I did not make this headline up
This week, I decided on a short diary outlining the probability of various scenarios in remaining games using the estimated probabilities provided at Massy Ratings. As you know, there are six games left, so there are sixty-four possible outcomes for the remainder of the season at present.
What that means, of course, is that looked at individually, many scenarios have similar chances of happening, but there are a few that stand out as more likely than others, although again none are good bets at this particular point. As for ones that currently stand out (if you can call it this – I wouldn’t):
1) 2-4, with the wins coming against Northwestern and Rutgers – 9.805%
2) 1-5, with the sole win being Rutgers – 8.695%
3) 3-3, beating MSU, Northwestern and Rutgers – 7.397%
4) 2-4, with wins against MSU and Rutgers – 6.559%
Conversely, there are some which are seemingly in statistical dreamland:
1) 4-2, with the losses being Northwestern and Rutgers – 0.060%
2) 5-1, with the sole loss being Rutgers – 0.068%
3) 3-3, with wins against Illinois, Ohio St. and Maryland – 0.080%
4) 4-2, with losses to Michigan St. and Rutgers – 0.090%
As you might have guessed, the opposite of the most likely scenarios are in fact the least likely in this case. Is this cumulative probabilities based on remaining wins:
Yes, at present it is more likely based on these numbers that we run the table than only losing to Rutgers down the stretch. One thing that came up, however, when I did one or two such diaries for football is that there is an assumption here that the outcomes are independent, and that’s for ease of calculation here, although Massey’s model does account for the interconnected nature of the season somewhat, as I recall.
So, looking ahead and pretending we beat Illinois – the picture would change only slightly. We would still would stand a decent excellent chance of going 3-2 or 2-3 in the remaining five games, ignoring changes to other teams’ numbers just for ease for a second. The individual scenarios above would see their relative likelihoods increase, but it would be approximately the same top and bottom four (some slight alterations allowing for eliminated scenarios), barring other changes.
NSD is over and it's basketball season, so of course I'm going to post a very belated and unprofessional football "analysis". But hey, the basketball team is rebuilding and spring practice is still weeks away so here goes.
I pored over Seth's "Run Fits" column partly because of the Harbaugh hype and partly because I wanted -- confession of selfishness here -- vindication of my indictment of Borges. If I'm right in comparing Borges' "27 for 27" to Black Adder's portrayal of Field Marshal Haig (clip since taken down), then Harbaugh should be the opposite, MANBAUGH be damned. I definitely enjoyed the read and agree with every bit of Seth's analysis, but I kind of saw things a bit differently. Harbaugh has this reputation for being an XXXTREME MANBALL coach, and the reason is far from inexplicable. Just a glance at his formations screams old-school, smash-mouth, 3-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust SPARTAAAA:
Thing is, these offenses are notorious for being predictable in an era of S&C parity. So why does it work? Granted you can just re-read Seth's tactical breakdown, but I wanted to examine this offense from a more strategic perspective, so I took another look at Stanford's 2011 Orange Bowl. First, the opening five drives:
Naked bootleg LEFT* for 11 yards
Tailback flat route for 6 yards
I-form run stuffed behind LoS
I-form pass blitzed, Luck rolls right and turfs it
I-form play-action blown up, Luck runs OOB
I-form quick pass to TE complete for 6
Pistol, go route caught OOB
Fake punt stuffed
I-form run left for 4
Pistol PA screen pass for 1
Pistol, out route + YAC for 20
I-form DOOM** left for 60-yard TD.
I-form run stuffed
I-form run left stuffed
1-back under center pass derped, safety
I-form run left for 5
I-form run right for 3
1-back under center pass to TE for 4
I-form off-tackle DOOM left for 26
I-form off-tackle left for 4
Wildcat right stuffed
Pistol 4-wide, 25-yard pass TD to TE
*Luck is right-handed, so I think VT was caught flat-footed.
**Seth explain this in detail but it's so much fun I'll say it again: Stanford shifted into an unbalanced formation, motioned the TE and then pulled the RG, launching well over a half ton of meat at VT's back seven.
Here's the rub: A stereotypical "MANBALL" team with a right-handed QB typically has a run-blocking RT and pass-blocking LT, sending the TE, FB, RB and a puller to the right side of the formation to create a meat avalanche. Stanford handed off three times in the first three drives, and while they were technically strongside runs, none of them went right. How is this an "XXXTREME MANBALL" team? The answer is, it isn't. Hoke is MANBALL. DeBord is MANBALL. This is what I refer to as SunTzuBall:
"Hence that general is skillful in attack whose opponent does not know what to defend."
I'm not a coach, but if I was one, this would be my philosophy. Don't settle for predictable. Don't even take what the defense gives you. Make them think, "Ogod I don't know what's coming." (Edit: Got a bit flippant here.) Every OC says they want that, but some are better at poker than others.
This was NOT a bunch of brutes mindlessly slamming into each other, or even coached to "execute" mindlessly slamming into each other. Harbaugh's offense looks like MANBALL but is actually balanced. I don't think Harbaugh does anything to dissuade the perception; he wants people to think they're cavemen. His assistants will blather on about being a "physical" team and show that I-form heavy all day until your safeties are 6 yards off the LoS, but he's not going to give you what you want. If he runs the ball 10 straight times, it's not because he's willing it to work; it's because you're doing the damage to yourself:
"For should the enemy strengthen his van, he will weaken his rear; should he strengthen his rear, he will weaken his van; should he strengthen his left, he will weaken his right; should he strengthen his right, he will weaken his left."
The keys here are misdirection and mismatches. Borges tried to create misdirection but was downright infantile at it; Nuss used constraints but didn't exploit mismatches. In modern offenses overall, the "spread" is such a generic term that it hardly means anything anymore, but to pick on one aspect, the slotback is a mismatch against linebackers and safeties. It's tough for defenders who bulk up against the run to keep pace with a shifty slotbug in space. Combined with the zone read and the O-line splits, the essence of a spread is that heavy guys aren't quick. As Seth points out, MANBALL is the opposite: multiple TEs and a FB put the secondary in a bind because the defense doesn't have enough meat to go around. The defense compensates with speed, getting to the point of attack before the play can develop, but this means they have to act fast and make decisions faster. That's easy when the OC kindly gives you what you want, but MANBAUGH is none of that nonsense.
Here's Some Rope, Now Hang Yourself
With that in mind, let's look at a particular play in the second half of the Orange Bowl (jump to 1:33:38). Up 19-12 late in the 3rd quarter, Stanford is pinned on their own 3-yard line and shows their classic I-form. Unlike in the first half, the TE motions to the right side. The situation calls for a conservative play and the formation is MANBALL to end all MANBALL. VT's defense had been torched several times, but also scored on a safety and otherwise kept Stanford in check. So they're wary of strongside runs, but they're not scared of Stanford imposing their will, toughness, physicality, blah blah blah any of that stupid crap we've heard for the last four years. Nope, they're champing at the bit to swarm whatever gap that FB is going. Marecic is going to eat helmet. The ghost of the still-living Borges is blushing with pride. Only problem?
