a BCS bowl game. Michigan’s climb from the post-Rodriguez wilderness hit its apex when the Wolverines, with Robinson at quarterback, won the 2012 Sugar Bowl against an overmatched Virginia Tech team. With all due respect to Robinson (and seriously, the way the dude handled switching positions last season was as classy as it gets), Michigan’s offense is more dangerous with a capable pocket passer, despite being less mobile, running the show. Gardner proved last season he can be an accurate passer, and any reduction in general playmaking ability or unpredictability caused by Robinson’s departure is offset by the presence of what should be a solid running attack led by Green and Toussaint, facilitated by a pro-style scheme the coaching staff is more comfortable overseeing. The defense has some question marks, particularly in the front seven, but most of them revolve more around inexperience than talent deficiency. Michigan has loads of talent on both sides of the ball; time will tell if the Wolverines can pack it together into a cohesive group effort. They should, and probably will be able to, and a Legends Division crown should follow.