Las Vegas screwed my system up something fierce. Since the World Series of Poker had nearly nine thousand entrants this year, play on the first couple days was scheduled to go to two or three AM Pacific time. It was 7AM in Michigan when I finally collapsed into bed after day one. I maintained that schedule during the downtime in an attempt to be as alert as possible for day two. When I got back, my sleep schedule was completely trashed.
I gradually recovered, but even in the best of times I'm something of a late riser. And by "something of" I mean "am completelly and shamefully". Eleven... noon... one. Thereabouts. (This is extremely irritating if I haven't prepared something for the blog the night before, as I am forced to scramble.) Sometimes the Man holding you down is useful, because he makes you get up at a respectable hour and prevents the minor bursts of shame that come from a weekday PM rising time.
A funny thing happened this week: I wake up, check the clock, and it says "9:02" or "9:27". No alarms. No early bedtimes. Just a mysterious sea change in my circadian rhythms apropos of apparently nothing. I was puzzled. But no longer: football, tomorrow. When I arise the clock will say "9:02" or "9:27," I will head out to the family tailgate and read way, way too much into Michigan's opener. Subconsciously I have prepared myself. Good job, subconscious.
EDSBS called yesterday "Football Christmas" and that's exactly right. These days Christmas Eve is mostly a reminder of lost childhood magic. I go to bed wishing that I could not go to bed, wishing that I was straining to hear reindeer hooves on the roof. Today I've got that old feeling, even though the threat of coal is far less abstract in this particular venture. But if you were a child who had suffered through a series of disappointing Christmases -- socks, socks, an apple, socks -- and one horrible one, one that put you off the idea of Christmas for months -- show us on this doll, Josh -- then you might really appreciate it when the skies opened up and hosannahs rained from the heavens as Christ personally descended and bestowed all five Dinobots upon you. And you might not think so badly of those past Christmases after all.
Go, extended metaphors! Go Blue.
Extremely helpful reader Jeremy took this moment of crabbing...
Hasn't someone stitched together the four catches from the end of the '04 MSU game and set it to the world's worst emo? Can we get on this? I would watch that in a loop if it was a TV show. Could I be more like Bill Simmons right now? Billy Zabka! Ian Ziering! Humiliating self at WSOP!
...and went above and beyond the call of duty. Behold:
Best ever! FOOTBALL!
Steve Breaston may have disappointed in many ways last year but this was not one of them. A sure way to constrict your throat at any time is to watch his critical return with under a minute left against PSU that set Michigan up near the 50 and enabled the Manningham magic to come. Breaston finished 8th in the country in kickoff returns and 18th in punt returns despite battling injuries and unblocked gunners all year. He is the real deal in this facet of the game, at the very least.
Michigan fans thought he was capable of much more had the coaching staff played punts for something other than fakes. Michigan's tendency to cover gunners like they were wide receivers and provide only a token punt rush removed much of the threat from Michigan's return game without assistance from the other team. Despite that, Breaston still excelled.
Rating: 4. Many are down on Garrett Rivas after some irritating, short misses in critical spots last year but he was 19 of 26 a year ago. 73.1% is light years from awful, though misses from 34 versus Minnesota, 27 against MSU and 25 against Nebraska show that he's not exactly Huston. Rivas will provide more of the same: reliable short-range kicking with sporadic, hair-pulling misses. There are worse fates.
Freshman kicker Bryan Wright will redshirt unless Rivas really struggles.
Houston, we are reading an unidentified
Senior punter Ross Ryan was ugly but effective a year ago, consistently kicking dying quails that made it 35 or 40 yards at maximum but were nearly unreturnable: only 17 of his 52 were run back and those for a paltry total of 85 yards. By contrast, Michigan had 423 punt return yards. His job has come under threat from redshirt freshman and space emperor Zoltan Mesko, who occasionally kicks balls into orbit but also occasionally shanks them for 15 yards. Carr has talked of a punting rotation. Presumably Zoltan would get punts from relatively deep in Michigan's territory where his leg can be used to full destructive effect while Ryan takes punts near midfield that he's less likely to bomb through the endzone.
