USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.

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It's never good when your win totals read like an eye chart.

Eleven, eight, seven: These are the numbers that tell the recent story of Michigan football, which hit its apex under Brady Hoke in year one and has since ceded great swaths of conference turf to Ohio State and Michigan State, two rivals licking their chops at the thought of meeting the Wolverines in October and November, respectively.

This isn't progress but regression, and it's painful – tired, sluggish, listless and yes, painful. Last year's team won two games after the first Saturday of October, with one coming against Indiana, in a game that should be buried deep underground, never to be seen again, and the second coming in a triple-overtime affair against Northwestern.

It all seemed a touch familiar, actually. A third-year coach starting strong, hitting the skids and winning just twice after the first weekend of the season's second month. A seven-win team capping the year with a humbling bowl loss. Defeats to both Michigan State and Ohio State. It's either 2010 or 2013, really, with the primary difference coming in how the former had a ready-made scapegoat.

Hoke can thank Rich Rodriguez for leaving behind two gifts: one, the bones of the team that won the Sugar Bowl in his debut, and two, the not-so-subtle transformation of Michigan's standards.

If we remove Rodriguez's three-year turn from the equation, for example, Hoke has one fewer seven-win season than the Wolverines' total output from 1968-2007. Last year's defense allowed 349 points, the second-most in program history and the most outside of Rodriguez's tenure. Last season's running game accounted for minus-69 yards in back-to-back losses to Michigan State and Nebraska, a total simply beyond the brain's capacity for comprehension.

The silver lining comes from a simple premise: It can't get any worse. It may even get much better, in fact, depending on your faith in the program, the process, the power of positive recruiting and, generally speaking, the potential for progress.

LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:

My take: Michigan goes no worse than 9-3 in the regular season but no better than 10-2, losing at least twice from the group of Notre Dame, Nebraska, Michigan State, Northwestern and Ohio State. While there's tremendous potential nearly throughout the roster, I'm not overly confident in UM's ability to factor into the championship race. But Pasadena is very much in play.

2013 RECAP:

In a nutshell: The Wolverines were a chronic migraine even in victory, as in those Advil-grabbing wins against Akron and Connecticut – one pulled from the fire with a fourth-down stop, another ripped away with a second-half surge. Something was missing: Michigan lacked a running game, a defense, an ability to avoid turnovers and a degree of fortitude, perhaps, deficiencies that helped contribute to one of the most lethargic – read: uninteresting – seasons in the program's modern history. For better or worse, Michigan has always been interesting, if for being such a perennial power or, in latter years, for being a burned-out husk of past relevance. Last year's version lacked juice, an asset casually defined as a pulse rate above deep slumber.

High point: The three-overtime win against Northwestern. Amid close loss after close loss, Michigan met a Big Ten opponent equally capable of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

Low point: Losing to Michigan State and Ohio State. The Wolverines have now dropped both rivalry games in four of the past six seasons.

Tidbit: Good things happen in year three with the Wolverines – or happened, rather. From Fielding Yost through Lloyd Carr, eight Michigan coaches went a combined 68-9-6 in their respective third seasons with the program; Yost and Carr claimed national titles in 1903 and 1997, respectively. In comparison, the last two Michigan coaches have compiled matching 7-6 marks in their third seasons in Ann Arbor.

Tidbit (all-time edition): As you're well aware, Michigan heads into the 2014 season with 910 wins, the most of any program in the Football Bowl Subdivision. The Wolverines also enter the fall ranked second among major-conference programs – counting Notre Dame – in career winning percentage; the Wolverines have won 73.24% of their games, decimal points behind the Fighting Irish's 73.27% clip. To move into first, Michigan would need to win just one more game than Notre Dame during the course of a 13-game season.

ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:

Week 1 rematches

1. Appalachian State at Michigan
2. Clemson at Georgia
3. Colorado State vs. Colorado
4. Fresno State at USC
5. UTSA at Houston

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

Offense: New offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, late of Alabama, identified five areas where Michigan's offense needs to improve: in protecting the football, in cutting down on lost-yardage plays, in protecting the quarterback, in decision-making and, in a very unspecific way, in simplifying last year's system. The hope is that the latter – making this offense easier to understand, digest and put into action – impacts the other four factors, streamlining the Wolverines' basic scheme and allowing this year's returning core to focus on can't-miss tasks. One name stands out, of course: Devin Gardner is the key to the whole deal, as he was a season ago, and his ability to rebound after an unsteady debut season as Michigan's full-time starter should eventually decide the effectiveness of this offense at large.

His was a tale of four seasons: good, bad, average, great. Gardner came out firing in September, tossing four touchdowns in a win against Notre Dame, before running off the rails against Connecticut and Akron; the malaise continued, off and on, before Gardner played the game of his career in the one-point loss to the Buckeyes – and suffered a broken foot in the third quarter, knocking him out of the bowl loss to Kansas State. That he missed the postseason created some sense of competition during the spring, but don't buy into that noise: Gardner's the guy, not Shane Morris, and Gardner will continue to earn starts every Saturday as long as he cuts down on his mental missteps. At the same time, Michigan must be willing to take some of the bad with the good: Gardner's going to push things, yes, which helps explain why he led the Big Ten in yards per attempt by a distinct margin last fall, but his willingness to roll the dice has contributed to his bouts with turnovers. That's where Nussmeier comes in, and the hope is that a gifted quarterback tutor can temper Gardner's penchant for mistakes while maintaining the senior's greatest asset – the ability to stand and deliver.

The Wolverines shouldn't bank on having use of USC transfer Ty Isaac until next season, so the backfield as a whole retains a very familiar feel: Derrick Green (270 yards) and De'Veon Smith (117 yards) lead, followed – in some order or another – by junior Justice Hayes, sophomore Drake Johnson and redshirt freshman Ross Douglas. Due to his willingness to stick his nose into the mix in protection and ability to flex into the slot, Hayes will remain a valuable third-down option even if Green and Smith do the heavy lifting on running downs. Now, an important note: Michigan doesn't lack talent at running back, recent production be damned, and could conceivably achieve what seems like the impossible – a back running for, say, 800 yards – should the line cooperate in this zone-based scheme.

No one receiver on the roster can tout the clear rapport shared between Gardner and Jeremy Gallon, who put on a clinic in his senior season, but the unit does have a could-be star: Devin Funchess (49 receptions for 748 yards) will shift from hybrid tight end to traditional receiver, where his blend of size – ability to bully defensive backs – and speed – ability to run past linebackers and some safeties – makes him one of the Big Ten's most impressive targets. What the Wolverines lack at this point is complementary production, though it doesn't take a deep glance to locate a few positives. Here are four: Amara Darboh is back, and if healthy Michigan views him as a difference-making option; Dennis Norfleet has the athleticism to cause damage in the slot; Jehu Chesson (15 for 221) is trustworthy, if a bit limited; and true freshman Freddy Canteen may have been the breakout star of the spring. If given time, this group might be ready to go in time for tight end Jake Butt's return from an ACL tear – perhaps as early as the second or third week of the season. When he does step back on the field, it's fair to be intrigued by a potential set of Butt, Funchess, Norfleet, Darboh and some combination of Chesson, Canteen and fellow true freshman Drake Harris.

Defense: Michigan's defensive line has done an admirable job stopping the run, believe it or not, though the group has been impotent in the pass rush. Looking toward the fall, perhaps a deeper, more experienced, more multiple and more competitive front four yields a stronger performance on passing downs – a development that would work wonders for the Wolverines' secondary, obviously. What Michigan truly needs is an all-conference, quietly dominant season from senior end Frank Clark (42 tackles, 12.0 for loss), who stands as the one lineman amid deep a rotation capable of demanding double-team attention. It's a simple premise: Michigan can stay fresh with its rotation, so Clark drawing eyeballs could have a positive trickle-down impact throughout the entire front.

