Photo courtesy of Michigan Athletics
By Nicholas DeLorenzo, Associate College Football Editor
(Sports Network) - Under first-year head coach Brady Hoke, the University of Michigan football program made huge strides during the 2011 season, finally shedding the 'rebuilding' tag to become one of the most feared teams in the nation.
Taking over for Rich Rodriguez - who was a major disappointment in Ann Arbor, going just 15-22 from 2008-10 after replacing legendary head coach Lloyd Carr - Hoke was able to return the Wolverines to the type of glory they've been used to during their storied history.
The Wolverines rallied behind their rookie head coach to a fantastic 11-2 record, and although they did not win the Big Ten title, they were still selected as an at-large team for a BCS bowl, concluding the season at the Superdome in New Orleans with a 23-20 overtime win over Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl.
After suffering through some setbacks in recent years, the Michigan fateful are surely thrilled that their team is back near the top the Big Ten, but with the new-found success comes greater expectations as they attempt to take that next step towards not only the Big Ten title, but perhaps at a chance to compete for the national championship.
Hoke certainly deserves a lot of the credit for Michigan's turnaround, but undoubtedly the most important piece to its puzzle is quarterback Denard Robinson. The program has had its share of classic pocket-style signal-callers - Chad Henne, Brian Griese, Elvis Grbac, Todd Collins, Drew Henson, Jim Harbaugh and Tom Brady among them. While Robinson certainly doesn't fit the mold of great UM quarterbacks of the past, his dynamic playmaking ability with both his arm and his legs makes him arguably the most dangerous field general the school has ever had.
After seeing limited action as a freshman in 2009, 'Shoelace' Robinson was named Michigan's starting quarterback in 2010 and put together a truly historic season. He was effective through the air, completing 62.5 percent of his passes for 2,570 yards and 18 touchdowns, but he was dazzling on the ground, rushing for a FBS single-season quarterback record 1,702 yards while adding 14 more scores. The season was unprecedented, as he became the first player in NCAA history to accumulate 1,500 yards both through the air and on the ground. His 4,272 yards of total offense also broke the Big Ten Conference record.
Though Robinson saw a drop in production last year, it was still a fantastic season by most people's standards, as he threw for 2,173 yards and 20 touchdowns, while rushing for 1,176 yards and 16 scores. Though his numbers slipped, his poise and leadership skills reached an all-time high, leading the Maize and Blue to their best record since 2007, which included a five-touchdown performance in a 40-34 win over Ohio State -- the school's first win in the rivalry since 2003.
Robinson experienced some inconsistency in 2011 (he finished six games with a completion percentage under 50 percent, including a 9-of-21 performance in the Sugar Bowl), but he is ready to put everything together for his senior season, not only for a Big Ten championship run, but for a chance at the Heisman Trophy.
"Seeing how the seniors led our team (in 2011), I want to be that type of leader for Team 133," Robinson said of Michigan's upcoming 133rd football season. "We made steps and had a good season, but we didn't accomplish our number one goal (of winning the Big Ten title). We're still hungry."
Despite Robinson's eye-popping numbers over the last two seasons, Michigan is far from a one-man team. Fitz Toussaint returns after rushing for 1,041 yards in his first season as the starting running back -- giving the Wolverines a pair of 1,000-yard rushers for the first time since 1975. Robinson lost his best target in Junior Hemingway (34 catches, 699 yards), but reliable receivers Jeremy Gallon (31 catches, 453 yards) and Roy Roundtree (19 catches, 355 yards) are now expected to have bigger roles in the offense. They also added four-star tight end recruit Devin Funchess, who has a chance to make a big impact in his freshman season.
Michigan's defense was pretty good in 2011 (allowing 17.2 ppg), and it returns several impact players, including linebackers Kenny Demens (94 tackles) and Jake Ryan (11 tackles for loss, three sacks), safeties Jordan Kovacs (75 tackles, eight tackles for loss, one interception) and Thomas Gordon (67 tackles, one interception, four fumble recoveries), cornerback J.T. Floyd (two interceptions, eight pass breakups), and defensive end Craig Roh (eight tackles for loss, four sacks).
The Wolverines will be put to the test early in the 2012 season when they open up against defending national champion Alabama in a prime-time, neutral-site affair at Cowboys Stadium in Texas on September 1. The rest of the schedule consists of typical foes, including Notre Dame on September 22 and hated Ohio State in the final game of the regular season on November 24. Another big game to circle is an October 20 matchup with Michigan State, as Robinson has never defeated the Spartans in his career.
If Michigan can somehow knock off the Crimson Tide, it could be well on its way to a national championship run. But even if the Wolverines fall in their first game, they have enough experience and firepower lift themselves to their first Big Ten championship in nearly a decade.