This post didn't finish at all like I had started it. I had meant it to be a cold and calculating analysis of next season, with a prediction for next year based on the evidence available. It ended up anything but. I can't help but think that it may end up in a category of tripe from this season labelled "overly sentimental piffle." And yes, it's a little tongue-in-cheek, but only a little. Many people had realized this already, but I, to my discredit, hadn't. I'm posting it anyway, just in case I happen to be right about anything. It's not like being "wrong again" for like the 8th time about this season is going to damage my ego. Just a fair warning, it's a bit lengthy so if you are planning on reading the whole thing you may want to cancel that 1:30 budget meeting in advance.
A Disappointment to Ha-Oh-Ma-ER
So, by this time the collective shock/grief/horror/weal/woe of this season have been discussed. Just a little bit. It's got many of us asking "What is to be done?" and perhaps more importantly "Who is to blame?" Recently I have been realizing whose fault it is. It's mine.
At the beginning of the season I was more pessimistic than anyone else I knew. My reasoning was simple: we would have approximately zero quarterbacks. By September, however, my friends had convicned me- and more importantly I had convinced myself- that this could not, would not happen. It would not happen to us because We Were Michigan. A few days before the season I wrote that we would lose 4 games this year, with an allowance for a 5 loss season if we lost to Notre Dame. And at that time, I even thought I was being objective. How deluded I was!
Even as the season progressed I continued to delude myself as many did, still found us ways to lose only 5, then only 6, and then for that one brief moment 5-7 looked possible. I, like many others, read each UFR with partucular facination, wondered about the personnel, the playcalling, the effect of the Van Allen belts on football trajectories, the relative humidity. The funny thing about it all was that instead of accepting reality, my disbelief mounted.
How could we be so bad? Certainly there was a tangible reason. It was the quarterbacks, the coach, the weather, a curse. Whatever it was, though, we could certainly change it if we found it. Eventually, as we became increasingly desperate, we scrambled around searching for lost deities that we maybe had offended sometime in our lives. That green porcellan goldfish that I -I mean my roommate- threw onto the cafeteria roof of South Quad couldn't have been a god that we had offended....right? What had happened? It was at that point that I thought of something else I heard in college:
It's Not Those Pants That Make Your Ass Look Big, It's Your Ass That Makes Your Ass Look Big
It was simple. We stunk. There were no two ways around it, and there wasn't anything more to say about it. We had spent all this time trying on different pairs of pants while all the time not focusing on what was wrong. And I think we can be forgiven- for most of us this hasn't happened in our lifetimes. (I don't think the Harbaugh broken-arm season really counts).
And now what do I see? People predicting 9-3 for next year! They are, they are! I actually think they can't help it, like I couldn't help predeicting only 4 losses this year. Take a step back and ask yourself this: take a team, an anonymous team, an unknown team, and let me tell you something about them. This team doesn't have a quarterback that has started more than 8 games in his college career. It has two sophomores, one a walk-on, and a true freshman. Yes, the freshman is talented, and yes, it appears he was Made for the Spread- he's also 18. The offensive line will consist of first and second year starters, except maybe one of the tackles, a third year starter possibly playing out of position. The backs are strong but coming off of an injury-filled year. The receivers are all young and fumble like crazy. And that's the good part. The defense will be losing 4 starters on the defensive line, one of whom is the best player on the team, and a starting corner. Without knowing more would you guess that would be a good team?
Thinking that, my prediction would be at best 6-6. I would be thrilled with 6-6. And I can hear it already:
Pessimist! you say.
Not a true fan!
OK, OK, you say, that's hardly a surprise at this point that we stink- and we're all going to have to sqaure with that some day. But we'll be Back next year, right?
I know all the arguments for a good season. Forcier saves the team, the linemen improve dramatically, the receivers learn all the routes they are having trouble with. We will get Will Campbell, he will anchor the line, Mike Martin will be good, Ven Bergen will emerge as a playmaker, Ezeh will have some kind of religious experience during the offseason and wake up one day and say "Oh, TO the ball!" RR's teams seem to be drastically better the 2nd year.
These things are all, in fact, possible. They are individually possible. But how many of them have to come true for us to be really good next year? Most of them? All of them? I'm just going to take a flyer and say that those things won't all happen. I do think we will improve. We may improve significantly, but just think: 6-6 WOULD be a significant improvement. Then it occured to me that maybe I was right, but for the wrong reasons. In this, the strangest of seasons, the journey is emotional one, not an intellectual one. What does it say that 7-5 is a season we refer to as the Year of Infinite Pain? What is this year? The Infinite Year of Infinite Pain? The Year of 2x Infinite Pain?
So, we'll be Back, right? The simple answer is no, we won't. And that doesn't mean we will never be good again, in fact I'm quite sure that we will. But we will never be "back." That has passed. I thought I had known that already already, but I hadn't. And like I said, it was a trauma for all of us : we woke up one day and our ass was gigantic. And we can't ever -ever - go back to the way we were before. There is only one thing to do.
Give Up, You Must, That Which You Most Fear to Lose
Back to 9-3. It's just optimistic, right? This can happen and that can happen, and the offensive line will get better, Threet will have the best offseason anyone's had since Tom Brady found Giselle, boom goes the dynamite, we're 9-3. And when I say they are wrong, they call me unOptimistic, they call me a Pessimist, they say I'm not a True Fan because I don't Believe. But though I say we will be lucky to see 6-6 next year I am more optimistic than someone that says we're going to be 9-3. It's because I am further along in acceptance of this year, of this team, of this coach. It's because I've embraced the Way of the Jedi. I now accept what is, and I can move on, and I am at peace with 6-6 (or worse). For those of you still suggesting 9-3 for next season, I would humbly suggest that you are still not at peace with this season's trauma. And I don't blame you, it's hit us all hard.
