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2016 Preview -Backs and Receivers

August 29, 2016

QUARTERBACKS

Depth Chart – Wilton Speight (JR), John O’Korn (RS JR), , Shane Morris (SR), Alex Malzone (SO), Brandon Peters (FR) 

Overview

As of Monday of gameweek Coach Harbaugh has yet to officially name a starter, but all signs point to it being junior Wilton Speight.   This is somewhat of a surprise given that John O’Korn was rumored to be the best quarterback on the team last year, though unable to play since he had just transferred from Houston.  

You may remember Speight from last year’s Minnesota game where he surprisingly lead a game winning touchdown drive to save the win after Jake Rudock went out with an injury.  Speight is a former unheralded Hoke recruit, but the word on the street is that he is the one who knows the playbook backwards and forwards and makes significantly less mistakes than O’Korn.   Read more…

Remembering it’s Just a Game

November 25, 2015

It’s Ohio State week.  Which means the Michigan Football world should be focused on how we matchup with Ohio State, Jim vs. Urban Part I, and the possibility of (however slim) of a Big Ten Title.  But this week the Michigan football family collectively paused to mourn the passing of Chad Carr, grandson of former Coach Lloyd Carr and player Tom Curtis, and son of former quarterback Jason Carr.

By now most have heard how Chad was diagnosed with DIPG, an almost incurable brain cancer, over a year ago.  I don’t know the Carr family personally, but I’ve followed Chad’s story .  I’m sure that part of it is due to the fact that it impacts members of the Michigan football family.  Maybe its because we’ve recently moved back to the Ann Arbor community and so this feels closer to home.     But most of all its probably because Chad is just a little bit older than my son and I can’t fathom what I would do under similar circumstances.

What I do know is that I am amazed at the grace with which Jason and Tammi Carr have handled themselves during this trying time.  They have had the strength and courage to not only share their story publicly through social media, but form a foundation that has raised over half a million dollars, all the while knowing that any cure found for DIPG would likely come too late for Chad.

I know that I’m proud of not only of the way the Michigan football community has rallied around the Carr family over the last year, but the way in which countless others in sports including the Detroit Tigers, ESPN and even Ohio State and Michigan State, have come together to support the Carr family and the Chad Tough Foundation.  For every Greg Hardy situation in sports, there are dozens of stories like these – people coming together to make things a little better for someone who needs it, even for just a little while.  That’s part of why I love sports.

I know I’m ashamed by how angry I was after Ohio State lost to Michigan State on Saturday.  I kept on saying I felt “robbed” of my Michigan vs. Ohio State week.  I even blogged about it on Monday.  What a waste of time and energy.  Chad Carr was robbed of his chance to grow up.  The Carr family was robbed of a son, grandson, and brother.  How stupid and silly of me to think that whether or not Michigan won the Big Ten mattered.  I’m going to get to go to the Michigan vs. Ohio State game on Saturday with my father.  And god willing, he and I and my son will get to go to many more games in the future.  Sure it’s more fun when we win, but the experience of being together with family is the real appeal.

I’m not going to pretend that I won’t be emotionally invested in the outcome of Saturday’s game.  And I’ll probably even be a little grumpy if we lose.  That’s part of the fun of sports.  But I’ll get over it, and quickly.    We all know that there are things bigger than sports (and if you’re one of those people that don’t, take a long look in the mirror).  It’s tragic that it takes something like a 5 year old battling cancer to remind us of this, but it is an important reminder nonetheless.  It’s Thanksgiving weekend, and if we’re lucky enough to spend it with family while watching or attending the game, then it is a weekend well spent, regardless of the outcome.

Okay, I’ll get off my soapbox now but remind you that if you’re so inclined, you can donate to the Chad Tough Foundation here.

 

This is why you don’t root for Ohio State

November 22, 2015

Heading into this past Saturday of college football, most Michigan fans were aware that the possibility of something very exciting was on the horizon.  By 3:30, it looked even better as Michigan had accomplished what it set out to do by beating Penn State.  All that was required was for Ohio State to dispatch of a good, but not great, Michigan State team at home and The Game was going to have some real juice for the first time since 2007.  When it was announced that All-American Connor Cook would not be able to play for Michigan State, most fans from all three schools (Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State) thought the game was in the bag for the Buckeyes.  But somebody forgot to tell the Michigan State football team, and nobody remembered to tell Urban Meyer and Ohio State they still had to actually play the game.  Because Ohio State inexplicably lost to Michigan State, robbing both Michigan and Ohio State fans of a weeks worth of hype and excitement that frankly I think both schools have been yearning for.

Thanks to Ohio State’s ineptitude, I won’t get to spend the week reading articles about the parallels between this year and 1969, when a certain first year Michigan coach headed into the Ohio State game with a 9-2 record including a loss to MSU, to face off against the defending National Champion and unbeaten Ohio State Buckeyes.  I won’t get to spend the week hearing pundits discuss how great it is that The Game finally meant something again as this year the winner would head to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Title game and a possible shot at the College Football Playoffs.   While I’ll still get to read about the first meeting between Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh, the stakes won’t be as high, and most of the articles will now center on why Urban’s players are publicly throwing him and his staff under the bus.  And I won’t get to spend the week looking forward to knowing that come 3:30 on Saturday there is a possibility that Michigan would be headed to Indianapolis for a de facto playoff game, with a victory there giving Michigan a very good shot at making the College Football Playoff in Coach Harbaugh’s first year.   In short, thanks to Ohio State’s epic choke job, The Game became about 1/10th as exciting as it could’ve been.  And worse, they may have paved the way for MSU to not only play for the Big Ten Title, but make the playoffs too.

This is what you get for rooting for your arch-nemesis.