It's the wrong read. In the mic'd up clip at 1:21, Harbaugh's yelling "backdoor". Harbaugh knows VT is overplaying (also mentioned in MGoPodcast 6.15, 9:00-11:00), but I don't think Taylor is even reading this -- they're deliberately running a bait-and-switch. On the snap, the FB runs strongside and VT follows. Marecic is working his way outside and can't find a gap. Even the RB's track is initially to the right, but (I think) this is a feint because after the mesh he immediately cuts around Luck -- no bounce -- and past the edge blocker (LT?) who casually escorts his defender into the mosh pit to create a gap even the legendary Yoh Momma could fit through:
The result is a 56-yard run. The next play Stanford again shows a heavy formation, then tosses the first of three long TD passes to the TE. VT does not have enough defenders to stop everything Stanford's throwing at them, and it's game over.
"If he sends reinforcements everywhere, he will everywhere be weak. Numerical weakness comes from having to prepare against possible attacks; numerical strength, from compelling our adversary to make these preparations against us."
Space Coyote will probably be the first to point out that fundamentally, these are all plays available to a conventional "pro-style" offense, and I don't dispute that. The killshot was just a backdoor cut. We can also digress into an argument about execution, and I do have my thoughts on that as well (might post them later). But to stay on point, I don't consider Harbaugh's plays "exotic". The ball still goes in any direction available to a venerable pro-style offense. The important aspect is that, contrary to his MANBALL reputation, he doesn't "impose his will" or use some plays only as constraints to "keep defenses honest", but do him a favor and go right on telling people that. His strategy is physically less stubborn and mentally more vicious. He doesn't pound his head against brick walls or even take what you give him. He gets inside your nightmares, and if MANBALL is your bogeyman then he'll happily wear that mask.
Jamie Moyer is a retired MLB pitcher who reignited his career in his mid-30s by inverting his approach. A formerly washed-up power pitcher, his repertoire wasn't different from his peers -- fastball, curve, changeup. But whereas most "power" pitchers try to blow by hitters with a fastball to set up off-speed "out" pitches, Moyer realized he was terrible at that. So used his changeup to set up his fastball en route to sub-4 ERAs in 7 of 8 of the most home-run happy seasons in MLB history, culminating with a 3.27 ERA and 21-7 record in 2003. That is an elite season, and he did it in the boomstick American League, and he did it at age 40 with an 85mph fastball.
As I've said here and there, "3 yards and a cloud of dust" was not a conservative offense; it was an aggressive approach during a bygone era based on the premise that overwhelming talent can turn a predictable run into a sure thing. There was no need to do anything else. Today, it's the "washed up" power pitcher. Except in rare cases, you can't get away with it. You can't dare everyone with fastballs down the middle any more than you can run into a stacked box over and over again. Stanford didn't. They didn't overpower anyone with their roster of 2- and 3-star recruits. It's not imposing will, toughness, blah blah. Their "MANBALL" was the football equivalent of an 85mph heater thrown from a 40-year-old arm with veteran sagacity and exquisite precision. Harbaugh is the Jamie Moyer of the pro-style offense. That fastball may be 85mph, but you won't be able to hit it because he's smarter than you.
With the hiring today of "Mama" it seems the potential exists for 5th year senior Stanford DB Wayne Lyons to be headed to A2. Until today I was trying to figure out why a (mostly) starter for a very good defense, at a great academic institution, with great weather, in a good conference, playing for a staff who develops defensive players well - would uproot his life for 1 year, but it now makes sense.
Anyhow here is a little I unearthed. Unlike Michigan football, Stanford football is not rich with blogs and website covering every little breath so it was not easy to find too much. RuleofTree - their SBNation blog - which I found a lot of good info on their prior coaches, and Kevin Hogan is my main source of all things Lyons ... and even then there were basically 2 stories remotely related to him this fall
Also I only cared about what I could find the past 2 years - what he was ranked in HS means absolutely zilch. (He was the 6th best rated S if that matters to you) I do hope S.C./Magnus can look at his film and offer their own scouting reports. There is not much (positive) on his NFL prospects in terms of scouting but that is a harsh bar, and again the # of sources is limited - whereas I could find 15 opinions on Blake Countess quite quickly.
Stanford bio here. 6'1, 193 lbs.
Best as I could tell working backwards is Stanford had a first year DB coach this year and Lyons - despite starting in 2013 - was not a top line starter. While a competent player he sounded like a starter by default perhaps paralling to a guy like Raymon Taylor. A decent college player but one apt to make mistakes and who has holes in his game.
His 2013 to 2014 journey actually sounds a lot like James Ross III if we ignore the position. Ross I believe was the 2nd leading tackler in 2013 (Lyons was the 5th in 2013 for Stanford), and saw his playing time eradicated quite badly, partly due to formations that focused more on nickelback rather than 3 LB sets and partly due to (????). Lyons had a similar falloff in that he was a part time starter - 7 games started as a senior. A blurb from ROT blog writer Jack Blanchat:
....his college career thus far has been more average than stellar. If this is indeed Lyons' final year at Stanford, perhaps he is looking for a starting opportunity after being forced to split time at cornerback this fall. Under first-year defensive backs coach Duane Akina, Lyons appeared to grow as a player, but some costly lapses may have forced Akina to restrict his playing time.
Blanchat was a bit more kind in his end of year wrapup of Stanford football writing in December:
Alex Carter was fantastic, Wayne Lyons finally took a leap, and Jordan Richards was great against the pass and the run. The only weak spot from time to time was Zach Hoffpaiur, who has never been particularly natural in coverage. (But he was good at stopping the run as a nickel corner.) I think Duane Akina proved to be an asset to the Stanford coaching staff right away, and I think the added physicality from this unit was attributable to his coaching philosophy. The fact that he finally got Wayne Lyons to break through his plateau was most impressive to me.
So the positive is Lyons seemed to make some progress from a plateau. The negative is the writer seemed amazed by it. And even with that progress he was still forced to split time.
One other thing to keep in mind was the other CB in Stanford's system was Alex Carter who apparently is good enough to declare early for the draft as he has. So it seems Lyons (or other CB on field that Lyons lost playing time to) would be the target of opposing QBs). But other than that Lyons was surrounded by a lot of talent - while Stanford fell off record wise their ills were mainly on the offensive side of the ball. So he has no excuse of playing in a weak defense and not getting help.
I am going to put 2 scouting reports to end this and again keep in mind these are just individual opinions, and 1 is very scathing but to each their own - again I hope Magnus and S.C. can come and offer their views, not that we want to sugarcoat his abilities but the more views on him the more of a complete picture we get.
