Brady Hoke is entering a critical fourth season in Ann Arbor.
His offense, particularly on the ground, has taken progressive steps backwards in all three seasons and it led to the firing of longtime Hoke assistant Al Borges. Michigan didn’t waste any time hiring former Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier in the same afternoon.
The hope is that the changes will reinvigorate the running game and stabilize inconsistent passer Devin Gardner.
With tricky non-conference games and a move into a much tougher division, the Wolverines' schedule in 2014 is anything but easy. That doesn’t mean, however, that the Maize and Blue can’t make a run at a division crown should things break their way this fall.
2014 Michigan Schedule Analysis
Archrival no more
Although there will be some serious revenge on the minds of Michigan faithful when Utah and Appalachian State come to town in September (SEE: 2007-08), the biggest non-conference game of the year is by far the trip to South Bend. The Notre Dame-Michigan rivalry is ending after this meeting for the foreseeable future and both coaches have taken to the court of public opinion to make their sentiments heard. There will be no love lost between these two and a Michigan win over a ranked Irish team on the road could jumpstart a big year. Conversely, an ugly defeat gives Notre Dame bragging rights and creates concern about the trajectory of the season in just the second weekend of action.
Minnesota at home to open Big Ten play isn’t all that scary, while a road trip to Rutgers for the first-ever meeting between the Knights and Wolverines should be a cinch. But a late-October, two-game home-and-home with Penn State and Michigan State will be enormous. Michigan lost both last year by allowing an embarrassing 72 total points to the Nittany Lions and Spartans. Michigan will either be leading the Big Ten East Division or will be completely out of the race by the end of October. The good news is Hoke and company will get two weeks to prepare for the road trip to East Lansing.
Don’t look ahead
The final stretch of play in November isn’t all that scary for Michigan. Home games with Indiana and Maryland are games the Wolverines need to win and a road trip to Northwestern, while very tricky, should also be a winnable game. The key for Hoke and his staff is to keep his team focused on the game at hand during November and make sure his squad doesn’t look ahead to the Ohio State battle. The loss at home on a failed two-point conversion was one of the great moments of a crazy ’13 season but another loss to “Ohio” this fall would make 10 defeats in 11 tries. And that simply isn’t going to cut it for Michigan fans.
Hoke has a lot of quality pieces to work with this fall and has a new name leading his offense. The schedule isn’t easy — either within the league or out — but is broken up into manageable segments. Notre Dame early, a two-game stretch late in October and a road trip to Ohio State are the four games fans are likely circling. Pull an upset in that group and take care of business against teams like Minnesota, Indiana and Northwestern and Michigan could find itself right in the thick of the Big Ten title race at season’s end.