Just as it did in 2008, Michigan is opening the 2011 season under new leadership. Rich Rodriguez was fired following last year's roller coaster of a season that ended with an embarrassing blowout loss at the hands of Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl. After a week-long search for a new head coach, Michigan ultimately decided to bring in one-time Wolverines assistant Brady Hoke from San Diego State.
Just like when Rodriguez took over the program, there are a number of question marks surrounding Michigan going into 2011. With a new offense led by Al Borges and a new defense led by Greg Mattison, fans aren't sure what to expect out of the Wolverines this year. 2011 could be a breakout season for Michigan and Hoke with so many starters returning, but it could also be another reality check for fans with the program again changing offensive and defensive systems.
Just how will the Wolverines do in 2011? SB Nation Detroit's writers weighed in on the question, and you can check out their thoughts and predictions below.
Ryan Weiss: 8-4
Looking at the Wolverines' schedule, I honestly think that every game is winnable. Michigan returns most of its starters on both defense and offense, making for some delicious preseason Kool-Aid. But, I'm going to tone it down a notch and be a bit more realistic. The tough contests will be the usual suspects: Ohio State, Michigan State and Notre Dame, as well as Big Ten newcomer Nebraska.
Michigan's favorable schedule includes home dates with Nebraska and Ohio State, as well as missing Wisconsin and Penn State. In the wake of the Jim Tressel/Terrelle Pryor scandal, "The Game" is no longer a certain win for the Buckeyes. Michigan only has four away games, two against Iowa and MSU. Again, they're winnable, but it won't be easy.
Things that look good on paper don't always play out that way on the field. A huge question will be whether quarterback Denard Robinson can handle the switch to Al Borges' modified pro-style offense. In theory, Robinson should be more durable by carrying the ball less times, but a lot of that will depend on the running back situation. If no viable feature back emerges, we could be looking at another heavy workload for Robinson.
The second big concern is the defense. Let's face it, Michigan probably had the country's worst defense the last three years running Rich Rodriguez's 3-3-5 system. The Wolverines will return to a more traditional 4-3 under new defensive coordinator Greg Mattison. That unit will be led by stud senior defensive linemen Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen. Hopefully strong defensive line play will lead to marked improvement overall, as the 3-3-5 relies heavily on pass coverage, something Michigan was not good with at all last year.
Overall I expect to see dramatic improvement over the Rodriquez regime in Brady Hoke's first season. This team won seven games last season with no defense at all (see Michigan 67, Illinois 65), so eight or nine is certainly not asking too much.
Ian Casselberry: 7-5
Like most Michigan fans, I've bought into Brady Hoke before he's even coached a game. Getting back to the roots, to the philosophy of Michigan football that so many of us grew up with, has enormous appeal. But is the talent on hand ready to switch over to that style of play? I'm just not sure it is, especially on the offensive side of the ball.
Do any of the tailbacks fit the "power runner" role that Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges seem to prefer? How will Denard Robinson adapt to a more traditional, under-center, pro-style attack? But it sounds like Borges is installing more of a shotgun attack tailored to Robinson's skills. That, along with Michigan's talent at wide receiver, should make for a smoother transition.
As far as the defense goes, even if the right players aren't yet in place, there should be a massive improvement based solely on scheme. Michigan got better on that side of the ball as soon as Hoke took the job. That took a dramatic step up when he hired Greg Mattison as his defensive coordinator.
Michigan will show plenty of improvement, yet its won-loss record might not reflect that. The Wolverines should be much more competitive, especially against Michigan State and Ohio State, but probably aren't ready to beat either team yet. And ending the season with Iowa, Nebraska and OSU among their last four games is a pretty nasty stretch.
To me, Northwestern is a pivotal game. How good are the Wildcats, and how will Michigan respond to its first road game? Winning that game and starting 2-0 in conference play could be the difference between a 6-6 season and a 7-5 or even 8-4 finish.
Brian Packey: 8-4
Unlike the Spartans, the Wolverines have a pretty favorable schedule for Brady Hoke's first season as head coach. They only have four road games to speak of, and one of those games will still be in-state. In fact, they'll only have to travel to two different states this season (not counting the bowl game, and yes, there will be a bowl game).
That means plenty of time for the Wolverines to practice on their own turf and get further acclimated to the new coaching styles and extra rest, all leading up to their final two games of the season at the Big House vs. n00b Big Ten team Nebraska and heated/hated/cheater rival Ohio State.
Ironically, the team is primarily made up of RichRod's players and will likely improve upon last year's 7-6 finish. The new defensive coordinator, Greg Mattison, plucked from the Baltimore Ravens, should help bring an extra win all by himself to the team that was dead last in defense a year ago. Then, there's Heisman candidate Denard Robinson. You can't have a Michigan preview without mentioning him. He's good.
I actually think an 8-4 finish is a conservative guess.
Sean Yuille: 8-4
Still in need of more talent and depth, especially talent and depth that fits the style of play the new coaches want to install going forward, Michigan has a ways to go before it returns to elite status. Even so, I don't think Michigan is going to fall flat on its face like the last time the program changed coaches. In fact, it doesn't seem out of the question that Michigan could win as many as nine games because the schedule sets up so favorably.
Michigan opens the season with five straight home games, including the first ever night game in Michigan Stadium history against Notre Dame. The Wolverines head on the road to Northwestern and Michigan State for a couple of tough Big Ten games before returning home to play Purdue. Two more road games -- at Iowa and at Illinois -- are on the schedule to begin November before Michigan wraps up the season with home games against Nebraska and Ohio State.
It's possible Michigan could open the year with another 5-0 start, but I think Notre Dame will spoil the first ever night game and beat the Wolverines for the first time since 2008. I have Michigan winning its other three non-conference games and opening the Big Ten with two straight victories -- a home win against Minnesota and somewhat of an upset at Northwestern. I think the Spartans' winning streak against Michigan will grow to four games, but Michigan will rebound with a win against Purdue.
Continuing this win one game, lose the next one stretch in the second half of the season, I have Michigan falling on the road to Iowa, beating Illinois, losing to Nebraska at home and finishing the year with a win over Ohio State. Yes, I think Michigan will beat Ohio State for the first time since 2003. Ohio State may still have more talent than Michigan despite all of their offseason issues, but I don't think Brady Hoke will allow his team to lose to Ohio, as he calls them. I think Michigan will end the lengthy losing streak and end the regular season on a positive note for the first time in a long time to finish with an 8-4 record in 2011.