This season has been nothing short of a Michigan Identity Crisis with capital letters. In fact, it is a large crisis, a huge crisis, a twelve story crisis, with express elevators, a marble entrance hall, and a neon marquee out front reading "Tonight Only: A Large Crisis." And it is so hard to let go. I have been ranting about this and that all year. They (whoever that is) don't understand, I would say, what it means to lose this kind of winning streak, this kind of bowl streak, this kind of consecutive years of non-suckage. Last year after that 3rd game of the season I kept rocking back and forth on the floor with a crooked smile, saying "At least we're not Notre Dame, we're not Notre Dame, not Notre Dame..." But whatever way you defended us, or definied this team, or whatever, that's gone now. Whatever Michigan Arrogance we had (and yes I did, and I bet you did too), it sure as hell is gone now. Or at least it should have been....
It was just such Arrogance that led me to proclaim 4 losses this year in the face of all reason. New coach, millions of new linemen, oh shit, and another new lineman, and oh, one more new lineman...no quarterbacks, no safeties except our favorites. There were so many reasons we were going to be bad, and really the only one we weren't was My Arrogance. Blinded as I was by our past superiority, I was simply unable to convince myself what was probably obvious to others. Hey, if Sports Illustrated got it right, it can't have been a secret.
I haven't forgotten that I have claimed that I was more optimisitc than those that were proclaiming we would be 9-3 next year. And I hold to it. The reason is that I have given up this season. I don't mean that I have given up ON the season, rather that I have finally let it go. I have given up being better than State, I have given up my anti-MAC superiority, I have given up being Not Notre Dame. Don't try to get your mind around losing to Toledo. You can't. And I nearly gave myself an aneurism trying- you just have to let it go. I have given up the bowl streak, the winning seasons. And it was hard- it took me 11 games. I could still fall off the wagon any second.
Think about all those seasons, think about the history. Pick your favorite season, and you will realize why it's been so hard. And then after you've thought about it, you have to let it go. I don't mean anything silly like "forget about it forever." But you have to let it be the past, because now it finally is the past.
When Life Can't Promise the Fantastic, It's Wax Nostalgic
Think about your favorite seat, favorite bit of bench to stand on, crammed in with 12 of your closest friends. Think about your favorite game. Think about all of those good players. When I was a kid in the yard I was always Jamie Morris and my younger brother was Jim Harbaugh, we made dad be Ohio State. The youngest brother was Anthony Carter, I remember he had a #1 jersey. The games I was young for are just kind of flashes: There's a flash of Tripp Welbourne (I think) getting his helmet on the ball, it pops loose, Michigan recoevers. Grbac hits Derrick Walker on a touchdown pass, but we miss the two and the game is over. But wait! Vada Murray recovers the onside kick, screen to Boles gets us close enough, Carlson wins it. I remember, and I couldn't tell you why, Yale Van Dyne running unmolested over the middle for the slowest 25 yards ever. I think that was an important play, but I couldn't really tell you. I remember Elvis to Desmond- when my friends and I used to sneak into Michigan Stadium we'd go stand on the spot where he caught the ball. And when we stood on that spot and looked up the seats were full and we could see that play. One time a big loping quarterback named Jay Riemersma caught a pass over the middle from Todd Collins and just kept going and going. A couple of plays later Hamilton makes the kick. I remember one game my cousin wouldn't get out of the way of the TV because she thought it was funny that boys cared about football so much. I promised that if she let me alone I would jump in Lake Huron once the game was over (which I did). And she got out of the way, and I watched Tim Biakabatuka run for eight million yards leaving behind only wounded Buckeyes. Lake Huron in November is brisk, by the way. I remeber how disappointed I was when Braylon fumbled against State- only to come back later and catch so many touchdown passes no one knew what to do.
I went to the Iowa game in 97 by myself because I had split season tickets and got seperated from my friends for some games. It didn't matter. That year especially everyone was friends anyway. And we all watched a crappy first half. But when that team ran onto the field for the second half of that game we knew they were going to win, you could feel it, and I bet anyone who was at that game would tell you the same thing. I may have helped a couple of guys I didn't know finish a flask of rum later that year against the scarlet and gray. I rushed the field with a friend of mine that was 6'7", and he put me on his shoulders and I saw out with a marvelous view over the sea of jubilant, yea even jubilant, people.
While I was a student at Michigan we only lost two home games. Those were the only games I was not at. (Damn you, work! )
It took us a second in the stands to realize that Alabama had missed that extra point.
I wasn't in the U.S. the 2005 and 2006 seasons because I lived in Central Asia. But I didn't miss any games- except Ball State- that tape was destroyed in transit. My parents, bless their hearts, mailed me each and every game. Then they had to mail me a VCR, yes mail me a VCR, because I discovered Central Asian VHS is a different format than North American format. Go figure. Then they malied me a converter to adapt my 220 V socket to the 110 V VCR. At first I felt badly that they had gone through all that trouble to send them to me, but then my dad called (11 hours difference) to talk to me about the Eastern Michigan game - Eastern for pity's sake - 5 weeks after it happened and I knew it meant just as much to them to send them as it did to me to receive them. We talked about every game 4-6 weeks after it happened, with my parents sworn not to reveal the results of games that hadn't "happened" yet for me.