First, Walter Football with an updated view of him in 2015 v last year:
2/7/15: Lyons had 30 tackles with three passes broken up and zero interceptions in 2014. He didn't impress against USC and struggled versus Notre Dame. Teams generally targeted Lyons instead of throwing at Alex Carter.
5/30/14: Lyons has good size and strength on the edge while also being a special teams contributor. The junior totaled 69 tackles with two passes broken up and an interception in 2013. To rise in the rankings as a senior, Lyons needs to show the speed and athleticism to cover speed receivers. He was beaten too often last year and allowed too much separation.
Second... and again this a random Lions blog from last July... but it doesn't sound too different than Walterfootball - just more detailed...
At 6’1” 195, Wayne Lyons has size on his side as a cornerback prospect. Stanford utilized him exclusively on the right side, rotating out with senior Barry Browning last year. Lyons is entering his second season as a starter in 2014. His first did not go as planned.
Lyons was often picked on when receivers could expose his poor athleticism and technique. The Michigan State game is the prime example. Lyons’ hips are too stiff in transition. His footwork is sloppy in and out of his backpedal as well. Receivers who can quickly enter his comfort zone can get him spinning in circles and gain big separation out of breaks. He will then extend his cushion to inappropriate lengths to make up for it.
Though he has two interceptions a season ago, both against Notre Dame, Lyons doesn’t have great ball skills and isn’t often in position to play the ball in the first place. That means his size doesn’t become a benefit enough. Getting physical with receivers is the equalizer for him as with most technically challenged cornerbacks.
For Lyons to become a viable prospect at all, he must stop stumbling around the field in coverage, make his backpedal and leveraging more consistent, and tighten his space with receivers. He’s a senior prospect who still needs to master the basics.
So that's what we have - sounds like a guy who had a new coach come in last year, helped improve his game at least modestly but even with that was losing starting time to other guys. And his running mate in the CB backfield left early for the NFL. So these things also make sense as to why he would leave Stanford in his 5th year, other than Mama coming home.
Projected role on UM: With Lewis locked down at 1 corner, and Peppers apparently moving to S there is a vacancy at the other CB. Lyons sounds a lot like a taller Raymon Taylor - he is serviceable and a good 1 year stop gap which hopefully Stribling can push hard in his 3rd year and RS FR Brandon Watson can also push. (Some might say Blake will be the other corner - could very well be - but I'd rather just see him be the nickel). The defensive coaching at Stanford is generally very good so would not expect some quantum leap due to subpar coaching.
The past week has been quite a whirlwind in relation to Karan Higdon. It started however, nearly 2 years ago with a brief conversation with Coach Singletary. I told him about Karan and how he'd be one to watch more or less. I sent a few emails regarding his recruiting profile that seemed to be lost in the shuffle. At that time Derrick Green was being recruited and Hoke was on a tear. After a few months I took the lack of response as them not wanting to recruit Karan. By that juncture several middle level SEC offers were starting to roll in and in the coming months Karan's offer sheet grew to be fairly formidable. Karan even collected an offer from South Carolina, which was a school with many family ties and one he really loved growing up. There didnt seem to be a connection however with his recruitment there for whatever reason.
In-state schools like FSU and Florida began to show genuine interest and Karan began to do well on the camp circuit. FSU was very close to offering this time last year. A log jam at the 5ft10 190lb back position was the reason why he was not offered at FSU. They simply needed bigger framed backs to compliment what was already on the roster. Karan committed to USF initially in an effort to stay home as he is the central figure in his family and viewed as a sort of pillar. Staying close to home allowed him to be close with his mother and younger brothers amongst other things. It became apparent quickly that he was going to simply be bigger than USF.
Iowa entered the picture and did everything right. Coach Chris White and Kirk Ferentz were first rate the whole way through. In fact Chris, stayed through the heat of a pair of our practices and watched Karan. That is not usual practice as most coaches don't hang around August and September practices in our 90+ degree weather. Karan would take an official to Iowa and fell in love with the blue collar style and the people. Everything with Iowa was genuine. Karan virtually shut down his recruitment at that juncture. He had interest from many bigger schools but offers from Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, USF, Arizona, Duke, South Carolina and of course Iowa. Karan was content with Iowa and just turned his focus on doing everything to help our team win games. We were struggling a bit and Karan was battling with being in a situation where he felt like he cared more than many others on the team.
Through the last month of the season Karan began to really dominate posting several 200 yard games including a 260 yard performance against our hated rival Sarasota High.http://youtu.be/2UKQSs4KC3U Karan actually had 150 yards worth of runs called back due to holding calls that I still feel were awful and would have broken our school record with over 400 yards. All water under the bridge, as we wound up winning 33-7. At this point Notre Dame and Florida began to creep back into the picture. Duke was attending games and really making Karan their number 1 priority. Throughout December and January the attention from Notre Dame and Florida really picked up. Notre Dame especially. They wound up offering over the phone and Karan didn't feel the connection with the RB coach. I told him that ND was certainly worth thinking about but at that juncture Iowa seemed like a really good fit and opportunity to play right away. http://youtu.be/FhoSMHYpqfo I remained very pro-Iowa as I envisioned Karan being a great fit for the B1G in general. The B1G has produced so many great backs and the linemen are simply top notch.
This all brings us to last week. In addition to coaching the defensive backs with my coaching mentor Jim Anderson, I also coach JV basketball with Coach Fro at Riverview and Karan's younger brother Kavon happens to be our backup point guard. After a tough loss to North Port, Karan came up to my truck as I was preparing to pull out. It was unprompted but not out of the ordinary as he and I have developed a truly unique relationship over the years. He is everything that you could hope for as a young coach and the type of kid and athlete you would want your son to grow up and be like. A star that isn't afraid to share his shine with others. We shared a joke or two and I asked him how he felt with his recruitment and if he was still solid as I figured he was. He gave me a look and sort of let out a breath through his teeth. I could tell that his head was swimming a bit and the pressure of signing his life away was beginning to mount. I told him that Iowa was a great school and that he was in good shape. He then began to tell me that Florida and Notre Dame were still in pursuit and that it was making him think a bit about his recruitment.
Upon Hearing about ND and UF still in the picture, I simply asked him, if he would be interested if Michigan would take another look. When we first spoke about Michigan in 2013, he expressed genuine excitement at the thought of being recruited by Michigan. He told me yes and I said that I would resend his recruiting profile to the football office as I had done 3 times over the past 2 years. I told him that I would catch up and we went our separate ways. On the drive home i thought about the new staff at Michigan and the recruiting situation. I had long thought that Karan could be a fit at Michigan and despite my love and affinity to The Florida State University, where I played my college football, I always knew that Michigan is a truly elite opportunity and one where a true student-athlete like Karan could flourish. On that drive home is the first time in over a year that I really thought that it may be worth a shot to send his stuff out again and see what happened.
