The nutty Michigan coverage isn't so much about Harbaugh as it is a signal to the Big Ten that Fox wants to party.
This picture evidently has a grip on me.
It was the centerpiece of the letter from the editor in Hail To The Victors 2008 and the desperate, searching column following the Post Apocalyptic Oregon Game. And why not? It’s perfect for this place and time.
On the right, Bump Elliot, fired/resigned/retired but at the press conference introducing his replacement. He looks like he wants a sandwich and is thinking about asking that guy off camera if he could get one, but he knows that losing to Ohio State 50-14 is not the kind of thing that helps the sandwich acquisition process.
On the left, Bo Schembechler. He looks like Bo. He is obscurely confident, staring at something. Maybe it’s a wall. Maybe he’s thinking about making that wall the best damn wall that wall can be. Maybe it’s a pair of pants, and Schembechler is devising a motivational method that will get the pair of pants to tailor itself into the best damn pair of pants it could be. It is not a sandwich, or Bump Elliot would be looking over there. It is probably not an elephant or a meerkat or any sort of African land mammal. Other than that we don’t know.
In the middle, Don Canham. In marked contrast to the men flanking him, Canham is sporting an expression of crystal clarity. Staring off into the middle distance, he draws his mouth tight and hunches forward. “God, I hope I didn’t screw this up,” he thinks. In a moment he’ll speak into the thicket of microphones in front of him, introducing the man to his right and hoping against hope that this man from Miami of Ohio can beat back the Buckeye menace. Together they will build an empire.
We are all Don Canham now. Rich Rodriguez comes in with a wildly successful pedigree but promises to finally tear down the culture of Bo’s program, to replace it with something uncertain. This has caused apprehension in some, joy in others, and disdain verging on hatred in a select group.
The program risks changing into something people drift away from because it has drifted from them, or, worse, something that you only wish you could drift away from. It also promises fireworks and fun and victory and a feeling that’s something other than that thing we’ve felt so much before. Other fanbases go through this every five or ten or fifteen years; for us it’s been 40.
I could welcome it, I guess, or celebrate it, or proclaim inevitable dominion over the land. But I don’t feel like it. Nor do I feel like fretting over imaginary scandals future. Like Canham, I just hope it works.
Here goes nothing. Go Blue.
Tomorrow the gentlemen of the Wolverine Liberation Army will be guiding the nouveau open thread, which will take the form of a Cover It Live chat/liveblog type thing. The action starts at 3 PM. Please don’t feed the WLA to a woodchipper.
A tentative schedule for the season:
- Game column
- Monday Recruitin’
- UFR: Offense
- On Notice Board (The return!)
- UFR: Defense
- Injury Wrangling
- Cover It Live chat (biweekly)
- Opponent preview
- Cover It Live “open” thread
There will of course be news and Unverified Voracity and all that sprinkled in, and UFR may get bumped back a day on certain weeks.
As is traditional, the mondo Michigan preview (this year: 17,212 words) prevented me from putting together a full-fledged opponent preview. Usually this is against a team that doesn’t make me regret the lack of a preview until something horrible occurs, but this year Utah is legit and you deserve some preview action I can’t provide. I suggest The Only Game That Matters and Varsity Blue.
A few TV items. Three things of note follow.
If you have Dish and live outside of the Big Ten footprint, they just yanked your BTN. An emailer, uh, emails:
After being all cocky about being the first guy to have BTN in the lineup last year on DISH, I just noticed that DISH has dumped BTN except in Ohio, MIchigan, Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois and "sections of Pennsylvania and Indiana". As a California alum, this sucks pretty hard. I have already complained to DISH, but I thought you might want to help mobilize mgoblog nation to get on their case. Thanks!
Class of '98
David followed up with Dish and found this out:
So, last year, the BTN was added to the base package. Now, I had to upgrade to the "Plus" package ($5/mo. for the music channels) and then add the big sports package for another $5.99/mo. I was assured by the operator that I could get it in LA, despite the footnote on the program guide. So, it appears to be available for about $11/mo. Very frustrating.
Unfortunate, and pricey, but heroin doesn’t come cheap.
A note on the “reverse mirroring” policy mentioned in yesterday’s mailbag: no, it doesn’t apply to ABC night games. MSU fans in Chicago are screwed since the powers that be decided to put Clemson-Alabama on this weekend instead of MSU-Cal.
