Just a few days from the start of the season, the time has come to put our predictions to paper. Or the internet, where they will forever live, serving as a reminder of the surge of optimism that perpetually springs just before the don of a new season. All the usual suspects – Justin, Chris, Sam, Josh, and Katie – will give their predictions, as will the newest member of our staff, Derick, who you have read in our preseason Predicting Michigan series. You can view all of our staff bios on the Meet the Staff page.
With introductions out of the way, let’s get down to business.
What are you most excited about this season?
JUSTIN: I’m excited about the return to the Michigan football of old. Denard Robinson will forever be remembered as a great Michigan football player, but as was apparent he had his limitations and Al Borges was never able to fully implement his offense.
Back when Rich Rodriguez was announced as the new head coach to replace Lloyd Carr, there was a lot of excitement over the kind of offense he could bring to Ann Arbor, the likes of which none of us had ever seen. The Michigan brand of football had gotten a little stale during the latter part of Carr’s tenure, so we were excited for something new. Well, we all know how that turned out and now a return to smash-mouth Michigan football with mammoth offensive linemen and tall, rangy wide receivers sounds more appealing than ever. It’s funny how perspective changes.
There will still be some pieces of spread mixed in, but with Devin Gardner behind center Borges’ offense will be able to thrive. It will take a little time to be sure, with a young interior line and group of receivers, but I’m excited to see the return to Bo and Mo and Lloyd’s brand of football.
CHRIS: Seeing how the offense will look with Devin Gardner as the starting QB and a stable of quality running backs, including the return of Fitz Toussaint from a major injury, and a group of young, top recruits.
JOSH: Having a legitimate passing threat under center and getting back to real Michigan football. It’s been far too long since we’ve seen that style and been good at it (2006). To me Michigan football is a smash mouth running game and a tough defense, I think we get one step closer to resembling the teams of yesteryear.
SAM: Besides football being back? Well, to start off, I’m excited about the potential of the offense to put up some points with Devin Gardner leading the way, a crowded yet talented corps of running backs, a tight end that can make any defender look foolish, two bite-sized receivers with hands made of glue, and an actual, tangible depth chart on the offensive line that doesn’t read “PANIC” after the starter goes down. I think Al Borges is finally starting to see an offense on the field close to the one he envisioned when joining Brady Hoke in Ann Arbor two seasons ago, and the results should start to show. Denard Robinson was an other-worldly talent, but his skill set simply did not match up with what the New Michigan is looking to do – pound the ball behind a physical offensive line and take deep shots down the field when the safeties are forced to cheat up. Gardner certainly has the physical abilities to run the system to near perfection, and if he starts up where he left off last season, the Wolverines should light up the scoreboard.
As a special aside, I also want to give Dennis Norfleet a quick shout-out as the lead punt and kick returner. Norfleet is probably the single most exciting player on the roster, and I think it’s about time Michigan scored on special teams. Look for that to happen within the first two weeks of the season.
DERICK: The return of a potent passing attack to the offense. As Denard Robinson moves on to the NFL, Brady Hoke and Al Borges will try to move back in the direction of a physical offensive style. Quarterback Devin Gardner will lead the 2013 Michigan offense with a revamped passing attack. During his starts at the end of 2012, Gardner proved that he has an accurate arm and can extend plays with his legs. Receivers like Jeremy Gallon, Drew Dileo and Amara Darboh figure to have big seasons with Gardner under center.
KATIE: Seeing what Devin Gardner can do, and if he finds a go-to in Gallon or Funchess.
What worries you the most entering the season?
JUSTIN: My main concern is the inexperience on the offensive line and at receiver. Returning to a power running game is great, but you have to have interior linemen that can open holes for your backs. Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield are solid bookends, but how quickly will Graham Glasgow, Jack Miller, and Kyle Kalis gel? The opener against Central Michigan will be a good dry run, but we’ll get our first real indication in Week 2 against Notre Dame’s ferocious defensive front.
At receiver, the loss of Amara Darboh to injury is a big blow. Jeremy Gallon and Drew Dileo are well established, but the offense needs a guy like Darboh who can play the Junior Hemingway/Adrian Arrington role. A lot of pressure will fall on Jehu Chesson to step up, which I think he’s more than capable of doing. I’m not sold on Jeremy Jackson and Joe Reynolds, who have had three years to step up and still haven’t done so.
CHRIS: How an inexperienced group of players on the offensive and defensive lines will mature and get better throughout the season. With three new starters on the offensive line, and essentially three new starters on the D-line, I believe this to be the key to how good of a season that the Wolverines end up having.
JOSH: Lack of known commodities on the line, receiver, and running back. A LOT of talented, but inexperienced, kids on this roster at key spots could mean for some serious growing pains early on. With Notre Dame coming to town in Week 2 this more than worries me, even though I am not sold on ND being nearly as ‘good’ as they were last year.
