Thursday, August 23, 2012

Michigan Football 2012 Season Predictions

Well, it's about that time again.

With less than ten days before Michigan kicks off against Alabama on September 1st, there's a lot of anticipation and wanting football season to start. And what would the last ten days before kickoff be without some good, old-fashioned season predictions? Same deal as before. We're going to look at each of Michigan's opponents and give a rough analysis and a "Chance of Win" so as not to look like complete idiots.

Season Overview

Michigan faces its toughest schedule in years. There's no getting around that. Although Michigan State will tell you they have the toughest schedule because they start off with Boise State (albeit at home), Michigan by far as the toughest schedule in the Big Ten. The opener against the defending national champions alone should be enough to put this atop anyone's list. All of Michigan's toughest games (Alabama, Notre Dame, Nebraska, Ohio State) are on the road. So, yeah, a pretty tough schedule.

Fortunately, the Wolverines miss Penn State and Wisconsin for the second consecutive year.

As tough as the schedule is, Michigan finally has the talent needed to manage it. As the guy who might be college football's most explosive player under center, Denard Robinson looks to improve in year two of Al Borges's offense, and if history is any indication, he definitely will. Not only did Denard improve drastically in year two of Rich Rodriguez's offense, but quarterbacks in Al Borges's system tend to see the most improvement in their second year. Ask Ryan Lindley, Cade McNown, or Jason Campbell.

Michigan's stable of running backs and wide receivers (starters Roy Roundtree and Jeremy Gallon are still in the fold) should provide opponents with a difficult, balanced attack. The Wolverines are absolutely stacked at linebacker with Jake Ryan, Kenny Demens, and Desmond Morgan, along with a flurry of highly-touted freshmen coming in. Safety Jordan Kovacs and cornerback Blake Countess anchor the secondary for what looks to be like Michigan's best since 2006. The only real question marks are on the offensive and defensive line, as backups Will Campbell, Elliot Mealer, and Jibreel Black assume roles as starters.

While Michigan's rivals believe that the Wolverines will take a step back, most people believe that Michigan is a program on the rise--kind of hard to argue with, considering that they just went 11-2. Still, it's important to keep the big picture in mind. Michigan doesn't necessarily have to replicate a 10-2 regular season to be considered a success. Because of the way this season is set up, the Wolverines can lose to both Alabama and Notre Dame and still play in the Big Ten championship to earn a trip to the Rose Bowl. A minor setback record-wise won't matter if Brady Hoke wins the Big Ten title.

1. Alabama
Chance of Win: 12% (Very Unlikely)

Is anyone seriously expecting Michigan to win this game? When Dave Brandon scheduled Alabama back in 2010, he probably wasn't expecting that his current coach at the time (Rich Rodriguez) would completely flame out, or that when Michigan eventually played Alabama, the Crimson Tide would be the reigning national champions. When the defense cratered in 2010 and Rodriguez was let go, the Michigan fan base did a collective shriek when reminded about Alabama on the schedule.

Thankfully, Brady Hoke has brought Michigan back to respectable levels. Probably the best thing about facing Alabama is that Michigan is good enough to keep it close. I certainly don't expect Michigan to win this game, though I am hoping for it; I am more interested in seeing the Wolverines perform well. The optimistic side of me perks up every once in a while and anticipates an upset, but I'll try to stay as realistic about this one as I can.

Alabama returns only 9 starters on both sides of the ball, but it's common knowledge that Nick Saban doesn't rebuild, he reloads. The No. 1 defense in the nation in 2011 looks to be the No. 1 defense in the nation again in 2012. Michigan may have improved drastically during the 2011 season, going from No. 110 in total defense to No. 14, but there have been better defenses who have been out-muscled by the Crimson Tide. Despite losing to LSU during the regular season 9-6, it's still a fact that LSU never put up a touchdown on Alabama... but Penn State did. If Michigan's offense can put together enough drives, they might be able to pull it off.

The worst thing about the game is that it is very unlikely that Fitzgerald Toussaint will play in the opener. Toussaint, Michigan's lead running back, has been indefinitely suspended after being arrested for a DUI, and common sense would indicate that he'd be out for at least one game. But that one game happens to be against Alabama, when Michigan would need him most. If there is a positive upside to playing Alabama, it's that no other game will be as difficult probably until they play Ohio State. In 2011, every team that played Alabama early in the season went on to have at least a 9-3 record.

