The Michigan defense has to make some strides in 2014 if it wants to live up to the expectations of a Michigan defense.
And the Wolverines won't get a break because there are plenty of offensive weapons on the schedule next season.
Here’s a look ahead to the biggest challenges Michigan will face.
1. QB Braxton Miller, Ohio State. No surprises here. The Ohio State quarterback gets his chance to take on the Michigan defense in The Horseshoe. And with his production on the field the past two seasons, he should be even better next season. Miller is the best dual-threat quarterback the Wolverines will face in 2014. He averaged 175 yards passing yards and 89 yards rushing per game. His TD percentage (TD/pass attempts) was second only to Jameis Winston in 2013.
2. QB Connor Cook, Michigan State. Cook was another signal-caller who made significant improvement, specifically down the stretch in the Big Ten Championship game and in the Rose Bowl. He’s secured his starting role and isn’t in the midst of a three- or four-quarterback controversy, which should also aid his growth as a leader and player. Like Miller, he has the luxury of playing Michigan in his home stadium. Cook led the conference with the lowest interception percentage (INT/pass attempts) at 1.6, and with an offseason to develop with his receivers and the MSU run game, he -- like Miller -- should be much better in 2014 than he was in 2013.
3. QB Christian Hackenberg, Penn State. Hackenberg has a new head coach and a new offensive coordinator, but the freshman showed such potential this past season that he should be a considerable offensive threat this fall. The Big Ten Freshman of the Year should be in good hands, considering what new coach James Franklin and offensive coordinator John Donovan did at Vanderbilt. Hackenberg finished in the middle of the pack in many Big Ten quarterback stats this season, but that could change in 2014.
4. RB Jeremy Langford, Michigan State. Like Cook, Langford was a guy stuck in the middle of a position controversy early in the 2013 season. Now, with the position solidified, he should be able to have a strong offseason and come in as the guy. His growth will only help Cook’s, and vice versa, so these two should create a pretty tough threat for defenses.
5. Penn State tight ends. The Nittany Lions certainly lost a lot at receiver when Allen Robinson declared for the NFL draft. With his 119 yards per game gone, Hackenberg will look to spread it out a bit more. He’ll look more for the talented tight ends on the roster. With Jesse James, Kyle Carter and Adam Breneman, Hackenberg has plenty of offensive threats. And with the way the Wolverines struggled in pass coverage, talented tight ends who can block and catch aren’t what they want to see from an offense. And certainly not several from one team with those capabilities.
RB Ezekiel Elliott, Ohio State: The rising sophomore has some big shoes to fill, but his size and athleticism indicate he’s more than ready to do it. Michigan struggled against the run in 2013, and he’s a guy who could exploit those issues up front, especially if Miller takes the attention from the defense.
QB Nate Sudfeld and RB Tevin Coleman, Indiana: Coleman was the No. 5 rusher in the Big Ten in 2013, and while he rushed for just 78 yards and one touchdown against the Wolverines, this could be one of those tandems that could catch Michigan off guard in the fall (much as it did last fall).
QB Everett Golson, Notre Dame: Golson has returned, and Brian Kelly is back calling the plays. This should create a comfort level between the two, but how effective Golson will be depends on if Notre Dame can get some receiving weapons to step up.
OT Taylor Decker, Ohio State: The only returning starter on the Buckeyes' offensive line will be a handful for the Wolverines' front four, especially if Michigan's pass rush looks anything like it did in 2013.
Certainly there are players in the B1G West such as Iowa QB Jake Rudock and OT Brandon Scherff and Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon who could pose huge threats, but the Wolverines wouldn’t see them until a potential Big Ten championship game, so they weren’t included on this list.