I woke up at 830am the next morning, which is odd because I work midnights, coinciding with my day coaching schedule. I immediately called the Michigan football office and spoke with a secretary. I told her that there was a running back in Sarasota that may be worth a late look and she advised me to send and email with his profile. I sent his recruit profile and his HUDL highlights. I was contacted almost immediately afterwards and spoke with Chris Singletary. The first thing he asked was what type of kid is Karan and what his grades were. The next step was simply sending his transcripts. Singletary was professional and thorough. Thursday and Friday passed without hearing a peep. Saturday morning I was awoke by a text from Karan that coach Jim Harbaugh had called him and offered him. Jim Harbaugh....the guy who was just the hottest name in all of coaching. It was shocking to me to be honest. Everyone was shocked.....and then everything started spinning.
Karan initially declined the offer to take a visit as he was skeptical about the last minute nature. After speaking with his mother and fighting off pressure from elswhere to not take the visit, he was convinced to at least see Ann Arbor. He never took any of his other 4 visits. He never had anything to compare Iowa to. Iowa was obviously not pleased at the thought of the visit and by many accounts rightfully so but at the end ot the day myself and our staff were in his corner to at least find out about Michigan. "Michigan is hard to pass up", professed one of our coaches. We haven't had a kid get offered by Michigan since David Baas. David Baas turned out to be a Super Bowl winning lineman. Karan decided to take the visit and that last minute flight plans were stormed together...and I do mean stormed. Karan had been interning that morning and had to make it from Venice back south to North Port to gather his belongings just to scoot back up to Sarasota where were going to convene to get him to the Tampa airport. The flight was arranged at 115 and left at 345. Karan was at work in Venice at 115.....yeah. This was nearly mission impossible.
We arrived at the airport 42 minutes early at 303pm. Karan made it through the kiosk with his boarding pass and at that juncture i had to move my car from the flight arrival drop off area. I told him to call if anything arose and let me know when he was boarded. I left the airport on a sort of natural high. As a coach your kids become almost like...well your kids. We had worked hard to at least present this opportunity for him. I viewed it as one that would either inspire him to take a hard look at Michigan, or solidy his heart with Iowa and give him concrete piece of mind about being a Hawkeye.
At 342pm I recieved a call. He told me that a bottle of lotion resulted in him being held up for 15 minutes at the security check point. He rushed his bag together and forgot about the lotion. Karan got to his gate at 342pm.....2 minutes after they closed the doors. Karan pleaded with the attendant and watched his flight standing by still connected to the walk way from inside the terminal. Karan plead with the attendant and I spoke with her on the phone. Protocol was followed and I tried as best I could to calm a pretty heartbraking situation. I advised Karan to hold tight and just be easy. "No worries bud". At ths point it felt as if maybe it wasn't meant to be. I turned around and doubled back 40 minutes to pick him up. The Michigan coaching staff handled this in harmonic stride, "We will get over the hurdles" (Coach Harbaugh) and he was able to book a 520am flight for the next morning and execute a true day trip. A 530pm option was available but it had a first class connection through Atlanta and first class flights are non-permissable per NCAA rules. On the way back I received a call from Kirk Ferentz, he was understandably frustrated and we spoke about the situation for a about ten minutes after he had already spoken to our Head Coach prior to me. Our biggest concern as a staff was Iowa throwing heat at Karan. We made sure that they did not and Iowa directed their frustration at the nature of Karan's last minute recruitment to Michigan. It was understandle and I did feel Kirk's sentiment. He was honest and real. He is a good football coach and I would've had no issue with Karan playing for him. None of us would've. At this point i wondered if Karan even wanted to go anymore. I picked him up at the airport where he was clad in Maize and Blue. As I picked him up I joked that he had at least looked good in the colors, if only for a few hours. He got into my truck and we laughed off a growingly frustrating situation.
Karan got in the car with a look of determination on his face. It was kind of wierd to be honest. He looked at me and said, "I'm still going coach." That was that and that decision was supported by his family. I had prepared to advise him that taking a day trip wouldn't be so bad even though it wasn't ideal. I prepared to explain to him why the piece of mind was so important on Wednesday. I knew from looking in his eyes on Tuesday night, that he was not 110% set on Iowa. It was the first time in a few months that I had thought that. On the way back we talked about the situation. I told him that both schools were good options and that Iowa was a place where he would certainly see that field faster. I owed him that honesty. I told him that Iowa was a solid school and put out solid NFL talent. They had done things right and there was simply nothing negative for me as a coach to say about them. Michigan is just Michigan. I told him about what it was like to be there on gamedays and about the tradition. I told him abou the greatest rivalry in all of sports. I told him that a Michigan education was a life decision and not a 3-4 year decision. I also told him that Iowa could present a tremendous opportunity for him as a student athlete. I kept things as nuetral as possible to not taint the situation but I did not hold back about what Michigan was. The last "snaffu" in relation to the flight was the fact that we were looking at a possbility of Karan getting snowed in until Monday. The Michigan staff could have no contact with him after the dead period and this meant that Karan may be stranded without shelter or food. That was was quickly remedied with a phone call with some loving relatives of mine and they offered to put him up for a night in an emergency situation. I put Karan's mother on the line with my relatives to ease the discomfort of that possibility and took the "stranger" element out of the situation. Karan's mother was on board with our emergency plan and Karan was determined to see Michigan.
The next morning Karan made his flight and was picked up by coach Wheatley. The two immediately hit it off and Karan was genuinely impressed by Tyrone. The visit went quickly but effeciently and I never asked for details. Karan was able to spend time with Coach Harbaught and see the campus and facilities. He was able to see the Big House. That night he returned and said the visit made his decision very tough. In my gut I felt that he was going to stick to Iowa. I spoke with his mother on Monday and checked on her as she was very stressed. The parents go through even more than the recruits because they are relegated nearly powerless in the end. I spent Sunday night celebrating some Tom Brady heroics and shaking my head at Pete Carroll's play-calling. I also looked up the stats academically on Michigan and Iowa. No bias.....just raw stats. Like Iowa having an 86% freshmen retention rate for instance. Like Iowa putting out 22 current NFL players and Coach Ferentz having won COY in the B1G 3 times. I put the enrollment data on the table....college town populations. Numerous data points free of bias.