Here's the starting four, I'd think: Clark and senior Brennan Beyer at end, flanking Maurice Hurst and the nose combination of Willie Henry and Ondre Pipkins, if the latter is healthy. Beyond this group – Clark the star, Henry very promising, Beyer a team leader – are five or six other options at Greg Mattison's disposal. Taco Charlton is an interesting cog due to his ability to slide inside on passing downs; the same could be said of Chris Wormsley, who could play on the outside in a run-stopping set and give some burst along the interior on third down. Essentially, don't be surprised if nine linemen play extensively: Clark, Beyer, Hurst, Henry, Pipkins, Charlton, Wormsley, Mario Ojemudia and Matt Godin. It's all about creating a pass rush.

The linebacker corps – now coached by Mattison – should be superb. While Cam Gordon's gone, robbing Michigan of some burst in the rush, the Wolverines return the best starting threesome in the Big Ten. One comes back from an injury-marred junior season: Jake Ryan will shift from the strong side to the middle, where he'll serve as the heart and soul of the entire defense. It's a move Ryan's ready to make, about 10 months after rushing back to action last fall and slowly but surely working his way back into disruptive form. Besides, Ryan's shift opens up the strong side to junior James Ross III (81 tackles), who's ready to earn all-conference honors, and the weak side to senior Desmond Morgan (73 tackles), who robotically churns out consistent showings in the middle and on the outside. While Ross III and Ryan must learn new tricks, each starter's mental acuity bodes well for the change in responsibility. There's even reason to think that sophomore Ben Gedeon and junior Royce Jenkins-Stone see vastly increased snaps; this would give Mattison a slew of personnel and alignment options hinging on down and distance.

True freshman Jabrill Peppers is going to play – the only question is where. Without exaggeration, the answer will decide nearly the entire makeup of Michigan's secondary. The only position Pepper won't impact is strong safety: Jarrod Wilson's pretty much locked in there, giving Michigan at least one fairly reliable cog along the back end. But Peppers could start his career at free safety, a major issue for the Wolverines; he could line up at nickel back, where his size and athleticism would come in handy; he could even line up on the outside, pushing one of the Wolverines' two returning starting cornerbacks – Blake Countess (46 tackles, 6 interceptions) and Raymon Taylor (86 tackles, 4 interceptions) – to the nickel, where each would be viewed as a positive, not an occasional liability. Peppers' impact will be immense.

Part of me likes the idea of Michigan and Mattison throwing caution to the wind and putting Peppers on the outside. Countess and Taylor will force mistakes, true; they'll also get picked on downfield, and that will be a continued issue should the Wolverines not boost their paltry pass rush. Taylor isn't afraid to get dirty against the run, so he could be a nice fit inside given his skills in gambling against the football. But I also see the logic in putting Peppers and Wilson along the back end, another step that could alleviate Michigan's penchant for getting burned deep. The basic summation: Peppers needs to play – and he will. If he does end up at safety, Michigan could always push one of Countess and Taylor to nickel and start cornerback Jourdan Lewis, who had an outstanding spring.

Special teams: Will Hagerup's return from a year-long suspension achieves two items of note for Michigan's kicking game: one, it gives the Wolverines a big-leg punter, aiding the defense in field position, and two, it allows senior Matt Wile to focus on replacing Brendan Gibbons at kicker. The Wolverines' quest to control field position is also aided by Wile's production on kickoffs. Norfleet should be the top option on kickoff and punt returns, though the young freshmen at receiver – Canteen and Harris – could make an impact.

POSITION(S) TO WATCH:

Offensive line: First things first: Michigan has to actually identify which five wide-bodied individuals fit into the five positions paced in front of the quarterback, behind the football and along the line of scrimmage, referred to in many circles as an offensive line. Perhaps no grouping speaks more to Michigan's lost path than the woeful, ineffective, often incompetent play of the Wolverines' front, one that heads into fall camp still searching for answers nearly across the board. Such as, for example, whether Erick Magnuson has the strength to replace Taylor Lewan as Gardner's blind-side protector. Or, for another, whether Graham Glasgow plays center, as he did last fall – eventually getting a firmer hold on things – or slides out to guard. Or, for a third, whether sophomore Ben Braden has what it takes to handle right tackle. There are questions, concerns, issues and this: Michigan's roster includes 17 offensive linemen, and just one of those 17 linemen is a senior.

