It has become our tradition at the beginning of each season to preview the upcoming season via a staff roundtable. We answer several questions with our predictions and expectations for what the season will bring. Drew has moved on, but we still have Justin, Sam, Derick, and Josh. We also invited our partner at MmmGoBluBBQ, Joe, to join us for the roundtable. We also invite you to give your answers in the comments below. Tell us what you agree with or disagree with. Next week we will begin our game week coverage.
|What are you most excited about this season?|
Justin: I’m most excited about what should be a very good defense. With so much talent and experience returning, it should be one of the top defenses in the Big Ten and may have to carry the team, at least in the early going. The best Michigan teams in recent history have featured stifling defenses — most notably 1997 and 2006 — and I think I can speak for most Michigan fans when I say I miss the days of Michigan having a dominating defense. It’s a major stretch to say this year’s unit could be as good as the 1997 one, but anywhere close would make for a very good season.
With most of the big questions on the offensive side of the ball, the defense is going to need to be very good, and if it is we have two recent examples that could foreshadow the upcoming season: Notre Dame in 2012 and Michigan State in 2013. Notre Dame’s offense ranked 80th nationally in scoring, 38th in rushing, and 72nd in passing that year but still made it to the national title game thanks to its defense. Last season, Michigan State’s offense ranked 63rd in scoring, 59th in rushing, and 84th in passing but still won the Big Ten and the Rose Bowl thanks to its defense. I’m excited for the possibility that Michigan’s defense, which should be more aggressive this fall, could carry the Wolverines to a special season.
Sam: I’m most excited about…football! After last year’s dreadful, seemingly never-ending season, I never thought I’d be so excited to see the Maize and Blue on the field just a season later, but I suppose hope reigns eternal right now. As far specific excitement about this team goes, I am really looking forward to seeing the whole defense working to live up to its enormous expectations. Every single position has an extremely strong two-deep, and every unit has at least one potential game-changer. With names like Frank Clark, Jake Ryan, James Ross III, and Jabrill Peppers, there’s no telling how good this defense could be. A consistent pass rush could mean a top-10 or even top-five defense nationally.
Derick: The most exciting storyline has to be the beginning of Jabrill Peppers‘ career in Ann Arbor. The No. 2 overall recruit has a chance to be a difference maker on defense and revive a kick return game that has been dormant since Steve Breaston left Michigan.
Josh: The defense and its personnel and scheme changes. I’d much rather see an aggressive, menacing defense with an average offense than an average defense with a high octane/high scoring offense. Luckily for Michigan it appears as though we just might get that menacing defense in 2014. That is something to be very excited about after we had to watch last year’s ‘bend but don’t break’ defense sit back and give up big gain after big gain.
Joe: I have a feeling that Coach Nussmeier will focus on building a strong run game with Green and Smith and help control the ball a little more than in recent years. Michigan has the horses to build an above avg. run game with these 2 and it will be fun to see if we can get back to a little smash mouth football at the big house. I’m also looking forward to some great BBQ on “Tailgate Tuesdays”.
|What worries you most entering the season?|
Justin: Okay, so this question is pretty rhetorical this year. The offensive line has to be the answer after last year’s meltdown and the loss of Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield. If it’s as bad as last season, even a high-caliber defense won’t save the team. But I really don’t think it will be. Do I expect it to be a mauling, classic Michigan offensive line? Absolutely not. But I do think it will be more cohesive than last season and more sound with a simplified playbook. Even so, until we see it in action, the worry is there.
Sam: If anyone’s biggest concern at this point is not the offensive line, he or she may want a quick crash course in foot-ball (American style). I can say with a straight face that Michigan has some sort of chance of having a First Team All-Conference player at every single position on the field (yes, this is still optimistic, but it’s at least feasible in some universe) besides the offensive line, where Michigan may not have a single Third Team-caliber performer, feasibly. The line is replacing two senior tackles who will most likely start one day in the NFL; even with those stars, Michigan’s big uglies up front last year were atrocious. Most people have been taking the glass-half-full approach in saying that there’s no way it can get any worse; it’s hard for me to look at the names on paper and wonder how in the world it could get any better.