I presented the facts to her on Monday. At the end I told her that Iowa was a great oppotunity and that Michigan was a special place and had a lot to offer. I told her that relationships are very important and she agreed that relationships were the biggest thing holding her back on Michigan. I told her that Karan Higdon is exactly what Michigan strives for in a "Michigan Man" and that he would be loved if he decided to go there. There was no hiding the fact that Chris White and Kirk Ferentz held the advantage with relationships. They earned that with their hard work. I told her that Karan should pick the SCHOOL that he loved the most. He should go with his heart. Karan's mom explained that she had already ordered the Iowa Hawkeye shirts for the announcement and went to put the number on them when Karan called her that Monday. She said he sounded confused and that it was odd because the night before he had said that he was going to stick with Iowa. I was not made aware of that and applied no pressure to know to be honest. Karan told her on that conversation that he had seen 4 Michigan plates and flags on the way to his internship. The power and sprawl of Michigan was starting to surface to him and he was looking for signs. "I don't know mom!" His mom smiled as she told me this and she said that at that moment her gut feeling on Michigan was born. Until then she had thought that it was simply Iowa and that Michigan was a tool to solidify the choice more or less. I told her that in case of an emergency selection of Maize and Blue that I would have no problem lending out a couple of hats and tshirts I've collected a bunch over the years and it was an obvious alternative to purchasing a second lot of college gear. She laughed it off. I told her of Coach Butch Wade, who is a good friend and teacher/ basketball coach at Riveriview High School. That evening I made him aware of the situation and told him that he should at least speak with Karan about the decision. Coach Wade did just that on Tuesday morning.
Tuesday morning I got a text from Mom that said "Have some Michigan Gear on Standby" . So i put together a nice Maize and Blue care package and delivered it on the off chance. In my heart I still beleived that Iowa was going to be the choice. I honestly thought that Michigan was the better choice and one that would set him up for life but the playing time and relationships built with a quality group of men at Iowa really made me think that they would win out in the end. I refused to tell him where I thought he should go on the off chance that he would listen and allow me to sway the biggest decision of his life. Karan didnt answer any texts or phone calls on Tuesday. He went radio silence. I sent him a text message with a picture of IOWA taking the field and one of Michigan taking the field to touch the banner. I told him that he was a special kid and that God had a plan for him. I told him that he couldn't go wrong with either choice and to pray on it and go with his heart. My mission in this whole ordeal was to provide as many quality opportunites to Karan as possible. The Michigan opportunity is one that came up ironically just in time and I made sure that he knew about what Michigan means. I made sure that he knew what the brand meant and the magnitude of the opportunity. I owed it to him to be honest about Michigan. I owed it to him to give Michigan a fair opportunity to earn his services. My biggest fear was him regretting his choice in the years after Wednesday. I also was honest about what an great opportunity Iowa presented. I did both of those things and laid down Tuesday night with a sort of restless piece of mind. I didn't sleep much to be honest.
I did not get a hint or a hunch on Tuesday or Wednesday morning. There were no clues. Karan went radio silent. Karan is a very mature young man and this was not uncommon for him to focus when it was called for. On Wednesday the crowds gathered and after nearly 200 people piled in to watch the announcement there was a sort of quiet anticipation. Karan made his way wearing all black through the court yard. His head was tucked into his neck as if he had a bar bell on his back with his squat max on it. He walked with a quickened and miitant pace. He had two hats in his hands. One Iowa. One Michigan. He looked me in my eyes as I shook his hand and embraced him. In his eyes I saw determination. I still didn't quite know but Iowa would've been my guess. He looked very focused and walked in and took his seat. We went through our announcements until he was the last one left. There was obvious anticipation and his mother was a nervous wreck. She was shaking and fiddling and honestly looked near tears. She really didnt know and neither did I. The only one that knew was our Head Coach- Todd Johnson, who was doing the speaking.
After a few kind words, Coach Johnson paused and announced, "And we are all looking forward to Karan playing this fall in the Big House for the University of Michigan!" Karan let out a breath and a smile emerged from inside of him. Karan put on a Block M Michigan ball cap with the words "Beat Ohio" on the side of it. He had a look of determined joy on his face as the place erupted. There were chants of Go Blue and an electricity in the air. If you were ignorant to it prior to, you would understand in that moment the Power of Michigan. Pictures were taken and interviews were conducted. The weight had been lifted an it felt amazing as a coach to see a young man make a tough decision and make the right one. Michigan is a truly elite opportunity that you cannot pass up. It's a "Life Decision". In a moment with him I asked him "why Michigan?" He told me that, "It was all God's plan. God doesn't come when you want him, he comes when you need him and he's always on time". There were no funny hat games or clever tweets. Just a mature young man making a "business decsion" with the help of faith. I'm not an emotional man. At that moment I realized what just happened and what Karan had just done for his life. I shed a couple of tears and stared at the tile floor for a moment. What seemed like "Mission Impossible" just a few days prior was now just Michigan. A kid from humble means in Sarasota Florida was going to have the opportunity to not only add to Michigan's historic athletic legacy, but to share Michigan with his family and himself for a lifetime. That was a truly powerful moment.
Karan's story is a pretty cool one. His drive and motivation is elite. Karan IS coming to "Play School" and he is also coming to bring some "Juice" to Michigan's football program. Michigan was a challenge for him and one that he couldn't live without excepting. He isn't afraid of depth charts or Rivals Ratings. He knows that what he does in the classroom, weight room and practice fields will determine what he does in the Big House. The hardest part of this entire ordeal for Karan was telling Kirk Ferentz that he wouldn't be coming to play for him. In the 36 hours leading up to the decision, he didn't eat or sleep much. He felt like he was letting Kirk down. The pressure that is placed upon this kids is underestimated to be frank. Looking back at it I think all of us feel a little bit of pain for Iowa and their staff. They worked hard and it truly ate Karan up to make the phone call to Kirk Ferentz in the end, telling him that he was going to Michigan. Overshadowing that discomfort is the excitement of where Karan is going. Karan turned to his faith in the end and his faith, not a coach, directed him to Ann Arbor. He searched for signs in the final 36 hours and they were overwhelmingly colored Maize and Blue. I can't wait to see this young man grow and mature as a student-athlete in one of the greatest atheltic and academic enviornments in the world. He is going to make fans of many of you. You don't know it yet but just wait on it. The recruiting services have done a job, categorizing and limiting him. He's read every review and projection. Karan Higdon was never meant to be placed in a box and told what his limitations are. He is a talented over-achiever with heart and character surpassing his physical ability. This kid was built to be a Wolverine.
TL;DR Not as bullish on Van Jefferson as I was before I did this research. (sorry was supposed to be diary)
Van Jefferson is sort of a mystery to most of us as he was nowhere in the picture as of 3 days ago and aside from knowing he was local here for a while when his dad was a Lions coach.
First, a lot of crystal balls continue to turn in Michigan's favor - an additional 5 today to the 8 the past two days.
Second, NOT SO FAST. Reader Dhughes5218 said in another thread today:
If a player commits and an analyst was wrong, he or she can switch their prediction to any school except for the team the player committed to. So if an analyst had Van Jefferson cb'd to LSU and he committed to Ole Miss the analyst can't switch to Ole Miss. Then Van Jefferson schedules an ov to UM, even if the analyst believes he will stay with Ole Miss, it would be worth a shot to switch the cb to UM.