As for Michigan, though I didn’t post it on this blog, I privately thought we’d find a way to win 9 games this year.  So I’m going to take some credit for that.  However, I never thought we’d do it in the midst of competing for a Big Ten Title.  If Michigan wins on Saturday and MSU beats Penn State, Michigan is still looking at a 10-2 record with a win over Ohio State and a dropped punt from being in the Big Ten Title game. We’d be at worst playing in a New Year’s Bowl, and if a few things fall our way, possibly the Rose Bowl or another of the Big Six bowls.   Coming off of 5-7, that’s a heck of a turnaround.

That being said, let’s beat the Bucks and hope MSU can choke just the way Ohio State did.  While I expect future seasons to be filled with high stakes late November games, nothing is for certain.  So if we can get a little help from PSU and sneak our way to Indianapolis, I won’t feel bad for one second.

The Good, The Bad and That Play – Michigan State

October 18, 2015
Harbaugh Reacts to Final Play

Harbaugh Reacts to Final Play

Go figure that it would take the most inconceivable play I may have ever seen in football to get me back to writing.  But here I am – please excuse me if I’m a little rusty.

The Good

  • We Lived up to the Hype – Despite all of the storylines heading into the game about how Michigan was “back” and Jim Harbaugh was the savior, there was still the possibility that the 5 game run Michigan had been on was due to inferior competition and that MSU, despite their own injuries and shortcomings, was finally going to be the team that hit Michigan back.  There is no question MSU hit back, but Michigan was up to the task, and then some.  Pretty much any rational fan will agree that Michigan controlled this game and deserved to win.  Leading from start to finish, Michigan was better than MSU at pretty much everything other than a brilliantly designed trick play by MSU and half the time that Connor Cook targeted Aaron Burbridge.   But for the last play, the narrative today is how Michigan not only beat MSU, but really did so by controlling the game, even if it was a one possession game at the end.   This is a Top 10 unbeaten MSU team that has won 30 of its last 33 games, including the Cotton Bowl, the Big Ten Championship Game and the Rose Bowl.  Its starting QB is 29-3 as a starter and was a pre-season Heisman candidate.  And Michigan not only went toe to toe with them, but they outplayed them for the majority of the game.  This was a team that wasn’t supposed to be able to stay on the field against this MSU team when the season started.   Our full coronation may have to wait a year, but we know exactly how we stack up to the top teams in the conference right now.  Here’s the other thing I take solace in – Sparty escaped, and they know it.  Even Mark Dantonio seemed sheepish about the win, knowing it was a gift that he probably didn’t deserve.  Are there Spartan fans who are treating this like they hit a triple despite being born on third base? Absolutely.  But they were going to be delusional anyways.  The majority of their fans knew deep down coming in that Harbaugh had this team and this program righted, and were hoping maybe they were wrong.  They weren’t wrong and now they know that.  They may not be going back to the days of John L. Smith and Bobby Williams anytime soon (though I do expect some regression), but they are quite clear that the honeymoon they enjoyed with RichRod and Hoke is very much over. 
  • The Defense – No, the defense didn’t throw its 4th straight shutout, and gave up more points and yards in this game than its previous 3 combined.  But it still was very, very good.  This was an MSU offense that had scored at least 24 points in 21 straight games, and Michigan held them to just 21 points of offense, 14 of which came on a play MSU had prepared all year to use just once.  Most importantly, with the game on the line late in the 4th quarter, the defense never allowed MSU into FG position and held Connor Cook to 3/9 passing and sacked him twice on the final two drives.  They did what an elite defense is supposed to do in those situations and made big stops.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see the dominance return against Minnesota, PSU, Indiana and Rutgers.
  • Special Teams (Really) – We’ll get to the final play in a bit, but prior to the last play, the special teams had been stellar in almost every facet and was a large part of the reason we not only lead but had controlled the game.  Blake O’Neill had punted spectacularly, including an 80 yard punt early on that was downed inside the 5.   He pinned MSU inside the 10-yard line two more times and gave up a total of four (!) punt return yards all day.  Kenny Allen was just as good,  going 3/3 on FGs (including what should’ve been the winning points) and booting several kickoffs out the end zone.  Michigan also had a 34 yard punt return and a 49 yard kickoff return – both by Jabrill Peppers.  Michigan had a 23-21 lead with 10 seconds to go, and it was largely because of special teams…..(sigh).
  • Stomach Punch Loss > Apathy – Even though its horrible to lose like this and we will see this game and play replayed for years to come, I’d much rather lose like this than how we have lost the last two years against MSU where we pretty much gave up hope at halftime if not earlier.  This was a big game where Michigan was once again not only respected, but expected to win.  I’d prefer to spend my week and gamedays paying attention to a game that not only mattered, but I was confident we could win.  In fact, Michigan outplaying MSU and being the better team yet still managing to lose in the final seconds is one of the harbingers of this rivalry (see Desmond Trip in ’90 and Spartan Bob in ’01).  The planets aren’t fully in re-alignment, but they are pretty close.

