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Sugar Bowl Preview – Opportunity of a Lifetime

January 3, 2012

After three years of underachieving, rebuilding and disappointment, most fans were confident (hopeful?) that whatever Brady Hoke brought to the table would far surpass the horror that was the Rich Rodriguez era.  An 8-4 season with a bowl win would have been plenty for most of us.  Expectations for a 10 win season and wins over 2 of our 3 big rivals seemed greedy, and perhaps unrealistic.  But lo and behold, that’s exactly what happened.  While Team 132 didn’t meet their stated goal of winning the Big Ten Legends Division, let alone the Big Ten Championship, a 10-2 regular season bookended by wins over Notre Dame and Ohio State was far more than most were hoping for.  No matter what happens tonight against Virginia Tech, Team 132 will always be remembered as the team that brought Michigan back from mediocrity, ended the losing streak against Ohio State, and re-established Michigan’s place among the elite programs in college football.

Seniors like David Molk, Mike Martin, Kevin Koger, Ryan Van Bergen, and several others, will be remembered as guys who truly bought in to the mantra that has graced State Street since 1969 – Those Who Stay Will Be Champions.  They signed up to be a part of the winningest program in college football, to go to bowl games every year, and to compete for Big Ten titles.  Instead, they spent 2 of their first 3 winter breaks at home instead of at bowl practices, went a combined 15-21, and had an entire fanbase and cadre of former players and coaches turn on them.   If they had quit, given up, or just gone through the motions this year, I wouldn’t have blamed them.  Instead, they fought like hell, prepared every week, and with the help of some good coaching, put together a season nobody saw coming.  They didn’t officially become “champions” because they won’t win a Big Ten Title or a BCS title, but 11-2 and a Sugar Bowl Championship is something that they can be very very proud of.

Beyond capping of an unexpected season with a win for a great senior class, tonight’s game means even more than that historically.  Beat Virginia Tech, and you can make an argument that this is one of 4-5 most successful teams in modern Michigan football history (post 1945). 

Since 1945, only 4 other Michigan teams have won 11 games (1971, 1986, 1997, and 2006).   Team 132 would be the 5th team since 1945 to do so with a win.

Of those 4 teams to win 11 games, only one, the undefeated 1997 National Champions, won their bowl game.  Beat Va Tech and Team 132 is in the company of just 1 other team.

Only two other Michigan teams (1985 and 1999) have won non-Rose Bowl BCS bowl games.  In 1985 Michigan won the Fiesta Bowl and in 1999 Michigan won the Orange Bowl.

Including Rose Bowls, since 1968, only 6 Michigan teams have won a BCS bowl – the aforementioned 1985 and 1999 teams, as well as the 1980, 1988, 1993, and 1997 teams that all won Rose Bowls.

To sum up, a win against Virginia Tech makes this team 1 of 5 to win 11 games, 1 of 2 to win 11 games including a bowl game, 1 of 3 to win a BCS bowl that is not a Rose Bowl, and 1 of 7 teams to win a BCS bowl since 1968.   That’s pretty rarefied air, especially coming on the heels of 3 seasons of 15-21.

Make no mistake, there are plenty of 10 and even 9 win teams that are probably more talented and better than this team.  But in terms of actual accomplishments, a win versus Virginia Tech makes Team 132 one of the most decorated teams in Michigan history.  After 3 years of underachieving, its nice to back rooting for a team that exceeds expectations and sets the bar high.

As for the game and whether or not Michigan will get to win #11, here’s what you need to know:

Virginia Tech Strengths

  • Stingy Defense – The Hokies boast the #8 Scoring Defense in the country, holding opponents to just over 17 points a game.  They also rank in the Top 20 in Total Defense and Rush Defense.   Defensive Coordinator Bud Foster is one of the best in the game, and he’ll have a gameplan ready for Denard Robinson.  The players to watch are linebacker Tariq Edwards and hybrid linebacker/safety/cornerback standout Kyle Fuller, who had 14.5 tackles for a loss this season. 
  • Rushing Attack – Running back David Wilson is averaging 125 yards per game, good enough to rank him 6th in all of college football this season.  He’s a fast and powerful back who is capable of churning out yards in chunks or breaking huge runs as well.  Michigan will have to maintain gap integrity and can’t afford to miss tackles if they want to slow Wilson down.  He’s likely to break 100 yards no matter what (he did so in 10 of 13 games this year), but Michigan needs to figure out a way to make him do that in 30 carries instead of 20.  Michigan should also keep an eye on quarterback Logan Thomas, a linebacker sized QB (6’6, 254) who reminds me a little bit of Cam Newton, but without the polished passing attack.  Thomas is a load to tackle though he doesn’t have breakaway speed. 
  • Special Teams – Every Frank Beamer team has been known for its special teams.  Whether its punt blocks, punt returns, kick returns, or just field position games, it seems like Virginia Tech always wins this area.  Don’t be surprised to see something in the kicking game turn the tide of the game.  For what its worth, Virginia Tech is down to its 3rd kicker after the first two were suspended for violating team rules – so the Hokies usual advantage may not be quite as stout. 