If anyone is a 247 crystal ball expert and can confirm that nugget it would be good information. It makes a lot of sense because otherwise all the "wrong" analysts could simply switch to the correct school after the fact.
If accurate all these folks switching to UM can just be taking a stab in the dark on the off chance he flips - even if that chance is 1%.
Third, outside of that here is what some internet sleuthing found out:
- Jefferson is from TN (of late) because his dad coaches with the Titans. To that end, the Vols message board at Volsnation has a 251 (!!!!!) page thread dedicated to him. Scanning the last few pages it is the normal stuff you see everywhere - including here at times - when a favorite/local doesn't commit. "Head case" "didn't have the grades" "afraid of competition" blah blah. Reality is his dad is not a poor guy and he does not go to a bad school district and from all accounts he looks like a good student. Afraid of competition is the normal excuse for every fanbase. Head case? Well his recruiting profile brings up a lot of Chris Clark memories.
- I didn't look too hard for a Georgia equivalent to Volsnation but their 247 board has a tiny thread with the same typical complaints of a (wo)man scorned.
To that end, fourth:
- Apparenty dad loved Georgia, and mom loved Ole Miss. He went with dad at first. Georgia's DL coach, coached with Jefferson's dad in the past. He was committed for a long while (and was expected to enroll early but balked) but took an unofficial to Ole Miss and decommited shortly after (a few weeks ago). (Kind of scary the reasons why mom likes Ole Miss if you believe all the smoke around Hugh Freeze)
My mom just likes Coach Freeze, and how he runs their program. And how he goes about his stuff. My dad loves Georgia because Coach Rocker is there. He likes Coach Richt and how he runs the program. There some things my dad likes about Georgia, and some things my mom doesn’t like about Georgia. There’s some things my dad likes about Ole Miss and some things that he doesn’t. So it’s 50/50 with them. But at the end of the day, I make my own decision.
- Next Oklahoma came in hard - he went there and recruiting analysts said it was a "home run" type of visit. Bob Stoops went in home. Everything looked headed to Oklahoma....
- Then he commits to Ole Miss and says he always wanted to go there - mom wanted him to go there... they had to convince dad. (shades of Malik McDowell but in reverse)
- Said at the time he is probably done with visits (he had Florida lined up the next week)
- Now he comes and visits Michigan. For all we know just to get the free trip and see old friends from HS. Or because he is serious.
“It’s just a home environment,” Jefferson said. “Going to play down there at Ole Miss with Quincy (Adeboyejo) and Laquon (Treadwell) and Evan (Engram), those guys are going to be something special. I always wanted to go down there but my dad had reservations about it. He’s on board with it now. He told me he wants what’s best for me. I picked it so it’s time to get rolling.”
"Coming back on campus and seeing it for the last time, coming back and meeting with Coach (Hugh) Freeze, hanging with the guys, it's going to be something special. Drew (Richmond) was down there with me and me and drew always wanted to play together so that's going to be something special."
Initially Jefferson had scheduled an official visit to Florida for next weekend. As of right now, it looks as though that visit is unlikely to happen. "I'm probably done with visits," Jefferson said.
Last, a bit on Ole Miss:
- Like us, they have no established QB. (wash)
- Unlike us, they are swimming in a ridiculous amount of WR talent. Seven (yes seven) four and five star WRs... and that does include the 2 guys who are major contributors...so 9 contributors or highly rated potential contributors. Inclusive of Treadwell who is most likely off to the NFL after 2015. (adv Ole Miss on the field, adv Michigan in terms of playing time)
Ole Miss is looking at a depth chart that is exceptionally talented: of the players returning or committed, seven are former five- or four-star prospects. The two most notable ones that were not, Engram and Core, have obviously proven themselves more than capable.
- But Jefferson don't care - he has been trying to recruit Damarkus Lodge, a guy rated even higher than him at WR, to Ole Miss. (disadvantage UM)
"I’m definitely going to do some recruiting," he said. "Signing day is almost here so I’ve got a lot of work to do but I'm gonna get it done. Damarkus (Lodge), We hit it off real well. I know Damarkus from The Opening so we already had a really good relationship so this weekend, it was pretty fun."
So all in all, this data would make me less positive (quite a bit so, in fact) on Jefferson than before I did the snooping. While he does change his mind seemingly weekly, the crystal balls could just be shots in the dark by analysts with nothing to lose, and his mom is pro Ole Miss. Dad apparently bought into it too. Dad wanted him at Georgia, a program most like Michigan in the SEC - didn't matter to Jefferson. Other than playing time (which does matter), having HS friends around (which didn't sway him to TN) and Harbaugh, not much falls in UM's favor. A trip here could just be fun to see campus, meet a rock star coach in Harbaugh, and then visit with his friends from HS.
Or of course he could change his mind yet again.
Michigan Softball 2015 Season Preview
Michigan fans have taken it on the chin for the last few months without a doubt. While Harbaugh has brought hope for the future and the hockey and basketball teams have shown great resilience, there can be no doubt that 2014-15 has been a down year for the Maize and Blue on the whole. In times like these, we turn to the reliable things in life, those few things we know we can count on to pick us up. In Ann Arbor for the last three decades, one of those reliable touchstones has been the softball program under the masterful guidance of head coach Carol Hutchins. With a staggering 1,372 wins in her coaching career, Hutchins is not only a Michigan legend, she is a legend among softball fans everywhere. If anyone can give us all the lift we, it’s Carol Hutchins and her team.
Below we’ll take a look at this year’s edition of Michigan softball. We’ll review some of last year’s events and the seniors who have moved on. With the help of MGoSoftball, we’ll preview some of the new faces, and then we’ll turn to the outlook in the three phases of the game – offense, pitching, and fielding. Finally, we’ll examine the schedule and map out the expectations. Just one more week to go before the Wolverines trot out onto the diamond once again!
When last season’s tournament run came to an end at Florida State, Michigan bid farewell to a brilliant senior class. The outgoing seniors were responsible for 193 wins, 4 Big Ten championships, 3 trips to the NCAA super-regionals, and 1 to Oklahoma City for the Women’s College World Series. Four members of the class of ’14 saw significant playing time and production last season. Outfielders Lindsay Doyle and Nicole Sappingfield served as table-setting slap hitters, each getting on base in around 40% of their at bats. First baseman Caitlin Blanchard served as protection for Sierra Romero, punishing teams again and again for the free passes that were repeatedly issued to the star shortstop. Finally, Taylor Hasselbach was the pleasant surprised of the season, coming on strong in her senior year after seeing only limited playing time earlier in her career. Hasselbach hit .320 in her final campaign with 9 home runs, including one in the thrilling 7th inning at the end of the regional. The other seniors served primarily in supporting roles as pinch-hitters and pinch runners. Replacing the production of last year’s seniors, especially at the top of the order, will be a tall order for the 2015 edition of Michigan softball.