2. Air Force
Chance of Win: 85% (Very Likely)

Troy Calhoun's triple option has been known to give defenses headaches, but it typically takes a while to get into a groove. The Falcons were good against weak FCS or lower conference teams, but struggled against good teams from middle conferences. They'll have their work cut out for them when they face Michigan in the Big House. It also doesn't help that Air Force is in the definition of a rebuilding year. Lindy's sports magazine handily points out that the Falcons have to replace "last year's starting quarterback, running back, top three receivers, four offensive linesmen, four defensive linesmen, three linebackers, the top two cornerbacks and best safety."

Though the season-by-season record has been in steady decline a la Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald, Calhoun is 41-24 overall, setting a school record by putting together five straight bowl appearances. He is frequently mentioned as one of college football's hottest head coaching commodities during coaching searches--but, again, like Pat Fitzgerald, it doesn't seem like he'll be leaving his alma mater any time soon. It's possible that Michigan will be so focused on Alabama that when they face Air Force the following week, the Falcons will be able to catch the Wolverines off guard, but this seems unlikely. Michigan will come home motivated, looking either to rebound from Alabama or to continue momentum.

3. Massachusetts
Chance of Win: 88% (Very Likely)

Two years ago, the Minutemen gave the Michigan faithful a scare by almost upsetting the Wolverines in the Big House because of Michigan's porous defense under Greg Robinson and Rich Rodriguez. The Wolverines eked out a close victory, however, winning 42-37, effectively preventing a second Appalachian State-type meltdown. A couple things have changed since then for both teams. Michigan has undergone vast improvement on defense, and UMass is no longer an FCS team, having joined the ranks of Division 1-A in the MAC.

They'll be ushered into the new league by new head coach Charley Molnar, who served as Notre Dame's offensive coordinator under Brian Kelly. The UMass gig is Molnar's first as a head coach, as he attempts to shift the Minutemen from a traditional run-first offense to his no-huddle spread attack. This will be a challenge for Molnar, because coordinator-to-HC transitions are not always smooth, and pro-style to spread transitions are even less smooth. Molnar anticipates some difficulty, telling the Boston Globe that "most of this team were recruited as 1-AA players. That's the reality. We're playing a 1-A schedule with 1-AA players."

However, there are at least two players who are Division 1-A ready, one of which the Michigan faithful should recognize: former Michigan running back Michael Cox, who transferred to UMass as a graduate student and is eligible to play immediately. Cox's career at Michigan was hindered largely by injuries and, although many Michigan blogs consistently ranked him as the most athletic of all the running backs, he eventually lost the starting job to Fitz Toussaint. The other proven Division 1-A athlete on UMass's roster is wide receiver Jerome Lewis, who transferred from Virginia Tech and sat out last year per NCAA rules.

The Wolverines are a much more complete team than they were when they faced the Minutemen in 2010. Atrocious defense on Michigan's part allowed UMass to stay in the game for as long as it did, but that won't be the case this year--not with defensive minds like Brady Hoke and Greg Mattison in charge. Assuming he becomes the starter, Michael Cox should give the Minutemen enough of an offensive boost to help them manage their way through their inaugural MAC schedule, but it won't be enough to defeat Michigan in the Big House.

4. Notre Dame
Chance of Win: 58% (Moderate)

You would think that going into Brian Kelly's third year at Notre Dame there'd be talk of national championships and how the Fighting Irish are on the rise. That doesn't quite seem to be the case this year. Kelly has yet to find a quarterback who can truly run his offense the way he did at Cincinnati, when he had gunslingers Tony Pike and Zach Collaros at the helm. At Notre Dame, the carousel of quarterbacks, along with careless mistakes, a lack of overall discipline, and a tendency to fall apart on the biggest stage, contributed to the reason why the Irish went 8-5 instead of the predicted 10-2.

Kelly enters 2012 exactly as he entered 2011: with a quarterback controversy. Incumbent Tommy Rees has been suspended for the season opener against Navy in Dublin, Ireland. The job will go to either junior Andrew Hendrix (Rees's backup) or redshirt freshman Everett Golson, who has yet to take a single college snap. It's doubtful the job will go to true freshman Gunner Kiel, who is expected to redshirt. Most Notre Dame fans believe Golson will be the starter, based on his successful performance in the Blue-Gold spring game. He was the only quarterback not to throw an interception. (UPDATE: Kelly just announced that Golson will be the starter.)