Virginia Tech Weaknesses

  • Passing Attack – The Hokies rank just 66th in the country in passing, despite some impressive games from Logan Thomas this year.  Thomas is what I’d call a game manager throwing the ball – he’s probably not going to beat you with his arm, but he won’t give the game away either.  His main targets are Danny Coale and Jarrett Boykin, two solid, but not necessarily spectacular receivers. Michigan’s best plan will be to force Thomas to throw by slowing down David Wilson.  I’m not sure Thomas is good enough to beat Michigan all by himself. 
  • Mobile QBs – Virginia Tech’s only two losses this year were to Clemson, and both times it was largely because of their inability to slow down Clemson QB Tajh Boyd.  The first time around, in a 23-3 loss, Boyd was efficient, putting up 230 yards of total offense while leading the Tigers to victory.  The 2nd time around, in the ACC title game, Boyd destroyed the Hokies with almost 270 total yards and 4 touchdowns.  The Hokies also struggled against Miami’s Jacory Harris despite pulling out the win.  The potential is there for Denard to have a big day.
  • Scoring Points – Despite decent offensive yardage output (about 415 yards per game), the Hokies struggle to put up points against better opponents.  In two games against Clemson they put up 13 total points, and they only managed 14 points against Duke.  They can be explosive, like the 38 points against Virginia, but they are inconsistent on the whole.  Given that Michigan scores points in bunches, averaging almost 39 points per game in the last 3 contests, the Hokies will need their best offensive performance of the year to win.   

PREDICTION

There are two schools of thought when it comes to the Hokies.  One is that this is a very good team that just faced a bad matchup in Clemson twice, and is deserving of a BCS bowl bid.  The other view is that even though the Hokies won 11 games, they were lucky to squeak out 2-3 games that could have gone either way, and the ACC Championship Game exposed them for what they were.  I’m somewhere in the middle on this.  I don’t think teams win 11 games by accident, but I’m also skeptical of how good they really are because A) they play in the ACC and B) their best wins are over 8-4 Georgia Tech and 8-4 Virginia. 

I know it sounds like a broken record, but the key is going to be Denard Robinson.  If Denard plays like he did against Nebraska and Ohio State, I really can’t see how Virginia Tech can win.  Denard is just too good, and Virginia Tech doesn’t have the firepower to keep up.  The Hokies have already gone on record stating that they are focusing their energy on stopping Denard, which means that Fitzgerald Toussaint needs to continue the roll he has been on as well.  Ultimately, Michigan probably has too many weapons for the Hokies to keep up. 

Defensively, the Hokies have apparently been telling people off the record that they’ve never faced a defensive line as big as Michigan’s.  Apparently one Hokie lineman was shocked to learn that Ryan Van Bergen lined up at defensive end, and not offensive line.  That’s not a surprising sentiment given the difference between the ACC and the Big Ten when it comes to size and power.  The Hokies are used to fast agile defenses, and not the pounding that is associated with the Big Ten.  Though the Hokies may find success early running the ball, don’t be surprised if Michigan’s size, strength and depth wears them down as the game goes on. 

Virginia Tech claims they are playing for pride, and that they have to redeem themselves after the embarrassing loss to Clemson in the ACC Title Game.  They also seem to be playing the “no respect” card after most of the college football blogosphere was outraged after they slid into the BCS over Kansas State or Boise State.   But Team 132 is playing not only for redemption and the seniors, but for a place among one of the most accomplished teams in Michigan history. 

At the end of the day though none of that should matter,  Michigan is just a flat out better team.  We played a tougher schedule, in a tougher conference and were more convincing in our wins and more competitive in our losses.  The only concern I have is whether or not Denard lets the bright lights and unfamiliar territory affect his game.  If he gets happy feet and starts turning the ball over, it could be a long night.  On the other hand, another OSU/Nebraska like performance, and Denard will launch his 2012 Heisman Campaign on the 3rd day of the year. 

While the crowning of the 2012 Heisman Winner is still 11 months away, I think we’ll have our frontrunner by tomorrow morning. 

Michigan 34

Virginia Tech 20

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