The Good News: All that is good in Ann Arbor these days starts with one Denard Robinson. Though often derided among some college football watchers as being "too soft" or "too injury prone," and while it is indeed true that the guy is not exactly Joe Montana when it comes to throwing the ball, the simple truth is that, with the possible exception of LSU's Tyrann Mathieu, Robinson is the most exciting player in college football. At the very least, he's the best player in the Big Ten, and thank in part to his playmaking ability and in part to the incredible job that coach Brady Hoke has done in turning around the once-sieve-like Michigan defense (anybody remember those horror defense of the Rich Rodriguez era?), it seems that, for the first time in a long time, Michigan is going to make a real run the league title. With Ohio State rebuilding under Urban Meyer, with Penn State reeling after, well, you know, and with Wisconsin facing the prospect of life without Russell Wilson, the time is now for Hoke, for his team, to make a statement. If they want to compete in the long run with Meyer, they'll have to stake out their territory. Winning a Big Ten title this year would help them do precisely that; and you know what? I think they're going to do precisely that.
The Bad News: The season figures to open with a thud. All due credit to the powers-that-be up in Ann Arbor: They deserve major props for agreeing to take on the powerhouse that is Alabama, especially in a season opener. The Week 1 showdown against Nick Saban's Tide will be played at the neutral site Cowboys Stadium, so at the very least, the Wolverines won't have to deal with the crazies in Tuscaloosa. Even still, it seems an awfully tall order to ask this team, still rounding into form under Hoke, to knock off the single most dominating program in the country. So yeah, let's assume that the Wolverines will get hammered in their opener. Will they be able to bounce back? Will they put that beatdown behind them in time to tackle a Week 2 showdown with always-game Air Force? The answers to those questions figure to go a long way toward defining the season up in Big Blue country.
Game to Watch: The rivalry with Notre Dame is always interesting. The grudgefest against Michigan State is always nasty, not to mention important. And the new "rivalry" with Nebraska is certainly something to watch. But always and forever, a Michigan season is defined by one game and one game only. That game, of course, is The Game. The Wolverines finally got over the hump against their hated rival last season, but now that Meyer has arrived in Columbus, this legendary series may be on the brink of entering a brutal new era. This year, at least, Hoke figures to have the upper hand. And given what we know about Meyer--given that we can fully expect he'll have that Buckeye program running at full capacity within a year or so--one could say that Hoke has no choice but to win the battle this season. Because I'll be honest: I'm not sure he's going to win many more in the years to come.
What They'll Be Expecting: Hoke probably exceeded the expectations of even the most die-hard Michigan supporters last season. An 11-2 record? A win over Ohio State (the first in a long, long time)? A win in the Sugar Bowl? I mean, it was impressive stuff. Very impressive stuff. But of course, the success comes with a downside. Michigan fans will now be expecting similar success going forward. This year, at least, that appears more than possible. The Big Ten is down and Hoke will be trotting out a player each week who is capable of winning a game almost entirely on his own. That makes life easier. A lot easier. Hence, the return of high expectations in Ann Arbor.
The Schedule (key games marked with an *):
Sept. 1: vs. Alabama* (Arlington, Texas)
Sept. 8: Air Force
Sept. 15: Massachusetts
Sept. 22: at Notre Dame*
Sept. 29: Bye Week
Oct. 6: at Purdue
Oct. 13: Illinois (Homecoming)
Oct. 20: Michigan State
Oct. 27: at Nebraska*
Nov. 3: at Minnesota
Nov. 10: Northwestern
Nov. 17: Iowa
Nov. 24: at Ohio State*
Prediction: I've said it before and I'll say it again: The window of opportunity in the Big Ten is now open. But it won't be open for long. There is no denying the fact that, before long, Meyer will turn Ohio State into a juggernaut. So if Hoke wants to win, be better win now. Though the schedule is challenging--the opener against 'Bama is almost a sure loss, and the Wolverines face Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State on the road--this is team that appears to built for success. The defense is fast improving and Robinson is a spectacular talent. Another 11-2 season is more than within the realm of possibility. Yes, it's true: Big Blue is back.