If Kelly can find a go-to quarterback, it will take a lot of the pressure off. However, if Rees somehow finds his way back into the starting role after his suspension, expect to see a lot of frustrated Notre Dame fans. The Irish have a solid run game to rely on and are stocked in the backfield with running back Cierre Wood and a stout offensive line. This is ironic considering that Kelly's offense has historically been more of a passing attack. Losing Michael Floyd is absolutely huge, as the playmaking wide receiver often bailed Notre Dame out of a lot of tight spots. They'll likely have to rely on tight end Tyler Eifert for making catches.

Manti Teo anchors Notre Dame's defense at linebacker, but there are serious question marks everywhere else. Defensive end Aaron Lynch's unexpected transfer to South Florida was a blow to the defensive line and knocks the pass rush down a peg or two. There is also a gaping hole in the secondary. Safeties Zeke Motta and Jamoris Slaughter are the only returning starters to the entire unit, with very little depth behind them, and no cornerback on Notre Dame's roster has game experience. To make matters worse, one of the presumed starters at cornerback, Lo Wood, who Kelly said had the best fall camp of all the defensive backs, just tore his Achilles and will have to sit out the entire season.

With all these weaknesses and an absolutely brutal schedule, Notre Dame will be lucky if they can make to another 8-5 season. However, Notre Dame fans are predicting great things. The Michigan game is a must-win for Brian Kelly or people are seriously going to be questioning his future as head coach. I figured that was the case last year, but Kelly somehow survived despite an 0-2 start. Losing three straight to Michigan might be too much unless Kelly can knock off USC or Stanford.

Despite playing in South Bend, Michigan still has the edge because the Irish still have no answer for Denard Robinson. By the fourth week Kelly should have settled on a quarterback, but if Notre Dame's secondary is as weak as Irish fans fear it will be, Michigan will have no problem lighting them up.

Still, anything can happen in rivalry games.

5. Purdue
Chance of Win: 71% (Likely)

Michigan opens up its Big Ten play in West Lafayette. The Boilermakers are getting a lot of love in pre-season conference analyses, largely because they return the most starters (19) of any team in the Big Ten. Gerry Dinardo of the Big Ten Network said that Purdue is probably the deepest team in the conference and an easy dark horse for the Leaders Division title. Let's put this into context: almost all of Purdue's players have had starting experience in either 2010 or 2011 because injuries whittled down the depth chart.

The best examples of this are at quarterback and running back. All of Purdue's quarterbacks have been starters at one point. Caleb Terbush and Robert Marve are expected to be the two-deep at quarterback, but Purdue is confident knowing Rob Henry (third on the depth chart, who played starter in late 2010) can take the reins if he has to. All of Purdue's rushers are back (Ralph Bolden, Akeem Shavers, and Akeem Hunt), and all have at one time taken snaps as the starter, but all have at one time undergone surgery. So, I don't know how good it is that Purdue supposedly has a wealth of experience but not exactly much in the way of staying healthy.

Purdue head coach Danny Hope just barely escaped the windfall of mass head coach firings that occurred in 2011 by squeaking to a 7-6 record and a win in the Little Caesar's Pizza Bowl. Throughout the 2011 season there were several Purdue fans calling for Hope to be fired, so 2012 is really the year when he'll have to have serious success or at least match what he did last year (winning record, bowl win). Hope's record at Purdue is still 16-21, which isn't great--Rodriguez had a 15-22 record at Michigan that got him fired. Most Purdue fans are hoping that new defensive coordinator Tim Tibesar is the boost that the Boilermakers need.

With Brady Hoke's goal focused squarely on the Big Ten title, and Purdue being the first conference game Michigan plays, I really don't see the Wolverines losing or overlooking this one. Sports Illustrated lists Purdue as the "trap game" for Michigan, and the Boilermaker defense, which has kept them in games when an injured offense struggled, could surprise people. Keep in mind, however, that this is the same team that narrowly lost to Rice when they had most of their depth chart intact. The Boilermakers lost that game because Hope's poor decisions regarding clock management came down to a missed field goal. If he makes those same mistakes again, 2012 could be his last year in West Lafayette.

