- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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Our best- and worst-case series continues to snake its way through the Big Ten.
As always, don't view these as straight-up predictions. We're taking a broad look at the potential highs and lows for each team's season, while having a little bit (sometimes a large amount) of fun along the way.
Let's turn now to the Michigan Wolverines.
Remember that preseason talk from Brady Hoke about how Michigan was 11 points away from winning 11 games in 2013? The Maize and Blue locate those extra points in 2014.
New offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier finally installs the physical, pro-style offense Hoke has always wanted, and the young offensive linemen live up to their recruiting hype. The defense, more aggressive now under Greg Mattison, plays at its highest level since 2011.
The season begins with a convincing 35-point win over Appalachian State, as the Wolverines open the scoring by returning a blocked field goal for a touchdown. Team 135 then rolls into South Bend for the final scheduled meeting against Notre Dame, and Devin Gardner throws for 350 yards and five touchdowns in an easy win. The cast of "Arrested Development" joins Hoke at midfield to celebrate by doing their unique chicken impersonations.
Home wins over Miami, Utah and Minnesota and at Rutgers follow, as freshman Jabrill Peppers starts to announce his presence with four early-season interceptions, two kick returns for scores and one receiving touchdown. Michigan moves to 7-0 by beating Penn State under the lights in six overtimes, sealing the deal on Derrick Green's school-record sixth rushing touchdown.
This isn't a fairy tale, so the Wolverines finally stumble on the road against their recent nemesis, Michigan State. But the sting doesn't last long, as Gardner breaks his own school record with 600 yards of total offense against Indiana and the team rolls through injury-ravaged Northwestern and Maryland.
That sets up a showdown for the East Division title in Columbus. Hoke promises to get wing tattoos on his forearms if the Wolverines win, and they do thanks to a pair of pick sixes versus Braxton Miller and Gardner's two-point conversion pass to Devin Funchess at the end of regulation. Devin becomes the most popular baby name in Michigan, slightly surpassing Jabrill.
A two-touchdown victory over Wisconsin in Indianapolis means Hoke has at long last brought a Big Ten title back to Ann Arbor, registering the season a success. It is an unqualified one as Michigan makes the College Football Playoff and goes to Pasadena for the semifinal. Free Zingerman's for everyone!
Meanwhile, Mark Dantonio and Urban Meyer both leave for SEC head-coaching jobs. Michigan can once again call itself the leaders and best.
That whole 11 points away thing? It obscures the fact that Michigan could have easily lost to Akron, UConn and Northwestern if not for a few bounces that went its way.
Some of the same concerns that plagued last year's team -- offensive line problems, inadequate run game, Gardner turnovers and a mediocre defense susceptible to big plays -- remain in place. And it doesn't take long for those issues to get exposed, as Appalachian State pulls off another stunning upset in the opener by blocking another last-second field goal.
The following week, Notre Dame hires actor Dennis Haysbert to reprise his role of Pedro Cerrano from "Major League" and mimic sacrificing a live chicken for Jobu before the game. The inspired Irish run the Wolverines off the field, and Michigan players are pelted with Chick-fil-A sandwiches on their way to the locker room.
Hoke's team bounces back to win the next two but finally yields the Little Brown Jug back to Minnesota in another tough-to-swallow defeat. Gardner has more interceptions than touchdowns at this point in the season, creating a major quarterback controversy. The running game is nonexistent and Peppers complains publicly about his role.
Things start to snowball. A power failure causes the Penn State night game to be suspended, but trailing by three touchdowns at the time, Michigan concedes. Michigan State pitches a shutout, and Spartan skywriters blanket the Ann Arbor airspace for weeks reminding everyone of the goose egg. The Maize and Blue finally bounce back with three straight, skin-of-their teeth victories to gain bowl eligibility, but they are blown out in Columbus as Ohio State finishes another undefeated regular season.
The Wolverines end up in the Detroit Lions Bowl, facing Kentucky and their surprise new field goal kicker, moonlighting basketball star Aaron Harrison. He makes a three-pointer to in the final seconds to win the game.
With Big House attendance and booster support dwindling, Hoke is on the hottest seat in college football for 2015. Michigan State and Ohio State both make the College Football Playoff. Peppers transfers to the Buckeyes. A worldwide pastrami shortage forces Zingerman's to quadruple its prices.
3dDan Murphy and Mitch Sherman
4dSharon Katz, ESPN Stats & Information
4dMitch Sherman and Dan Murphy