In Russian fashion I washed down the Year of Infinite Pain with a lot of vodka. Then came 2006. In preparation for the 2006 season I watched the 2005 season in its entirety, twice. I also just happened to have a DVD of the 1986 Fiesta Bowl, which I watched 9 times. (I know, I'm a dork, but we only had 2 DVDs, Zoolander and the 1986 Fiesta Bowl. I watched Zoolander 14 times if that helps your opinion of me.) That season was so awesome, and the Kazakh Postal Service couldn't figure out why I got so many boxes. They thought I didn't like their potatoes so I was getting American potatoes from home. Yes, they asked me that. After half a season of getting games, that's what they decided. Better potatoes. Different worlds, eh? After the Ohio State game I went to the post office every day, sometimes twice. The last 4 games of the season were due to arrive. I wouldn't talk to anyone that had heard anything from the U.S. Fortunately in our village of 3000 on the West Siberian Plain that was relatively easy.
Then the box came. (Actually eventually 3 different people sent me a tape). The post office lady had gotten it into her head that whatever box this was, it was an important one, and she called me at the school I taught at. It was nearly thirty degrees below zero. I ran to the post office from school on my lunch. After school, I hitchhiked the 3 miles home to get there faster. My wife answered our door and said, "It's here, isn't it?"
As I mentioned, there were actually four games on a series of tapes. Ball State had been damaged somehow, I forget exactly what happened, but we watched two of them on a Friday, the Northwestern game and the Indiana game. By the Indiana game they already had that timer box counting down to the OSU game, which was very surreal for me because technically that game had already happened. We got through NW and Indiana. After we watched the Indiana game we knew we would have to wait one more day to watch The Game. It needed its own day. Though it would drive us crazy, we would wait until Saturday. In Kazakhstan Saturday is a work day, and I walked around the next day at school like a zombie whose brain and ass were on fire. I don't know what that means, but our village of Kazakhs certainly never knew what was wrong with me that day.
We made pizza (from scratch) in our toaster oven (it was all we had) and got out the beers we had half-frozen outside and popped in the tape. The VCR made a weird gulping noise and nothing happened. I ejected the tape. Some it stayed in the VCR- I nearly wept. But I got my wife to hold the VCR door open, and with the help of a knife and fork I carefully extracted the tape. I set it upside down on the floor, and opened the tape case with a Swiss Army Knife. With more precision than I have ever possessed, I took out all the minute parts and laid them out exactly as I had taken them out. It turned out the tape was simply twisted. I took out the spools, untwisted the tape, put the spools back in the case, wound it past the twist and put the case back together. It worked! After literally weeks of anticipation the GAME was on. We already knew about Bo, my parents had told us about that earlier without revealing the results of the game. It was still emotional, though, and even Brent Musberger couldn't ruin that part of it. And there we sat (I mostly stood, actually) in a duplex in Central Asia with homemade pizza and Kazakh beer and watched the game two+ weeks after it had happened. At halftime we made more pizza (small toaster oven). Eventually Mike Hart brought us back, and then we lost anyway, and by then, even though we lost, I knew I had just watched one of the greatest Michigan games that would ever be played.
Then after 2007, we beat a Florida team we had no business beating, and Lloyd left, and though I wished him well, I never really knew what that meant. Until now.
For you those moments may be different. It doesn't even really matter what moment it is. Those are just the snapshots that I have frozen in my mind, the moments that made me feel this team. Some of them are obscure. But if you can feel that moment, you know what I'm talking about.
May He Who Illuminated This, Illuminate Me
So there I was, just a few days ago, like Indiana Jones (but not as attractive), holding on to the edge by one glove. And there's the Grail, all those old seasons, and I can reach it. I can almost get it back. And this man in a funny hat and glasses, tells me, "Let it go." And I have to let it all go. All of that history. And he pulls me up.
Give up, you must, that which you fear most to lose.
Bless You Boys
For a lot of us, I'm sure saying 6-6 next year sounds defeatist. I mean, the reason I said we'd lose 4 this year is because I thought we'd have a "down" year. And, if I might make a gentle suggestion, I think that people who are saying 9-3 for next year have not quite let go yet. And I understand. I do, I do! And I understand now, that's it's not something we can reason out. Don't think about it too hard, you can't. You can't because All That is gone forever. That's not necessarily bad, it's just new. But for me it wasn't nearly as much of an intellectual journey as an emotional one. And we have to pass that before we can start thinking about this New Team of ours. For some of you this was easier. My excuse is I cared about past teams so much. I suppose why doesn't matter.
The Greek word "catharsis" in not necessarily a feeling of sadness. It actually refers to a cleasning or purification brought about by some deep emotional climax. It is a cleansing that allows for something new. And I would argue, that as fans, we have experienced so much this year that we cannot go on without it.
So, I think 6-6 is actually optimistic. Because I've let go of all my baggage, and all I have right now is 3-9, and that's weird. But after 3-9, 6-6 doesn't seem so bad, does it? If all you have is 3-9 even 5-7 is ok. So my 6-6 is more optimistic than your 9-3 because I'm ok with it. If you're predicting 9-3, are you really ok with 5-7? To move on, you have to be.
And, just think, this is what we wanted. I loved Carr, but he still gave me ulcers, as anyone else that's stood there yelling at the TV "Throw the damn ball downfield, will you?" will know. And we wanted someone new, a risk taker, a chance taker. And we got it.
I don't really think RR can understand our pain this year, although I do give him credit for trying. And you know what? It doesn't matter, because all of that is gone. And even just the littlest part of me was mad at him for that- and I was wrong. He's not going to really understand, and he's not supposed to. We hired from outside not so we could change him, but so that he could change us. The challenge isn't for him to understand us, the challenge is for us to let go.
No doubt someone, in fact very likely many people, think this all pedantic pointless whiny drivel. I'm quite sure some will laugh, and many will poke fun. But someone out there will have experienced this before me, and perhaps ironically, some of them are Notre Dame fans. But I don't care what you say. I choose to give up that which I feared most to lose.
