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Minnesota Football: Opponent Preview #5 Michigan Wolverines

Finally we've reached the Big Ten...

Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

In the next three weeks as we move closer to the start of the 2014 Gopher Football season, we here at The Daily Gopher will give a quick preview of the Gophers opponents.  We finally have reached the Big Ten portion of our schedule!  Next up is the opponent in the Battle for the Little Brown Jug, the Michigan Wolverines.

Name:  Michigan Wolverines
Location: Ann Arbor, Michigan (She may or may not be of ill repute)
Enrollment: 43,710
Conference: Big Ten (East Division)
Notable Alumni: James Earl Jones  (of course Darth Vader went to Michigan), Lucy Liu, Arthur Miller, Ann Coulter, Rich Eisen, Clarence Darrow, Gerald Ford, Tom Brady, Jim Harbaugh, Ari Gold
Bill Connelly Preview Link: Here!

Last Season:

Michigan may have been the most underachieving team in the Big Ten last season.  Of course that's not a great sign when Minnesota loses to a very underachieving team by a 42-13 score.  However, Michigan was a very different team from the 5-0 squad team that beat Minnesota to the team that went 2-6 the rest of the way.   Then ended the year at 7-6 including a very uninspired Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl loss to Kansas State.  What happened?  The offense disappeared. They averaged only 2.8 yards per play against Northwestern, Nebraska and Iowa coming down the stretch of the Big Ten season.  Then they almost pulled off a shocking upset against Ohio State.  But, they didn't and limped home.   They ended the season 46th in the nation in offense and 67th in defense, not the type of rankings a "Michigan Man" expects.

Key Losses:

The top running back and top receiver for the Wolverines have both moved on. Fitzgerald Toussaint ran for 648 yards and 13 touchdowns for Michigan, and will be missed as a senior stalwart in the backfield. On the receiver side, Jeremy Gallon made some incredible plays last season for Michigan and ended up with 1,373 yards and  nine touchdowns.  On the offensive line, Michigan will miss both starting tackles.  Taylor Lewan has taken his d-bag ways to the Tennessee Titans while Micheal Schofield fights for a spot on the roster in Denver.  They were the anchors to a Michigan offensive line that well, went in the crapper towards the end of the season, so this may be the biggest loss of all.

Defensively, Michigan is in good shape.  The only notable players who have left from last years squad are safeties Thomas Gordon and Courtney Avery. Brendon Gibbons, who was a perfect 44-44 on PATs last year, and made one field goal for the ages seen below also departs.

Key Returners:

Michigan is the first team the Gophers will face where the quarterback is not a question.  This is Devin Gardner's team.  He can beat opponents both through the air or on the ground where he ran for 748 yards and 11 touchdowns last season.  However, he is being pushed by sophomore Shane Morris who played in the bowl game last season after Gardner broke his foot in the Ohio State game.  Gardner is prone to make the occasional major mistake, but he can more than make up for it with his legs.  Sophomore Derrick Green will step into the starting role at running back, and will have to look more impressive then he did in limited duty last season.  Gardner still will have one of his favorite targets to throw to however as Devin Funchess returns for his junior season.  His 748 yards and six touchdowns can only go up as he will be the number one target with Gallon gone.

Bill C's Wisdom and Statistical Wizardy

On defense Michigan is sitting in fairly good shape.  Three of the top four defensive linemen return including senior Frank Clark who had five sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss last year.  Six of the top seven linebackers for the Wolverines also return including senior Jake Ryan who is back to 100% after missing half the season last year with a knee injury.  If he can return to his sophomore form where he had 16 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks, Michigan will be looking at a much improved defense.  Five of the top seven secondary members also are back for Michigan including corner Raymon Taylor who led the Wolverines in tackles a year ago.  Blake Countess returns at the other corner spot after leading the team with six interceptions.

Question Marks??

The first question for Michigan will be how will their offense look after they hired offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier away from Alabama.  Will he be able to shape up his offensive line and get them back to a formidable group?  How will his play calling affect Gardner's turnovers and/or ability to freelance?  He could make this offense more consistent, which could make Michigan sneaky good.

The next question will be how Michigan can bounce back from old injuries and deal with new injuries.  Tight end Jake Butt tore an ACL in February and is not expected to play until late in the season if at all.  Gardner's freelancing has gotten him shaken up in the past.  With Morris behind him, this blow may be lessened, but still would be a major hit.

The third question will be the presence of true freshman and arguably the number one recruit in the nation,  Jabrill Peppers. Will he contribute a major presence as a freshman, or will he need some time to get his feet under him?  If he can make an immediate impact, Michigan could definitely surprise.

What Does It All Mean For Minnesota?

The Gophers have not played Michigan well in the Jerry Kill era.  This season will not be any easier.  Michigan seems to be much improved from the end of last season, and with Peppers and a healthy Ryan, will have a strong defense capable of shutting down the Gopher run game.  Mitch Leidner may need to have the type of game that a Gopher quarterback has not had against Michigan since Ricky Foggie in 1986.  Defensively, the Gophers will need to shut down Gardner.  The strong Gopher secondary should be able to take advantage of at least one Gardner mistake, but if they can't stop him from running for 150 yards, it won't matter.

Final Analysis:

This is not the best match-up for Minnesota.  The Gophers have not beaten Michigan and reclaimed the Little Brown Jug since 2005, and will have to try and rely on another strong rushing attack just like they did then.  If Michigan stops the Gophers run game Minnesota will be in trouble unless Leidner has one of the best games of his short career.  Like most years, Michigan will be a strong favorite, and they should be.  However, Minnesota does tend to surprise every ten years or so.  Unfortunately, I don't think this is one of those years.  Michigan's defense looks improved, and with Nussmeyer taking over the offense, I see the Wolverines having more stability and success.  It hopefully won't be as ugly as past games in Ann Arbor under Kill, but I don't see the jug making the trip home.  Michigan wins 31-13.