The Bad

  • The Outcome – Losing the way we did is going to sting, and probably for a while.  But what really hurts is not only that we had the game in our hands for the taking, or that it was against MSU.  What bothers me is that a win yesterday likely would’ve setup an epic showdown with Ohio State after Thanksgiving for the division title at a minimum, and possibly a playoff berth.  With a game in hand against MSU and the tie breaker over them, Michigan could’ve even lost one more and still entered the OSU game knowing that a win over the Buckeyes would guarantee a trip to the Big Ten Title game in Indianapolis.  Instead, we are left rooting for MSU to lose to Nebraska and Ohio State (not all that far-fetched) and hoping that we can win out to setup that matchup with OSU.  It’s a huge step from where we were last year, but oh what could’ve been.
  • The Officiating – Hanlon’s Razor reminds us not to attribute malice to that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.  That’s my takeaway from the officiating yesterday.  I’m not sure it amounted to a coordinated effort to cheat Michigan, but it was really bad.  The most  preposterous was of course the ejection of Joe Bolden for a phantom targeting.  The fact that upon review they didn’t overturn is downright criminal.  But it wasn’t the only suspect call made all day.  In many cases, it was the lack of calls – particularly holding on the MSU offensive line – that were the most egregious.   My favorite call of the day though was in the 4th quarter after a Michigan punt was downed inside the 10.  The referee called a personal foul on Michigan and pointed towards Michigan, but then instructed his linesman to penalize MSU.  After a lengthy discussion where all the referees tried to figure out who they were really trying to call the flag on, they penalized MSU.  Go figure.  At that point it became apparent that these guys weren’t malicious, just clueless.   Sadly, their ineptitude seemed to impact the play on the field (including on the final play which I’ll explain below).
  • Offense When We Needed It – On one hand, I hesitate to criticize an offense that did enough to win the game.  23 points against an MSU defense, even one not quite as good as the last couple of years, is impressive.  But the frustrating part is that they had opportunities to really put this game away and couldn’t.  Up 20-14, Michigan started with the ball at the MSU 28 yard line after a Peppers punt return, and only managed 8 yards before kicking a field goal.  A touchdown there gives Michigan a potentially two touchdown lead with 10 minutes to go.  Earlier in the game, Michigan had 1st and Goal at the MSU 8 yard line and settled for a FG again when they could’ve pushed the lead to 24-14.   But where the offense really came up short was on its last two drives where it failed to pickup a first down on either.  The first set of downs came up short after Jehu Chesson dropped a very catchable ball that would’ve given Michigan the ball near midfield and a first down.  And while its understandable that Michigan chose to just run a simple dive play and milk the clock in the waning seconds, its disappointing that after picking up 5 yards on 1st down to setup 2nd and 5, Michigan was unable to gain the remaining 5 yards to put the game away completely.  Had Michigan been able to convert in either instance, the final play never occurs as Michigan could’ve run out the clock by taking a knee.
  • Penalties – One area that Michigan surprisingly struggled in was penalties, especially at key times.  The aforementioned 1st and Goal from the 8 yard line was negated by a holding call that turned it into 1st and Goal from the 18.   Earlier in the game, Michigan extended two MSU drives by committing penalties on 3rd Down.  The first continuation allowed MSU to drive from the 2 yard line to midfield after O’Neill’s 80 yard punt.  It flipped the field and cost Michigan valuable field position.  The second penalty, a personal foul, negated a huge 3rd down stop and a likely punt by MSU.  Instead of Michigan taking the ball up 7-0, MSU completed the drive and tied it up with a touchdown.  The penalties Michigan committed were extremely costly in this game, and somewhat uncharacteristic given the first six games.

The Play

  • The Punt – Ok, now I’m ready to talk (write) about it.  Let’s first start with this, Michigan lost the game on what amounts to an interception run back for a touchdown that was thrown by the punter.  In my 30+ years of watching football, I have never (never!) seen that happen I don’t think.  And certainly not to end a game.  It was the most preposterous play I’ve ever seen.  The only think I can think of that comes close is Garo Yapremian of the Miami Dolphins catching his blocked field goal attempt and then attempting to throw the ball.  The Washington Redskins intercepted his equally ugly pass and returned it for a touchdown.  Except in that game the Dolphins were ahead by 14 and the TD was inconsequential to the outcome.  According to ESPN, Michigan’s win percentage expectancy at that moment was 99.8%.  That means out of 1000 times, MSU wins the game only twice.  It was literally a 500-1 shot.  And frankly, that seems high to me.  Watching the replay, it literally took a perfect storm of errors by Michigan and O’Neill to create this outcome.   Even if O’Neill just falls on the ball, or throws it out-of-bounds, MSU still isn’t in field goal range and is left with a one play Hail Mary to try and score.  If the ball stays on the ground and just gets kicked around a bit, it’s even possible time runs out.  If one of the Michigan defenders manages to catch up to Jalen Watts Jackson and tackles him, time probably runs out and Michigan still wins.  And even if Jackson ran it 15 yards to put MSU in field goal position with 1 second to play, MSU’s kicker has been unreliable all year and was kicking into a stiff swirling wind.  Instead, O’Neill manages to drop the snap, pick it up and throw it directly into the hands of Watts-Jackson who is running in the direction of the end zone already and doesn’t even have to break stride.  Forget Kordell Stewart, forget Auburn-Alabama and the kickoff return, even forget Doug Flutie – this is the most inconceivable finish to a football game perhaps ever.  The only exception might be the Stanford/Cal The Band is on The Field game – and that’s because the Stanford band was literally on the field!
  • One Thing Not Discussed Enough – One thing not discussed enough on the last play is the way in which the MSU line tees off on our longsnapper.  The rule in college football is that you have to give the longsnapper 3 steps before you hit him since his head is down and he is an unprotected player.  Its a safety rule and one that has been enforced a decent amount recently.   Go watch the replay and see how our longsnapper gets obliterated by the MSU line.  Now you can say that there is no way the refs are calling that penalty in that situation, but that is precisely why they should – MSU has no incentive not to commit that penalty there. If they think they are almost certain to lose, why not see if you can get away with it at that juncture?  If its 4th and 5 early in the game, it extends a drive.  Here, the worst thing that can happen is that it gives Michigan a first down and ends the game, but that’s about the same odds as Hail Mary from at best your own 20 yard line.  Teeing off on the longsnapper is the smart play here. For an officiating crew that spent so much time focusing on a bogus targeting call in the name of safety, it was a horribly missed call.  I’m not sure it even impacted the punt drop or ensuing play, but if the point is to protect the player, the refs failed.
  • It Was Just a Fluke – Anyone saying that Michigan should’ve lined up differently and had a safety valve behind the punter is off base in my opinion.  As is anyone saying Michigan should’ve gone for it.  Michigan played it exactly how they should have – line up for a regular punt and let the guy who has been absolutely killing it for you go do his thing.  O’Neill had given the staff no reason to think that he wouldn’t come through in this situation, and if he doesn’t drop the snap, he probably drops the punt inside the 5 yard line again.  It was a fluky play that just happened – no hindsight would’ve changed that.

