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2014 Michigan Football Preview: Keys to the Season

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What are the keys to a successful 2014 campaign for Brady Hoke and his Wolverines?

Jim Rogash

Two nights ago I wrote a long preview of Michigan's defense. It's published, people begin to read it, and one Twitter follower tells me that it's just too optimistic. Me, optimistic? I'm usually not that guy, I thought. I read it again. And again. And another time. And finally, after correcting a handful of my typical careless mistakes, I realized that there was no talking me down. I felt thoroughly convinced that Michigan's defense is going to prove my optimism right, and my optimism for the team as a whole spiked.

Then I read our preview of the offense and felt a little sick knowing that Michigan's offensive line could easily drag this entire team to the depths of the Big Ten standings for a second straight year. But that's what this team is: a two-faced roster somehow capable of winning and losing every last one of its games. You feel great about one side and wonder if the other is going to break out or die out.

We're all hoping for a breakout on offense and a materialization of expectations on defense, but what will it take for both to happen? We'll start with the obvious.

The offensive line shows improvement

No, this doesn't mean Michigan's offensive line "starts to look like a Michigan offensive line" – whatever the hell that means, anyway. This means Doug Nussmeier and his offensive staff identify a core group of seven or so lineman that they believe will eventually form a capable unit. Those lineman – Cole, Magnuson, Miller, Kalis, Braden and Glasgow as of right now – show improvement from week to week. Even if it's minimal improvement, it's improvement. This minimal improvement continues to build, leaving Michigan with an average line when The Game rolls around, which should be plenty enough to get Michigan to the 9-plus win total given the amount of talent at running back and wide receiver, not to mention Devin Gardner at quarterback. We've never seen Devin Gardner behind anything other than a tire fire.

The offense finds an identity

We all know Michigan isn't going to be a good running time during any point in the season, so we'll assume that Michigan needs to find its passing identity. I expect the offense to show a heavy amount of screens, slants and posts, all of which are basic and only as effective as the talent of the players allow. Thankfully Michigan's most talented position on offense is wide receiver.

Devin Gardner improves minimally

Expecting DG to cut the turnovers out completely and add an extra thousand yards in the passing column is ridiculous, but asking him to reduce his interceptions and increase his completion percentage in the vertical game isn't. This isn't only fair, it's completely realistic. Doug Nussmeier wants to throw the ball deep to Devin Funchess, Amara Darboh and Freddy Canteen, and Gardner is capable of hitting them. If the offensive line gives him more time each week, Gardner could eclipse 3,000 yards passing and turn Michigan into a Big Ten contender.

Another receiver emerges

Unlike the first two keys, this is virtually guaranteed to happen. Michigan has a bonafide first round draft pick in Devin Funchess, but it needs one of its other young talents to turn in a big year. Who will that be? Probably one of Amara Darboh or Freddy Canteen. Darboh created a massive amount of hype coming out of 2013 spring ball, promptly injuring his foot in the fall and falling completely off of the map. He's now healthy and receiving more realistic hype, if such a thing exists.

Canteen is the true wildcard. A true freshman with hyper-fast feet who needs to show more consistent hands, he's capable of getting over the top of defenses with double moves like Mario Manningham. Darboh is a safe bet to contribute, but Canteen could go from zero to All-Big Ten freshman in a matter of no time. One of the two happening turns Michigan into a good but not great passing team. Look out if both bust out and the offensive line begins to gel.

The Jake Ryan experiment succeeds

Michigan didn't move to the 4-3 over just to move one player into the middle of the field, but it was definitely one of the system's selling points. Greg Mattison has his heart set on a blitz-happy defense that uses its middle linebacker as a freelancing weapon, which sounds like something Ryan can easily take care of. But what about when Ryan is asked to drop into coverage or read run blocks? Will he be consistent enough to bring the defense from good to elite, or will he struggle and be moved? Mattison has to get all-around production from Ryan if the defense is to be as good as advertised.

QB pressure and turnovers spike

Building off of the Ryan Experiment, Michigan really needs its cultivated pressure to lead to more turnovers. This means the Clark/Beyer/Charlton trio takes advantage of more frequent single teams and the cornerbacks live up to the substantial hype they've received during fall camp. The former shouldn't be took difficult with Willie Henry, Ondre Pipkins and Maurice Hurst giving interior lineman more trouble on long downs; the latter could be difficult if refs start throwing laundry all over the place.

Whoever plays beside Jarrod Wilson doesn't fail miserably

Jarrod Wilson is going to be good. The two starting corners should be really good. All we need at the fourth spot is consistency and room for growth. We don't need to see a ball-hawking, man-crushing safety. We just need someone who doesn't give up touchdowns on slants or watch as a Devin Smith goes blazing by.

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The formula here isn't very complicated, and it all really boils down to the offensive line. Michigan wins at least nine games if the offensive line gets its act together, mostly because the defense should be really good and the skill talent on offense is there to be molded. We could still see eight or nine wins if the offensive line shows no progress, but at that point it would only be due to an elite defense that carries Michigan through ugly wins and close losses.