One Month Out: Previewing the 2011 Michigan Football Schedule and Season

Finally.

In less than a week Michigan will begin its fall football camp andin a little more than a month college football will finally begin again. It'shard to believe, isn't it? Especially if you are a Michigan Football fan. When the calendar turned to January 1, 2011, most of us were filled with optimism, just waking from dreams about a bowl win. Hours later we were hanging our heads in disgust anddays later we were looking for a new coach. Over the past eight months its hard to imagine a wider swing of emotions with the coaching search, the 2011 recruiting class signings, the transition, the excitement over the 2012 class, Jim Tressel's firing, and now the excitement over the coming football season. From the depths of despair to near giddy excitement.

Anticipation aside, there is football ahead and a nasty schedule awaiting the Maize andBlue this season. With that in mind we thought we'd preview the coming schedule in total, before delving into more complete examinations of each team. Let's be clear, this is a rough schedule. Notre Dame, Ohio State, and Nebraska all figure to be top 15 (if not top 10) schools when the rankings come out. Michigan State, Iowa, Illinois, Northwestern andSan Diego State will all field highly competitive teams as well. While there are some game on the schedule where Michigan will be favored heading into the season, with a new coaching staff andnew schemes on both sides of the ball nothing should be taken for granted.

To get a flavor for each team I dove into my own memory, Phil Steele's College Football Almanac, Rivals' rankings and the rankings from Pre-Snap Read (NYTimes writer Paul Myerberg's hangout). Granted, these projections are subjective, but you knew that already. Take a peak and let me know your thoughts. So let's get to it, my month early predictions for 2010.

Michigan Football's 2011 Schedule

Game #1: Western Michigan Broncos

The Rankings: According to Rivals, the Broncos are the 85th ranked team in the country. Pre-Snap read has the Broncos ticketed at 71st.

The Wrap: Last season the Broncos finished at 6-6, missing a bowl game. This is somewhat understandable as the Broncos were replacing several senior leaders including their veteran, NFL bound QB. Even so, Western Michigan managed to score a boat load of points in 2010. The problem was they also gave up a boatload of points on Defense. Sound familiar? This year things look pretty similar to last season, except the offense returns all is skill players and Western is expecting improvement on D with 8 returning players.

Weakness: The Offensive Line is starting three new players. It's one thing if you're Wisconsin, it's another if you're Western Michigan. WMU will lean heavily on tackle Anthony Parker to clear the way for their running game, but the rest of the line (including Michigan transfer Dann O'Neill) needs work.

Prediction: I think this will be a lot like the 2009 meeting, to be honest. Western is a talented MAC team. Still, they're playing a motivated upperclassmen laden Michigan squad. Michigan wins.

Game #2: Notre Dame Fighting Irish

The Rankings: Neither Rivals nor Pre-Snap Read have ranked Notre Dame at this point, but I think it's safe to say that the Irish and head coach Brian Kelly will find themselves ranked in the top 15, and maybe the top 10, when the rankings come out.

The Wrap: Make no mistake, this team is loaded. Kelly found his quarterback mid-season when Tommy Rees took over for concussed Dayne Crist. Rees was 4-0 as Notre Dame's starter, which included unlikely wins over Utah and Miami. Critically, the freshman became the first QB since the Eisenhower administration to beat USC (not really, but damn it feels like that long). Rees' emergence coincided with a rebirth on defense for the Irish. Notre Dame gave up just 39 points in it's last four games, and that number is skewed by 14 garbage time points by Miami in the fourth quarter of their bowl game when the Irish were up 30-3. Let's be clear, this may well be the best team Michigan plays all year.

Weakness: Personally, I don't think this team has one. The Offensive and Defensive Lines return missing just one player a piece. All the skill position players on defense and offense are back. And Brian Kelly is their head coach. Offensively and Defensively, Notre Dame might be a little soft in the running game but that's about it.

