2011 record: 11-2 overall, 6-2 in Big Ten (2nd in Legends)
2011 postseason: Sugar Bowl (23-20 OT win over Virginia Tech)
2011 final AP/coaches’ ranking: No. 12/No. 9
Head coach: Brady Hoke (58-52 overall, 11-2 in one season at Michigan)
Offensive coordinator: Al Borges (second season at Michigan, second as OC)
2011 offensive rankings: 13th rushing offense (221.8 ypg); 93rd passing offense (182.8 ypg); 42nd total offense (404.7 ypg); 26th scoring offense (33.3 ppg)
Returning offensive starters: seven
Defensive coordinator: Greg Mattison (second season at Michigan, second as DC)
2011 defensive rankings: 39th rushing defense (131.7 ypg); 16th passing defense (190.5 ypg); 17th total defense (322.1 ypg); 6th scoring defense (17.4 ppg)
Returning defensive starters: seven
Location: Ann Arbor, Mich.
Stadium: Michigan Stadium (109,901; FieldTurf)
Last league title: 2004 (co-champs with Iowa)
2011 statistics: [view]
A defense that was leaps and bounds above anything seen during the Rich Rodriguez era returns seven starters and a year’s worth of experience in coordinator Greg Mattison’s system, which certainly bodes well for UM’s chances both in the conference and nationally. Speaking of another year in the same system, quarterback/running back Denard Robinson will look to benefit from the experience he received last year in Al Borges’ offense, brought over from San Diego State but which also utilized some of the elements of the run-based spread that made Robinson so successful his first two seasons in Ann Arbor. Robinson reportedly had a very solid spring throwing the football earlier this year which, when combined with his still-lethal running ability, could have the senior poised to take his game up another notch or two.
Robinson, at least early in the season, may have no other choice but to take his game to the next level thanks to the off-field antics of one of his backfield mates. Fitz Toussant, who led all Wolverine backs in rushing last year with 1,041 yards, has been indefinitely suspended following a drunk-driving arrest last month. It’s unclear how many, if any, games Toussant will miss, although it’s a near certainty he will be unavailable for the opener. As critical as that game is for any BcS hopes the Wolverines entertain, losing Toussaint would serve as a significant blow.
While I lobbed plaudits on the defense, there is still uncertainty when it comes to that unit. Specifically, the defensive line and the loss of three of the four starters on that unit. How quickly the new starters as well as the rest of the line rotation adjust to the upgraded workload will go a long way in determining whether the defense as a whole continues its progress under Mattison.
Make-or-break game: vs. Alabama at Arlington, Texas, Sept. 1
The Game will always be The Game; this season though, with stratospheric expectations firmly in place, the game for the Wolverines will not be the regular-season finale at Ohio State, but the opener against the defending BcS champions. What better way for a team to measure itself and gauge its ability to compete on the national stage than to go to a neutral field and face a team that’s won two of the past three BcS titles? The Wolverines will do just that in front of a nationally-televised primetime audience, with the Tide providing as stiff an early-season litmus as one could hope to find.
Heisman hopeful: quarterback Denard Robinson
Last season for Robinson paled in comparison to his 2010 sophomore campaign, with the QB posting 923 yards less of total offense — 397 passing, 526 rushing — and a lower completion percentage — 55 percent to 62.5 — than he did during the final season under RichRod. He did account for four more total touchdowns, but even that was mitigated somewhat by four more interceptions than the year before as well as a handful more fumbles. That said, there were signs during spring practice that the light bulb may have indeed gone on for Robinson. If that’s the case, Robinson and his electrifying skills will be a part of the Heisman discussion throughout the year.