 

The End of Hoke-a-Mania

December 3, 2014

I know I’ve taken a significant hiatus from writing here.  If you want to attribute it to the fact that Michigan football just wasn’t all that exciting to write about, there is probably some truth to that.  But also things like real-life got in the way.

However, Michigan has fired Brady Hoke, and obviously I have some thoughts on the subject that I wanted to share.  So here they are.

If you had told me in January of 2011 we’d be looking for another coach in 4 years, I would have been skeptical.  If you had told me in January of 2012 we’d be looking for another coach in 3 years, I would have thought you were crazy.  Brady Hoke “walked” into Ann Arbor like a breath of fresh air for a program that had spent the previous 3 years with a coach who clearly could coach, but never really “got” Michigan.  Brady said all the right things in his press conference, and his “This is Michigan” statement became a rallying cry that fans were thrilled to embrace.  Even if he wasn’t a big name, he seemingly checked all of the boxes.  He had Michigan ties, loved the school, and even though his record as a head coach wasn’t stellar, he had a history of success at more than one stop.

That first year was truly a honeymoon, with an exciting win over Notre Dame and a victory over Ohio State paving the way to an 11-2 record to only the 3rd BCS bowl win for Michigan since 1993.  For a fan base coming off of a three year 15-22 stretch, it was like manna from heaven.  In January 2012, it wasn’t a question of if Brady would win Big Ten Titles at Michigan, but rather how many.  Even after a 2012 campaign that finished 8-5, things still felt to be on solid ground.  The 5 losses were either on the road or at neutral sites and included three teams (Alabama, OSU and Notre Dame) that would go unbeaten.  We were still going to be ok.

And then the wheels fell off.  The 2013 season was plagued by close wins over average and below average teams and losses to good teams.  The highlights were a moral victory over OSU and a home win against a Notre Dame team that only won 8 games.  It was officially time to start to question the direction of the team and the program.  But given the strong start the first two years, it was possible that 2013 was an aberration.

It wasn’t.  If the wheels fell off in 2013, the engine and transmission fell off in 2014.  A 5-7 record with home losses to Maryland, Utah, Minnesota and a road loss to Rutgers are just unacceptable.  Brady Hoke’s record at Michigan will finish at 31-20, finishing 1-2 in bowl games, a combined 4-8 against Michigan State, Ohio State and Notre Dame, and no conference titles.  He is a by all accounts a wonderful person, a great representative of the University, and a positive role model.  However, he did not win enough football games and Michigan had to fire him. Unlike Rich Rod four years ago, where there was a somewhat legitimate argument for keeping him, I’m not sure anybody other than Brady’s staff is making a case for him to stay.

So what went wrong?  How did we get from “This is Michigan” and a Sugar Bowl Win to fired in just 3 short years?

To begin with, there were probably signs along the way that some of this was smoke and mirrors.  Brady’s signature wins in the first two seasons included an almost miracle win against Notre Dame, a narrow victory over a 6-6 Ohio State team, a narrow victory in the Sugar Bowl in which Michigan was almost outgained by a 2-1 margin, and a home victory over a 7-6 MSU team in which Michigan did not score a touchdown.  We all wanted to believe Brady was the solution because he was winning, but Brady’s 4 “signature” wins were all 1 play each away from being significant losses.

Another factor to consider is that Denard Robinson may have hid many of our warts.  With Denard as a starter, Brady was 17-4 and 14-16 without him.  To be fair, it may actually be related to a number of players graduating and moving on rather than just Denard, but he was the catalyst for much of our success.  Regardless, the farther we got from the Rich Rod regime, the worse the record got.

In the end though, in ways different from Rich Rod, Brady just wasn’t capable of winning at this level.  Rich Rod had his revolving door of defensive coordinators that lead to some of the worst defenses in Michigan history.  Brady was a tad more loyal, but had his problems in developing an offensive identity, an offensive line, and probably most importantly, a quarterback.  While both the offensive line and the offensive identity progressed this year, Devin Gardner regressed to a point where he needed to be replaced, but there was no viable alternative.  Whether it was the switch to wide receiver and then back to quarterback, injuries, playing behind an offensive line last year that left him shellshocked, or defenses figuring him out, Gardner never looked as good in 2013 or 2014 as he did in 2012. Back then, I thought he looked like a shoe-in for a Heisman candidate in a couple of years.  Instead, he took a steady decline backwards, and not surprisingly, so did the team.

Even if the offensive woes had righted themselves, there were still too many head scratching timeouts, lack of timeouts, substitutions and of course Concussion Gate to really continue to believe in Brady Hoke.  For me, when Brady refused to put Devin Gardner in at halftime of the Minnesota game, despite how poorly Shane Morris had played, it was apparent to me that he was either too stubborn or too unaware to win at Michigan.  Ever since then, we’ve just been playing out the hand.

All of that being said, Brady deserves credit for keeping the team together when it was clear the ship was sinking.  Michigan never mailed it in, never gave up, and even went down to Columbus and gave a good showing when they could’ve just rolled over.  Brady always did his best for Michigan, and while I support him being let go, I’m never happy to see someone lose their job.  And in this case it is especially difficult knowing that this was Brady’s dream job and the top of the mountain for him.

What’s Next? 

So now, we search for a new coach for the 3rd time in 7 years.  By all accounts, Interim AD Jim Hackett will be hiring the new coach and then sticking around for awhile.  This will be his call.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you are probably aware that there is a pretty successful former Michigan quarterback who is also a pretty successful NFL coach in San Francisco that many would like to see get the job.  Jim Harbaugh is likely Plan A, B, and C for Michigan.  Michigan will do everything they can to get him to come home to Ann Arbor.  But just because Michigan wants him and because Jim is a former player for Bo doesn’t mean he’s coming to Ann Arbor.  There are several obstacles in the way that first need to be managed.