SAM: This might be wacky, but I am going with the offense again, and specifically Gardner. While he possesses all the tools to excel in Borges’s offense, I’m still a little wary of crowning the redshirt junior as the savior of the program, the one who will bring Michigan full circle. I know it’s been a long time since the spring of 2011 and 2012, but Gardner’s struggles in the spring games of those two years will always be in the back of my head.
With his big arm, pinpoint precision, and capable legs, Gardner can be great, but I’m a little skeptical of his decision-making. I’ve seen him scramble and throw an ill-advised bunny one too many times to rest easily this week of the season opener, and I am worried that his success over the last five games of last season were partially a product of opposing defenses having very little information on him. With a full offseason to break down tape, opposing coaches have certainly found new ways to try to attack Gardner, and any hesitancy on his end early on could signal trouble in Ann Arbor.
Again, there is no doubting Gardner’s potential, and I do think he will have a very good year; I am just not quite ready to bring both feet onto the bandwagon.
DERICK: The youth on the interior offensive line. While Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield will be solid at the tackle positions, the rest of the offensive line is a question mark. Two talented recruiting classes will battle to fill the remaining three spots. Too much youth can be an issue on either line, but fortunately Michigan has Lewan to lead the young players and help make up for any mistakes. If the line can protect Gardner, the offense should be potent.
KATIE: Some of our offensive line is young. That, coupled with an unsure running game.
Who will be the breakout player on offense this season?
JUSTIN: Darboh was going to be my pick, so the obvious choice now would be Chesson. But I’m going to go a little out of the box and say Jake Butt. Last year, I correctly picked Devin Funchess, so I’ll stick with that position which Borges absolutely loves. With Darboh out, I could see Borges utilizing the tight end position even more, and Funchess is the known commodity as far as opposing defenses are concerned. That could free up Butt for some open looks much like Funchess got last year, although he likely won’t get as many targets because of, well, Funchess.
CHRIS: Derrick Green- I know that this is the easy pick considering his highly regarded status as one of Michigan’s top signees ever, but this guy is good. His size and speed are unparalleled for a freshman running back and he’ll have the opportunity get a large amount of playing time given the uncertainty in the Michigan backfield. With a couple weeks left in fall camp, it appears that Fitz Toussaint is taking control of the top spot, however the offense will feature more than one guy running the ball. I like Green’s chances to have an excellent season.
JOSH: So many options and it seems like a cop out to go with Gardner or Funchess, so I’m going to stick with a first year starting wide receiver, Jehu Chesson. He’s a tall, fast guy that can take the top off the defense and open things up underneath for Gallon, Dileo, and Norfleet. He’s had a year in the system and from what I’ve read he seems to be an incredibly humble and hardworking kid. Not sure he’s Mario Manningham 2.0 yet but he’s got the size and speed to fill that type of role.
SAM: I already alluded to some of his mismatch-making in regards to why I’m excited about the offense this year – I think Devin Funchess is a guy you will see turn heads this year. The sophomore out of Farmington Hills set the world on fire early on in his debut season, catching touchdowns in weeks two and three against Air Force and Massachusetts and recording multiple catches in three of the first four games, but he kind of fell off the map as the season wore on. Over the last nine games of the season, Funchess never recorded a multiple-catch outing, and his highest yardage output over that same span was just 29.
His potential is both clear and vast, however. A whopping 33 percent of Funchess’s 15 receptions last season went for scores, and his 6’5″, 235-pound frame (now with added muscle!) is enough in itself to make defensive coordinators toss and turn at night. In Borges’ offense, tight ends are called upon to block quite often, and blocking is unfortunately the biggest area Funchess needs to improve upon, but his added weight should help him see more snaps and, in turn, more targets this year. His monstrous hands make him an obvious red zone target, and his overall length and athleticism should get plenty of run over the middle and on broken plays where Gardner will be seeking a safety valve. Look for Funchess to at least double his catches in 2013 while recording 600-plus yards and eight scores.
DERICK: I’m going to go with Jehu Chesson now that Darboh is out. I really think that the second receiver behind Gallon is poised to have a big year behind him and Funchess in the passing attack. Gardner should be able to spread the ball out and use his entire receiving core, so if Chesson can step in and take over a big role that I believe Darboh was destined for he can pick up important offensive production that Michigan lost with Roundtree graduating.
KATIE: I would like to see Derrick Green rack up yards as a freshman, like Hart did, and make the next few years look even more enticing.
Who will be the breakout player on defense this season?
JUSTIN: The obvious pick here is James Ross, but in my opinion, he already had a semi-breakout at the tail end of last season. He’s due for big numbers this year. But I’m going to say a guy not many people are talking about: Raymon Taylor. He was thrust into the starting role last season when Blake Countess went down with a season ending knee injury and performed admirably, probably even better than J.T. Floyd. Now, with Countess back and grabbing all the attention, Taylor has locked down the other starting corner spot. He made a big interception against Notre Dame and followed that up with another the next week, and I think it’s safe to say we can expect more from him this season now that he has 11 starts under his belt.