Prediction: Toss-up. The underdog always seems to win this game and I'm fairly certain Michigan will come in a home dog for this game. I think the Michigan Offense may struggle against the upperclassmen laden defense, and Notre Dame's offense is certainly going to be a handful for the Michigan defense. I see this game coming down to a field goal, and given Michigan's problems last year you'd probably have to give Notre Dame the edge. Still. It's the first night game at Michigan. There's no way to predict this one.

Game #3: Eastern Michigan Eagles 

The Rankings: According to Rivals, the Eagles are the 115th ranked team in the country. Pre-Snap Read has them ranked 108th.

The Wrap: I'm not going to sugar coat this, the Eagles are awful. With former Michigan DC Ron English at the helm the Eagles have improved marginally, but no where in the win column. In fact, EMU has just two wins during English's two year tenure. Add in replacing large chunks of their offensive line and feature back, and well... yeah.

Weakness: Everything.

Prediction: Michigan wins by 20, keeps it respectable so that they don't run up the score on a former coach.

eight more games after the jump!  

Game #4: San Diego St. Aztecs

The Rankings: According to Rivals, the Aztecs are the 37th ranked team in the country. Pre Snap read has the Aztecs ranked 44th.

The Wrap: This is going to be a very good offensive football team provided new OC Andy Ludwig doesn't screw with what worked last year. The Aztecs ran a variation of the pro-style offense that put up 35 points a game last year, and they return 8 starters in 2011. This was a very good team in 2010. However, they did lose their coaching staff over the summer and they're also losing 6 defensive starters. The Aztecs, more than any team on the OC schedule, will provide Michigan fans with their best barometer on the season because while they're not star heavy, they're a hardworking group that's used to winning ball games.

Weakness: For every returning starter on defense, the Aztecs are replacing someone. 2 DL, 2 LB, 2 DBs, all new starters. While the Aztecs are fortunate that the new players are upperclassmen, they're learning a new defensive system.

Prediction: It's uncomfortable, but Michigan wins. I think this game is going to be a lot more competitive than people would like, but I still see Michigan having too much offense for the Aztecs and just enough defense to come out ahead. Win, but a tight win, for Michigan.

Game #5: Minnesota Golden Gophers

The Rankings: According to Rivals, the Golden Gophers are the 102nd ranked team in the country. Pre-Snap read has the Gophers ranked 92nd.

The Wrap: It's going to take a couple of years to crawl out of the hole that the Tim Brewster Experiment dropped the Gophers into. It's still shocking to me that Minnesota fired Glen Mason and replacedhim with a bozo like Brewster who couldn't have been more over his head and abilities than if he'd been asked to pilot the space shuttle. Still, the Gophers finished the year hot, beating Illinois and Iowa in EXTREMELY surprising fashion to cap off an awful year. Brewster go the boot (finally) and in his place came Northern Illinois' Jerry Kill. Kill inherits a load of returning defensive starters on what could be one of the Big Ten's most improved defenses. He also gets physical freak of nature QB MarQueis Gray. Gray's athletic ability is unquestioned and his live feet will keep lots of plays alive. It should also be noted he'll have to. Minnesota has three new offensive line starters.

Weakness: Offensive line and consistency on offense. Minnesota only averaged 23 points on offense last season despite having 9 returning starters andQB Adam Weber who threw for 20TD/9INT. With 3 new bodies on the line, no real feature back, and a brand new QB Minnesota is going to have some offensive troubles in Kill's first year.

Prediction: Michigan wins. This will be the Wolverines 5th straight home game and the first against a conference opponent. Further, Minnesota will be coming of a game against North Dakota St., which doesn't exactly prepare you for the intensity of a road game in the Big Ten. The Gopher D keeps them in the game, but Michigan pulls away in the second half.

Game #6: @ Northwestern Wildcats

The Rankings: According to Rivals, the Wildcats are the 48th ranked team in the country. Pre-Snap Read has the Wildcats ranked higher at 35th.