This affects Michigan less than most other teams since they refuse to play night games at home, but there’s occasionally a regional ABC roadie that would not be available except on Gameplan. Your best bet in that situation is to get Gameplan for the weekend, which I believe costs twenty bucks.
And a protest from commenter Ninja Football about my dissing of sopcast yesterday:
I take exception with your disparaging remarks about Sopcast. I was forced to use it for a variety of games and for other events throughout the past year, and as long as you know what you're doing it isn't so bad. There is always the chance of the guy changing the channel, but if you find the right site and "reputable" (HA!) streamers you can be assured that won't happen. Saying it's "fraught with peril" immediately makes people think of viruses and crashing computers, and while it can at times be frustrating, it's better than reading about the game in the paper two days later.
If that’s all you’ve got and you want a live stream, I guess it’s worth a try. If anyone finds some reliable streams or wants to go so far as set some up themselves, let me know and I’ll pass the information on.
It’s in. Marques Slocum will not go into the night without a plaque, dammit:
Godspeed, Marques; I hope you eat Mark May and take his place someday.
How to act. Three separate Michigan blogs inform you how to act on gameday. Varsity Blue has the student section covered:
If you are sitting below row 80 and hear a cow bell and say anything related to the Christopher Walken sketch on SNL lampooning "Don't Fear the Reaper" by Blue Oyster Cult, I hate you. Freshman year it's acceptable and funny for the first few games. Beyond that, seriously, that sketch was on like 8 years ago.
Just as in the student section, refrain from getting plastered at the tailgate. And if you do, stay at the tailgate. If not, that drunk feeling in the first half will turn into a hung-over feeling in the 2nd half. Your head and your fellow seat mates will thank you.
If you are in the student section, try not to get drunk enough so that to keep your balance you have to shove the people in the row in front of you over and over again.
I only have one request: when the PA announcer says “welcome to Michigan Stadium,” don’t boo MAC teams and the like. “We’d like to extend a warm Michigan Stadium welcome to… Toledo!” should not be followed by rampant booing. I would prefer the booing to be restricted to actual rivals: ND, MSU, OSU.
Wait, also: if you wear a shirt with “Buck The Fuckeyes” or any sort of letter inversion shtick please castrate yourself. Possible exception: “Iuck the Fllini.”
Well, the situation is very fluid, you see. OSU defensive tackle Doug Worthington will not be suspended for the Youngstown State game after picking up a DUI. This is no doubt acceptable to the folks who thought Kevin Grady should be executed after his wild night of being passed out behind the wheel of his Denali.
As soon as Steve Breaston took his talents to the NFL the return game imploded. Raise your hand if you’re surprised. Dammit—I have to raise my hand since I gave this a “3” last year, too.
Sure-handed, slow Greg Mathews was the primary punt returner with a little Donovan Warren mixed in; the duo was terrible, ending the year 79th. Mathews has been relieved of those duties this year and the job is tentatively Warren’s with slot electron Martavious Odoms pushing from behind. This should improve with two of the best athletes on the team taking up the reigns; hopefully the increased walk-on program will help fill in some gaps on special teams.
Kick returns were even worse. Michigan was 110th as Carlos Brown and Brandon Minor alternated runs directly into defenders. Freshman tailbacks Sam McGuffie and Michael Shaw have been mentioned as likely starters here, though it may take a game or two to blood them before they assume the roles. Shaw and McGuffie are fast as hell and there should be a rebound here, too.
After inexplicably sitting for a good portion of the season, Kickin’ Competency Lopata came on and hit 11 of 12. He’s basically Garrett Rivas, short on leg strength and dodgy outside 40 yards but a machine inside 40. This qualifies as a pretty good collegiate kicker.
I hate to say this about beloved Space Emperor, but Zoltan was quite conceivable in his second year as a starter. Though he was Michigan’s best player against Ohio State with 12(!) punts for 551(!!!) yards—almost 46 yards each—in his other outings he barely averaged 40 yards a kick. He was 53rd in average yardage and had almost 60% of his punts returned (that’s a lot). He was a Space Prince at best.
Here goes the standard “consistency” bit: if Zoltan can sustain the sort of performance he turned in against Ohio State he’s a Ray Guy candidate and likely winner. He’s always had ridiculous punter-get-drafted upside.
