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The Good, The Bad, The Ugly – 2011 Preview

September 2, 2011

 

THE GOOD

Denard Robinson – When the NCAA record holder for rushing yards by a QB in a season is returning as your starting QB, that’s a good thing.  When he’s dedicated his offseason to perfecting his passing game and is rumored to be completing 70% of his passes in fall camp, that is also a good thing.  When he’s being coached by a staff that does not need to win at all costs to try and save their job, and is committed to keeping Denard Robinson healthy, it’s all good as well.  To recap, GOOD, GOOD, GOOD.  A healthy Denard + a very good offensive line + experienced backs and receivers = nightmares for opposing defensive coordinators.  Denard probably won’t put up the kind of Playstation numbers he put up through the first 6 games last year, but that’s probably a good thing.  A balanced offense with Denard running the ship may even be more potent than last year’s Top 10 offense. 

Hoke-a-mania – Over the last 8 months Michigan football has started to have that old familiar feel about it again.  Words like toughness, physical, and defense have worked their way back into press conferences.  A singular focus on winning Big Ten Championships has returned.  And the boo-birds and critiques have quieted, for now.  And it’s felt great.  Now to be fair, that “old familiar feeling” is what many cursed and moaned about in the latter years of the Lloyd Carr era.  But for a fanbase starving for consistency, improvement, and respectability, that feeling is like manna from heaven.  Will Brady Hoke make us a perennial national title contender?  I’m not sure.  But I fully expect him to return us into a consistent winning program that we were for 39 years.  For right now, that’s going to have to be good enough.

The Offensive and Defensive Lines – Brady Hoke has preached all through the spring and fall camp that the way to win football games is to dominate the line of scrimmage.  Thankfully, he has players capable of helping him do that.  The offensive line has two potential All-Big Ten and maybe even All-American players in David Molk and Taylor Lewan.  And in my opinion, Patrick Omameh isn’t far behind.  Ricky Barnum and Mark Huyge are both good players, and there is hopefully enough depth to last the season.  On the defensive side of the ball, Mike Martin is capable of an All-American season as well, even if he doesn’t put up great stats from being double teamed all year.  If that happens, Ryan Van Bergen and Will Campbell will hopefully pick up the slack inside and create havoc.  On the outside, Craig Roh, Will Heininger, Jibreel Black and Nathan Brink complete the deepest unit on the team.  Although Martin is the only stud, there are no weak parts to this defensive line.  With Greg Mattison scheming for the defense, we won’t see a repeat of Wisconsin and MSU steamrolling down the field like we did last year.  Controlling the line of scrimmage will be a focus on both sides of the ball, and it is a battle we can win.

Welcome Back – For the first time since 2007, (Chad Henne’s senior year), Michigan will have its starting QB from the previous season returning.  That’s the longest stretch Michigan has gone without returning a starting QB in the modern era of Michigan football (1969 – present).  But the experience factor just doesn’t apply to Denard Robinson and the QB position.  Michigan returns 9 of 11 starters on offense (Steve Schilling and Martell Webster graduated) and 9 of 11 starters on defense (Greg Banks, Jonas Mouton).  While the defensive  secondary still remains relatively young, there are very few 1st and 2nd year players on the two-deep for Michigan heading into the season; a stark contrast from the last three seasons.  And as an added bonus, most of these players got plenty of experience playing the last couple of seasons, probably before they were physically or mentally ready to be on the field.  If they can take what they learned during those seasons and apply it this year, we may see some great strides both individually and as a team.

Home Sweet Home – For those fans who make it a habit to try to see every Michigan game in person, no matter the travel involved, the first 2 months of the 2011 season should be a breeze.  That’s because Michigan only leaves the state of Michigan for a game only once prior to November 5, and that’s for a road trip to relatively friendly Ryan Field, home of Northwestern.  The first 9 weeks of the season consist of five straight home games, followed by road games at Northwestern and MSU, a bye week, and then Purdue at home.  While an easy home slate and little travel doesn’t guarantee wins, it certainly makes things easier.  For example, last year MSU had a similar situation, with 7 of their first 8 games in the state of Michigan + 1 road trip to Northwestern.  And as you may recall, MSU started the season 8-0 on their way to an 11-1 finish.  I’m not making any grand predictions that Michigan is headed for a similar fate, but the way the schedule sets up, we are in a prime position to start the season on a signficant winning streak.  To be fair, the schedule does get a little tougher towards the end with road games @Iowa and @Illinois before returning home for Nebraska and OSU. But the fact remains that through October, Michigan has a distinct scheduling advantage that they can hopefully capitalize on.

THE BAD

Not Deep Enough – While Michigan is finally catching up in terms of experience, we’re still not where we need to be in terms of depth.  One thing that always sustained Michigan through the years was that even when a player went down to injury, there was often a player equally as talented and capable ready to step in immediately.  That may be an unrealistic expectation with so much parity in college football these days, but Michigan has still been deficient in this area, even relative to new expectations.  The truth is, there are still a handful of players on the two-deep who never would have seen the field for Michigan in past years.  For the most part, the starters are all Michigan caliber players.  Unfortunately the same can’t be said for all of the backups.  Staying healthy will be a huge factor in how successful Michigan is this year.  An injury to a key player like Denard Robinson, David Molk, Mike Martin, or Troy Woolfolk could be the difference between 7 wins and 9 wins.