So, welcome, Rich Rodriguez. I said it before, but I didn't mean it. I didn't even know that I didn't mean it. Welcome, Rich Rodriguez, to the University of Michigan, and I wish you luck with Your Team.
(Before anyone mentions it, I do understand that 4 is not the correct number of deadly sins, nor are any of these except wrath actual deadly sins. Oh, and booing. The Church's position on that is clear. )
WRATH Some people are pretty upset about Toledo, and some people are pretty upset about the people that are pretty upset about Toledo. I think it's way too early to say that RR should get fired like some people are, but can't we be just a little bit mad at him anyway? It's not a stretch at all to say that RR got outcoached in the Toledo game- even in our "rebuilding" state we should have way more talent than a team that isn't even good in the MAC. Anger at RR doesn't necessarily mean he should be fired (he shouldn't), and accepting the loss doesn't mean that we shouldn't be a little steamed up about it. I was mad at Tom Brady when he fumbled, it didn't mean I didn't like him or that I thought he wasn't still a great player. And it didn't mean that it didn't wear off. There is a difference between a passing disappointment at RR for losing to Toledo, a loss which should never, ever happen, and hating him for all time. I'm mad we lost to Toledo, I still think RR will be a good coach. Being mad at a coach you still like is not impossible.
DESPAIR I really don't think we can blame Michigan fans for a small measure of this. We have a bad team, and it is very likely that we have the worst Michigan team since at least 1967. Certainly that is cause for some despair whatever our prospects may be for the future. And since we haven't been so bad for so long, I don't really think it's that weird that fans would be charged up about this. Certainly, however, one can have a fair amount of bad feeling about this season without "giving up forever" or wanting RR's head or aything like that. But being mad that we have the worst team in (at least) 31 years doesn't mean you're a bad fan either. You can still support the team, and watch every minute of every game, like I will, and still be mad about it at the same time, like I will. There is a difference between being mad about it and hating everything for all time. Just a note here: last year I held for dear life to the hope that whatever happened "at least we weren't Notre Dame." I just don't see how we can say that anymore.
BOOING I have read all the People Against Booing at Michigan Stadium comments, and they've convicned me. It's college, we should just Cheer for Our Team and Be Happy About It. One thing that convinces me is the distinction between a college and pro ahlete. Whatever we may say about the underhandedness of some NCAA programs, pro athletes are being paid for their trouble, and so I don't feel at all sorry for them when they get fired, yelled at, booed, whatever. But I do think that college is different and we should just support our school. So I buy the No Booing argument for college. For the pros, though, I just want anyone that is thinking pros should be insulated from booing to think for a moment about Juan Gonzalez. When he came to Detroit he had every excuse in the book for not playing. He didn't even try. He didn't even PRETEND to try. I would boo Juan Gonzalez and never look back no matter where I saw him. I would boo him at RiteAid. If I saw Charles Stewart at RiteAid I would buy him some Gatorade and wish him good luck. I think the crux is that you expect criticism for your JOB, because you are getting paid for it. And when you get paid for something you receive that salary in exhange not only for services, but also for personal comforts and conveniences you may have to forego. No one expects never to be criticized at or about their job, no one expects their job to always be awesome and comfortable. For example, I work for the government, and not a day goes by that we don't get shelled by somebody in the newspaper, on TV, by random weird people outside the building protesting strange things we don't even do (which is really exactly the same as booing, all they do is make noise), or whatever else. Sometimes we deserve it, sometimes we don't. But I deal with it (because really, who cares?) for my paltry salary, so I feel no sympathy for pro athletes and their millions. If getting pulverized by a longhorn is an "occupational hazard" for ranchers, can we really defend pro athletes simply being booed? Somehow people defend Terrell Owens, but when a window washer falls of an 80 story building people say "man, dangerous job." But that's exactly why it doesn't work for college, it's not their job yet, no matter how high profile it may be. As long as we have the distinction between the NCAA and the NFL, then the college kids to me are different. The way I see it, if you are gettng paid for it, it's criticism, if you aren't then it's personal.
I will disagree with myself just long enough to offer one thought that goes against my argument to see what people think about it. In 1997 against Iowa, Tim Dwight returned a punt for a touchdown right before halftime, giving Iowa a solid lead going into the half. A distinctly uncomfortable crowd booed a bit as the team went off at half. But, when they ran back on the field for the 2nd half however, all you heard was cheering- and loud cheering at that. Not a soul grumbled. Maybe I am off base here, but it seemed to me that the rebuke of the crowd followed by "re"affirmation really affected the team. Can a slight rebuke, followed by reaffirmation serve as a reminder? Can a crowd collectively say "you've done badly but we still belive in you?" I think I've already put myself in the no camp (for college) but am curious what others think. I am not suggesting anything so silly as that a team doesn't realize that they are behind at halftime, or that Coach Carr wouldn't have lit into them in the locker room either way. It's not like the crowd is actually reminding the team of anything, but helping to reinforce what the team might know. But sometimes even if you know a situation you need a reminder. It's not like you don't know that your homework is due, but are you more likely to do your homework after your teacher yells at you? I think you are. The teacher isn't yelling at you because you didn't know it was due, the teacher is yelling at you to reinforce to you that you should do it.