Derick: After watching the spring game and the ‘Under the Lights’ scrimmage, how can the offensive line not be the No. 1 concern? Michigan’s defensive line was average for much of 2013, but looked like an elite unit against their offensive teammates. If Doug Nussmeier can’t improve this group, it won’t matter how much Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith have progressed.
Josh: The entire offense. They say that on defense 10 guys can fail as long as one guy makes the play. But on offense 10 guys can be doing their job and if one fails, then the play is lost. While the o-line clearly needs to be a cohesive unit that plays well, it’s not all on them and there are too many variables to work out before they can be a solid unit. Devin Gardner needs to be consistent and the running backs (whomever they may be) need to run with vision and be decisive. I see Michigan in a similar situation as Michigan State was coming into 2013; a potentially great defense that would be enough to carry them but no identity on offense. Last year the defense played well but faded late in the season as it was completely worn down after carrying the offense all year and it really showed in losses to Ohio State and Kansas State I fear we’ll see more of the same this year.
Joe: The offensive line is a HUGE concern due to the loss of both Schofield and Lewan. It wasn’t exactly a strong point last year and now it looks even more troubling. This group needs to gel quickly and improve on the “tackles for loss” that plagued them last year. 114 is way too many!
|Who will be the breakout player on offense?|
Justin: I would absolutely love to look into the crystal ball and pick a lineman that breaks out and puts together an all-conference season, and while it’s certainly possible, it’s impossible to predict. I also think Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith will split the workload, keeping either from truly breaking out. Therefore, it has to be a pass-catcher, and I’m going to go with Jake Butt. He’s out for the first couple of games at least, but is progressing very well in his return form a torn ACL. We got a taste of what he’s capable of last season — 20 catches for 235 yards and two touchdowns — and once he returns, he could put up some solid numbers.
We all know Devin Funchess will be the go-to receiver for Devin Gardner, but he’s going to have to find others to distribute the ball to so opposing defenses can’t simply game plan Funchess out. It’s very likely that either Jehu Chesson or Amara Darboh breaks onto the scene, but as a tight end, I see Butt becoming a crutch for Gardner. Butt fits right into Nussmeier’s offensive system and could be primed for a big season as long as he fully recovers from his injury.
Sam: This one is pretty easy for me. I don’t think the offensive line is going to be good enough for Michigan to have a star running back, so I immediately look to the outside. There I find Amara Darboh, a gentlemanly sized 6’2″, 211-pound redshirt sophomore wide receiver who was held out all of last season with a foot injury. Devin Funchess is the closest thing the Wolverines have to a sure thing this year, so Darboh should have plenty of opportunities to take advantage of cheating defenses, and his nice hands, solid size, and football IQ should make him a favorite of Devin Gardner.
Derick: Freddy Canteen will probably have one of the greatest impacts on the offense, but I think Devin Gardner will be the breakout player. Gardner struggled for much of the 2013 season, but pressure from the defense and a non-existent rushing attack made his job much harder. A healthy Gardner should take advantage of a deeper receiving core and become the quarterback fans saw for a few games at the end of 2012.
Josh: I’m really down on the offense heading into this season. True, I’m not in Schembechler Hall, but nothing I’ve seen or read since last season has given me any indication that this offense will be any better than last year’s. A simplified system and zone blocking schemes will help but they haven’t had much time with Nussmeier and development takes time and many reps. Plus the mere fact that a TRUE freshman is in line to start at left tackle tells me that this line is still in shambles and that could derail the entire offense, again. That said, I think Jake Butt (once he returns) is prime for a breakout season. I foresee Gardner looking for a safety valve as he runs for his life behind an inept line and Butt should be that safety valve. We saw glimpses of what Butt could do late in 2013 and I expect him to pick up where he left off.