CHRIS: Frank Clark- Even though he played in all 13 games last season, he only started the final four. In those four games, he had excellent performances, including a huge one against Ohio State. This season he will be counted on to man one of the defensive end positions and to be one of the defensive leaders. He is an excitable player who will be counted on to anchor a defensive line which has only one true returning starter, and that player, Quinton Washington, only started 10 games. Clark must quickly become a force to reckon with if the Wolverines want to win versus better competition.
JOSH: I’d love to say Dymonte Thomas, I think he’s going to be really good, but everyone else probably will say that too, so I’m going to go with Blake Countess. He had a great freshman year then missed all but a few plays of last season. With almost a full year to recover and hone his craft. I don’t think we’re looking at Ty Law or Charles Woodson type play but he seems poised to make a name for himself as another great Michigan defensive back.
SAM: Funchess is a tremendous breakout candidate on offense because of all the physical attributes he possesses, but on the defensive side of the ball, my pick for breakout player will thrive for the exact opposite reasons. James Ross III, another true sophomore, from nearby Orchard Lake, is not the biggest guy on the field, but his instincts and grit will one day make him a great linebacker at Michigan. At 6’1″ and 220 pounds, Ross is certainly not a prototypical Big Ten backer, and at barely 19 years of age, “Biggs” is younger than ideal as well, but he has heart and quickness in bunches.
With only 21 solo tackles and 15 assisted tackles last season, Ross has hardly scratched the surface. I love his ability to quickly diagnose the play and react accordingly without hesitation. Yes, sometimes such an aggressive style has and will lead to getting burned on play action, but with more experience will come better decision-making. A James Ross that correctly reads every offensive play is a James Ross that no running back or quarterback wants to face. The second year man is a sure tackler, a solid cover man, and the embodiment of a football player. Look for him to rack up 10 tackles for loss this year on his way to being the second-leading tackler on the team.
DERICK: Frank Clark. The new start at defensive end could be a jump start for Frank Clark’s career. The 6’2″ junior contributed on the line at times during his sophomore season, and figures to play a much bigger role in 2013. It is crucial that Michigan gets pressure on opposing quarterbacks without blitzing linebackers this season, because the secondary has remaining questions. If Clark can be an effective pass rusher it could make a huge different for Michigan.
KATIE: James Ross III. Not that he didn’t have a breakout freshman year, but I’m expecting him to have matured more and be someone who will make a big impact at the linebacker position.
What is your prediction for the season? What will Michigan’s record be? Who will Michigan lose to? What bowl game will Michigan make?
JUSTIN: Great recruiting classes by Hoke the past couple of years have turned up the excitement level big time. But let’s not forget Hoke’s first full class is still sophomores. I think we’re a year away from competing for a national championship, but that doesn’t mean a Big Ten title is out of the question. However, it’s not going to be easy. If Michigan had Ohio State’s schedule, a spot in the Big Ten title game would be a no-brainer, but the November stretch of at Michigan State, home against Nebraska, at Northwestern, at Iowa, and home against Ohio State is going to be brutal. There’s no margin for error prior to November, which means Michigan has to win at Penn State, which I think they will.
Two of the three top contenders in the Legends division, Michigan State and Nebraska, don’t even have to face Ohio State, so they have the easier path the to Legends division title. That means those two games are critical for Michigan. Lose one and the Ohio State game is a must-win. Lose both and Michigan probably won’t make it to Indianapolis.
I think the Ohio State game will be a must-win regardless. I think the only way a rematch happens (without being undefeated) is if Michigan beats Michigan State and Nebraska, but falls to Northwestern…which is exactly what I think will happen. I see Michigan undefeated heading into East Lansing. State just doesn’t have the offense this year, so a win there and a win the following week against Nebraska will leave Michigan 9-0 as they travel to Northwestern. That’s the game that will trip Michigan up coming off of two big wins. Michigan will then beat Iowa and fall to Ohio State, finishing 10-2. Northwestern will also lose to Ohio State and two of the three against Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Nebraska, finishing 9-3. A win over Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship game will fittingly send Michigan to Pasadena for the 100th Rose Bowl where Michigan will lose to Stanford, finishing 11-3 overall.
CHRIS: In all reality, the Wolverines have the chance to go 12-0, and I’m not only saying that because every team has a chance to do that each year. However, Team 134 will need to avoid the pitfalls of some tough games, especially once the November schedule hits.