HOPELESSNESS I'm getting less and less hopeful about next season. For the moment, I'm going to leave the offense out of it- I understand they're obviously a huge part of that but I think they can't help but be at least a bit better. At least there are some talented players- whether those players become good is of course a matter of question but at least there will be possibilities. What I am concerned about next year is the defense. We will be losing 3 (maybe 4) defensive line starters. This is the strongest unit on the team, and it will be all new people next year. It can't help but be a bit worse, even if it is talented. There is little suggestion our current starting linebackers are getting better, and so far the young linebackers have not forced their way into the lineup. I am very worried that the linebackers will not be any better next year, but it is certainly safe to say that they will not be better enough to make up for the loss of all of those linemen. You have to be good up front to win football games, and we just aren't going to be good up front on D next year. Just based on that alone, I think we have a very mediocre year next year, and even that assumes that other things actually go well.
non-Michigan note: I went to a Navy game recetly, which was cool for a variety of reasons, mostly that the left guard can drive an aircraft carrier, and that instead of championship years they post battlefields on the stadium facade, and that I had 10 seats to myself, but mostly it's the thunder chicken flyover:
Like many fans I am frustrated by the amount we still don't know about this team- and I'm trying to stay optimistic. One thing to note is that we might get bailed out by the schedule this year- or at least as much as one can be "bailed out" and still finish .500- really the question is can we find a win in the next couple of weeks, because the schedule at the end of the year is actually pretty friendly. At the beginning of the year I thought we would lose 4, or 5 if we lost to ND. Now our best might look more like 6-6.
What is difficult is that it's so hard to know what to make of ND. Those who make a lot of our mistakes have us finishing 2-10, others think this was a breakthrough game for the offense and have already chalked up 500 yard masterpieces for the rest of the year. I'm not sure what to think- I do think we have improved, but I also think what really helps is that a lot of our destiny is going to be determined a lot by schedule, and a lot of our opponents are really weak. I think the Michigan State/ Notre Dame game suggests that we have improved somewhat- I expected MSU to pulverize Notre Dame and though they still made mistakes-a-plenty, the Domers were in this one. They are not a good team, but unlike last year they are a real team- I think that means our offensive imrovement can be given some credit.
This week I am hoping we will get a lot more information. We should find out a lot this week when some important macthups take place. One is our linebackers against Wisconsin. Last year this was a disaster, could be even worse this year. Another is Penn State/Illinois. Is either team for real? Purdue plays Notre Dame and Northwestern plays Iowa in what will surely be a ghastly game. I think it's very possible we find out that either Illinois or Penn State isn't that good, and that NW and Purdue are as weak as we thought. I would never say that I want Notre Dame to win, but obviously it's better for our future if Purdue doesn't do well. Maybe they'll win 3-2 or something.
Wisconsin: I don't think it's a stretch to say that Wisconsin is much better than we are. But they sometimes have trouble scoring points. I think probably their linemen on both sides of the ball grind us into dust and this game goes pretty much like last year. Wisconsin's offense is perfectly suited to exploit our light tackling, bad first stepping linebackers. But, in a 13-10 game anybody can win. The good news is that even Wisconsin fans seem to wonder out loud if their real offense looks more like what played against Fresno than what played against Akron. Wisconsin hides it better than most teams but any modern offense with a limited quarterback is going to have a tough time. http://www.badgerbeat.com/news/article/id/304831 All you need is the ball to bounce your way once or twice, maybe our DL plays out of their minds, etc. Still, with our OL against their experienced D, and our LBs against their OL, this has to be a loss, right? I will not gainsay the excellent post by drexel on the Wisconsin D- #92 is Shaughnessy by the way and it looks like he figures to ruin us, which he could just about do single-handedly. We might see a lot of OL butts bumping into ball carriers. One thing: we really shouldn't fall to pieces if we lose to Wisconsin. This was a loss from day one even if we were better than we thought we were, and sure, 1-3 looks like hell but this year the tough parts of the schedule are up front.
Illinois: Just watching the scores this year I thought Illinois was seriously underperforming. Against Missouri they scored a lot of points but were playing from behind. They obviously had a subpar game against UL Lafayette. Defense is an issue for Illinois. Illinois actually gave up a fair number of long drives against ULL, who had two drives stopped by fumbles, missed a field goal, and turned it over once on downs in Illinois territory. Illinois gave up 52 points against Missouri. Obviously Missouri's offense is very good- but, should a good defense EVER give up 52 points? No, not ever. I don't care if it's the first game of the season, a good team does not give up 50 points. I think Illinois has a talented but inconsistent offense that can't throw, and a vulnerable defense. For what it's worth, the Illinois newspapers seem to think the problem is offense and that the D is OK http://www.illinihq.com/news/football/2008/09/14/illini_ready__to_get_to_work- I respectfully disagree about the D, as ULL isn't that good but still had a number of long drives. As of this moment, I think this is a game we can win, but we will find out a lot more this weekend when Illinois plays Penn St. Side note: Ron Zook talking is funny, I like his explanation of bye weeks for mentally exhausted Illini players. http://www.illinihq.com/news/football/2008/09/20/zook_penn_state_is_rolling_now
Toledo: Toledo scares me a little bit because they can put up so many points, like 41 during regulation against Fresno (and 13 in OT), but this is a couple down the road and is still a MAC team. If our game against Miami proves anything, it's that we are still talented enough to play a stinker against MAC opponents and win.
Penn St: Has pulverized four absolutely hopeless opponents, including Temple without their starting quarterback. Still, they really beat the living hell out of them. We will learn a lot this week when they play Illinois, but this is a road game and I just can't see it. if Penn St. rushes for 300 yards and beats Illinois 31-3, then ok. Even without that, this is another team that is really due to beat us and really needs to take advantage of the opportunity. At that point this is probably a game that they would really need to win but that we would be expected to lose. That shouldn't matter, but it does, and this has to be a loss. One note: Penn State's defensive players are getting themselves suspended for different lengths of time at a fantastic rate.
MSU: This game is totally unpredictable, and the ability of State to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory is amazing. But just on paper, I see State doing what Wisconsin would do- no way our linebackers are up to the challenge of a big line plus Ringer. Still, Heuer is weak and they're State. I'm still calling this an L for now, as our linebackers are about the weakest position we have after safety.
