Preseason countdown: No. 12 Michigan

BY foxsports • July 26, 2012

Before everyone gets all excited about the idea of Michigan being back to being Michigan again, remember: Even when it was rocking and rolling, Michigan needed to be better.

Why not just accept what last year was, and be happy?

Michigan went 11-2, beat Ohio State and won the Sugar Bowl. It was as good a season as could reasonably be asked for after the terrible Rich Rodriguez era.

2011 wasn’t a culmination and it wasn’t even a step forward. It was what the roto-geeks like to call a regression to the mean. The 2009 and 2010 teams weren’t quite as bad as the combined 12-13 record -- okay, maybe the defenses were -- and the 2011 team wasn’t as good as its final record. But what that season did do was put Michigan back on the national map in terms of what might be coming next.

Coach Brady Hoke has been able to use last year to show recruits that Michigan really is close to being Michigan again, only better. He’s bringing in the talent to prove that, delivering -- at the time this is written – Scout’s No. 1 recruiting class for 2013 after coming up with the fourth-ranked haul last February. All of a sudden, Michigan has become a cool place to go again and Hoke is capitalizing.

For this year, Hoke’s team has the talent, the breaks -- with the rest of the Big Ten down or rebuilding -- and the coaching to win the Big Ten title if everything goes according to plan.

Denard Robinson is way overdue to be considered a legitimate Heisman candidate past the first half of a season, and he has a good line to work behind and a great running mate in Fitzgerald Toussaint, who was recently suspended, to help carry the load. The defense needs to make some major replacements up front, but the coaching is peerless and the back seven has the right combination of experience, smarts and athleticism to be outstanding.

Everything is in place, but more importantly, everything is improving to the level that Michigan fans have been waiting for.

Michigan isn’t close to being Michigan again. It’s close to being better.

What to watch for on offense: The receiving corps. The offensive line has to replace some key parts, but it’s a good-looking group that just needs a little bit of tweaking to be as good as or even better than the 2011 version. The running game should rock with Robinson and Toussaint as electrifying as any rushing tandem in the country; however, they need more from the receivers to help keep the safeties from cheating up. Roy Roundtree has to be better after a strange drop-off in production from his great campaign two years ago. Jeremy Gallon has tremendous potential, but he has to show he can explode, while the tight ends are unproven with Kevin Koger gone.

What to watch for on defense: A fantastic back seven. There doesn’t seem to be too much concern from the coaching staff about the rebuilt line that loses some key parts, but it’s still asking a lot to be as good as last season’s veteran front four. Fortunately, the back seven has the potential to be outstanding with Kenny Demens leading a good group of linebackers that started to come into their own down the final stretch of the season. The secondary is loaded at corner and excellent at safety, but all the experience has to translate into more big plays and more picks.

The team will be far better if: It always runs well. It was a simple deal last season; when Michigan’s running game rocked, everything else fell into place. The four worst rushing days of last season came against Virginia Tech (56 yards and no touchdowns) in the near-miss in the Orange Bowl; Notre Dame (114 yards and one touchdown) in the near-miss in early September; Iowa (127 yards and no scores) in a loss; and Michigan State (82 yards and one score) in a defeat. In the other nine games, Michigan won each (except for the Ohio State game) by double digits and ran for at least 179 yards and two scores in each of the wins. The 179 yards against Northwestern was the only one of those nine victories with fewer than 200 yards on the ground.

The schedule: Michigan has the talent and the ability to come up with a great season, and it could be a special year with a win in the opener over Alabama in Arlington. Air Force isn’t a layup to follow, but the Falcons have some rebuilding to do. UMass is the final tune-up before the trip to Notre Dame in one of the most anticipated games of the season. The week off comes before the start of the Big Ten season, which is nice, but it would’ve been better before the trip to Nebraska or the showdown against Ohio State. The yearly date with the Buckeyes from the Leaders is made that much harder because it’s on the road and it’ll be the OSU’s bowl game. Missing Wisconsin is a break, and the division play won’t kick in until mid-October after starting out against Purdue and Illinois. Going to Nebraska will be a problem in the fight to win the Legends, especially after facing Michigan State.

Best offensive player: Robinson. Always everyone’s Heisman favorite after September, he has faded out of the race over the last two seasons even though he has been one of the best players in college football. All he has done is crank out 3,229 rushing yards and 35 scores and 8,160 yards of total offense over the last three seasons. While he’ll never be a top-flight passer, there’s nothing more breathtaking in college football than watching him run in the open field. He might throw too many interceptions, but the running ability makes up for it.

Best defensive player: Demens. He might not be all that flashy and he might not have the name recognition yet, he has been one of the Big Ten’s steadiest tacklers over the last few seasons, making 94 stops last year with three sacks and 82 tackles in 2010. One of the team’s biggest linebackers, he’s a rock in the middle that everything works toward, but he has the range and the burst to chase down plays and get into the backfield.

Key player to a successful season: Senior DT Will Campbell. Because of his 6-foot-5, 322-pound size and his decent athleticism, he’s actually the best pro prospect on a defense that he hasn’t done much for him since joining the program as a top recruit. He moved over to the offensive line for a while before moving back and making 14 tackles last season in a reserve role. If he’s able to sit on the nose and anchor the defense, the pass rushers around him should shine and the run defense could be a rock. But first he has to prove he can handle a full-time job.

The season will be a success if: The Wolverines win the Big Ten title. Ohio State can’t go to the Big Ten Championship Game and the rest of the Legends division is a bit down. Iowa is average; Michigan State has to do some retooling; Nebraska still doesn’t have any diversity on offense; and Minnesota and Northwestern are Minnesota and Northwestern. Anything less than a Legends title and a win over, most likely, Wisconsin, in the Big Ten title game will be a major disappointment.

Key game: Oct. 20 vs. Michigan State. For all the bluster about the Ohio State rivalry, that doesn’t really matter that much now that the Big Ten is in two divisions, it’s Michigan State that’s the big problem in a rivalry that really does mean something. It should be the game for the Legends title as the Wolverines will try to break the four-game losing streak. With road games at Nebraska and Minnesota to follow, and with an away game at Ohio State to close out, finally getting by Sparty again will be a must.

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