Is Michigan the Favorite for the 2013 Legends Division Title?

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Can Devin Gardner lead Michigan to a Legends Division title in 2013?

<p> Is Michigan the Favorite for the 2013 Legends Division Title?</p>

With four teams battling for the top spot, the Legends Division should be one of the most competitive title races in college football this season.

Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska and Northwestern each have a strong case to be ranked No. 1 in the division next year, but each team is chasing Ohio State in the overall Big Ten standings.

Nebraska claimed the division title last season, but the Cornhuskers enter 2013 with significant question marks on defense. Nebraska isn’t the only team dealing with its share of preseason issues, as Michigan has holes to fill on the offensive line and developing more skill players for quarterback Devin Gardner, Northwestern must replace a couple of key performers from its offensive line, and Michigan State has to develop consistency on offense after averaging only 20 points a game last season.

The 2013 college football season is still over 100 days away, but it’s never too early to start talking predictions and expectations for each team going into 2013.

Athlon Sports’ official college football top 25 countdown for 2013 will begin in early May. With the top 25 and predictions in mind, Athlon’s editors will be debating some of the hottest topics from the preseason throughout April and May. 

Is Michigan the Favorite for the 2013 Legends Division Title?

David Fox (@DavidFox615)
Michigan is a favorite in the Legends, but not the runaway favorite Ohio State is in the Leaders Division. Let’s not forget Nebraska won this division a year ago thanks to a 23-9 win over Michigan. I understand this was a game in which Denard Robinson got hurt before halftime, but Nebraska’s defense was a mess last season. Michigan managed only two field goals with Robinson and then a third thereafter with Russell Bellamy, not Devin Gardner, throwing three interceptions. The Wolverines should continue to improve, but we’re all assuming Gardner is going to be a standout player through the course of the season. What if he’s not? Nebraska has the more proven offense that led the league in rushing and total offense. I don’t think Northwestern is out of the Legends Division race, either. In other words, I’ll pick Michigan, but there are too many other things that could happen to make it a slam dunk.
 

Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
Just because I think Michigan is the frontrunner in the Legends Division doesn't make them my pick to win it. Brady Hoke enters his third season with a quarterback that finally fits his system in Devin Gardner. Getting Taylor Lewan back to protect the blindside helps in a big way as well. That said, there are still minor questions along the line, in the running game and outside at wide receiver. The defense continues to evolve under Hoke, going from fourth in the Big Ten in total defense to second a year ago. There is a lot to like about the Maize and Blue and the odds will favor the Wolverines to win the Division this fall, however, the schedule is downright nasty. Home games with Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State will be brutal while road trips to Penn State, Michigan State, Northwestern and Iowa won't be easy. Meanwhile, Nebraska features the league's best offense and won't have to play Ohio State or Wisconsin in crossover play. With two fairly evenly matched teams led by two electric senior quarterbacks, this division should be one of the most entertaining to watch all season long. A home win or loss against Ohio State in the season finale will likely determine if Michigan heads to Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis or not.
 

Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska and Northwestern all have legitimate Legends Division title hopes. But even though the Wolverines are a team with plenty of question marks, I like Brady Hoke’s team to win the division in 2013.

With only 11 starters returning, Hoke and his staff have some work to do this preseason. Quarterback Devin Gardner is a rising star, and the offense caught a break when tackle Taylor Lewan decided to turn down the NFL for his senior year in Ann Arbor. The biggest question mark for Michigan’s offense has to be skill players. Running back Fitzgerald Toussaint is coming off a broken leg, which should open the door for true freshman Derrick Green to make an instant impact. Jeremy Gallon was a big-play threat last year, but the Wolverines need to develop more playmakers on the outside. The interior of the offensive line is an issue with only two starters returning.

Although linebacker Jake Ryan may miss the season with a torn ACL, I think Michigan’s defense will rank near the top of the Big Ten once again. Finding a pass rusher to replace Craig Roh is coordinator Greg Mattison’s top spring priority, but the return of cornerback Blake Countess from a torn ACL - and the emergence of linebacker James Ross III  - that should be enough to withstand Ryan’s injury and the lack of a proven edge rusher.