Special Teams in Summary
Kicker should remain static; the return game should improve, possibly significantly as Rodriguez continues to pack the roster with players like those guys named “Moss” who used to play for Miami. Zoltan should be at least average and if he can find consistency to be consistently consistent could be the Heisman winner. You heard it here first, Beanie: Zoltan The Inconceivable is coming for your trophy.
The theory of turnover margin: it is nearly random. Teams that find themselves at one end or the other at the end of the year are highly likely to rebound towards the average. So teams towards the top will tend to be overrated and vice versa. Nonrandom factors to evaluate: quarterback experience, quarterback pressure applied and received, and odd running backs like Mike Hart who just don't fumble.
|2007||Int +||Fumb +||Sacks +||Int -||Fumb -||Sacks -|
|0.15 (41st)||14||15||2.46(33rd)||14||13||2.17 (67th)|
In marked contrast to lat year’s TO margin heuristic—which foresaw a plunge from 4th nationally to something still positive but far less spectacular and may have presaged some of Michigan’s difficulties—there’s not much to see here. I expect this to be solidly negative this year what with the n00b quarterbacks and the line and the no Mike Hart, but Scott Shafer’s GOT what plants CRAVE so it could be around even again. Don’t think it will have a major impact.
Position Switch Starters
Theory of position switches: if you are starting or considering starting a guy who was playing somewhere else a year ago, that position is in trouble. There are degrees of this. When Notre Dame moved Travis Thomas, a useful backup at tailback, to linebacker and then declared him a starter, there was no way that could end well. Wisconsin's flip of LB Travis Beckum to tight end was less ominous because Wisconsin had a solid linebacking corps and Beckum hadn't established himself on that side of the ball. Michigan flipping Prescott Burgess from SLB to WLB or PSU moving Dan Connor inside don't register here: we're talking major moves that indicate a serious lack somewhere.
Two weeks ago John Ferrara was a backup defensive lineman. Today he’s pushing David Molk for a starting job on the line. Even if he doesn’t see the field the lack of confidence in Molk is apparent.
You could throw Brandon Harrison in here, as last year he was kind of a corner and this year he’s going to be the strong safety, but Harrison’s bounced to and from safety his entire career and will likely find himself in that familiar spot over the slot receiver. His responsibilities aren’t likely to change.
Toney Clemons is listed behind Martavious Odoms; his presence at slot receiver despite being way too tall for the Lollipop Guild—it is a guild!—indicates an obvious lack of depth there.
An Embarrassing Prediction, No Doubt
Rock bottom can be pretty low when you’re shoehorning a bunch of guys into a system they weren’t recruited for and you’ve had a ton of attrition at a couple key spots. Michigan is flirting with disaster on the offensive line and at quarterback. An injury or general suckage by one or more of the five new guys they’re counting on at those positions could send the offense into an epic tailspin.
The defense and some random plays from the exciting skill position players should keep Michigan afloat; games against the two MAC schools, Minnesota, Northwestern, Purdue, and Michigan State should all be at least reasonably winnable even in the worst case. 4-8 seems like the bottom-bottom.
There’s only one game that looks utterly unwinnable—Ohio State—at the moment. There’s no way the offense doesn’t blow two more, though. 9-3.
I am heartened by the idea that Rich Rodriguez’s offense doesn’t place much emphasis on 15 yard outs or deep bombs or seam routes. I am further heartened by the media’s near-exclusive focus on offense and players lost when compiling their preseason guesses. And I’m delighted by the idea Michigan beat actual football teams last year with Mike Debord calling plays for Ryan Mallett.
Not heartening is game against a Mountain West team that would be a pick-em on a neutral field, though the Vegas wiseguys initially set the line at M –7 before everyone bet it down. Nor is it heartening to miss Iowa and Indiana in a year that it would be really nice to dodge Wisconsin and Illinois. But that’s life.
For a glimpse at what this offense might be like I go back to the Year of Infinite Pain, 2005. With Jake Long injured the line was a patchwork assemblage of mediocre talent. Leo Henige had no knees and he started the whole year. The receiving corps was one sure-handed possession guy (Avant), one slot bastard par excellence (Breaston), and one zippy freshman (Manningham). This year those guys are Mathews, Odoms, and Stonum with potential bonus contributions from Clemons, Hemingway, Savoy, and Robinson. Mike Hart was out or limping most of the year; Kevin Grady and Max Martin took turns fumbling before Jerome Jackson finally took the reins.
