Neither the Terps nor the Knights are serious contenders for the gridiron title their first ride aboard the Big Ten train; instead, the list of challengers reads like a roll call of the league's old guard.Among that group are the Michigan Wolverines who will be looking to rebound from a disappointing 2013, dropping five of their last six games en route to a 7-6 record.
Current college football futures odds have the Wolverines at 30/1 to win the National Championship, good enough to tie them for third among Big Ten teams with Wisconsin. Ohio State at 12/1 is the conference frontrunner, followed by Michigan State (20/1).
Defense Returns Bulk Of Starters, New Faces On Offense
One of the first orders of business for Brady Hoke and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier is upgrading an offense that was middle-of-the-road at best in 2013. The Wolverines did rank in the top third of the country averaging more than 32 points per game, but struggled to consistently generate yards, especially on the ground.
Hoke and Nussmeier must accomplish that job with several new faces at skill positions -- gone are leading rusher Fitzgerald Toussaint and top receiver Jeremy Gallon. It should prove easier to replace the former rather than the latter after Gallon ended his career with a UM single-season record 1,373 yards receiving, including a Big Ten high of 369 in an October win vs. Indiana.
Derrick Green is the leading candidate to take over at tailback, but will be pushed for carries by De'Veon Smith. Devin Funchess (49 rec, 748 yds) returns as the most experienced receiver, and Amara Darboh should be 100% after redshirting his sophomore season due to a foot injury. Devin Gardner is also back for his fifth season at Michigan, but should get competition from Shane Morris at QB.
While offensive coaches deal with many new players in starting roles, defensive coordinator Gregg Mattison is working with a lot of familiar faces. The top four LBs -- James Ross III, Desmond Morgan, Joe Bolden and Jake Ryan -- are back plus linemen Brennen Beyer, Willie Henry and Frank Clark, who led the team with 12 tackles for loss.
The defensive backfield is also experienced with leading tackler Ramon Taylor at one corner and safety Jarrod Wilson. And likely to work his way into action initially as part of the nickel-back package is top recruit Jibreel Peppers.
Michigan Hauls In Nice Class Despite Poor '13
Peppers was the biggest name from the Class of '14 to sign with the Wolverines, but he kept Hoke & Company in suspense right up to the very end. The only unanimous 5-star recruit of the bunch, the New Jersey prep star should see action immediately.
Big tackle Bryan Mone should also quickly work into the mix on defense this year, as could stand-up end Lawrence Marshall, a homegrown talent from nearby Southfield.
Drake Harris was the biggest talent inked on the offensive side, and the lanky wide receiver from Grand Rapids will get opportunities this fall. Thanks to an offseason ACL injury to Jake Butt, the All-Big Ten Freshman TE in 2013, Ian Bunting is a possibility to see time as a frosh.
Tough '14 Slate Awaits Maize & Blue
The addition of Maryland and Rutgers to the Big Ten shifted some of the previous schedules around, and there will be more changes a couple of years from now when the league moves to a 9-game conference slate. But no matter how you dissect it, the Wolverines have a hard fixture ahead of them.
It all kicks off with a visit from Appalachian State in a rematch of the Mountaineers' stunning upset in Ann Arbor back in 2007. That game is followed by Michigan heading to South Bend to take on the Fightin' Irish. The Wolverines are back home for their next three contests, non-conference tilts vs. Miami-OH and Utah preceding the Big Ten opener against Minnesota.
A journey to Rutgers opens October before Penn State comes to Ann Arbor. Michigan then enjoys a bye week ahead of a road clash with rival Michigan State. November begins on the road at Northwestern, and a second bye week is trailed by a home game vs. Maryland. The regular season closes with Ohio State in Columbus.
If the defense is as improved as it should be, the Wolverines could survive some early growing pains on offense to contend for a spot in the B1G Championship Game in Indianapolis on Dec. 6. But with road battles at Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State, Hoke's outfit basically needs to run the table in the other nine to have a shot at a 10+ win season.
Michigan did bounce back from a 7-6 campaign in 2010 with an 11-2 showing in 2011, ending with a Sugar Bowl victory. But for now, nine wins are all I can muster up for the Maize and Blue.