The Big Ten schedule is challenging, especially with road dates at Penn State, Michigan State and Northwestern and a home matchup against Ohio State in the regular season finale. Considering how competitive the Big Ten Legends Division will be in 2013, two or three conference losses could win the division. In terms of overall record, Michigan could finish 9-3 and play Ohio State once again in the Big Ten title for a chance to play in the Rose Bowl.
 

Kevin McGuire, No2MinuteWarning.com andNittanyLionsDen.com(@KevinonCFB)
Michigan is quite an interesting team in the Big Ten in 2013. They lose a good chunk of starters on both sides of the football, including a good portion of the offensive line and that concerns me in a year when the offense may be short on skill player depth. But the offense should have a new look this year and for that I think the Wolverines will be better suited to make a run to Indianapolis.  They must get back to basics on offense and trim down on the turnovers after finsihing 10th in the Big Ten in turnover differential in 2012. If they can establish a healthy ground game with a healthy Fitzgerald Toussaint and incoming stud freshman Derrick Green to take the pressure off of quarterback Devin Gardner, the Wolverines should be able to pick up a number of wins.  But are they the favorite?

I look at Michigan's schedule and I see some tough hurdles to get by, highlighted by a home game in the regular season finale against an Ohio State team I expect to conference's best. Michigan also gets their next toughest game in conference play at home, against Nebraska. Michigan also plays at Penn State in October. But there be no team in the Big Ten playing a more brutal November schedule. Road games at Michigan State, Northwestern and Iowa combined with the home games against the Buckeyes and Cornhuskers means if Michigan comes out on top of the Legends Division, they will undoubtedly have earned it.
 

Mark Ross (@AthlonSports)
There are four teams in the discussion when it comes to contenders in the Legends Division - Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska and Northwestern. Sorry, Iowa and Minnesota fans, not this year. The first team I am eliminating is the Spartans. As much as I like that defense, I think MSU will struggle on offense, as there are questions at quarterback, running back and wide receiver. The offensive line should be solid, but last time I checked they don't throw, run or catch the football.

Next on my chopping block is Northwestern. I really want to like this team more, as I am big fan of coach Pat Fitzgerald, but the Wildcats drew a tough conference slate this season. Not only do they play both Ohio State and Wisconsin from the Leaders division, these two games are in a row. Northwestern should make it six straight bowl bids with no problem, but I don't foresee a trip to the Big Ten championship game in its future, at least not in 2013.

That leaves us with Michigan and Nebraska. Both the Wolverines and Cornhuskers have potent offenses led by dual-threat quarterbacks. And while Nebraska's Taylor Martinez clearly has the experience advantage over Michigan's Devin Gardner, who is entering his first season as the full-time starter, I think Gardner is better suited for the type of offense Wolverine head coach Brady Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges want to run. If the Maize and Blue can find a reliable running game, I think Gardner could put up some decent numbers through the air.

As far as the respective defenses go, Michigan's has quickly developed into one of Big Ten's best under coordinator Greg Mattison. The Wolverines lost some key pieces from last year's unit, which finished second in the conference and 13th in the nation in total defense, but the cupboard is far from bare with young talent ready to step up. On the other hand, Nebraska loses all but one starter from last season's front seven, which struggled at times against the run (192.5 ypg) in 2012. The secondary should be one of the best in the Big Ten, but I'm not as confident in the other levels of the Cornhuskers' defense.

There's also this - Michigan hosts Nebraska at the Big House on Nov. 9. While I'm typically inclined to take the home team in these types of matchups, that's especially the case here because of who will be walking the sidelines. At home or on the road, I'll take Hoke over Nebraska's Bo Pelini when it comes to head coaches. That's why I think Michigan fans will have plenty of reasons to head to Indianapolis in early December.


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