Michigan bounced back strong from their RichRod mistake in 2011, improving to 11-2 from 7-6. Certainly Rodriguez fit at Michigan just as well as Bill Callahan fit at Nebraska: badly. Both coaches were done in by horrific defenses, so it shouldn't have been a surprise that Michigan got better defensively. What was a surprise was how much better Michigan was, thanks to new defensive coordinator Greg Mattison. Mattison surprised many by leaving Baltimore to return to college for same role: defensive coordinator. He's the highest paid assistant coach in the Big Ten, and hiring him was a great investment. The Wolverines cut their points allowed in half (35.2 to 17.4 points per game), and yards allowed from 451 per game to 322.
Some of that improvement might be based on the schedule; the Wolverines didn't have to play Wisconsin and Tattoo-gate disemboweled the Ohio state university. Winning a BCS bowl game may seem like a huge trophy, but Virginia Tech best victories of 2011 were a 3 point win over 6-6 Miami and an 11 point win over 8-5 Georgia Tech. So while Michigan was definitely better in 2011, they probably weren't THAT much better than their record indicated.
Take that blowout victory over Nebraska: two fumbled kickoffs and a blocked punt really put the game out of reach. Make no bones about it, Michigan outplayed Nebraska on that Saturday, but maybe not as much as the scoreboard indicated. So while it's understandable that many predict Michigan to win the Big Ten's west division in 2012, that's not a given...especially if you've read Phil Steele's preview.When you look at Michigan, the first name that comes to mind is quarterback Denard Robinson. Robinson's numbers dropped in the transition from the RichRod spread to the Al Borges hybrid spread/pro style attack. Rushing numbers dropped from 1,702 in 2010 to 1,176 in 2011. Passing numbers went from 2,570 yards, 63% completion percentage, 18 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions in 2010 to 2,173 yards, 55%, 20 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions. (And they say Taylor Martinez regressed!) The book on Robinson remains the same: he's a dangerous, elusive runner who's always at risk of getting banged up. As a passer, he's somewhat adequate, but best when he's not asked to throw the ball deep. And since Robinson has a tendency to be injured, his backups take on an increased importance. Last year, it was Devin Gardner who was thought to be a better passer than Robinson. Except he wasn't last season, completing only 11 of 23 passes, so it may be redshirt freshman Russell Bellomy getting the call, as Gardner may move to wide receiver to find another way to get him on the field.
Michigan finally found a tailback last season in Fitzgerald Toussaint, a speedy, shifty running back with game-breaker speed. His 1,041 yards last season was the best for a Michigan running back since Mike Hart in 2007, and that takes pressure off of Robinson to be the offense on every play. He'll be backed up by 5'6" 172 pound senior Vincent Smith (298 yards and two touchdowns last season) and 5'10" 210 pound sophomore Thomas Rawls.
Roy Roundtree is the lone returning starting receiver who Michigan is looking to rebound from a disappointing 2011 season. In 2010, Roundtree's 72 catches was rewarded with second team all-Big Ten honors as a sophomore. Last season, Roundtree went missing for long stretches of the season in the Michigan offense; he only caught 19 passes for 355 yards. Junior Jeremy Gallon will move into the starting lineup after catching 31 passes last season for 453 yards and three touchdown as a backup. What he lacks for in size, he makes up in consistency and speed, as well as blocking downfield. Jerald Robinson is expected to move into the other open receiver position; the 6'1" 206 pound sophomore didn't catch a pass last season. Tight end may be an issue this season if Brandon Moore is the replacement for Kevin Koger; the 6'5" 255 pound Moore is a better blocker than receiver (one catch last season). Incoming freshman Devin Funchess needs to add a few pounds to his 6'5" 205 pound frame, but is Michigan's tight end of the future.
Up front, Michigan returns three starters, but one of the losses is first team all-American center David Molk, who left Michigan with the Rimington Award. 6'3" 293 pound senior Ricky Barnum slides over from left guard, where he was a spot starter, to center. 6'8" 302 pound junior left tackle Taylor Lewan returns after earning second team all-Big Ten honors last season; look for him to earn greater honors this season. Left guard Michael Schofield (6'7" 299 pounds) slides over to right tackle for his junior season, and two year starter Patrick Omameh returns for a third at right guard.
The Michigan defense needs to replace three starters on the defensive line, including second team all-Big Ten tackle Mike Martin, who's off to the Tennessee Titans after eating Mike Caputo alive last season in the Big House. Only 6'5" 269 pound senior defensive end Craig Roh returns after earning honorable mention all-Big Ten honors last season. It'll be up to 6'5" 322 pound tackle William Campbell to replace Martin as the anchor on the line; the former five-star recruit hasn't lived up to the hype thus far. If Campbell does his job clogging up the middle, that might spring junior tackle Jibreel Black to wreak havoc inside. He's not your typical B1G tackle at 6'2" and 260 pounds, but he's got speed to burn going up the middle. With the loss of three defensive linemen, it'll be tough for Michigan to lead the Big Ten again in rushing defense in 2012.
It'll help that all three linebackers return in 2012, led by senior middle linebacker Kenny Demens, an honorable mention all-Big Ten selection last year. He led the Wolverines last season with 94 tackles and should be the anchor for his senior season. Sophomores Desmond Morgan (63 tackles) and Jake Ryan (37 tackles) return as well. While the Wolverines aren't spectacular at linebacker, they are solid across the board. That'll keep the Michigan run defense from slipping too far.
Three starters return in the secondary along with two key reserves, so the secondary should improve further in 2012. Two time honorable mention all-Big Ten safety Jordan Kovacs returns for his senior season; the former walk-on was second on the team with 75 tackles last season. Also earning honors last season was senior cornerback J.T. Floyd, after a 48 tackle season with two interceptions and a team-leading eight pass breakups. At the other corner position, sophomore Blake Countess moves into a starting role; as a freshman backup, he had 44 tackles and six pass breakups. Look for Countess to blossom into a star this season. Can't forget junior Thomas Gordon, who added 67 tackles last season as well. All told, this is a deep group in the secondary that'll be even better.
It's been suggested that Michigan might not have been as good as their 11-2 record indicated last season. It took a frantic fourth quarter comeback to beat Notre Dame at home and a second half comeback to defeat Northwestern. Certainly the 40-34 victory over Ohio State was closer than you would have expected. Still, it was a strong bounce back from the failure of the RichRod era and gives Michigan incredible positive momentum for 2012. They'll need that, as the Wolverines kick off the 2012 season against defending national champion Alabama in Dallas at JerryWorld. That's a huge game for not only the Wolverines, but the entire Big Ten conference. The SEC has seized hold of the title of the toughest college football conference for good reason, and a Michigan victory would go a long way towards sending the message that not only is Michigan football back, but so is Big Ten football as well.