Joe: I am hoping that an in shape and focused Derrick Green turns into the five-star tailback we recruited two years ago. If he can pound the ball and help control the clock, this offense can put up some big numbers. An effective Green would free up some young receivers and an elite Funchess down field.
|Who will be the breakout player on defense?|
Justin: Yeah, it’s a pretty generic answer that I’m sure others will give, but I’m going with Jourdan Lewis. The hype coming out of the spring and fall camp is too much to ignore. The coaching staff has talked about being more aggressive defensively, and Lewis fits that mold at corner. If he truly has beaten out either experienced corners like Raymon Taylor or Blake Countess, he’s earned it and it will only make the secondary better.
Sam: Defensive breakout players are a little bit harder for me to predict, and I admittedly don’t even know who would rightfully qualify as a “breakout” player this year. Would a senior Frank Clark, who has been solid but never great, qualify? How about a junior linebacker who has been playing plenty of snaps for two full seasons? I’ll assume I’d get picked on for taking either of those guys, so let me go with Jourdan Lewis, a 5’10″, 175-pound sophomore cornerback from Cass Tech. If preseason reports and practices are to be believed, it seems that Lewis has managed to wrestle away a starting spot from either senior Raymon Taylor or redshirt junior Blake Countess, both of whom were pretty solid contributors a season ago. The coaches have been emphasizing increased physicality and aggressiveness on defense, particularly from the cornerbacks, which fits right into Lewis’s strengths. If he indeed plays the first snap on defense against Appalachian State next week, Jourdan Lewis must have something going for him.
Derick: It has to be Jabrill Peppers. If he can’t contribute in the secondary then Michigan will be vulnerable to the pass all season, since Blake Countess is the only proven cornerback that can cover Big Ten recievers.
Josh: Jourdan Lewis, and it’s not even close. Yes, I do think Jabrill Peppers will show us why he was one of the best incoming recruits in recent memory but my money is on Lewis to really make massive strides from last season. He got his feet wet last year while relying on great athletic ability but now he has the technique and mental aspect to add to it. I fully expect him to be an All-Big Ten performer, and one of the best defenders in the conference, by season’s end.
Joe: Can I say Jake Ryan as my breakout player? I know he is a team captain and a stud at linebacker, but after missing five games last year due to a torn ACL, he will shine all season if healthy. He is a must for this team to keep pace defensively.
|Michigan will win the Big Ten if…|
Justin: The offensive line improves to simply average and the defense is as good as advertised. The defense will have to carry the team early on while the offense finds its feet, but I truly believe this is a team that has a lot of potential. It will all rely on improvement from the offensive line, but like I said above, if the defense lives up to the hype, a 2012 Notre Dame or 2013 Michigan State season is not out of question.
Sam: Michigan will win the Big Ten if the defense doesn’t allow a single point. In all seriousness, the defense has to be elite (probably allowing 15 or fewer points a game in Big Ten play) and the offensive line has to be above-average for Michigan to compete for their first conference championship since 2004. I think the defense can be elite, but I still think the offensive line is going to struggle a little bit too much for the team to reach Pasadena or beyond.
Derick: Michigan will win the Big Ten if the quarterback pressure we saw throughout camp was actually because of the elite defensive line Greg Mattison has assembled. If the offensive line can actually protect Gardner and create holes for the running game then the rest will fall in place.
Josh: Michigan State and Ohio State completely implode and each have multiple conference losses, a miracle happens with the offensive line’s development early on, Devin Gardner finally becomes the consistently good QB we know he can be all while Jabrill Peppers exceeds the hype, plays both sides of the ball and becomes the first true freshman to win the Heisman (read: I don’t think it’s even remotely possible for Michigan to win the B1G Ten this year). I’ve said it many times before and I’ll say it again, Michigan won’t be ready to legitimately compete for the B1G Ten until 2015.