  1. To begin with, Jim still has a job as the 49ers head coach.  All signs point to that not being the case sometime in the next 30-45 days, but the rumor is that Jim would prefer to stay as the 49ers head coach and won’t voluntarily leave.
  2. Even if the 49ers don’t want Jim, they won’t necessarily fire him. Ideally they would like to trade him to another NFL team and receive draft picks in return.  The Oakland Raiders and New York Jets have already expressed interest and there will be other suitors once the NFL coaching carousel starts.  This way, the Niners can also control where he coaches next (if its in the NFL) and they won’t have to pay him the remainder of his contract.  The challenge here is that Jim would have to approve a trade and likely have to sign a contract extension with the new team.  Something he is unlikely to do unless he really wants to coach there and believes the team can win a Super Bowl relatively soon.
  3. If the 49ers decide they want to part ways with Jim, and he doesn’t find any viable NFL alternatives, that is when Michigan likely comes into play.  Its possible Michigan could jump ahead of other NFL teams in matter of preference regardless of which teams are interested, but it appears Jim wants to see what options are available before giving Michigan an answer.
  4. The other scenario that could play out here is that Jim goes directly to the 49ers and tells them that he wants to coach Michigan.  They let him out of his contract at that point and the deal is done.  That will require Jim to act proactively for the Michigan job, something that will  only happen if he decides that he doesn’t want to pass up what might be his only chance to coach at Michigan.  Unlike Les Miles and Brady Hoke, by many accounts Jim looks at Michigan as a place he would like to coach, but not necessarily his final destination.

Jim Harbaugh absolutely is a candidate for the Michigan job, and will be pursued heavily.  But the ball rests in his court.  And barring something strange, Michigan fans will likely have to be patient to wait until the end of the 49ers season for Jim to make a decision.  Four years ago we were in the same situation, and despite saying yes to the job on more than one occasion, Jim eventually took the 49ers job.  That could very well happen again.

Other Candidates 

If Jim Harbaugh does leave Michigan at the altar again, who might end up as the coach?  Here is a list of who Michigan will likely reach out to, who will not make the list, and even a couple out of the box ideas.

Home Run Hires 

  • Bob Stoops, Oklahoma – Second to only Harbaugh, Stoops would be a home run hire.  He has had a decade plus of success at Oklahoma, which is why he might be ready to leave.  The Sooners are good but not great, and both sides might think the grass is greener on the other side by making a change.  His name keeps coming up as a Plan B alternative to Harbaugh, so I think Michigan will at least pick up the phone.  I think Stoops would listen too.
  • Sean Payton, New Orleans Saints – Seems farfetched, and it probably is.  But Payton is a huge Michigan fan, as is his son. They’ve attended games at the Big House and the Final Four decked out in their Michigan gear.  I don’t think he’ll hang up on Michigan right away, but its doubtful he leaves a great NFL job to take the Michigan job.
  • Mark Richt, Georgia – Like Stoops, Richt has enjoyed great success at Georgia, though the highs haven’t been quite as high.  Several Georgia fans and donors would like to see him move on.  He’d be a great choice or Michigan – he’s accomplished and is well respected.  But unless Georgia forces him out, he’s unlikely to come.

Ground Rule Doubles 

  • David Shaw, Stanford – If you can’t get Jim Harbaugh, his protege might be the next best thing.  Shaw has kept the train chugging along in Palo Alto since Jim left, going 41-12 in the last four years.  He’s young, a great recruiter, and could handle the academic/athletic balance in Ann Arbor.  The only problem is that he’s a Stanford grad himself and might not be willing to leave his alma mater behind.
  • Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern – Fitzgerald has been mentioned before, and though he hasn’t been a stellar coach at Northwestern, its still Northwestern.  He’s made them respectable, and could do more with more talent.  He was more attractive 4 years ago, but still should get a look. He may be happy to stay at Northwestern though.
  • Steve Addazio, Boston College – The former Temple coach and current Boston College coach seems to be on a lot of lists.  Perhaps because he works for potential permanent AD candidate Brad Bates.  Addazio has done “ok” at BC, but isn’t a proven champion.  He’d take the job for sure, just not sure Michigan would call him.
  • Butch Jones, Tennessee – The former CMU, Cincinnati and current Vol coach would be a pretty solid choice.  He has strong ties to the midwest, knows Michigan in particular, and though he hasn’t set the world on fire in Knoxville just yet, has been successful everywhere else he has been. He’ll likely make the short list, and Michigan could do worse.
  • Bret Bielema, Arkanasas – Bielema knows the Big Ten and was successful here.  But he just got to Arkansas – would he jump back to the Big Ten after enjoying SEC life?  Maybe.
  • Greg Schiano, Unemployed – Schiano almost got the job 7 years ago (and maybe even accepted before reneging), but wasn’t really in the  mix 4 years ago.  He’s a very good coach without a home right now.  He’s on the list, but probably a little farther down and is someone Michigan would consider after they’v exhausted other options.
  • Mark Stoops, Kentucky – Bob Stoops younger brother doesn’t bring as much acclaim, but he’s a proven coach with a reputation as a great recruiter.  He was a little more likely earlier this year before Kentucky lost 6 of their last 8, but he could very well be considered.

Never Say Never Candidates

  • John Harbaugh, Baltimore Ravens – Like Sean Payton, its unlikely a Super Bowl Winning Coach of a very good NFL franchise would leave for college, but John, like his brother, has strong ties to Michigan.  Earlier this year the timing may have seemed better given the Ray Rice scandal.  Now, John is very unlikely to make the jump.  But if Jim says no, he might consider it.
  • Les Miles, LSU – Seven years ago Les was rumored to have accepted the gig though its more likely he was never officially offered it.  Four years ago he wasn’t really considered.  Now, he might be Michigan’s insurance policy.  A guy who desperately wants the job, but for whatever reasons isn’t likely to be on Michigan’s list.  But if they can’t get another name they like, they might have no choice.  But its’ doubtful.