Purdue: I'm not very impressed by Purdue at all. They give up a lot of points. Central Michigan got 440 yards and scored late in the 4th quarter. A loss to Oregon, who just got beat by Boise St. (at home, can't blame on blue turf) is looking less forgiveable. Tiller is tired and cranky. I still don't see that Purdue has overcome the deficiencies that caused them to fail last year. Purdue still turns the ball over and quarterbacking is still an issue. In fact Painter was "one series" away from getting yanked last week. That can't be good. http://boilerstation.jconline.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20080922/SPORTS020101/809220326&referrer=FRONTPAGECAROUSEL
I think this is a W.
Minnesota: A lot better than they were, which is saying they aren't the worst team in the universe. They beat 4 weak teams but gave up 356 yards against a really weak Montana State team. They're still no good, this is a win.
Northwestern just beat 0-3 (now 0-4) Ohio 16-8 in what I'm fairly comfortable saying was an awful game. Ok, Ohio has lost 4 close ones but still, they were a very average 4-4 in the MAC last year. Like Minnesota they've showed some growth. Hey, they beat Duke this year. Still though, there is a dearth of talent and a defense that's not much good this has to be a win too.
OSU: Looks a lot weaker than we thought. Not enough weaker. On the road, we will lose.
The 3 or 4 still = 4 formula or "You ARE freaking out, MAN."
I can't belive so many people are tired of speculation about the upcoming season. It's the most exciting (and UNKNOWN) start of a season in quite some time. Besides, what do you people do at work? If the answer is "not speculate about sports" then what is it you do for a living that's so fascinating?
Anyway, I will be honest, I have been freaking out (man), but in an attempt not to I thought back to a formula that my family has been using to calculate Michigan wins for a while, and actually under Lloyd Carr (and actually for Bo too, come to that), it was fairly accurate, except for the last couple of years, but those were very up and down and unpredictable, and even had names like the Year of Infinite Pain. You can't predict a year with infinite pain.
The formula is the 3 or 4 still = 4 formula, and requires the steadfast refusal to listen to all the if's and a refusal to listen to a lot of analysis- or the discipline to discount it. The theory is that in college football, tradition is still very important, and except when Charlie LLLLLLLLWLWWeis is ruining it, teams are really surprisingly consistent despite other factors. In this theory tradition wins out, and what usually happens will happen again.
So now I am wondering out loud if things will really change this year, or if a different system will yield really similar results? We will see, and to do it I will introduce the formula. To use this, the analysis is REALLY simple. Is the team:
quite good? Give it a 1/2 (still equals 2)
pretty good, a 2/3 (still equals 3)
good, but a little disappointing for Michigan: 3/4 (still equals 4)
That's all the analysis that's required, and these are the ONLY choices. What the numbers say is this: If we win the lower number, we will be overrated and lose our bowl game, giving us the higher number of losses anyway. If we lose the higher number we will be mad, get a worse bowl opponent and beat them, keeping the number of losses the same. Like I said, the last few years were weird, but take 2004, Chad Henne's freshman year. This was probably a "pretty good" team. During the season they only lost twice- maybe playing just a hair above themselves. But they lost (albeit by a hair) to a good Texas team to get 3 losses. If that team had lost 3 regular season games, though, I submit that we probably would have won that bowl game. Hence 2 or 3 still equals three. The reasoning behind only 3 choices is also simple- the vast majority of our seasons have had 2, 3, or 4 losses, and so that's where we start.
This analysis obviously sacrifices something up front: you can't predict years that are weird (and this admittedly could be one, by the way). It is a system that admittedly aims to be only USUALLY right. It wouldn't have predicted the national championship year, it wouldn't have seen last year's injuries. But I would argue that those circumstances are usually unpredicatable anyway: if you HAD known about the circumstances, how would you have predicted least year? Knowing Not full-strength Chad Henne and remembering that we had lost 3 defensive superstars, you might have said this team was only "good", so 3/4 still equals 4, and you'd have been right. Ok, so a LOT of circumstances come out in the wash, but remember we take for granted a lack of Henne. You say 4 losses and we win the bowl game. We shouldn't have beat Florida, true, but we also shouldn't have lost in The Horror, so like I said, it comes out in the wash sooner or later. If that team had only lost 3, and we had had to play "up" a game then we almost certainly lose to Tennessee or USC. It's one of those things- if you try to pick MOST of the games and seasons right you can, but somehow if you try to pick them all you get more wrong, just like the NCAA basketball tournament bracket where you thought about it for a long time and then all of a sudden you have too many 12 seeds winning games. Your five minute bracket was a lot better. This is the same principle. Think about it this way: who is more right, the person who says the Lions will not go to the playoffs ever, or the person who tries to pick the year they get there? It's the former, of course.
This analysis is strong in its simplicity and its ability to either ignore factors that will be inconsequantial or combine with other factors to cancel out. Football analysis is hard, and it's fun, and I love it, but really, I think we tend to overthink it. In almost any given year Michigan will be good, Indiana will suck, and Michigan State will blow it at some point. This analysis is true for like 95% of the college football seasons ever. Like I said, the great thing about this system is it makes up for things coming out in the wash. Let's take 2003. I actually argued at the time that despite all the seniors this team was only "pretty good" because I didn't quite trust the defense or John Navarre. And our competition that year was quite good- I think that people would have said that losing two out of three to Notre Dame, Michigan State, and OSU was totally possible. Well, actually we won all of those games, but then crapped out at Oregon and Iowa. Still though, the 2/3 formula was right as we lost to a better USC team. I think if that's a 3 loss team during the season that they tear up the Capital One Bowl to stay with 3 losses.