The Wrap: Let's be clear, Dan Persa scares the ever living piss out of me. He is easily one of the most talented quarterbacks in the conference, if not the country, and if he'd faced Michigan in either of the last two years he'd have rolled up Denard-like numbers without breaking a sweat. Persa may be coming off an ACL injury which took his season and Northwestern's lastthree games with it, but he's healthy and ready to terrorize Big Ten Defenses all over again. The Cats return arguably their deepest and best team since Pat Fitzgerald suited up in the 90's. Nine starters on offense, 7 on defense, and Fitzgerald is starting to recruit nationally to fill open slots. Additionally, be wary of CB Jordan Mabin who may well be the best corner in the conference.

Weakness: The running game. Both the offense and the defense were abysmal when they had to deal with therun. The offense operated almost entirely on the strength of Persa's arm and scrambling ability. Fullback turned tailback Mike Trumpy returns as the Cats' "feature back", but he's not a solution there. On the other side, Northwestern allowed 5.1 YPC against the run. That's baaaaad. The defensive line, save DE Vince Browne, was invisible. Couple that with two new starters at LB and it could be more of the same in Evanston against the run until Fitz is able to recruit some true space eaters on the line.

Prediction: Toss-up. I think Michigan walks out a winner here. I really do. But that's also fueled by optimism and very little information about how the Cats will perform when the season starts. Northwestern is really good this year, and while they might not on paper be able to compete with the big dogs in the division, I know on the field they'll be able to. If Northwestern can run the ball against Michigan and simply slow it down in Evanston, the Cats probably win. I just don't think they'll be able to do either, and that's why I think Michigan can win. But this one is honestly too close to call.

Game #7: @ Michigan St. Spartans

The Rankings: Rivals has MSU in the top 20, while Pre-Snap Read has the Spartans ranked 41st.

The Wrap: I don't care what you say, while the Spartans certainly earned their wins in 2010, this was arguably the luckiest team in the country last year with a schedule that lined up perfectly. Not so much this year. Away games at Notre Dame, Ohio State and Nebraska await, and the Spartans are replacing 3/5th of their offensive line and the heart and soul of their defense. Still, this is a very talented team at the skill positions with Kirk Cousins, Edwin Baker and B.J. Cunningham all returning on offense. On Defense the defensive line is arguably the best in the conference, particularly with Jerel Worthy and Kevin Pickelman plugging up the middle. There'salso support in the defensive backfield with Trenton Robinson(their leading returning tackler and leading INT getter in 2010) roaming at FS. I don't think this team is as good as last year's team because of the loss of Greg Jones at LB and the new line, but this is still an upper tier B1G Ten team.

Weakness: The pass defense. I know, I know... whut????But with Chris Rucker gone, two untested sophomores taking over the mpty slots, and replacing your MLB and STAR (LB) Michigan St. is going to have some problems against the pass. Offensively, I think the holes in the offensive line will significantly curtail the running game as well as put some added pressure on Cousins who only got sacked 19 times (minus the Alabama game where he got sacked 5 times) last year.

Prediction: The reality? Toss-up. My heart? The winning streak is over. Michigan wins a close one. I think Michigan probably splits its first two road games between Northwestern and State, but this is the game the team will want more. The return of J.T. Floyd and Troy Woolfork , combined with a real defensive formation will take some of the wind out of the Spartan Offense and allow Michigan to walk away with a victory.

Game #8: Purdue Boilermakers (HC)

The Rankings: According to Rivals, the Boilermakers are the 74th ranked team in the country. Purdue comes in at 76th according to Pre-Snap Read.

The Wrap: Can anyone stay healthy in West Lafayette? You were just as likely to blow out an ACL as you were to bump into an engineering student last season if you suited up for the Boilermakers. Yet, there are reasons for optimism. The Boilers return 9 defensive starters and most of their offense. The defense is the real reason for optimism. Purdue held opponents to a mind boggling 138 rushing yards last season (when you consider how bad things were). Despite losing Ryan Kerrigan to the NFL this unit could be better all around despite dropping off in the pass rush department. But Purdue's going to need a lot of help on offense to make some noise in the Big Ten.

