The pressure to qualify for the Bowl Championship Series never goes away at Michigan. It just eases up a bit at times, depending upon circumstances and recent results. This is one of those seasons. After ending a two-year losing streak against Ohio State and playing in the Rose Bowl for the first time in six seasons, the Wolverines enter the 2004 season as a more relaxed bunch.
With a new quarterback and uncertainty at running back and the defensive line, they also have convenient excuses should they fall short of their goals to win the Big Ten title and national championship. Make no mistake, though, the Wolverines have the experience, depth and schedule to gain another BCS bid.
They have 12 returning starters, including three All-America candidates in wide receiver Braylon Edwards, cornerback Marlin Jackson and guard David Baas. Several other returnees saw regular duty during a 10-3 season that was only slightly marred by the 28-14 thumping they received from USC in Pasadena.
OffenseMichigan may have the best receiving corps in the nation. The big mystery is who will get the ball to them. In an atmosphere that demands perfection, Matt Gutierrez seems like a perfect choice for that job. Gutierrez, John Navarre's understudy last season, never lost a game as a three-year starter for California prep powerhouse Concord De La Salle.
Gutierrez is more athletic and quicker than his predecessor and displayed accuracy (68 percent) in seven limited appearances. Clayton Richard, a lefty, is nearly the same size as Gutierrez but concedes a year of experience.
The starting quarterback will have an embarrassment of riches when he looks downfield. Edwards, Jason Avant and Steve Breaston combined for 2,354 yards and 19 touchdowns last season.
Senior David Underwood is the lukewarm favorite to replace Chris Perry as the featured back. He'll face opposition from holdovers Tim Bracken, Jerome Jackson and Pierre Rembert and true freshmen Max Martin and Mike Hart.
Baas, a two-time All-Big Ten first team selection, anchors an offensive line with three returning starters.
DefenseThe front four is loaded with question marks, but the Wolverines have plenty of quality, experienced players at the other positions.
Linebackers Lawrence Reid and Pierre Woods led the team in tackles last season, and the Wolverines shouldn't have any trouble filling an opening at inside linebacker with part-time starter Scott McClintock, Prescott Burgess and Shawn Crable competing there.
Jackson returns to cornerback after a one-year experiment at safety that was marred by a one-game suspension and injuries. With Jackson's reputation as a shutdown corner, opposing quarterbacks will try to pick on Markus Curry and Leon Hall.
LaMarr Woodley, the team's top recruit in 2003, made the switch from linebacker to defensive end in his freshman year. With his 4.5 speed, Woodley can be a premier edge rusher.
The remaining line spots are unsettled. Tackles Gabe Watson and Larry Harrison comprise a 640-pound obstacle up the middle but must prove they can be effective starters.
SpecialistsBreaston is extremely dangerous as a punt returner. The sophomore, who set the Michigan single-season record for punt return yardage last season, returned two punts for touchdowns and had two others called back by penalties.
Placekicker Garrett Rivas and punter Adam Finley give the Wolverines stability and production in the kicking game.
Final AnalysisWith six returning starters on both offense and defense, Michigan is well-equipped for another Big Ten title run.
Everything hinges on how well the new starters at quarterback and tailback perform. Gutierrez has the physical tools and surrounding talent to succeed immediately. There will still be some bumps along the way and he'll have to deal with the impatient Michigan faithful.
A non-conference schedule that includes Miami (Ohio) and Notre Dame isn't overly demanding, setting up a possible nine- or 10-win regular season. The final two road games, at Purdue and Ohio State, will determine the Wolverines' postseason fate.