If you want to get a little more complex and you want to be able to predict an undefeated (or 5 loss) season then you can add a season modifier: +1 for a good chance something horrible happens, -1 something wonderful happens. But it's hard to quantify that, so I don't usually.
So even though my natural tendency is to freak out and say we have new (or even no) QBs, and a crappy OL, and that we will all be put to the sword, and the stadium will burn with red flame, and we will lose every game, the formula suggests only 4 losses. (And to imagine a day when we said "only 4", but that's just me yearning for Bo again...) Anyway, the 4 losses- this year we have to be a 3/4, not better, and I'd even say there is the potential +1 for something horrible (Notre Dame plays one good game this season). My prediction is we lose 4 during the regular season (Utah, MSU OR ILL, PSU OR WISC, OSU), get forgotten about, and pulverize someone in a crappy bowl, like the Aloha Bowl or something. But I think surely if we somehow lose only 3, which would be very (VERY) good result I think, in a bowl game we have to play some team from the SEC east that is almost certianly overrated, but also almost certainly better than us. So four losses either way.
Now, sometimes you have to listen to the analysis. Sometimes everything is not business as usual- sometimes you can't just have your head in the clouds and wish something away. I hope that's not this year, because when I sit down and do the analysis and think that with no QBs, no OL, and no LBs we suck suck suck. So I sit down and try to trust the formula. Still, we all know what happens with willful ignorance- "Rodents of unusual size? I don't think they exist..."
For those of you who keep up with the constant media buzz out of Michigan camp, it seems like the QB competition this fall is close:
Yes, I know that last one is about running backs. Keep in mind for later.
Rodriguez says this about the QBs...
Could that be taken to mean the Wolverines will go with two quarterbacks?
"Oh, I don't know," Rodriguez said. "I mean, I know. I'm just not ready to tell you."
And, from QBs coach Smith:
"We're interested in wins and losses," Smith said. "If it takes two, it takes two. If it takes five, it takes five." [Empahsis mine.]
First, is it too early to panic about the QBs? And does this mean Threet is no good? And how many QBs will Michigan use? What is it that RR knows that he won't tell us?
In my opinion the answers are, no- go ahead and panic (but see below), yes (at least for now), at least 4, and he won't tell us that basically, "we haven't got one." No offense to Sheridan, but if a supposedly good recruit in Threat is not clearly better than someone from Saline then he is currently not impressing anyone. I know that so far Justin Feagan has been no good in practice, but mark my words he will play, even if it's only that he learns 3 plays by heart and does only those. (Waggle, anyone? Ok, probably not.)
So, when RR names the starter in a few days (he says he will in a few more practices), it's not going to matter one bit who it is. At least it won't now.
So minor injuries aside (hopefully), I take the 3rd article above as more or less proof that Carlos Brown will be playing "quarterback" a lot, and that position is going to require quotation marks this season. If CB plays "QB", we will require more running backs, and the new guys are good, so they get to play. That is not a huge surprise since Brown has lined up as QB in practice and everyone has seen him doing it. However, everyone seems to be focusing on Threet and Sheridan- but aren't we missing something?
It's hard to tell what to make of Michigan's new information-Rich environment, but I think the conslusion here is that the QB "race" between our two "throwers" isn't actually that important- I mean it's important in that we aren't going to have a really good QB this year, but now that neither of them are that special, it's not that important WHICH of the "throwers" plays.
We were deperately hoping that Threet could be the guy. He was rated coming out of Adrian, and at least had been in school a year. But he's not that guy. If he was, we'd know. If he was any good at all, no other QB would see the light of day. Whatever RR disinformation you might believe in, Threet having a tough time so far is not disinformation. Now that he's not THE guy:
1. We are going to run all the time. Last year WVU ran about 70% of the time. This year we will approach 80%. I think RR was prepared for this, even lining up Carlos Brown in the spring. We were going to run a lot anyway, now we're going to run more. Since the emphasis will be on "running", I think the plan is simply to play more "runners" and less "throwers" at QB. I bet you see some zero QB sets this year. The "throwing" we will do will be all short throws- bubbles and misdirections to pint-sized receivers.
2. The backfield sets will include no less than a billion crazy sets in which we have lots of different running backs running, running backs (Carlos Brown) playing "QB", and electron wide outs running on misdirection plays. This is a simple calculation, our RBs are so much better than our QBs that we will simply choose one position over the other since we are going to run a lot anyway.
3. The hope is that Justin Feagan will play more and more as the year goes on. At the moment this doesn't seem really super likely but don't think he won't get the chance against MAC teams like Toledo and Notre Dame (zing!).
4. I would start to be concerned about the OL at this point, because the offensive season is in their hands now, and news is not encouraging. Now that we know the QBs aren't super good, the OL is the biggest X factor left- and with inuries it's becoming more X by the day. We are moving DLs to OL- alarm bells are ringing.
5. No, we are not going to consider the possibility that Sheridan becomes a good and able starting quarterback. I'll go ahead and hope that I'm wrong to dismiss that possibility, but I'm not.
So, what's the point? The point is that this was the likely scenario all along, and RR was prepared for that. It's too bad that it's true, but it is, and it's not a surprise. So, should we be worried about the quarterback? Capital Y-E-S. But keep in mind Threet being awesome wasn't the planned scenario, we just had kind of hoped that it would all work out Somehow. Now that the situation we had kind of been hoping for in the back of our minds has not come true, we shouldn't be any more worried than we were last fall, or than we were this spring. I think it's unlikely that any of the quarterbacks from this year plays extensively next year, with a double asterisk for Feagan (* suddenly becoming awesome, less likely, ** switching positions, more likely), and by the time October 2009 comes around we'll never see them again. But really, if you think about it, that was the hope anyway.
