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NCAA Football Preview - Michigan Wolverines

By Mike Castiglione, Associate College Football Editor

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -

2013 SEASON IN REVIEW: The Wolverines took a step backward in 2013, following an 8-5 season with a 7-6 finish and another bowl game loss, this one before New Year's Day.

A 5-0 start featuring wins over Notre Dame (41-30) and at UConn (24-21) catapulted Michigan to No. 18 in the AP poll entering its highly anticipated Oct. 12 road bout with Penn State. However, the Nittany Lions pulled out that one in four overtimes, 43-40, marking the Wolverines' fourth straight loss in the head-to-head series.

They took out their frustrations on Indiana the following week in a 63-47 triumph, but the Wolverines were simply not the same team when they emerged from their Oct. 26 bye.

UM went on to drop five of its final six games, including a lopsided loss to Kansas State in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.

2014 ANALYSIS:

OFFENSE: Michigan has some pretty big holes to fill on the offensive side of the ball. Wideout Jeremy Gallon caught 89 passes for 1,373 yards (105.6 ypg) and 9 touchdowns last season, while Fitzgerald Toussaint led the team in rushing with 648 yards and 13 scores. Both are gone, along with star offensive tackle Taylor Lewan, who was drafted with the 11th overall pick by the Tennessee Titans.

Still, the cupboard is not entirely bare. At quarterback, three-year letterman Devin Gardner returns. Gardner threw for nearly 3,000 yards and 21 touchdowns last year, in addition to almost 500 yards and 11 more scores on the ground. Although he won't have his favorite target in Gallon, Gardner figures to feed more targets to Devin Funchess, who won the Big Ten's Kwalick-Clark Tight End of the Year award in 2013.

Running the show now is former University of Alabama coordinator Doug Nussmeier.

DEFENSE: The Wolverines must replace some beef up front in defensive tackles Jibreel Black and Quinton Washington, and they won't have strong safety Thomas Gordon making calls in the secondary.

Defensive end Frank Clark is on the Ted Hendricks Award watch list after racking up 12 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, 7 quarterback hurries and a pair of fumble recoveries in 2013.

"The movement of Jake Ryan to the inside of our defense has been very positive," head coach Brady Hoke added at Big Ten media day.

At cornerback, All-Big Ten cornerback Blake Countess returns after picking off 6 passes last season. However, all eyes are seemingly on true freshman Jabrill Peppers, widely considered the No. 2 prospect in this year's incoming class. As Hoke cautioned, Peppers has a long way to go to live up to comparisons to former Michigan Heisman Trophy winner Charles Woodson.

"I think we've got to be careful about anointing any true freshmen starting their college career, but (nickel) is where he will start," Hoke said. "Let's anoint him when he does something, right? I mean, let's see what he can do."

SPECIAL TEAMS: Matt Wile is capable of handling both kicking and punting duties, but at the moment he is in line to take over at kicker after spending the 2013 season at punter. Will Hagerup returns to punter, where he was an All-Big Ten selection in 2012.

OUTLOOK: Michigan's schedule is awfully interesting. Let's start with the opening weekend game against new FBS member Appalachian State, a rematch of the 2007 opener when the Mountaineers came into the Big House and shocked the college football world with a 34-32 victory.

In Week 2, the Wolverines tangle with Notre Dame in the last scheduled game of the longtime rivalry. It's possible, although anything but a given, that Michigan could be 7-0 and coming off a bye as it heads into an Oct. 25 matchup at Michigan State to battle for the Paul Bunyan Trophy.

Ultimately, the season comes down to what it always comes down to: The Game. This year, the Wolverines will travel to the Horseshoe in Columbus to take on a loaded Ohio State squad. Could it possibly decide the East division title? Time will tell.

08/20 12:41:06 ET