Prior to Michigan’s first November game against MSU, they need to be 7-0, and I think they will be. The only tough game during that stretch is Notre Dame, but the game is at home, under the lights, and I believe that the Irish will take a step back this year compared to the 2012 team. MSU will be a decent squad this year if they can break in new starters for half of the positions on both offense and defense. Michigan’s offensive and defensive line play will have to be stout by this game, otherwise there could be trouble. Plus, MSU will be looking for payback after last year’s heartbreaking, last-second loss.
After that, Michigan gets Nebraska at home. I don’t expect the Huskers to be a very good team this year, especially on defense, where they only return four starters from a defense which wasn’t particularly good last season. They do return Taylor Martinez at the QB position, who is a streaky passer and a good runner when he gets the opportunity. Michigan will need to take advantage of a weak offensive line and contain Martinez to win this game, as well as watch out for a potential let-down following the MSU game.
After that comes the game that worries me the most- At Northwestern on Nov 16. They return 15 starters on both sides of the ball, plus both starters in the kicking game. They have two good QBs in Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian, each of which will attack the Michigan defense with different styles. They also have stud running back Venric Mark returning, who is the top returning player at that position. The defense will be good as well, with three returning starters in a secondary which struggled at times last season. I see a couple of keys for Michigan which will allow them to win this game: good defensive line play and a quality game plan by Greg Mattison which will confuse three new starters on the offensive line; and a quick re-focusing by the players after two tough games. Ryan Field can be a tough place to play, especially if the game is played with a noon EST kickoff. That’s 11am Central time, and if the Wolverines don’t come focused and ready to play, an upset could happen.
The comes Iowa at their place. Should be a win.
Then, The Game. Ohio State will likely come to the Big House 11-0 and looking for a spot in the Big Ten Championship game and a potential BCS National Championship appearance. The Buckeye offense will be good and will put up a lot of points this season. Michigan’s defense will be tested by the large number of weapons which Ohio State can attack with. Defense is another story, however. They only have four returning starters on this side of the ball, although the spots will be filled by quality, yet unproven, recruits. With the weapons on Michigan’s offense, this has the potential to be a shoot-out, with the team that wants it the most coming out on top.
I expect this Michigan team to finish the season 10-2 or 11-1. There’s that potential loss to Northwestern hanging out there, but I think that Brady Hoke will ensure that the team is ready to play against a quality Big Ten opponent. I don’t think that Michigan has the overall experience and talent yet to beat Ohio State. While I do think the game will be close, Ohio State will have too much for the Wolverines. With this being said, there is potential for a Michigan-OSU rematch in the Big Ten Championship. For this to happen, Michigan cannot lose any other conference games, especially to opponents on their side of the Division. If the two teams rematch, Michigan will win and take the Big Ten crown for 2013 and play in the Rose Bowl.
JOSH: I can honestly see this team going undefeated or losing four games again. There is just too much uncertainty at key positions to make a good prediction, but I’ll venture one anyway. There are too many toss-up games on the schedule for me to feel confident about a largely young and inexperienced team. Notre Dame, MSU, Nebraska, OSU, and you can’t count out Northwestern. 9-3 (6-2), no B1G title game appearance and Outback Bowl again.
SAM: I have Michigan going 9-3 in the regular season and finishing in first place in the Legends Division before heading to the Big Ten championship game, where they will face off with Ohio State before heading to a bowl game somewhere where it’s warm. The schedule is not extremely difficult, but Michigan is still probably a year away from competing on the national level. I see the Wolverines dropping two of the four of Notre Dame, at Penn State, at Michigan State, and at Northwestern, and one to the Buckeyes. After finishing out the regular season, I think Michigan will lose again to Ohio State in Indianapolis before winning their bowl game to finish at 10-4 overall.
If you are thinking, “isn’t this the guy that wants back-to-back matchups with Ohio State?” The answer is yes, I am. Unfortunately this is the wrong year to potentially have that come up. The Game should be a classic, but I think Michigan’s defense will be just a step behind Ohio State’s offense and the Scarlet and Grey will take the cake. Regardless, there is plenty to look forward to this season, and there’s a reason they play the games. Maybe, just maybe, the Maize and Blue will prove me wrong.
DERICK: 11-3, B1G runner-up, BCS at-large. Michigan could definitely go into The Game at the Big House with a 10-1 record. The loss of Everett Golson makes the Notre Dame game very winnable for the Wolverines, but the gauntlet of Michigan State, Northwestern, Nebraska and Iowa will be difficult to endure without a loss. If Michigan can go 3-1 through that game I think they can split with OSU (since the Buckeyes will likely be playing in the Big Ten Championship game) and likely win the game at home and get a Sugar Bowl bid if the SEC sends their champion to the National Championship Game. The bowl game will be difficult, obviously, and could be the third straight game against a top-5 team for Michigan. After a strong start to the season, I think the final few weeks could be tough.
KATIE: A 9-3 regular season finish and 6-2 in the Big Ten.