6. Illinois
Chance of Win: 67% (Likely)

Frankly, I still can't understand why Illinois fired Ron Zook after he broke even and put together a team that had consecutive bowl wins for the first time ever in school history. You'd think that would be enough to give Zook at least one more year. Obviously, that didn't happen. Zook's Illini started the season undefeated at 6-0 until they faced Ohio State. They then proceeded to lose the next six straight games (6-6) and finish fifth in the Leaders division. Zook was fired before the Illini played in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, where they beat UCLA 20-14.

Despite promising the fan base a "splash hire," athletic director Michael Thomas replaced Zook with Tim Beckman, who seems like the MAC coach du jour. In three years, Beckman quickly brought Toledo to the top of the MAC's west division but never quite had the breakthrough they wanted. Although mediocre by Big Ten standards, Beckman put up respectable 8-4 records for two straight years and came within a heartbeat of upsetting Ohio State in Columbus, an achievement by any MAC coach standards.

The big story surrounding Beckman at Illinois is the high-spirited, sometimes comical intensity that he brings (it's just Illinois, Tim), and a small scandal where he sent assistant coaches to scope out Penn State players after the NCAA sanctions hit and stand outside their windows. At Big Ten media days, Beckman said it's all part of the game, ethical or not. Other Big Ten coaches decided that, while they will not turn down a call from any Penn State players looking to transfer, they won't seek out or harass Penn State players.

Going into 2012, Illinois is in a bit of a pickle. They are a team that most believed underachieved, yet they are now dealing with a brand new set of coordinators for the third time in three years. Illinois's defense was one of the fiercest in the Big Ten and returns defensive linesmen Michael Buchanan and Akeem Spence. The defense seemed to have improved greatly under 2011 coordinator Vic Koening, but now the Illini are employing (again, why, I don't know) Tim Banks, the former defensive coordinator of Cincinnati. Junior Nathan Scheelhaase is probably the most experienced quarterback in the Big Ten behind Michigan's Denard Robinson and Iowa's James Vandenberg. However, with brand new coordinators, it's tough to tell how Illinois's offense will respond, or if Scheelhaase will even be the quarterback, as the Illini fan base could be calling for backup Reilly O'Toole.

Beckman won't have to rebuild Illinois the way he did Toledo, but he will have to maximize the talent that he has. There is some on Illinois's roster. Beckman's spread offense will be a somewhat seamless transition from Zook's multiple from last year, since they were already running some spread concepts anyway. There's a lot of uncertainly going forward as Beckman tries to keep his team together. They should be able to get to a bowl game this year, but knocking off Michigan in the Big House seems like a tall order for the new coaching staff.

7. Michigan State
Chance of Win: 50% (Moderate)

It took Mark Dantonio six years, two back-to-back 11-win seasons, a bowl victory over Georgia, and four straight wins over Michigan, but people are finally starting to take the Spartans seriously. Whereas last year everyone thought the Big Ten title matchup would be between Wisconsin and Nebraska, this year many outlets have picked Michigan State to win the Legends Division for a second consecutive time. Meanwhile, it only took Brady Hoke one year and a revamp on defense to get everyone talking about Michigan again. Man, it must be really tough to be a Spartan.

Last year Michigan State won the Michigan game ugly and in the least classy way possible. The Spartans gave up over 100 yards in penalties, more than 13 of which were personal fouls, and William Gholston earned a suspension from the Big Ten for twisting Denard's facemask and punching Taylor Lewan. Note: It was the Big Ten, not Dantonio, who punished Gholston. I don't know why anyone should be surprised. Being a student of Jim Tressel, Dantonio encourages that kind of behavior. After the game, Dantonio said he thought the game was played "cleanly." I don't know what game he was watching. I guess if dirty play gets Michigan State a win over Michigan, it's all right by Dantonio and Spartan fans everywhere. Now that's a classy program.

I honestly don't know what to make of Michigan State this year. I thought that the only difference between Michigan and Michigan State for three years under Rich Rodriguez was that Dantonio took the rivalry seriously (understatement) and Rodriguez didn't (bigger understatement). With the Spartans going through a new offensive coordinator, I thought that 2011 would be the year that Michigan snapped the frustrating losing streak and all would be right in the world. Wrong. Dantonio has showed that he can coach the talent he has and rely on senior leadership to do the rest. The Spartans were also undefeated at home for the past two years.