I keep reading about how new RR's offense is, and this is true, but really only kind of. Actually, it is more football coming full circle as defenses adjust their personnel to "new" offenses. Another thing people tend to say is that it is these inventive (sometimes even called "gimmick") offenses are creating more parity in college football. Well, of course they are. But it's not because they're new at all- and it is not the technique itself that creates parity- it's simply a change in strategy. It's because clever coaches are reinventing old techniques. The spread option itself does not create parity any more than the West Coast, or the power option. It's the change in strategy that creates parity, or indeed, if a good team stays ahead of the curve, hegemony. If in 1986, you had said you thought the "next big thing" would be Pop Warner, I think there's a chance that people would have given you a funny look and said that you were wrong. Any technique used well creates parity- that's what it's for. It's not exactly a new thing for smaller underdog teams to develop a new strategy or reinvent an old one to give them an advantage. That is what RR is doing. People probably think that the power option that Bo ran will never be "the next big thing" again. That is wrong. It is wrong as surely as Pop Warner is alive and well again.
In the early part of the century, Pop Warner popularized what was called the Carlisle, or single wing offense.
Helpful wikipedia refresher article:
I think anyone studying this will be surprised how similar it is to the read option of RR. The qb doesn't block as much in the modern game, but many of the runs and formations AND READS are surprisingly similar. Don't the diagrams in the wikipedia article look surprisingly familiar? This works well with talented athletic players- Jim Thorpe, and more recently Slaton and White. It's not even really true that the modern read option necessarily throws much more. (remember when Pat WHite had to pass against Pittsburgh? It was worse than watching Bo's teams throw.) A popular misconception is that "old" offenses didn't throw much, which is sort of incorrect- Bo' s offenses didn't throw much (or at least not often). Jim Thorpe was prolific with the "forward pass" and it wasn't until later that less "creative" power offenses became popular. The beauty of the spread, as Rodriguez has already shown with Shaun King and Pat White, is that it is versatile and can accomodate a wide variety of skilled player- and it's not necessarily only for running the ball. So why was it "abandoned"?
Simply, defenses adapted. And coaches began to look for a new way to get past them. They developed the T (full house) and later the power option. The versatile defenses that adapted to combat the single wing were vulnerable to getting the hell pounded out of them. Large backs became more useful to run over linebackers good at pursuing the wing. Eventually, that's Bo and Woody. They actually threw less than previously- it wasn't that no one knew how to pass, it's simply that the new offense was less dependent on it. The passes that they did throw were deep, meant to punish defenses that came too close. Go back and watch a Bo game from the late 1970's or early 80's, you'll be surprised how often they go deep- much more than Lloyd Carr did. What they hated was the medium passing game- it just didn't accomplish their objectives.
Defenses adapted again. They developed big tackles to occupy blockers, and big blot-out-the sun linebackers that could better take on linemen and fullbacks and stop the run. Fast ends were for pass rushing and holding the outside, and safeties were for run support. This system used fast corners to cover the pass, but the linebackers, especially inside backers, weren't invlolved much in pass coverage, and even the safeties mostly just had deep responsibilities. This is the now-dreaded read and react, which was actually a good defense- just not against medium passing offenses that were already in place by the time my generation saw it.
The solution to that, as mentioned, and we discovered in the 80's and 90's, was the intermediate passing game, manifesting itself in a number of variations, including the "West Coast" and eventually what Carr adopted- a "pro style" offense that relied heavily on medium passing. It's not an accident that Carr's quarterbacks had so many more attempts than Bo's- but a much lower average-per-completion rate and -not surprisingly- not that many more touchdowns, since Bo was always going for a touchdown when he threw. A Bo quarterback would go 6 for 13 with 180 yards and two scores. A Lloyd one might get the same but take 25 attempts to get there, and complete a much higher percentage of passes along the way. These new offenses tried to isolate players vulnerable from the power option system. They used pass catching backs and athletic tight ends to isolate big clunky linebackers, and long middle routes to isolate safeties that were to slow or not very adaptive. Routes had more eligible receivers to isolate slower players.
Defenses responded to that in a couple of ways. One was the Tampa Two and its derivatives. Safeties and linebackers have much more pass responsibility. Middle linebackers were smaller and faster to be able to do well in pass coverage, even downfield. Tackles are much more dynamic and are expected to be active in the pass rush. The read and react defenses became pressure and pursuit defenses. Well, of course there's a way to repond to a pressure and pursuit defense. Safeties became linebackers, linebackers became defensive ends, and they all ran real fast.
One is to take advatage of its smaller size and run right at it, a la the team from Columbus, and also Wisconsin, which still are successful despite having very "conservative" offenses. They are using a superior running game to control the ball and come right at the more pursuit oriented linebackers. Another way is of course misdirection. The read option misdirects or avoids the active pursuing defense. So this isn't really new- it's a rediscovery of older tactics to combat modern defenses. It's really coming full circle. Actually, it's Carr's offense that was willing to throw to backs (Bo notoriously hated screens) and to the tight end that was different from "Michigan football". It just appears to have been the same because 1. Carr still preferred to run when he could and 2. his offense was still "conservative" compared to other offenses of the time. But his offense really wasn't much like Bo's anymore. RR is actually going back (WAY back, to even before Bo) to the good old days of the wing. He has wing players. His pint-sized athletic receivers are perfect for the wing- they're extra backs, they catch short passes and they're really fast. But they're not going to go deep much, but that's not exactly the point.
So, actually, RR is a conservative revolution. He's not ending the days of Bo, he's going back to before Bo.
Eventually, in the future, the pursuit defense will settle down a bit to cope with the read offense. And when it does, mark my words, somebody is going to re-invent the power option or the T. And everyone will talk about how revolutionary it is. And it will be- to some extent. It will be another conservative revolution, just like this one.