Ryan's kickoffs almost always reached the endzone and many were touchbacks a year ago. The new, lower tee will reduce his touchback rate but he remains an excellent kickoff guy.
Special Teams in Summary
Should be a strength. Rivas is all right; the punting duo should be collectively above average; Breaston is kind of good at returning things. Rivas' iffy range -- 47, 48 and that's pushing it -- and tendency to miss two or three really stupid field goals to miss a season will irritate, but Michigan is in good shape here.
Vanderbilt is the opener. Without Jay Cutler the Commodores pose little threat.
CMU isn't playing Michigan State and will therefore lose. Pass-rushing demon Dan Bazuin will provide a stiff test for Michigan tackles and an indication of how prepared they are for...
@ Notre Dame, a small Catholic school of no importance in northern Indiana.
The Big Ten schedule opens up at home versus Wisconsin, who has no returning anything on offense aside from John Stocco. Their defense appears to be stiff against the run but still dodgy in the passing game. If Henne is on it should be a non-terrifying Michigan victory.
Michigan ends up @ Minnesota next, where Michigan's run defense will be thoroughly tested no matter how many running backs the Gophers lose in the meantime. The offense should not be nearly as tested, thought it would be nice if Rueben Riley blocked Steve Davis this year.
A pissed-off Drew Stanton, who is rumoured to have teammates, rolls into town next. Stanton is a major trap game for Michigan, as he should be able to score on anyone. Tense moments.
Michigan then must venture @ Penn State to face approximately 110,000 people who would drink Lloyd Carr's blood from a chalice made out of the skull of a Big Ten referee if given half a chance. If Penn State's offensive line comes together by this point in the year, this will be a knock-down, drag-out affair. Otherwise it will be Anthony Morelli eating grass.
Iowa frightens me.
Northwestern's Fun 'n' Run offense is next; unfortunately for the Wildcats their defense must accompany them.
Ball State and @ Indiana are also schools of no importance in Indiana, though Ball State did produce David Letterman.
@ Ohio State is The Game.
An Embarassing Prediction, No Doubt
What, with road games at ND, OSU, PSU, and dangerous games versus MSU and Iowa? December suicide. AKA: 7-5.
This happens if:
- Henne throws away a couple games.
- The OL stagnates.
- The outside linebackers remain static.
- The cornerback not named Hall gets nicknamed "toast" by the ND game.
- God wasn't joking around last year and really has a deep personal enmity for me.
I believe! 12-0. Hypothetically!
This happens if:
- Henne plays like he did over the last three or four games.
- Riley or whoever the right tackle is manages to perform adequately.
- One of Manningham or Breaston emerges as #1 in spirit.
- Jamison kicks it.
- Graham and Crable adequate it.
- A cornerback and a half are found.
Four of six should do it. Or Hart could just Vince Young us to an undefeated record.
To recap: everything should be better and I have totally reasonable reasons for thinking so. Everyone we liked except Avant, Stenavich, and about a third of Watson returns, plus we get our best two players back and healthy. Incremental improvement from many plus wild improvement from a few -- my bets are Manningham, Crable, and Jamar Adams -- should see Michigan re-assert itself. On the other hand, this team is flawed on the offensive line, at linebacker, and in corner depth.
...but you know and I know that the key to the season wears #7 and has a goofy haircut. If he plays like he did last year, we have a season similar to last year but slightly better. From 8-4 to 9-3. If he plays like he did at the tail end of last year, um, yeah. There's a chance.
Wins: Vandy, CMU, Ball State, @Indiana, Northwestern
Probable Wins: @ Minnesota, Drew Stanton, @ PSU, Wisconsin
Tossups: @ ND, @ OSU, Iowa
Split the difference: 10-2.