Weakness: The offense. Despite a monster offensive line the running game has been stagnant for years. It's not helped by the fact that Purdue doesn't have a big play back (or a healthy back) to run the ball. Couple this with a QB rotation between Robert Marve and Rob Henry (Purdue's leading rusher last season) and you've got problems.

Prediction: Michigan wins. Purdue's still a couple of years away from being healthy and productive under Danny Hope.

Game #9: @ Iowa Hawkeyes

The Rankings: According to Rivals, the Hawkeyes are the 38th ranked team in the country. Pre-Snap Read has them 38th as well.

The Wrap: Wow. A consensus. Playing at Iowa is no easy task, winning there is even harder, but that's what Michigan'sgot to do. Iowa lost a ton of talent on both sides of the ball and is replacing just about every stinking one of theit leaders on offense and defense. The defense returns just 3 of their top 10 tacklers and only four starters. Still, Iowa has a secret weapon. They return 4 of 5 starters on the offensive line. That alone will keep them in, and help them win, a lot of games.

Weakness: Rush defense. Adrian Clayborn and Karl Klug are gone, as are two starting linebackers. While the pass defense should be stout, teams are going to hammer the Hawkeyes on the ground until they show they can stop the run. Lose your three best D Linemen and that's what happens.

Prediction: Toss-up. This is a tough one because it's at Kinnick and I've got nothing to go on from Iowa'sspring practice other than the same blind optimism I'm feeling for Michigan. I think Michigan drops one of the two final road games, but I think they've got a good chance at winning this one.

Game #10: @ Illinois Fighting Illini

The Rankings: According to Rivals, the Illini are the 56th ranked team in the country. They're 57th according to Pre-Snap Read.

The Wrap: This is a tough team to figure out, because Ron Zook coaches them. Yet they should be formidable this season. Go figure. The big reason for this is that I'm prettified of Nathan Scheelhaase. The sophomore almost eclipsed 1,000 yards rushing and threw for 1,800 yards last year. He's going to be even better this year. On defense, most of the back six return which will make the Illinia pain to pass against (especially with Tavon Wilson in the secondary). Zookmay have finally found his formula for success when he hired Vic Koenning and Paul Petrino to handle all the Offensive and Defensive responsibilities allowing him to recruit and water ski. This is a really dangerous team in 2011.

Weakness: Defending the run and replacing Mikel Leshoure. The Defensive line is young and/or inexperienced with the loss of Corey Liuget to the NFL. The line lost their two best players and with replacing two linebackers, this unit'sgoing to be vulnerable to strong running games. Second, part of the reason Illinois was so dangerous down the stretch last season was because Leshoure ran for 1600+ yards last season. I don't see anyone in the stable to replace him, placing even more of the running game onus on Scheelhaase. Ask Denard how that worked out for him by the end of the year.

Prediction: Toss-up. Like I said, it's going to be one or the other here (Iowa or Illinois). Illinois' offense torched Michigan last season and the Maize n Blue are traveling to Chambana. I think Michigan can win, but at a certain point the law of averages catches up to you. Call me nuts, but I think Illinois takes this one

Game #11: Nebraska Cornhuskers

The Rankings: Rivals and Pre-Snap Read have the Huskers in their top 20.