It's easy to focus on the edges, where Lewan and Michael Schofield must be replaced, but Michigan's front needs to get stronger from the inside out. That places emphasis on center: Nussmeier and Darrell Funk need to simplify things, clearly, and make it easier on Glasgow to identify and signal pre-snap alignments. That's if Glasgow maintains the starting nod; I'm not sure that's a lock, to be honest, and Michigan might want to give a long fall-camp look to junior Jack Miller and redshirt freshman Patrick Kugler. In a perfect world, perhaps, Kugler takes control of center and Glasgow shifts to left guard – since that would create an interior of Glasgow, Kugler and sophomore Kyle Kalis, with sophomores Ben Bars and Kyle Bosch the top guard reserves; this isn't that bad, if largely unproven. Now, when it comes to right tackle … locate your nearest deity, cross your chest and pay alms, since there's little reason to think any one option from Braden, Chris Fox, Logan Tuley-Tillman or the two incoming freshmen are ready for the challenge.

It can't get worse, whether you're using metrics, ratings or your own two eyes; it can only get better. Simplify, simplify: Nussmeier and the offensive staff need to keep things as simple as possible while a young, unconfident and unproven front five develops some momentum in a new system. Again: It can't get any worse.

GAME(S) TO WATCH:

Ohio State: Or Michigan State. Or maybe Notre Dame, since the latter seems like an early tone-setter. Let's remember that Michigan does avoid Nebraska, Wisconsin and Iowa from the West Division, instead pulling Northwestern and Minnesota; let's also remember that the Buckeyes, Spartans and Fighting Irish come on the road. Another sneaky game: Utah. The Utes are improved, in my mind, and could notch a road upset with the help of an extra turnover or two.

SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:

In a nutshell: Right from the jump: Michigan's road games against Michigan State and Ohio State – one more confident than the other – essentially voids the Wolverines' chances of winning the East Division. That's a tough blow, scheduling-wise, but it shouldn't impact Michigan's quest for a successful rebound. The Rose Bowl is important, true, as is competing for spots in the College Football Playoff; more important, however, is the idea that Hoke and Michigan show distinct progress after a two-year lull and create the foundation for a charge back into national contention during the ensuing two seasons. This year's team is not a national contender, in my opinion, but rather a borderline top-25 squad with the potential to perhaps eke out a 10-win season by taking care of business against a heavy portion of the schedule.

Ten wins would be positively fantastic – that would leave Michigan among the top 15 nationally and in the mix for a major bowl, rekindling the positive vibes evident during Hoke's debut. To get there, however, Michigan needs help: one, Gardner would need to streamline his operation; two, the backfield would need to find a big-play threat; three, the receiver corps would need to develop that younger core of talented underclassmen; four, the defensive line must find a pass rush; five, the secondary must solve its unsettled two-deep, finding a home for Peppers and addressing the lack of size on the outside; and six – and this most of all – the line must take a substantial, significant step forward. The line doesn't seem ready to take that leap.

I will say this: Question the coaching, perhaps, but don't question the foundation of personnel. At each position – yes, even the line – the Wolverines have accumulated the pieces needed to create a working puzzle; some of this foundation is young, hence the fears of continued growing pains, but they are nonetheless the pieces this program needs to charge back into the conversation. This year's team should at least match last year's regular-season win total, though that'd be a disappointment, and very likely get to eight wins heading into the postseason. To me, an eight-win team that struggles against the cream of the crop won't deserve a national ranking. But the Wolverines' defense and potential on offense, should the puzzle fit, leaves this team as the third-best team in the East and easily among the top half of the Big Ten.

Dream season: Michigan beats Michigan State – say, 30-10 – and tops Ohio State – oh, 40-6 – to win the East Division.

Nightmare season: The Wolverines drop the three tough road games, lose at home to Utah, lose at home to Penn State and lose on the road to Northwestern to finish at 6-6.

UP NEXT:

Who's No. 34? This team's coach is the only one in program history to have never had a losing season.

RANKING EVERY FBS TEAM FOR 2014

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