Not Big Enough – Anyone who watched Michigan play Iowa, Wisconsin, or MSU last year knows that even though our offense ran up and down the field against them, our defense was woefully overmatched and was steamrolled in every game.  In particular, our defensive line was often pushed around like a powder puff team.  As Hoke preaches about physicality and toughness, he’s also put an emphasis on getting bigger.  He knows that for Michigan to be able to run the ball and stop the run in the Big Ten, you need irresistible forces on the offensive line and immovable objects on the defensive line.  He’s asked several guys to bulk up in weight (and strength), and though they’ve made strides, they aren’t there yet.  Beyond the lineman getting bigger, several of our slot receivers, safeties and even linebackers still aren’t big enough for the Big Ten.  Most of that will need to be fixed with recruiting.  While these players are certainly faster and quicker, its clear from many of the injuries that their bodies aren’t equipped to take the grind of a Big Ten schedule.

Not Special Enough – For most of the Rich Rodriguez era, the Michigan special teams looked more like a Keystone Cops routine than a football unit.  Missed field goals, poor kickoff coverage, fumbled kickoff returns and punt returns seemed to be the rule, not the exception.  While better organization and more able bodies should alleviate some of those follies, there are still major questions about special teams.  Reports are that kickers Brendan Gibbons and Matt Wile have been solid in camp, but until they can show they can do it when the lights are on (literally and figuratively), I’ll remain skeptical.  The punting situation looked to have been solidified with Will Hagerup taking over last year, but a 4 game suspension has created a major question mark for the early part of this season.  Matt Wile was not brought in to punt, and has been shaky so far.  When Hagerup returns we should be set, until then, who knows? Like the kicking game, the word out of fall camp is that the return game is sound.  But until Jeremy Gallon proves he can get hit by Big Ten players without fumbling the football, I’m not buying it.

With Hoke-a-mania running wild and Hoke springing eternal, there’s no room for UGLY in this preseason outlook.  Instead, it’s time for a preseason prediction.

THE PREDICTION

As poorly as Rich Rodriguez’s first summer and early fall went in Ann Arbor (messy divorce from WVU, lawsuits, player attrition, bucking tradition, etc.), the first seven months of the Brady Hoke era couldn’t be more different.  Fans. alumni, players, and administrators alike all seem to be lining up behind him.

Hoke has made that easier with a few key moves that are both good for the program, and good for public relations:

  • Choosing to mold the offense around supreme talent Denard Robinson, rather than trying to ram the power I offense down the throats of a team that has been playing a read option for three years
  • Re-igniting the arrogance of Ann Arbor by continually reminding everyone that “This is Michigan”
  • Making the defense a priority, and bolstering its chances of success by bringing in stellar defensive coordinator in Greg Mattison to revamp one of the saddest units in all of college football in 2010.

Beyond the positive energy that Hoke has created himself, he’s the beneficiary of a team that returns 18 starters from 2010, including Denard Robinson.  He’ll also be the beneficiary of an incredibly favorable schedule that features 8 home games, including Notre Dame, Nebraska, and Ohio State.  The toughest road tests will be in East Lansing against Michigan State and traveling to play a somewhat rebuilding Iowa team. Scheduling always plays a role in how teams perform, and Michigan’s 2011 schedule is particularly rosy.

Unlike the last 3 years, there isn’t a game on the schedule that isn’t winnable.  Though injuries and surprises may make this obsolete in 3 weeks, right now the schedule seems to break down into 3 distinct groups: Games Michigan Will Win, Games Michigan Should Win, and Games Michigan Might Win.

Games Michigan Will Win (5): Western Michigan (h), Eastern Michigan(h), San Diego State(h), Minnesota(h), and Purdue(h)

Games Michigan Should Win (2): @Illinois, @Northwestern

Games Michigan Might Win (5): Notre Dame (h), @MSU, @Iowa, Nebraska (h), Ohio State (h)

Given this baseline, Michigan should win no less than 7 games this year.  And the more I think about it, I’m tempted to move Notre Dame into that middle category as well.  Factor in the focus that Hoke has put on beating OSU and MSU, and I can’t see us not winning at least one of those games.

If you’re counting along at home, that means I fully expect 9 wins out of this team this year, including 2 of 3 against ND, MSU and OSU.  And if we can stay healthy, especially Denard Robinson, don’t be shocked if this team slips into the inaugural Big Ten Championship game.  The schedule and the talent are there to make it happen.  The more likely scenario is a 2nd consecutive New Year’s Day Bowl Game, but you never know. 

To recap, put me down for 9 wins with a chance of Big Ten Championship game appearance.

As for tomorrow, make sure to check out Mike Randazzo’s full preview, but I think Michigan gets up early and then Hoke coasts to the finish.

Michigan 42 Western Michigan 17

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