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August 21, 2014

Maize 'N View: A hodgepodge of topics

Covering an array of subjects in my last column for the next four to six weeks.

1) I will miss the non-conference season and maybe the first two Big Ten games while recovering from surgery Aug. 28. It is not a life-threatening condition but it will require an extended break before I can return to work.

You will probably hardly notice I'm gone as John Borton and Chris Balas are entering their 23rd and 13th seasons covering Michigan football for The Wolverine, and will continue to bring you outstanding pre- and post-game coverage and analysis.

Additionally, we welcome back former Michigan offensive line coach Jerry Hanlon in his commentator role, and are excited to have former All-Big Ten offensive lineman Doug Skene, former All-American linebacker Ron Simpkins, and former starting offensive lineman David Moosman back for another season.

Additionally, 1997 national champion safety Marcus Ray will be part of the team this season. And last but not least, pre-game radio host and sideline reporter Doug Karsch will continue as a contributor.

Tim Sullivan, meanwhile, is leading a recruiting charge that now includes a second full-time recruiting analyst in recently hired Brandon Brown, plus intern Branden Hunter.

Overall, our package this fall and then into basketball and hockey seasons, we believe, will be the best we've ever done, and will give you, the subscribers, the access and analysis you crave.

2) It was asked earlier this week what Michigan's record could be this season if it featured Iowa's offensive line?

For the second consecutive season one position group could prove the Wolverines' undoing.

If you look around the rest of the roster, there are some unproven pieces, but there is talent and experience defensively, senior quarterback Devin Gardner should be one of the Big Ten's best, the receivers could be U-M's strongest since the 2007 season, and the running backs have potential.

Tight end could be a weakness until sophomore Jake Butt returns, but with this receiving corps, tight ends will not have to be a huge factor in the passing game.

Yet if this offensive line struggles again, and indications from preseason camp have raised concern, the Wolverines will almost certainly see a promising campaign come undone, with four or more losses a possibility.

If the line transforms and develops into a consistent unit, U-M could surprise this season. In other words, if the Wolverines featured Iowa's line, they should be a double-digit win team, with every game - even at Michigan State - in play.

It's usually not as simple as one man or position group, but for the Maize and Blue in 2014, it is. The play of offensive line is the difference between a 10-2 season and an 8-4 year.

3) Put me in the camp that was trying to downplay the impact freshman Jabrill Peppers would have, but now that word continues to leak out that it's very likely he plays cornerback in a 4-3 defense and nickel back in a 4-2-5 look, and never comes off the field, it's becoming clear the five-star freshman has the chance to be a true difference-maker for the Wolverines.

That is still a lot to put on a rookie, and it's imperative that players like senior defensive end Frank Clark, senior linebacker Jake Ryan, junior linebacker Joe Bolden and junior safety Jarrod Wilson lead the charge, but Peppers could transform this defense from very good into great because of an ability to play physical against wide receivers, pick off passes, and gives quarterbacks reason to avoid him.

This defense has every opportunity to be special this year, and really should be. The expectations are high - top 20 nationally - and this unit needs to carry the offense through some of the difficult games as the offensive line comes together (or doesn't). Michigan can win 10 games this season even with a so-so line if the defense is dominant.

That's a word we toss around a little too carelessly, and we shouldn't use it again until this team hits November because only after Michigan has experienced eight games or so, ups and downs, and been put into a corner, and responded to that challenge, will we know if this defense is elite or not.

4) There has been a lot of talk about Notre Dame and Ohio State's personnel issues and how it affects Michigan. Obviously if neither team is at full strength due to suspensions and injury, it helps U-M's case but the Wolverines still have to take care of their own business to have a shot at beating either foe on the road.

The game at Notre Dame Sept. 6 becomes very winnable, however, as the Irish appear they will be hit hard with academic suspensions at two positions - defensive end and cornerback - they cannot afford to lose their best player at.

Those losses could be enough for Michigan to find the type of success offensively it will need to win in South Bend.

Meanwhile, the showdown in Columbus takes on a new tone with the news that senior QB Braxton Miller is out for the year. Miller, like Michigan's Denard Robinson, is a dynamic athlete and the center of the Buckeye offense, but while he will be missed, redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett will be 11 starts into his career under center when the rivals meet.

In other words, he will not be some rookie in his first start. And anyone discounting what a redshirt freshman can do should look at the last two Heisman Trophy winners - Florida State's Jameis Winston and Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel - and remember they were redshirt freshmen too.

Michigan can beat Ohio State but not because OSU will have a new quarterback in place. It will beat the Buckeyes if U-M is a better team and finds a way to win on the road.

5) Considering I'll miss the first few games of the season, I thought I'd throw my staff picks for the non-conference out there. My picks have changed slightly as I now have Michigan beating Notre Dame (though going 9-3).

Michigan 41, Appalachian State 9.

Michigan 24, Notre Dame 14

Michigan 48, Miami (Ohio) 13

Michigan 31, Utah 17

Enjoy the first month. I hope to be back to work soon.

Michigan NEWS


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