Here's what we do know. Kirk Cousins, arguably the best quarterback in Michigan State school history, has gone on to back up Robert Griffin III with the Washington Redskins. B.J. Cunningham, Keith Nichol, Edwin Baker, and Keshawn Martin, four critical components of Michigan State's offense, are gone as well. Cousins is being replaced by Andrew Maxwell, whom Spartans believe will be even better, but we don't know that yet for sure. Maxwell didn't play much in 2011 (he was only 18 for 26 in the whole season), and an injury kept him from participating in the spring game. Aaron Burbridge, Michigan State's best in-state recruit, who was expected to make an immediate impact at wide receiver, is out for at least six weeks due to a knee injury. Their greatest strength is their defense, and it looks to be as dominant as it was last year.

The Spartans have enjoyed the advantage of typically getting a bye week to prepare for the Michigan game, but this year they don't. Their schedule is moderately challenging as they start off with a rebuilding Boise State in East Lansing. Almost all of their Big Ten slate is played at home, with the exception of their two toughest games, Michigan and Wisconsin, being played on the road. (Indiana and Minnesota are also on the road, but I don't expect Michigan State to lose those ones.) Dantonio is facing something of a crucial juncture because the season will live or die by how the offense performs. If Maxwell and the new tandem of receivers can jell early, they may be in for another 11-win season and a trip to Indianapolis.

If there was ever a game that Michigan absolutely has to win on the schedule, this is it. It's not just about pride or bragging rights anymore. If Brady Hoke is serious about winning the Big Ten championship, he has to realize that the Spartans are a legitimate obstacle to getting there, and the bout between them will likely determine who wins the Legends Division. Michigan's home field advantage hasn't mattered much recently as the Spartans took both contests in Ann Arbor in 2008 and 2010. A very tense and physical game looks to be in the works.

8. Nebraska
Chance of Win: 51% (Moderate)

It still blows my mind how Nebraska fans can call for Bo Pelini to be fired. In four years, Pelini (39-16 overall) hasn't had a season at Nebraska under nine wins. Do you know how many coaches would kill for that kind of resume? Even in his inaugural season in the Big Ten, Pelini and the Cornhuskers weathered the storm. I can't understand calling for him to be fired because you're going to be hard pressed to find someone better.

Michigan thumped Nebraska last year in a game that no one, myself included, thought they'd win. I had listed Michigan's chance of win over Nebraska as a measly 17% and a "Very Unlikely" rating. I was wrong and I couldn't be happier. That win over the Cornhuskers pushed Michigan into the BCS discussion and was a clear indication that Hoke could win big games with a suffocating defense. Of course, it also helped Michigan that Nebraska's quarterback Taylor Martinez has been terribly inconsistent as a passer, only completing 9 passes of 23 attempts in that game. Meanwhile, Michigan utilized the combined efforts of Denard Robinson (11-for-18, 180 yards passing, 83 yards rushing) and Fitzgerald Toussaint (138 yards rushing) to push to a 45-17 win.

Though the 2012 game will be played in Lincoln, the Wolverines still have the edge. Michigan's offense ran all over Nebraska's defense, and the Cornhuskers lose their defense's best three players (Jared Crick, Lavonte David, and Alfonso Dennard), leaving Nebraska fans with more questions than answers. Meanwhile, Michigan's defense looks to be even better than the bend-but-don't-break amalgam that it was in 2011, and that unit completely shut Nebraska down. The Wolverine notes that Michigan could be still stinging from its bout against Michigan State enough that the Huskers will primed to take advantage. Michigan shouldn't drop too many games in 2012, but this one could be a possible loss. I'm pegging it as a toss-up.

9. Minnesota
Chance of Win: 82% (Very Likely)

This won't be the same Minnesota team that Michigan shutout 58-0 in the Big House. Believe it or not, the Golden Gophers actually improved throughout the season. While the shellacking against Michigan was the rock-bottom low point, they finished out with upset wins over Iowa and Illinois. That being said, Minnesota still isn't very good. MarQueis Gray is their best shot at quarterback but he's even less refined than Denard Robinson and also not as fast. And the Gopher defense was manhandled all year.

Minnesota's No. 1 goal in 2012 will be trying to get to a bowl game. To do that they'll have to win most of their non-conference schedule that includes a road trip to Syracuse. Normally this would be no big deal for a Big Ten team, but Minnesota struggles in games that even pessimists expect them to win. Although they lost starting tailback Duane Bennett, Minnesota has the new arrival of junior college transfer James Gillum to take the load. Kill attempted to recruit Gillum while still at Northern Illinois, so needless to say the coaches love the guy. Bennett couldn't do much for Minnesota's run game in his career, but Gillum has racked up over 1,000 yards a season while in junior college. He might be the spark that makes the offense go.