As a program that expects to compete for championships every single season, Michigan softball recruits and plays top-quality freshmen every year. MGoSoftball has again furnished us with some great profiles of some of the new recruits, so I’m just going to point you in that direction for those where I see one. For others, I’ll link their MGoBlue.com profile.
Aidan Falk (1B/OF) – http://mgoblog.com/mgoboard/hello-aidan-falk-sb
Amanda Vargas (IF) – http://mgoblog.com/mgoboard/hello-amanda-vargas-sb
Morgan Swift (C) – http://www.mgoblue.com/sports/w-softbl/mtt/morgan_swift_928031.html
Taylor Swearingen (1B/3B) – http://mgoblog.com/mgoboard/hello-taylor-swearingen-sb
Tera Blanco (RHP/1B) – http://mgoblog.com/mgoboard/hello-tera-blanco-sb
MGoBlue.com also has a fluffy profile of three of the freshmen: http://www.mgoblue.com/sports/w-softbl/spec-rel/012915aaa.html
Carol Hutchins will be looking at Falk and Blanco in particular to add some punch to Michigan’s batting line-up. Falk has spent her last few years busily destroying New York high school softball, hitting over .500 and setting the New York state home-run record. Blanco, for her part, comes highly-recommended from the state of California, always a major center of softball recruiting. Rated as the number 1 pitcher in the state for this year’s class, she also hit .420, with a .550 on-base percentage against tough California pitching. Even if she isn’t able to crack into Michigan’s strong pitching rotation, she has the opportunity to contribute in a big way, with a number of openings in the line-up.
In the Circle
Michigan’s pitching staff had an up-and-down season in 2014, with all three pitchers showing great promise, but none delivering a truly elite season. Nevertheless, the Wolverines managed to finish 19th in the nation in team ERA with a 2.07 mark on the season.
2015 will mark the final go-round for senior LHP Haylie Wagner and RHP Sara Driesenga. Both have been the ace of the staff at different points in their careers, but both have struggled at times as well. Wagner in particular has been hampered by injuries. If both play at the top of their game, however, they have the potential to be among the best pitching staffs in the nation. Both came to Michigan as highly-touted recruits; 2015 will be their final opportunity to leave the kind of lasting mark the came to Ann Arbor to make.
Wagner was Michigan’s best pitcher last year, and, having earned a spot of the pre-season Player of the Year watch-list, figures to be the ace of the staff again in 2015. She led the team in ERA at 1.82, posting an impressive 24-5 record. When push came to shove, Hutch turned to Wagner in pressure situations, and despite some mid-season struggles, she came through in a number of key post-season situations. If Michigan is going to make a deep run again, Wagner will need to be a critical component.
Sara Driesenga, the Wolverines’ second senior, struggled in 2014 after a very strong 2013 season. Her ERA dipped from 1.89 to 2.34, and her 31-9 record in 2013 turned into a disappointing 5-6 mark in 2014. She still has all the physical tools to play the position at a high level, however, and has shown great talent in the past. Even so, with Betsa and Blanco pushing from behind, Driesenga will need to show more in 2015 than she did last year if she wants to maintain her spot in the rotation. Carol Hutchins’ long history of getting players to deliver their best performances in their senior seasons makes it too soon to write Driesenga off, though, and the Hudsonville hurler may well have a few tricks left up her sleeve.
Sophomore Megan Betsa rounds out Michigan’s returning pitching staff, coming off a solid freshman season. Betsa went 18-4 with a 2.15 ERA. She faced some typical freshman struggles, but played brilliantly on many occasions, highlighted by a no-no in a 10-0 run-rule victory over Detroit. Betsa provides a change of pace in terms of style as well. While Wagner and to some extent Driesenga are more of ground-ball pitchers, Betsa is a strike-out artist pure and simple. Despite pitching 42.1 innings fewer than Wagner, Betsa led the team in strike-outs with 150 (to Wagner’s 122).
If Wagner and Driesenga both play to their potential and Betsa shows even standard incremental improvement, Michigan’s pitching staff will be a powerful battery. The fact that the top pitcher out of California will be joining the team as well gives the Maize and Blue a level of luxury that few teams can match in the circle.
At the Plate
As much as we all love good defense and pitching (and as often as Hutch has reminded interviewers that softball comes down to those two factors), Michigan has been known for offense in recent years, and justly so. The Wolverines had one of the top ten scoring offenses in the nation in 2014 at 6.56 runs per game. Even though Michigan will need to replace a substantial portion of their hitting line-up, there is a great deal of talent, both new and experienced, and Alumni Field should play host to a strong offense once again.
In the category of talent, no player on the team – and few in the nation – can match rising junior Sierra Romero. Romero burst onto the scene in 2013 by setting the Michigan single-season home-run record, leading the team with a .379 batting average, bringing home the Big Ten Freshman of the Year and Player of the Year awards, and finishing the top ten for the NCAA Player of the Year award. Even a repeat performance would have delighted fans of the Maize & Blue, but Romero had no intentions of settling for stagnation. Instead, she managed not to improve, but do so substantially in her sophomore year. While her home-run total dipped from 23 to 18 (still the team leader and tied for 16th nationally), her batting average sky-rocketing to .491, and was over .500 for most of the season until a stomach bug slowed her down in the regional. Even more impressively, she led the nation with a staggering .633 on-base percentage, a full .052 better than the second-place finisher, demonstrating her tremendous patience as team after team pitched around her (Romo was the most-walked player in the nation last season). Her sparkling season led to a top-three finish in the National Player of the Year voting and a second Big Ten Player of the Year award. If the fall series against Kentucky (a WCWS team last year) was any indication, though, Romero is still improving – she went 6-8 with 4 home runs and two doubles against the Wildcats. Great news for Michigan fans, these numbers surely have opposing pitching shaking in their cleats.
While the story of Michigan’s offense starts with Romero, it certainly does not end there. Most significant among returning players will be Michigan’s other Sierra (and third member, with Wagner and Romero, of the Player of the Year watch-list), Sierra Lawrence. Lawrence, or SiLo for short, hit .351 last year, and was second only to Romero on the team in on-base with a very strong .460 mark. She also brings some power, having jacked 9 HR last season, including two in Michigan’s come-from-behind win to clinch the regional over Arizona State. It will be interesting to see where Lawrence ends up in the line-up. Hutch could easily put her in the one or two spot to set the table for Romero with her great OBP, but her power and reliability might keep her in the heart of the order, perhaps replacing Blanchard as Romero’s protection. Wherever she ends up, she’ll have to be a key piece of the puzzle.