The big advantage that team had was Chad Henne even though that was the year Tacopants reeled in something like 150 balls. Any illusions 2005 Chad Henne was a realistic ceiling for Michigan’s quarterbacks this year went out the window as I watched the turnover abortion that was the NC State-South Carolina game. We have no idea how bad it can get. Yet.
Still, 2008 wins by a significant margin at the skill positions, is close to a push on the OL, and has a significant advantage in playcalling, scheme, and proximity to Mike Barwis. I think a comparable season is realistic, and while that’s not good at all—55th total offense, 45th scoring—it’s not a disaster zone.
Meanwhile, the defense returns eight-ish starters from a defense statistically superior to 2005’s meh unit. They have also “enjoyed” their proximity to Mike Barwis. Scott Shafer seems a rising star in the defensive coordination business, a maniacal blitzer instinctively aware of the little game theory details that are the heart of gameday coaching.
It’s reasonable to expect improvement both statistically and actually, which would make this team better than 2005’s 7-5 record, especially because that Notre Dame team was 9-3 and this one won’t be and a bowl game against Nebraska is included in that record.
That’s the idea, anyway.
|9/6||Miami (OH)||Probable Win|
|9/13||@ Notre Dame||Tossup|
|10/18||@ Penn State||Probable loss|
|11/1||@ Purdue||Probable win|
|11/8||@ Minnesota||Probable win|
|11/22||Ohio State||Probable loss|
Take all the “probables” with a grain of salt except OSU, Minnesota, and the MAC schools. I didn’t want to write “tossup” eight times.
Really, the answer here is “hell if I know.” There are too many variables to predict anything at a level resembling confidence. I have enough faith in the defense and the little bastards carrying the ball to think the team will be towards the upper end of the reasonable range. 8-4 is the pick.
Let’s get it on.
What does this defense have to do to drive Michigan to wins?
The worst thing you can do in a defense that loves quarterback pressure is to allow the sort of consistent gashing up the middle that Michigan did last year. Any time the opponent had a decent interior line and a between-the-tackles runner it got ugly last year. Michigan State, Illinois, Oregon, Ohio State, and Wisconsin pounded Michigan up the middle.
Those were three losses, a miracle Robot Henne comeback, and a muffed-punt-trick-play victory over an Illinois team determined to give the game away. This is probably not a coincidence.
Meanwhile, the pass defense was excellent, about which more later.
The interior run defense was the third most obvious weakness on last year’s team behind Ryan Mallett’s center exchange and Steve Schilling; repairing that is going to be job one for Scott Shafer.
Can the interior run defense rebound?
Ask Obi. In this reporter’s opinion, Obi Ezeh is the most important player on this year’s team. The quarterbacks are going to be bad, the line tetchy even if Steve Schilling takes a quantum leap forward. Other positions have multiple options and any one player’s failure isn’t that devastating.
Linebacker, however, is short on options and has a potential breakout star. If Ezeh makes a great leap forward he can almost singlehandedly stiffen the entire defense. And he can make that leap forward. Most of his problems last year were mental. He was hesitant, slow to the ball, etc. He was stupid in the ways freshmen are stupid. This is the sort of thing that gets much better over time. He appears to have physical attributes similar to David Harris, blessed be his name. He’s getting the wide-eyed preseason praise that often precedes a big year but sometimes precedes Johnny Sears.
Devoid of onfield evidence, we just have to hope on Ezeh. The rest of it should get better what with the defensive line returning intact minus 20-30 pounds of flubber each and—not to be overly cruel—the replacement of Chris Graham.
So… I think so. All the key actors are back and better.
What can we expect from Scott Shafer?
This has been documented several times before, but to recap: all defensive coordinators, when hired, are reputed to be blitz demons with Brawndo—it’s got what plants crave!—flowing through their veins, all the better to WIN at AGGRESSION. No one has ever been hired and declared his intention to play a soft bend-don’t-break cover two.