The battle for the Little Brown Jug has always been a lopsided battle, and even when Michigan was the smoking crater that was the Rich Rodriguez era, the Gophers still couldn't capitalize. This year the game is played in Minnesota's brand new on-campus TCF Bank Stadium (built in 2009), and it will be Michigan's first visit. The chances of a Gopher upset aren't great, but this one could be close if Michigan is recovering from injuries from the Nebraska game. The Wolverines probably won't win by 58 points like they did last year, but it'll still be a rough game for the Gophers. Michigan will have already played tough road games, and this isn't one of them.

10. Northwestern
Chance of Win: 65% (Likely)

Don't let Northwestern's declining year-to-year record fool you, the Wildcats are improving. I recently watched the 2011 game where Northwestern narrowly lost to Illinois, and it's fair to say that the problem was that Wildcats lost that game because they didn't play 60 minutes. Illinois mustered a comeback in the fourth quarter. I was watching Northwestern throughout the game and kept asking myself, "This is the team that went 6-6?!"

There are problems on the both the offensive and defensive lines. The Wildcats struggled to give their now-graduated quarterback Dan Persa any protection, resulting in frequent and erratic Tate Forcier-like scrambles, while at the same time their defensive line couldn't generate any pressure, resulting in giving up huge plays on third down. Looking to 2012, most Northwestern fans are worried that they might not make it to a bowl game because of the defense.

Again, don't get the wrong idea: it's not like Northwestern's defense is as bad as Michigan's was in 2010. They can tackle in open space. They can get decent coverage. It's just that they seem to run out of gas by the fourth quarter. Remember, they had Michigan on the ropes for the entire first half of the game in Evanston, even going into halftime with a lead. Fitzgerald's no-huddle spread offense, however, doesn't give the defense much time to rest up. This isn't uncommon. Rodriguez had the same problem at Michigan, and most no-huddle offenses do. Whether you're making games and scoring, or not making gains and giving the ball back, the offense is not on the field very long. That has to be tough on the defense.

Kain Colter leads Northwestern's offense in the wake of Persa's departure. While Colter may not get the grassroots university-sponsored Heisman campaign that Persa did ("once burned" and all that), he is legitimately good and may be even better. Colter was utilized as a quarterback, running back, and wide receiver, throwing for 673 yards and six touchdowns, rushing 654 yards and nine touchdowns, and catching 43 passes for 466 yards and three touchdowns. It's doubtful that he'll be used as a wide receiver, however, considering that he's now the primary option under center. Wildcat fans were pleased with his performance when Persa was out.

The game against Michigan is the third in a brutal four-game stretch that begins with Nebraska and Iowa at home and then Michigan and Michigan State on the road. The Wildcats may be banged up and in a daze by the time they come to visit Michigan in the Big House. If they want to go to a bowl game for the sixth consecutive year, they'll have to do well in their non-conference schedule against teams like Vanderbilt, Boston College, and South Dakota. Otherwise, they could become desperate as the season progresses.

11. Iowa
Chance of Win: 60% (Likely)

There's not a lot of love for Iowa from analysts this year, despite the fact that Kirk Ferentz is currently the Big Ten's most tenured coach (14 years) and hasn't had a season under six wins since 2000. Also, James Vandenberg is the Big Ten's most experienced quarterback besides Denard Robinson. So, what's the problem? Ben Glicksman of the Sports Illustrated Big Ten Preview points out what could be the issue: "Though quarterback James Vandenberg is back, most of his playmakers are not, including wide receiver Marvin McNutt and running back Marcus Coker, a duo that accounted for 60.2% of the team's total yardage in 2011." There's also been a staff change: both the offense and defense will have new coordinators.

The Hawkeyes' schedule is one of the most favorable in the Big Ten, with the first five games (except the opener) played at home. The opener against Northern Illinois is played at a neutral site. Those first five games are pretty close to cupcakes, yet Iowa State and Minnesota both pulled upsets last year, though Iowa was on the road both times. The stiffest tests are against Michigan State (away), Michigan (away), and Nebraska (at home). While Iowa undergoing a team-wide overhaul, it's not hard to see how they don't have a great chance to finish in the top of the Legends Division.