Joe: We can get strong and smart play up front, as well as from our quarterback position. We must eliminate the untimely sack or tackle for loss that killed us on important drives last season. C’mon O-line, make it happen!
|What’s your prediction for the season? Record, who will Michigan lose to, what bowl game will Michigan play in?|
Justin: Regardless of how much improvement the offensive line shows, I don’t see Michigan winning less than eight games this season. But I think they’ll win more than that and finish the regular season 10-2 with losses to Notre Dame and Michigan State. I don’t think Notre Dame will be that great this year, but early on Michigan will still be trying to get its offense up to speed, and despite a valiant effort from the defense, bad things just happen in South Bend. The latter because Michigan State is still the team to beat in the Big Ten this season and, while Michigan will play closer than they have the past two years, it will be extremely tough to pull one out in East Lansing.
I do think Michigan will go into Columbus at season’s end and pull off a big win, leaving a three-way tie atop the East Division, but Michigan State will get the nod into the Big Ten Championship game. Michigan will go to the Capital One Bowl. I never predict the outcome of bowl games before the season because so many variables come into play about who the opponent will be.
I’m optimistic about this season and think this team will be very close to having a really special season that will surprise some people, but in the end it will come up just short, setting up big expectations for 2015.
Sam: My final prediction for the 2014 Michigan football season is as follows:
Bowl game: Wherever generic 10-2 Big Ten teams end up this season (too many to keep track of).
I think it will be a successful season overall that falls just short of the ultimate goals of conference and national championships. Michigan State’s defense should be able to wreak havoc on the offensive line yet again, and though Ohio State will be without Heisman hopeful Braxton Miller all season, their backup will have enough time to gel by the end of the season that the Buckeyes will edge the Wolverines once again at home.
Derick: I think Michigan’s season should be pretty straightforward. The Maize and Blue are great in Ann Arbor, so an easy home schedule should translate into seven wins. But tough road games at Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State make me shudder, and Brady Hoke’s resume on the road should turn all three games into losses. Michigan should take care of Northwestern and Rutgers on the road, giving it a 9-3 record for the season. Two Big Ten losses isn’t going to cut it for a trip to Indy, so Michigan will end up in the Capital One Bowl. Could Michigan win every single game on its schedule? Absolutely. But until fans see this team play solid football, there’s little reason to believe that more than nine wins are on tap.
Josh: My heart wants to be optimistic but my gut says this team’s lack of sufficient development spells doom in 2014. The offense has too many question marks for me to feel comfortable about having anything but very low expectations for them, which in turn puts more pressure on the defense to carry the team, again. The schedule does not set up in Michigan’s favor, with both MSU and OSU on the road (both of which are all but guaranteed losses in my mind). And as we’ve seen in the past Hoke’s teams consistently lose games they shouldn’t, mostly on the road (at Iowa in ’11, at ND and Nebraska in ’12 and atPSU, Nebraska and Iowa last year). They’ve gotten incredibly lucky against Northwestern the past two seasons and something tells me that luck may run out in 2014. Notre Dame, while losing several key players, is still on the road and that tilts the odds slightly in favor of the Irish. Utah could be a very dangerous trap game, sandwiched Miami (Ohio) and perennial bottom feeder Minnesota. Throw in the perennial inexplicable loss we’ve come to expect from Hoke’s Michigan teams and we’re sitting at 4 or 5 losses.
Right now I don’t see this team being better than 8-4, and not in the hunt for the East division. I see losses to MSU, OSU and then two more out of Notre Dame, Utah, Penn St. and Northwestern. They’ll still end up in a decent bowl because they’re Michigan, so something along the lines of the BWW Bowl like last year. Of course, I hope I’m completely wrong and the offense can come together and prove me horribly wrong but I won’t hold my breath.
Joe: I am predicting a 9-3 record for the Maize and Blue with losses at MSU, Northwestern and Ohio. Don’t ask me to explain the Northwestern loss, I just have a bad feeling. This will put them in the Outback bowl on Jan 1.