The 17th-ranked Michigan Wolverines kick off the 2013 campaign at home against intrastate foe Central Michigan on Saturday afternoon.
CMU stumbled out of the gate in 2012 by losing six of its first nine games, but it managed to turn things around in a big way by season's end, winning each of its last three regular-season contests to qualify for bowl consideration. In the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl, the Chippewas defeated Western Kentucky, 24-21, to finish at 7-6 overall, giving them more wins in one season than they had accumulated in head coach Dan Enos's first two campaigns combined (6-18).
The Chippewas held their own in a surprisingly strong Mid-American Conference, and Enos is optimistic that his team can continue to improve in 2013.
"We are very excited," Enos said. "The way we finished last year gave us a lot of positive momentum going into the offseason."
Michigan had sky-high expectations coming into the 2012 season with a No. 8 preseason ranking, although it underperformed slightly by finishing 8-5 overall and 6-2 in the Big Ten. The Wolverines fell victim to one of the nation's most difficult schedules, as four of their five losses came against teams that finished the year ranked in the top-10, including both BCS National Championship combatants, Alabama (41-14) and Notre Dame (13-6). Michigan accepted a bid to the Outback Bowl, but lost to South Carolina, 33-28.
"8-5 is unacceptable," Michigan head coach Brady Hoke said. "It's unacceptable at Michigan. It's unacceptable for us."
"We're a young team," he continued. "We've got to replace some guys who have been very important to Michigan football. But with that youth comes a lot of competition...the expectations, though, never change. And that's to win Big Ten championships."
This bout marks the fourth meeting between these two teams, all in Ann Arbor, with Michigan winning the previous three.
CMU's offense took big strides forward in 2012, scoring 28.8 ppg and racking up nearly 400 yard per contest thanks mostly to the play of its outstanding tailback, Zurlon Tipton.
Tipton shined in his first season as the featured back, rushing for 1,492 yards on nearly six yards per attempt. He was also a menace near the goal line, scoring a total of 20 times, although the loss of All-American tackle Eric Fisher, the first overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, could hinder Tipton's production slightly.
The departure of quarterback Ryan Radcliff (3,158 yards, 23 TDs, nine INTs) leaves a huge question mark under center for the Chippewas. Cody Kater has been named the starter, but he has attempted just four passes in his career. In the event Kater disappoints, Alex Niznak or Cooper Rush could supplant him.
Luckily for the quarterbacks, Titus Davis (43 rec, 860 yards, eight TDs) is back and he should continue to be one of the most trusted targets in the MAC. The inexperienced QBs could lean more heavily on Tipton (24 rec, 287 yards) as a check-down option.
CMU was held back by a porous defense a season ago, as it yielded 32.4 ppg and 432.4 ypg, although the return of seven starters on that side of the ball should help matters somewhat in the coming campaign.
Justin Cherocci (132 tackles) and Shamari Benton (126 tackles) are rock-solid options at linebacker. Safety Avery Cunningham has the ability to make plays all over the field, recording 88 tackles, 6.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks, two INTs, two forced fumbles and a blocked kick in 2012.
Michigan's offense was one of the most effective in the Big Ten in 2012, scoring nearly 30 points per game while displaying a strong balance between the run (183.8 ypg) and the pass (199.3 ypg).
With the departure of Denard Robinson, one of the most dynamic playmakers in school history, the offense will certainly have a new look in 2013, but the good news is that the incumbent starter at quarterback, Devin Gardner, gained plenty of experience last season while Robinson was injured or playing other positions. Gardner completed 75-of-126 passes (.595) for 1,219 yards with 11 touchdowns and five interceptions, and the Wolverines will be a much more conventional offense with him under center.
"I think Devin, his maturity and understanding what it is to be the quarterback at Michigan, I think he's absorbed that, understands the decisions that we have to make as a football team and the decisions that he makes a quarterback," Hoke said. "They're going to be very important."
Gardner added seven rushing scores a year ago, but at just 2.1 ypc, he's certainly not the rushing threat that Robinson was. The offense will need a trusty running back to rely on, and the Wolverines hope that Fitzgerald Toussaint is the man for the job. Toussaint was impressive in 2011 (1,041 rushing yards), but he gained just 514 yards last season before being lost for the year with a leg injury.
Top receiver Jeremy Gallon returns a season after posting 49 receptions for 829 yards and four touchdowns. Gallon was especially effective with Gardner under center, hauling in 31 balls and the duo's chemistry should carry over into the new season.
Defensively, Michigan was outstanding in 2012, ranking 20th in the FBS in allowing just 19.8 ppg.
Big things were expected out of Jake Ryan (88 tackles, 16 TFL) this season, but he tore his ACL during spring workouts. Even if he's able to return later in the year, he clearly won't be at 100 percent. In Ryan's absence, Desmond Morgan (81 tackles) will act as the quarterback of the unit.
Thomas Gordon (81 tackles) and Raymon Taylor (45 tackles, two INTs) bring experience to the secondary, while Frank Clark (9.0 TFL) and (32 tackles, 3.0 TFL, FF) are poised to breakout along the defensive line.