Still, the Hawkeyes have had Michigan's number for the last couple of years, so I never count them out of anything. They destroyed Michigan in 2010, but the contest in 2011 was much closer and they escaped because Junior Hemingway's third-down catch was ruled incomplete. This year, obviously, is a revenge match for Michigan. Iowa should be coming off momentum from games against Purdue and Indiana, but Michigan should be more prepared, having squared off against the defending national champions, the Fighting Irish, Michigan State, and the Cornhuskers before this contest. Barring a complete meltdown, Michigan should win this one.

12. Ohio State
Chance of Win: 48% (Moderate)

Stop the presses, everyone: The Rivalry is back.

Well, at least Michigan fans think so. You'll be hard pressed to find a Buckeye who thinks that the Urban Meyer era is going to be anything other than Jim Tressel x 1,000 in which victories over Michigan are guaranteed every year and national championships come far more frequently. Meyer certainly comes to Columbus with an impressive resume; indeed, he is the first and perhaps only "big name" hire that Ohio State has made in program history. They typically snagged old-school coaches who were under the radar (Hayes, Tressel, etc.), and then those coaches' passion for Ohio State propelled them to create legacies.

As god-like as Ohio State fans are making Meyer before he's even coached a game, you have to at least consider the question of why he's not in Florida anymore. The answer: his health. Meyer became such a perfectionist in the cutthroat SEC that he tried to do everything he could to appease Florida fans, at the expense of his family. Well, if you think coaching at Florida is tough, you haven't seen Ohio State.

Every Buckeye head coach since World War II has either been shamefully fired or left in disgrace. The fans are relentless in their hatred of Michigan and their desire to win national championships. If you think Michigan fans were tough on Rodriguez, wait and see what happens to Meyer in Columbus when he hasn't won a national championship by his third year. Urban Meyer just left a hard head coaching gig for health reasons only to take one that's even harder. His wife can't be too thrilled right now.

While I can't see Meyer being a long-term option at Ohio State, I also can't see him being a complete failure. Every Ohio State coach (even the ones who didn't live up to the standard) has had the benefit of perpetually stocked talent in the program, an even bigger talent pool in the state of Ohio, and the sometimes-ruthless support of the fan base and the administration. Meyer won't have to rebuild; he has wisely observed the mistakes of Rich Rodriguez and will be sure to adapt his offense while installing it.

That starts with true sophomore quarterback Braxton Miller, who was thrown into the starting role after Terrelle Pryor decided to hightail it to the NFL in hopes of avoiding an NCAA investigation. During the Big Ten Network's visit to Columbus, when asked about how he feels about Miller under center, Meyer noted how Miller is "an athlete playing quarterback" instead of the reverse (i.e. a quarterback who is an athlete). Michigan fans know something about this with Denard Robinson, and while Miller is no where near as fast as Denard, he can still beat you with his feet. Meyer's spread is certainly a quarterback-centric spread, so this means Miller will be utilized to the fullest extent, and probably with more running plays than passing plays. However, this also means that if Miller goes down, Meyer's offense will have serious problems.

The guy headlining the defense everywhere is defensive end John Simon. The senior from Youngstown, Ohio earned First Team All-Big Ten honors last season and looks to be an anchor to what is probably the Buckeyes' strongest unit. The linebacker crew gets a boost from sophomore Ryan Shazier, who had an explosive season on the field as a true freshman. An overall solid defense even by Ohio State standards is being co-coordinated by Luke Fickell, the interim Buckeye coach who has decided to stay on for the good of his alma mater, and Everett Withers, who was the interim head coach for North Carolina in 2011.

The media's love for Urban Meyer have everyone pegging the Michigan game as a clear Ohio State victory. Personally, I don't think it will be that easy. Sure, the intensity of The Game is ramped up with Ohio State not being eligible for the Big Ten championship or any type of postseason bowl, meaning that the Michigan game is really all they have to play for--which isn't all that different from any other year. Michigan hasn't won in Columbus since the 2000 season. Unlike the last four years, they have a chance to actually do that. It would be unbelievably sweet if Hoke's Wolverines could knock of the Buckeyes on the road in Urban Meyer's first year.

For all the talk of Ohio State's defense, here's an important fact to consider: Meyer's defensive coordinator who helped him win two national championships at Florida just happens to be coaching at Michigan. Expect the Maize and Blue to go all out against the Scarlet and Gray in another classic matchup.

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