Way Outside of the Box 

  • Mark Hudspeth, Louisiana Lafayette – The former North Alabama coach and current leader of the Rajun Cajuns is a proven winner, in position to win 9 games and a bowl game for the 4th year in a row.  At North Alabama he regularly won 10+ games and advanced to the Division II semifinals three times.  With no midwest ties he’s unlikely to get a look, but remember the name.  He’ll be a winner somewhere.
  • PJ Fleck, Western Michigan – A 34 year old wunderkind in his first head coaching gig, Fleck took the Broncos from 1-11 in his first year to 8-4 this year.  He’s young, hungry and already in-state.  Probably a little too green for Michigan at this point, but if Pat Narduzzi leaves East Lansing before Dantonio retires, Fleck might be across the sideline for quite a few years.

What’s Next

The Only Michigan State vs. Michigan Preview You Need

November 1, 2013

Michigan vs. MSU

Michigan vs. Michigan State

November 2, 2013 – 3:30 PM

East Lansing, Michigan 

What’s at Stake

In short, everything.  While the previous three or four contests between Michigan and MSU have been about bragging rights, continuing streaks and breaking streaks, this one doesn’t have that same cache.  With Michigan breaking MSU’s four game win streak last year all either team is concerned about (or at least should be concerned about) is winning this game so that they can sit atop the Legends Division and have the inside track for the Big Ten Title game in Indianapolis.  For Michigan, with a loss to Penn State already on its record, this is an absolute must-win.  A loss to MSU would put them 2 games behind the Spartans in the division, and since MSU would hold the tie-breaker by virtue of winning this game, Michigan would likely need 3 Spartan losses in the last 3 games in order to win the division (not happening).   For MSU, a loss tomorrow puts the teams even in the division, but gives Michigan the tiebreaker.  Though the Wolverines could still lose another game, it means MSU would have to win out, which requires them to win at Northwestern and at Nebraska.  Possible, but a tough task.   I think the winner of tomorrow’s game goes to Indianapolis.  So yeah – it’s a big one.  

When MSU Has the Ball 

Four weeks ago, the best way to refer to the MSU offense was a QB Carousel, or if you’re a little less kind, a dumpster fire.  Mark Dantonio couldn’t find a QB he was comfortable with, and rightfully so – none of them had figured out how to put up more than 300 yards of offense or more than 26 points unless they were playing an FCS school.  But during their bye week the Spartans figured something out with Connor Cook, and have gone from dumpster fire to slightly above average and bordering on decent.  It’s no secret what MSU wants to do when on offense – control the ball with the running game, complete short passes to keep the chains moving, and wait for a short field setup by their defense in order to score points.   They’ve managed to do that pretty well the last 4 games, with the emergence of Connor Cook as the clear cut starter. Through the first four games, Cook was only completing 53% of his passes and though he had a respectable 5/0 touchdown to interception ratio – 4 of those TD’s came against Youngstown State.  Since then he’s been a different QB, completing 65% of his passes while averaging a respectable 207 yards per game through the air.   He also has benefited from the improved play of running back Jeremy Langford.  Langford has rushed for over 100 yards in each of the last three games with an average of almost 5 yards per carry.  Langford isn’t a homerun type of back, but he’s a bruiser who will consistently move the chains.   When MSU does look to go to the air they’ll focus on short and intermediate manageable passes.  Macgarrett Kings Jr. has become Cook’s favorite target, with 26 catches on the year.  He, along with senior Bennie Fowler have some big play potential if you let them get into space.  

Defensively, Michigan has been one of the better units in the Big Ten, though some late game meltdowns against Penn State and a track meet style game versus Indiana have skewed those stats a bit.  Michigan’s plan against everyone is to force the offense to drive the field in small chunks and protect against big plays.  In an odd way that may play right into MSU’s hands as Connor Cook as suddenly become incredibly accurate and efficient throwing the ball (15/16 last week) and Jeremy Langford just looks to move the chains.  Michigan will need to get some pressure on Cook to rattle him early.  He’s a young QB, and despite playing on the road against Notre Dame, this will be the biggest game he’s played in.  For Michigan though, the key has to be to stop the run and slow down Langford.  He’s not a great back, but if he can set Cook up in 3rd and less than 5 yards, Cook will have the ability to pick up first downs.    The other thing to look for is turnovers.  Michigan is forcing 2 turnovers per game while MSU has been especially good at protecting the football with only 3 interceptions from their quarterbacks total all season.  Michigan’s ability to pick up an extra offensive possession, potentially in MSU territory, could have a big impact on what should be a low scoring game.  

When Michigan has the Ball 

Seven games into the season and Michigan’s offense and MSU’s defense couldn’t be in more different places in terms of stability.  MSU has known from day one of the season what they want to do on defense, and they’ve done it.  MSU will shut down the run and intermediate passing game and force you to beat them downfield with big pass plays – something most college teams can’t do on a regular basis.  They are aggressive with their blitzes and hope to turn the ball over by pressuring you into bad decisions.  The defense is led by linebackers Max Bullough and Denicos Allen two of the better linebackers in the country.  The defensive line may not have the star power of a guy like Will Gholston or Jerel Worthy, but they are a solid unit who don’t take plays off.  The other player to watch out for in the front seven is Shilique Calhoun, who has 3 touchdowns himself, as a defensive lineman!  In the secondary, Darqueze Dennard will be playing on Sundays in the future and is a top end cornerback.    All in all, this will be by far the best defense Michigan plays all season, and one that has quite frankly had Michigan’s number the last four years, despite last year’s win.  

For Michigan, we still don’t have a good feel for what we have offensively.  The upside is that despite the ridiculous amount of turnovers and the revolving door at interior offensive line, Michigan is putting up 42+ points per game and has a Top 10 offense.  In fact, Michigan has hit the 40 point mark in every game except Akron and UConn – where they had 4 turnovers in each game.  The problem is that Michigan still can’t decide if they want to be a power offense or a spread offense, and still find themselves bouncing back and forth between the two.  Against Indiana the spread it out, let loose, and put up 63 points.   Obviously Michigan won’t be able to replicate anything close to that against MSU, but they may have found a game plan that works based on the Indiana game.  

