Season prediction: Michigan will win fewer games, despite stronger team
ANN ARBOR -- Michigan returns a bevy of starters from a team that went 11-2. That includes a star quarterback in Denard Robinson, a featured running back in Fitz Toussaint, a future first-round draft pick in left tackle Taylor Lewan and an intact defensive back seven.
The Wolverines will be better this year.
But they'll win fewer games.
It's no mystery why, either. It's the two issues that have caused blanching since the confetti fell in New Orleans: Suspect line play and a treacherous schedule.
The Wolverines played eight home games last year, and got two of its three rivals at home. Next year, they hit the road for a Big Ten-high six games, including for Notre Dame and Ohio State. Nebraska at night, too.
Meantime, the top line of the Wolverines' initial depth chart closely mirrors that of their Sugar Bowl depth chart. There are eight discrepancies, though, and seven of them come on the lines.
The other is at tight end, which is an extension of the offensive line.
Michigan's overall talent has improved. Schemes are fully implemented, now that the coaching staff is in its second year. This will be better team.
Its record just might not show it. Here's how I see it breaking down:
Sept. 1 vs. No. 2 Alabama (in Arlington, Texas)
Michigan enters its season opener a 12.5-point underdog, but will not be routed. Alabama is the superior team, but is powered by its defense, not offense. This game won't get out of hand, one way or the other, which gives the Wolverines a shot when they can score at any moment from the quarterback position. However, they just give up too much in both trenches -- its new-look defensive line, in particular, could be in trouble against a Tide offensive line brimming with talent and experience. Alabama will control the lines, the ball -- and, in the end, the game. LOSS (0-1)
Sept. 8 vs. Air Force
There will be an inevitable hangover from the Alabama game, after Michigan poured so much into that one this offseason. The Falcons run a triple-option offense, which is tricky to defend because it is seen so infrequently. Those are key ingredients for so-called "trap games" -- yet, Air Force graduated 17 starters, then removed five significant contributors from the team before camp. It just won't have the personnel to compete. WIN (1-1)
Sept. 15 vs. Massachusetts
UMass nearly upset Michigan in 2010, losing 42-37 at the Big House. The Wolverines have another high-powered offense, as they did in the nonconference that year, but the defense has since made significant strides. The Minutemen, making the leap from FCS to FBS this year, return only five offensive starters. WIN (2-1)
Sept. 22 at Notre Dame
Michigan has won the past three games in this series, each by four points, each in dramatic fashion. But it also struggled on the road last year, going 3-2 away from Ann Arbor and laboring in two of those wins. The road environment, at night, and the mounting pressure for Notre Dame to win one in this series, will be too much for the Wolverines. LOSS (2-2)
Oct. 6 at Purdue
Danny Hope, in his fourth season as Purdue coach, has his best team yet. It's loaded with experience -- returning 15 starters -- and will beat someone it shouldn't. But that someone isn't Michigan. The Wolverines are gunning for a Big Ten championship, and will be humming for their league opener. WIN (3-2, 1-0)
Oct. 13 vs. Illinois
Fourth-year Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is one of the better playmakers in the Big Ten, but Michigan's defense had one of its finest games against him last year. He also lost his favorite target, Big Ten leading receiver A.J. Jenkins, and has a new coach in Tim Beckman. The Wolverines prevail on homecoming. WIN (4-2, 2-0)
Oct. 20 vs. No. 13 Michigan State
Brady Hoke placed all his emphasis on beating Ohio State after he took the job last year, and succeeded. Meanwhile, his team seemed ill prepared for the physicality of Michigan State and its defensive schemes, and was whipped. This offseason, much more emphasis was placed on this series, with the Wolverines' losing streak now at four. They will be disadvantaged on the lines, but feature a third-year starting quarterback who twice has been mastered by MSU defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi. Not this time. Michigan brings a better game plan and renewed emphasis into this matchup, and has a home crowd behind it. WIN (5-2, 3-0)
Oct. 27 at No. 17 Nebraska
Nebraska coach Bo Pelini spoke before last season about the challenge his team faced scheming for an unfamiliar opponent nearly every week. That worry manifested itself, as the Cornhuskers wearied down the stretch, and were routed by Michigan. Now, though, Nebraska has been around the Big Ten block. It remains tough in Lincoln, gets Michigan at night -- and gets the better of Michigan. LOSS (5-3, 3-1)
Nov. 3 at Minnesota
Michigan bludgeoned Minnesota 58-0 last year. It hasn't lost in Minneapolis since 1977, and won the past 14 matchups by an average score of 40-13. The Gophers will be better this year, the second under coach Jerry Kill, but it won't be enough against a more talented Wolverines team that has yet to lose twice in a row under Hoke. WIN (6-3, 4-1)
Nov. 10 vs. Northwestern
Northwestern dominated Michigan for a half last year, before the Wolverines posted 28 unanswered second-half points. Now the Wildcats are breaking in a new quarterback, Kain Colter, and have to replace their top two receivers and top tailback. Michigan remains perfect in the Brady Hoke era at home. WIN (7-3, 5-1)
Nov. 17 vs. Iowa
Michigan's skid against Michigan State is lamented in Ann Arbor, but the Wolverines' winless streak against Iowa actually stretches back longer. The Wolverines haven't beaten the Hawkeyes since 2006, after dropping three in a row. Last year's defeat was particularly painful, as Michigan drove the length of the field and had four shots at the end zone in the waning moments. Junior Hemingway caught a touchdown pass on the final play, but was ruled out of bounds. The Wolverines will be seeking revenge, and will get it against an Iowa team that features only 11 returning starters. WIN (8-3, 6-1)
Nov. 24 at No. 18 Ohio State
Michigan struggled last year to beat a pedestrian Ohio State team at home. Now, Urban Meyer enters the fray, and the Buckeyes will pour everything into this one with a bowl game out of the picture. Michigan also has tenuous depth at several key positions, with true freshmen populating several spots on the depth chart. It's probable the Wolverines will be beat up heading into a place it hasn't won since 2000. LOSS (8-4, 6-2)