You can read my collected... er... wisdom(?) on the upcoming Big Ten season here in approximate projected order of finish:
No headliners remain on the Iowa defense after two years in which graduation has taken Matt Roth, Jonathan Babineaux, Abdul Hodge, and Chad Greenway to the NFL, but the Hawkeyes have star power on the other side of the ball in Drew Tate (the flingingest quarterback this side of the Pecos), Albert Young, and Albert Young's cadaverous ACL. The offensive line is either experienced or OMG shirtless. The defensive line looks poised to resume the terror of the Roth-Babineaux days. The defensive back seven? Well, you can't have everything. There are indeed ominous holes at corner and linebacker.
Despite that, viewers should be prepared for a faceful of Tate this year.
I guess it's somewhat logical that when Texas loses that Vince Young guy and OSU returns that Troy Smith guy you put OSU #1 to start the season, but, uh... nine defensive starters, one reliable kicker, and two first round draft picks on offense depart and that doesn't bother anyone? Ohio State -- Ohio freakin' State -- is starting a senior walk-on who has never played a down on defense at cornerback and this raises not an eyebrow? ... The Buckeyes have many alluring qualities that nearly offset that walkon-at-corner thing.
But not quite.
Relieved of the oppressive mustache, hope burgeons once again. Only six starters depart from last year's team, three of those substandard by any measure. The others have capable replacements lined up. In Herrmann's place is a dynamic young coach who seems ready to overthrow years of stodgy, dated theory and assume his place next to Charlie Weis, Charlie Weis, and Charlie Weis on the new Mount Rushmore of football. Mike Hart and Jake Long are fully healed.
So, yeah: there's a chance.
Trying To Go To Whatever That Bowl Is Called This Year
If Purdue is to return to the hallowed ground of the Music City or Sun or whatever their equally anonymous replacements are after the offseason bowl shuffle it'll be on the backs of their offensive line, which returns four starters from a good '05 unit, and the wide receivers, deeper than at any point in Tiller's tenure. Add in Kory Sheets and new quarterback Curtis Painter has a lot of ammunition at his disposal. He'll need it, as the defense is in chaos.
There's life in '05's corpse yet with Derrick Williams, Levi Brown, and the three-headed Cerberus at linebacker. If Anthony Morelli has a Flowers-for-Algernon leap forward, if the offensive line is stunningly competent, and if any sort of pass rush materializes Penn State could do it again.
If they do, though, you'll find me wandering the streets, muttering about bad frog.
So what will happen? I abdicate. I've spent hours combing stories, previews, player profiles, statistics, tarot cards, &c and have come up with nothing definitive. The OL could be great! It could be awful. The WRs could be great! They could be awful. The defense should rebound! Or maybe not. You'll get nothing definitive out of me on this team ready for mocking at season's end. Wisconsin will either be good or bad. If they are not, they will be average. Bold!
On a micro level MSU is completely unpredictable week-to-week. On a macro level it's always Same Old Spartans. ... Is there anything that could upset the natural balance of things? Yes. He wears number 5, but he can't kick or play defense.
Next Year Has A Nice Ring
Strides towards competency are probable, but there's a long, long way from last year's Travelling Bye Week extravaganza and respectability.
This is all terribly unfortunate for one of college football's most likeable programs. Northwestern churns out a steady supply of moxie-filled quarterbacks, glass-eating linebackers, and dramatic instant classics full of last-second twists M. Night Shyamalan would dismiss as implausible. But the facts are the facts, cruel as they may be; one can only hope that this year is the opening act in a tale of redemption that culminates in the two years Northwestern is off Michigan's schedule.
Here it is in its entirety:
James Hardy is tall, but Indiana is still bad at football.
WTF is Miami-Northwestern doing on ESPN U?
I mean, seriously. No one gets ESPN U and Classic is showing a bunch of reruns as per usual. This problem has an obvious solution.