But Scott Shafer backs it up. It’s hard to quantify this over the course of his career because the NCAA only started tracking sacks recently. Here’s the transition he wrought on defense (all numbers except turnovers are national ranks instead of raw yardage because of the evil distorting ‘06 clock changes):
In one year Shafer’s aggression shot the Cardinal from 111th in sacks to 11th; the near-doubling of turnovers acquired was obviously related. Quarterback pressure is the one thing that consistently produces turnovers. Shafer also famously turned Western Michigan into the top-sacking team in the NCAA and OLB Ameer Ismail, who no one will confuse with Lavar Arrington, into the nation’s leading sacker.
(I wouldn’t put much into the radical drop in pass defense; the 2006 Stanford rush defense was so unbelievably bad that opponents just plowed into the line for their 5 YPC. Despite playing in the pass-wacky Pac-10, Stanford opponents threw the ball 38% of the time.)
Expect Michigan to use their outside corners aggressively, pressing frequently and daring quarterbacks to try the difficult fade routes that Morgan Trent has been excellent on thus far in his career. On passing downs Shafer wants to deploy an “Okie” defense that’s a nominal 3-4 with safety/OLB types threatening blitz from all angles. The idea is to get opponents into unfavorable down and distance situations, then deny them the time to bail themselves out on third and long.
Steve Brown ack.
I mentioned this a bit in the D preview: people have a tendency to remember and overrate unusual events, especially if they’re traumatic. Steve Brown’s disastrous first foray as a safety was the most unusual and traumatic debut for a new player ever. So we remember the slipping and the falling and all that. That doesn’t necessarily represent his true ability.
What information we have on Brown, from his impressive debut on special teams to his recruiting rankings to the practice buzz, is encouraging. And he ceded the safety job to Brandent Englemon, who was totally functional. He wasn’t stuck behind someone who was struggling.
Brown’s ascension into the starting lineup isn’t cause for enormous concern, IMO, no more so than any new starter at a position where slip-ups mean long touchdowns.
Add it up and you get?
The striking thing about last year’s defense is their lack of suck. This would not be remarkable if Michigan hadn’t ceded 73 points in a disastrous opening two weeks. Look at the conference rankings: second in total defense, pass defense, and scoring defense. First in pass efficiency defense. Fifth in rushing defense. And Michigan missed the worst offense in the league (Iowa).
Some caveats do apply—Ohio State quit playing after getting their second touchdown—but a quick review of last year’s events also reveals two useless Purdue touchdowns, a useless Wisconsin touchdown, and a whole lot of awful Ryan Mallett play leaving opponents with short fields. Michigan was better than its eminently respectable numbers last year.
Now eight starters return (if you’re counting Brandon Harrison, which you should). Many of them are in clearly better shape. Obi Ezeh should be much better, and there’s not likely to be much dropoff from Chris Graham to whoever replaces him on the weakside. My accounting goes like this:
- Better: DT, DE, MLB, CB
- About the same: WLB, FS
- Worse: SLB, SS
That looks like a significantly better defense, especially since strongside linebacker is probably less relevant than nickelback these days. Replacing Crable’s 28.5 TFLs will be tough.
Anyway: I expect a significant bounce in the rush defense, even more sacks, and a defense that challenges OSU for the best in the conference.
BONUS: a quick review of last year’s stupid predictions. This is perhaps the most accurate thing I’ve ever pulled out of my ass:
- 23rd in scoring defense.
Michigan was exactly 23rd last year. But, uh:
- Aw, hell: Brown has a great debut and gets everyone totally excited about his potential. The safeties are good.
This could not have been more wrong, obviously.
On with the variably accurate show:
- Brandon Graham has monster year and departs for the NFL draft after it.
- Ezeh does get much, much better.
- The other linebackers are a persistent issue.
- Trent makes All Big Ten and goes in the second round of the draft.
- Michigan has a top 20 run defense and top 15 overall defense.
- Boubacar Cissoko is fun to say.
It’s the eve of football season, so what better time for a hockey complaint? The NCAA has announced four more regional sites for 2010 and 2011. They are:
- St. Paul
- Fort Wayne
- Green Bay
- St. Louis
There isn’t a D-I program within 500 miles of Saint Louis. As a result, there’s going to be yet another year the CCHA cannot possibly have a home crowd. This year Michigan and Miami were the top two seeds in the entire tournament and had to play hundreds of miles away from home because the West regional sites were in Colorado and Wisconsin.
Putting an NCAA regional in an NHL rink in St Louis is asking for four thousand fans in the seats. In conclusion: bite me, NCAA.