Big Ten play starts on Saturday, but questions still remain for both Michigan and Michigan State. Some are specific questions and some are very general, and this week's Top Five breaks down the biggest question marks out there for the Wolverines and Spartans.
No. 5: Is Michigan's defense serviceable enough for the Wolverines to win games in non-shootout fashion?
Perhaps I should have just asked if Michigan's defense is serviceable enough for the Wolverines to win games -- period. The defense played very well against UConn and outside of a few plays was pretty solid against Notre Dame. Neither of those teams looks to be all that good, however, and the Big Ten is going to be much tougher for Michigan. Considering how sketchy the D was against UMass, it's very possible that Michigan is going to have to score 40-50 points a game in order to win during the Big Ten schedule.
You would expect the defense to improve as the season goes by, but with any improvement it's looking like this could still be the worst defense in Michigan football history. Last season's defense set that ugly mark, and for the second straight year it looks like the record books may need to be rewritten. The good news is that the offense is much improved and is very explosive, but at some point playing tough defense will be necessary to win, and I don't know if Michigan will be up to the challenge.
No. 4: How will Mark Dantonio's heart attack affect Michigan State going forward?
Although Michigan State rolled over an FCS team without Mark Dantonio, the Big Ten is a different ballgame. That is part of the reason why Dantonio is easing back into things by coaching the Spartans from a box on Saturday against Wisconsin. It remains to be seen if the players will be affected by this change at all, but Dantonio obviously felt it was important to return for the start of Big Ten play, even if he is just going to be in a box.
The interesting thing to me about this question is not coming at it from the perspective of a negative effect on the Spartans. While adjustments will need to be made, I don't think having Dantonio in a box will be that big of an issue for MSU on Saturday. When Dantonio is able to coach from the sidelines again, however, I think that will give MSU a big boost. By all accounts, Dantonio is expected to return to the sidelines against Michigan a week from Saturday, and I believe that will have a positive affect on the Spartans. It's not like they need help to get pumped for a game against Michigan, but having Dantonio back will serve as a boost for everyone in my view.
No. 3: Can Denard Robinson survive Big Ten play?
Much has been made about Denard Robinson and injuries, especially after he left the Bowling Green game with a banged up knee. While some will argue that being a mobile or traditional quarterback doesn't make a difference as far as injuries are concerned, it's fair to wonder if Robinson can survive the beating of a Big Ten schedule. He is a much different player than Tate Forcier, but last season we all saw what a beating Forcier took as the season progressed.
With Robinson, it is expected that Michigan is going to have to rely on him quite a bit, especially in back and forth games where scoring on every possession is necessary to win. Robinson has shown he can pass, so it's not as if he is only going to run the ball, but anybody getting hit as much as he likely will is going to get banged up. That is just part of playing in the Big Ten. The question becomes if he can make it through Big Ten play even with the injuries that happen along the way. I think Robinson's resilience and toughness will allow him to, but there's no doubt it won't be easy.
No. 2: Can Michigan State contend for a Big Ten title?
Before the season, I thought Michigan State would be a solid team, but I didn't think they were quite over the hump enough to contend for a Big Ten championship. Now, though, I'm starting to warm up to the idea in part because of how MSU has played so far this season and because of what their schedule is going forward.
Michigan State opens the Big Ten with two extremely important games -- vs. Wisconsin on Saturday and at Michigan next week. Although both games will be tough for different reasons, it's definitely possible that the Spartans could head into mid-October still undefeated. If MSU does win both of those games and goes through the season without falling victim to a "Same Ol' Spartans" type of performance in a game against Illinois or Purdue, for example, then a Big Ten title could be within reach. Games at Iowa and Penn State would serve as the difference assuming things go well against Wisconsin and Michigan, but the key to me is that there is no Ohio State on the schedule. Every game MSU has left is winnable, and if the stars align I could see the Spartans being in the title picture.
No. 1: Will Michigan have another Big Ten collapse?
Last year, as we all know, Michigan started the season 4-0 and proceeded to lose seven straight Big Ten games. The question everybody is asking as Big Ten play gets going is if this year will be different or if it will be a repeat performance for the Wolverines. On the one hand, this year's offense is much better and should be able to keep Michigan in any game. Then again, the defense has been much worse than last year's, so can Michigan get by with just offense?
Looking at the schedule, Michigan needs to get through October with a couple wins in order to avoid another collapse in the Big Ten. The Wolverines have Indiana this Saturday and then games against Michigan State, Iowa and Penn State. That is not an easy stretch, but all of those games are winnable. All of those games are losable as well, however, so it will be key for Michigan to keep playing well all month long. If Michigan gets to November with six wins or something, then it can avoid a collapse by simply beating Illinois and Purdue, two teams that are big underdogs to the Wolverines right now. Winning the games you're supposed to is just as important as emerging victorious in tough matchups against a Michigan State or Iowa, so that is how Michigan can avoid another Big Ten collapse.
Now, will Michigan actually avoid falling victim to another awful October and November? It remains to be seen, and it's too tough to say one way or another right now.