The emergence of Devin Funchess at wide receiver has opened up things for Jeremy Gallon again – who should become Michigan’s first 1,000 yard receiver since Mario Manningham in 2007.  The ability to throw downfield to both Funchess and Gallon will mean that Michigan should have a matchup they can take advantage of, depending on who Dennard is not covering.   Toussaint also looked more comfortable from a mostly spread offense two weeks ago putting up 150 yards on the ground.   

The real X-factor here will be Devin Gardner though.  When he’s been good (see Notre Dame and Indiana) he’s been unstoppable.  But when he’s been bad, we’ve almost lost to UConn and Akron.  We’ve seen what the MSU defense has done to Denard Robinson the last couple of years, but Devin is a different QB than Denard.  Unlike Denard, Devin has a better arm and actually has some real downfield receivers who can make plays at his disposal.  Beyond that, Denard wasn’t all that great at the read option play.  Gardner is very very good at the read option and I could see that giving MSU some challenges since it will leave Gardner one on one with a linebacker.  Which leads me to my last point – Denard was a fast runner, but he didn’t have great “shake” like Devin does.  Gardner can make a couple of guys miss and turn a 3 yard gain into a 15 yard gain.  Don’t be surprised to see that happen a couple of times tomorrow.  Gardner also runs off of designed pass plays better than Denard ever did – he has a knack for knowing when to tuck and run.  MSU will account for this, but again, if Gardner makes one guy miss, we could see some long QB runs.    This MSU defense is a very good unit, but individually they aren’t the most talented or athletic guys.  That’s not a knock, just the truth.  The sum is better than the parts.  

Putting all that aside to me this matchup comes down to two things.  1) Can Devin Gardner protect the football and not turn it over?  If he can, Michigan will eventually move the ball and score points.  If he can’t, the Michigan State defense will eat him alive and it will be a long afternoon for the maize and blue.  2) Can Gallon, Gardner, and Funchess make enough plays in one on one opportunities to create enough offense for Michigan?  If Gallon and Funchess can make a few plays downfield, does MSU have to change up its pressure defense that leaves its corners on an island?  And if Gardner breaks a few long runs will MSU adjust their blitzing?    MIchigan doesn’t need to score a ton of points to win this game, but they will need to get in the endzone more than they have in the past 4 years. 

Special Teams

Both teams potentially have the chance to be very good in this area.  For MSU, punter Mike Sadler is one of the better punters in the Big Ten.  And he’s been known to create some excitement with a fake punt here or there.  Freshman Mike Geiger has done a nice job kicking in recent weeks and has the ability to be both consistent and hit a long kick too.  For Michigan, the hero from last year’s game Brendan Gibbons started the season very strong, but after a late game collapse against Penn State he has looked a little shaky.   Michigan will need him back in top form against an MSU defense that limits touchdowns.  The other concern for Michigan is punting and kickoffs, where Matt Wile has been inconsistent.  Michigan needs to be able to control field position to keep MSU’s offense from a short field.  Neither team has been particularly successful on kickoff or punt returns, but Michigan’s Dennis Northfleet always looks like he’s one man away from breaking a big one.  Perhaps this is the week? 

Intangibles 

As noted before, with no chips on the shoulder about breaking streaks or winning where you haven’t won in a long time, this will just be about Michigan and MSU lining up and playing football.  The one major intangible could be the weather.  Right now the forecast is calling for a 50% chance of rain and weather in the 40’s.  That’s not ideal for Michigan, who is going to want to pass the ball a little more.  That being said, Michigan managed to do that very well against Indiana, so they may feel comfortable in bad weather.  The other real intangible that I’ve already discussed will be the turnovers.  It’s part of the game, but sometimes fluke things happen.  For MSU, a fluke turnover here or there could put their defense in a bad spot.  And for Michigan, will an oddly tipped pass that turns into an interception ruin Devin Gardner’s confidence?  

Recipe for a Michigan Win

  1. Downfield Passing Success – It’s clear that MSU’s defense is designed to force you to complete downfield passes.  Michigan has the ability to do that with Funchess and Gallon.  If Michigan can hit a couple of those plays early, it should soften up the MSU defense and will likely lead to points.  
  2. Get Ahead Early – The MSU offense is not designed to play from behind.  They tried it against Notre Dame and struggled.  If Michigan can get an early touchdown (or two) and make MSU play catchup, they’ll be in good shape.  Additionally, MSU seems to get stronger as the game goes on, so Michigan might need a cushion. 
  3. Limited Turnovers – I’m not naive enough to think Michigan won’t turn the ball over.  They will.  It’s just a matter of limiting it to 1 or even 2.  If Michigan can pull a few turnovers back from MSU to offset any losses, that’s even better. 
  4. Run the Ball – 40 of the last 43 games in this rivalry have gone to the team with the most rushing yards.  If Michigan lines up with two tight ends and a fullback and runs into the line all day, I’ll go insane.  But sweeps, read option, QB scrambles can all add up and move the chains.  Trying to throw downfield all game isn’t going to work – this isn’t Indiana.  
  5. Composure! – Playing in East Lansing is a tough assignment.  It’s even tougher with a later start.  Throw in the way MSU likes to push the lines of on-field decorum and cheap shots and Michigan is going to have to stay calm for 60 minutes and just play football.  I’m not as worried about retaliatory penalties as I am about just focusing on the next play.  

