If Brady Hoke‘s fourth season with the Michigan Wolverines already has a staple attached to it, it’s a brutal road schedule that takes his team to Notre Dame, Rutgers, Michigan State, Northwestern and Ohio State. We’ve spent a lot of time speculating about what the expectations are for this team when it comes to three rivalry games on the road in 2014, but we can’t overlook two others against the Scarlet Knights and the Wildcats. In all, the Wolverines are going to be tested in a vicious manner on the road this season, and if they have their eyes set on a Big Ten Championship — it isn’t out of the question — these are the five most important games of the season.
I’m not trying to downplay the importance of games against Indiana and Penn State and so on at The Big House, but Michigan in the recent past has done an exceptional job of holding serve at home; those aren’t the games that most concern me. Right now, you could safely say Michigan is the third best team in the Big Ten’s East Division and probably make a case for fourth behind Penn State — that’s just how it is right now. The Wolverines are going to have to go right next to perfect in conference play this season if it wants a crack at a Big Ten title.
Consider this: Michigan hasn’t been to the Rose Bowl since 2007. Obviously the Rose Bowl in 2014 is acting as one of the two semi-final destinations for the first year of the College Football Playoff, but the fact remains, and it’s an ugly one at best.
Competing on the road in college football is such a unique challenge. Dramatic emphasis is placed on every phase of the game, and in Michigan’s case, some stand out drastically. If the Wolverines run the ball like they did in 2013, game over — this team isn’t competing on the road. That’s probably the biggest step forward this team can take from last year.
The ground attack is coming down to two guys this season: Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith. Both are sophomores this season, and both have large names to live up to. We’ve been batting this topic around all offseason, but it applies every time in the same sense; one of these running backs (or both) has to get it going in 2014. Michigan ranked 104th in rushing yards per game last season. Let that sink in — a team in its third year under ground-and-pound coach Brady Hoke only rushed for 125 yards per game in 2013, and a good chunk of that came from the talented legs of Devin Gardner.
Turnovers were another big issue, especially when it came to Gardner at quarterback. Gardner is one of the most skilled and versatile quarterbacks in the entire country, but he’ll never shine at his full potential if he keeps turning the ball over at such a high rate. That will instantly kill your team in a hostile environment.
We’re hoping offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier‘s offensive line is something that can hold this season, despite losing tackles Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield to the NFL. Simpler schemes and added depth will hopefully have a positive impact on a line that failed miserably last season when it came to protecting the quarterback and opening up lanes for running backs.
All these things need to come together in same shape or fashion this season if Michigan wants to keep competitive on the road and stay alive for a shot at the Big Ten title; at full capacity, this team is capable of doing that.
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