The Wrap: Interesting year in Lincoln last season. Poised to win the last Big XII championship game, and win the conference outright, Nebraska stumbled in some of the most awkward ways possible. Texas thoroughly controlled the Huskers in their 20-13 win, despite being en route to a 5-7 season. Then the meltdown at Texas A&M which has generated more conspiracy theories than the Kennedy assassination. Then getting out gained by 160 yards and losing the Big XII title game to Oklahoma. Then getting throttled in their bowl game by a Washington team they annihilated two months earlier. And this was a really good team. The issue was the Huskers seemed to slow down as the season went on. They weren't as explosive. Taylor Martinez was dinged up. And the defense wasn't as good. Despite not giving up more than 300 yards in their first four games, the Huskers gave up over 300 in 5 of their last 8 games. Still, this is a very talented team with a lot of size. It's also one Michigan will face at the end of a long, long season.

Weakness: Passing game and offensive line. While Martinez is a special talent running the ball I'm less than impressed with his arm and decision making. His 10-7 TD-INT ratio is nothing to write home about and the Nebraska offense is eerily similar to the Rodriguez offense in its reliance on the running game v. passing game. If teams can limit the run and cage up Martinez's feet, I don't think he's got the weapons on the wings or the arm to beat you. Martinez is also going to have to deal with two new starters, three sophomores, and one senior returning from an '09 injury on the offensive line. While returning senior Marcel Jones does have starting experience he's returning from an injury that cost him the 2010 season. It's a young line, but highly touted. I'm just not sure what to make of it when the outgoing line gave up 12 sacks in the last two games of the season.

Prediction: Nebraska Wins. The Blackshirts are just going to be too much on defense for Michigan to handle. Jared Crick will be an All American by season's end and the front 7 for Nebraska will be solid. I think Michigan will be able to pass the ball on Nebraska, but running the ball will be another matter. Michigan should be able to stifle the Nebraska offense (since they've seen it for three years), but solid defense by Nebraska wins the day.

Game #12: Ohio St. Buckeyes

The Rankings: Rivals and Pre-Snap Read have the Buckeyes in their top 20.

The Wrap: Terrelle Pryor is gone. Suspensions galore. A new, unproven fill-in at coach. This was supposed to be a national title contending team, now it'sateamthat didn't exist in 2010. But don't let that enter your thought process, but the Buckeyes are loaded with highly rated players everywhere. The issue this year will be filling the gaping holes on defense. The Buckeyes return just four starters and will start three new players in the secondary who total just 21 tackles. Six of the top eight tacklers are gone. On the other side of the ball the Buckeyes should still be formidible, despite the loss of Pryor. The Offensive line returns three upperclassmen starters, and plugs in two highly rated sophomores on either side of uber-center Michael Brewster. The Buckeyes will score a lot of points this year regardless of who is under center this year simply becuase of the tailback talent and the line. Whether the defense can prevent the other team from scoring is the big question.

Weakness: The pass defense. Despite losing the interior of their defensive line and two linebackers, I think Ohio State will play the run fairly stout. The pass defense is another matter. There's just too much to replace. I think the Buckeyes are going to have trouble getting the same level of pass rush they had last season, and their young secondary is going to get beaten up as the season goes on. I'll also mention that Ohio St.'s rushing game will take a hit without Pryor's legs. Sure Braxton Miller can step in and move, but he's not a polished passer, and Joe Bauserman runs like wood. There's going to have to be a trade off.

Prediction: Toss-up. I really think Ohio State takes a step back this year. If it was just a head coach swap, or a side of the ball that had issues, or just the investigation, my tune would be different. But it's all that crap and more that's happening at once, and it'll take a toll on this squad. Defensively the Buckeyes are no where near as good as they were last year, andoffensivelycomparing the Pryor led squad to this group sans a quarterback is impossible. Ohio State still has the talent to win the Leaders division, but with all the crap going on I can't see that happening. While this game may be a toss-up, I think in my heart that Michigan wins it.

The Final Tally

Wins: Western Michigan, Eastern Michigan, San Diego State, Minnesota, Purdue

Losses: Nebraska

Toss-ups: Notre Dame, Northwestern, Michigan St., Iowa, Illinois, Ohio State

There you have it folks. Let me know what I missed.

*Special thanks to the US Marine Corps for sponsoring this post!

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