Prediction

If you’ve been paying attention all week, you’d think Michigan has no shot to win this game.  MSU has a defense that can’t be stopped, and despite its 6-1 record, Michigan might as well pack it in for the season.  And to be fair, lackluster performances against Akron, UConn and Penn State warrant some of that – but not all of it.  MSU has had its fair share of struggles this year – including slow starts against Western Michigan, South Florida and just two weeks ago against Purdue.  In short, Michigan and MSU are more similar than anyone is admitting.  While MSU has the best defense, Michigan is no slouch.  Offensively, Michigan’s offense is as prolific as any in the country – the only problem being you have no idea whether that offense or the offense determined to give games away will show up.  MSU brings a more consistent approach to their offense, but even when consistent there is questions about how good that offense is.  Last week’s performance against Illinois will need to be repeated before it is classified as a anything other than an aberration.  

My gut is telling me that much like 2005 and even 2007, this is a game where conventional wisdom goes out the window and Michigan comes into East Lansing and surprises everyone.  My head however reminds me that conventional wisdom knows that Michigan has scored an average of 15.75 points against MSU in the last 4 contests and that number drops to 13 points per game since Al Borges came to town.  Losing 4 of the last 5 doesn’t help either.  Throw in the fact that Michigan is 5-6 in true road games under Brady Hoke and 6-8 overall in games away from the Big House and conventional wisdom sounds a little more compelling.  Since none of those 5 wins have come against teams with a winning records you have to come to the conclusion that Michigan beating MSU would be a departure from the past.  Past results are not necessarily an indication of future results, but I’m going to need to see Michigan do it before I can predict that they’ll do it.  

So yes, I’m pinching my nose and picking MSU.  

Michigan State 19

Michigan 16

The Road to Indy Week 5

October 30, 2013

Between last week (which I missed) and this week, we’re getting a little more clarity on who is primed to end up in Indy.

THE LEADERS

Ohio State 8-0 (4-0) – The Buckeyes continued to roll with a come from behind win over Iowa at home and a throttling of Penn State on Saturday night.  OSU continues to leap over the hurdles put in their way.  With at least a 2.5 game lead over everyone except Wisconsin in the division and de facto 2 game lead over Wisconsin due to owning the tiebreaker, the Buckeyes will need to lose 2 of their last 4 in order to not end up in Indy.  With a remaining schedule of @Purdue, @Illinois, Indiana and @Michigan, that seems highly unlikely.

Wisconsin 5-2 (3-1) – The Badgers continue to stay mathematically in the race, but still need 2 Buckeye losses if they want to go to Indy.  If Wisconsin gets past a road game at Iowa this week, they could end up 10-2 very easily, with BYU, Indiana, Minnesota and Penn State remaining on the schedule, but I still don’t see them in Indy.  They could sneak into a BCS bowl if they finish 10-2 though and things fall right for them.

Everyone else – Indiana, Purdue, Penn State, and Illinois have a combined 2 wins in Big Ten play.  That’s all you need to know.  The only excitement left among these 4 is to see if Indiana can win 3 of the last 5 to get bowl eligible.  That’s probably not going to happen with road games at Wisconsin and Ohio State left, but you never know.

THE LEGENDS

Michigan State 7-1 (4-0) – The Spartans rebounded from a lackluster 14-0 win over Purdue at home by thumping Illinois 42-3 on the road.  The Spartans continue to improve, and though the offense doesn’t scare good defenses, it doesn’t need to with the #1 ranked defense in the country to protect them.  MSU hosts Michigan this week in a huge game for both.  If MSU wins, they will stand alone a top the Legends division and have a 2 game lead over Michigan.   While the final three games feature road games to Nebraska and Northwestern, MSU would control their own destiny and could basically sew up the division with a win in Lincoln.

Michigan 6-1 (3-1) – After the loss to Penn State 3 Saturdays ago, Michigan got “well” against Indiana last week.  They enjoyed a bye this past weekend, which they desperately needed as they prepare for a huge matchup against MSU in East Lansing.  As noted above, an MSU win basically eliminates Michigan from the division race, as they’d either need a 3-way tie at 6-2  or an MSU collapse in the final 3 games to have a shot.  The 6-2 scenario is unlikely, as it would require Michigan to beat Nebraska, and Nebraska to beat MSU, but then for Nebraska to win their remaining games and for MSU to drop another.  And even then, who knows who would win those tiebreakers?  And MSU starting 7-1 and then dropping the last 3 just isn’t going to happen.  In short, this is an absolute MUST win for Michigan.

Nebraska 5-2 (2-1) – Nebraska, who held the inside track to Indy until this week by virtue of hosting MSU at home and already a game up on Michigan, blew that position by losing at Minnesota this week.  The Cornhuskers, who seemed to rebound after their period of flux from earlier in the season may be back in a tailspin with fans in Lincoln calling for coach Bo Pelini’s head.  The schedule is not kind to Nebraska either, as they play Northwestern, @Michigan, MSU, @PSU and Iowa in consecutive weeks the rest of the way.  They still control their own destiny and will win the division if they go unbeaten the rest of the way – but that’s asking a lot for a team that just lost on the road to Minnesota.

Everyone else – Iowa and Minnesota are still in the running technically, but its going to require some serious work on their part, and some luck, as both are 2-2 and have lost to teams ahead of them in the standings which means they need multiple losses by others in order to have a shot.  Oh, and they have to win out too.  Minnesota will play in a bowl by virtue of their victory over Nebraska to get to 6 wins, and Iowa should get their soon too.  As for Northwestern….4 straight Big Ten losses have taken the Wildcats from Big Ten to contender to questionable bowl team.  Northwestern needs to win 2 of their last 4 just to get to 6 wins and the schedule is brutal.  Nebraska and Illinois on the road, and Michigan and MSU at home.  They can win 2 of those, but given they’ve lost 4 in a row, I’m not sure I trust them too.

BIG TEN CHAMPIONSHIP GAME PREDICTION:  I’ve said it since Week 1 of the season was in the books, and I’m not changing my pick – OSU will win the Leaders.  As for the Legends, I had thought Nebraska was the favorite, but their loss to Minnesota has changed that.  MSU has looked the best recently and also has the record and the schedule in their favor.  If MSU doesn’t beat Michigan, all bets are off – but for this week it looks like a Sparty vs. Buckeyes party in Indy.