After the two Sierras, the question marks become a little bigger in terms of where the offense will come from. Among major contributors last year, all the other .300+ hitters have graduated. Two names stand out as potential risers, however, who could step up into bigger roles. Senior Lauren Sweet could be a candidate to have a break-out season in her last go-round, reminiscent of Taylor Hasselbach in 2014. Sweet has hit in the .200s for much of her career, but has had stretches of elite play, most notably the back half of the 2013 campaign. The other candidate is junior Kelsey Susalla, who played well in limited action a year ago. Early on last year, she looked to be getting some serious playing time, but Hasselbach’s emergence relegated Susalla to a supporting role. Both of these players were named in this space last season, so I hope I’m not just trying to justify my earlier predictions. It seems likely, though, that at least one of these two will step up in a serious way.
After that, Michigan may need to rely on a youth movement to generate offense. Rising sophomores Abby Ramirez and Lindsay Montemarano both saw a good deal of action in 2014, serving at the bottom of the order for the most part. They both struggled at times, but with another full year under Hutch’s tutelage, the potential is always there for a leap forward. Last but not least, some of the freshmen noted above will certainly be thrust into starting roles. This has paid big dividends for Michigan more than once in recent years, and will need to do so again in 2015.
All told, repeating the blistering pace of the offense over the last few years will be difficult while replacing so much of the line-up. The talent is there, however, and Hutch will always get the most out of what she has. We may not see quite as many double-digit games & run-rule blowouts, but the offense should be able to provide the pitching staff with all the run support they need.
In the Field
As I’ve noted before, this section of the preview takes me further from my expertise, and further from easily available statistics. However, at least a little must be said about this key part of the game.
Last season, I called for Michigan to raise their fielding percentage (thoroughly mediocre in 2013) into the top third or quarter of the nation if they wanted to have a successful season. The women did far more than that, ending 2014 in the top ten nationally with a .976 mark. This elite defensive production was a key factor in backing up a pitching staff that, as mentioned, struggled at various moments. Only two players on the team had more than 4 errors in 2014, those being freshman infielder Lindsay Montemarano and Sierra Romero. Romero’s 14 errors last year are still too many, but they do represent a substantial improvement over her freshman season, so there is reason to hope for more improvement this year. Additionally, she makes up for many of those errors with athletic defensive plays to pick up outs that most other players would never come close to. Michigan will have to sustain this high level of defensive play to achieve their goals in 2015. This seems like a reasonable possibility, especially if Romero continues her improvement. I can’t go so far as to predict that Michigan will be a top-ten outfit again, but I’d be surprised to see a major drop-off. If there is one, it may be due to the need to break in a new outfield following the departures of Doyle and Sappingfield, who patrolled the open areas of the field effectively for several years.
With an overall picture of the team in place, we can start looking ahead to the schedule, and then wrap up with some Bold Predictions about what will happen as the season plays out. As always, Michigan starts with an arduous non-conference cross-country tour. The Wolverines open the season with a bang, taking on #1/#1 defending national champion Florida on February 7th. Michigan opened against Florida last year and lost in heartbreaking fashion, blowing a 4 run lead in the 7th before losing in extras. The Florida game will come as part of the first of 5 tournaments/invitationals/classics that Michigan will take part in, comprising 25 games in 4 different states (Florida, Alabama, Arizona, and California). While there are always a few easier games mixed in – if Michigan struggles with Binghampton, we may be in for a long season – the usual bevy of powerful opponents lies in wait. In addition to the match-up with top-ranked Florida, Michigan will have a pair of showdowns with #5/#5 Florida State (who sent Michigan packing in the super-regional last year), and #3/#4 Alabama, three clashes with #16/#16 Arizona State (whom Michigan ousted in thrilling fashion in Tempe a year ago), a rematch with the Gators at the always-challenging Judi Garman Classic, and a tussle with #10/#11 Baylor, also at Judi Garman. Especially given the heavy travel requirements for Michigan, our women will likely be underdogs in many of these matches, but Hutch always manages to pull out a number of big wins no matter what. These games are key for Michigan’s tournament résumé, and provide vital opportunities to get experience playing against the nation’s best. Only the most mentally strong players come to Michigan to run this gauntlet (Southern and Southwestern teams scarcely leave their home stadium until the start of conference play), and they grow together through the experience every year.
The annual odyssey comes to an end on March 14th, when Michigan will finally get to play in front of the home fans at Alumni Field. A three-game set against Kent State and a one-off against Bowling Green a few days later will provide some final tune-ups before conference play gets underway. Once again, Michigan’s journey through the Big Ten should be a lighter burden than the non-conference trek, although last year should serve as a reminder to take nothing for granted. Key losses to over-matched opponents cost the Maize & Blue the outright Big Ten Championship and the right to host a regional. Michigan opens Big Ten play in Columbus, against an OSU team that was thoroughly mediocre a year ago, followed by a home set against an Iowa team that struggled mightily. Next up will be the defining series of the Big Ten season for Michigan, as the team travels to Minnesota to take on the #15/#15 Golden Gophers. Minnesota gave Michigan a real fight last year at Alumni Field and ripped the tournament title from our hands as well. While Sara Moulton is no longer around to terrorize batters, sophomore righty Sara Groenewegen was last year’s Big Ten Freshman of the Year and can do plenty of damage herself. Taking a couple games from the Gophers on their field would go a long way towards sealing the Big Ten title. After that, Michigan will close out the regular season with a tour of the bottom of the Big Ten barrel. Road trips to newcomers Maryland (11-35 a year ago) and Rutgers (28-19 against weak competition in 2014) combine with a home-and-home against a dismal MSU program and home stands against Penn State and Indiana to round out the Big Ten schedule (there are also a pair of one-offs against MAC opposition mixed in).
Once again, Michigan misses out on most of the tougher opponents in conference, including ranked Nebraska and a Wisconsin team that just missed the top-25. While this is a boost to Michigan’s chances to win the conference, it is a real missed opportunity in terms of staying sharp by facing the best. It’s hard to avoid feeling like the suits at Big Ten HQ dropped the ball on this one once again. Michigan plays the 3 worst teams in the Big Ten from last year, both of the mediocre newcomers, and only one of the other 4 NCAA tournament teams from a year ago. For comparison, Minnesota plays all the tournament teams, and Nebraska, Wisconsin, and Northwestern play all of them except for Michigan.
It’s almost time for some hot takes, but first a look back at the Bold Predictions made in this space a year ago. I said:
- “I expect Michigan to pick up a few quality wins in the non-conference schedule and come into the Big Ten season still sporting a top-ten ranking.”
Correct! Michigan was ranked #6 in the nation when they opened Big Ten play by slaughtering Indiana in a trio of run-rule decisions.
- "Six straight Big Ten Titles will probably become seven, as no one in the Big Ten can match Michigan’s talent. Nebraska is an up-and-coming team and may provide a challenge, but in my estimation their tougher schedule will probably doom them to a strong second-place showing.”
Correct (almost)! I was right that Michigan would win a Big Ten championship, and also on the mark in identifying Nebraska as the primary threat to Michigan’s reign of terror. What I did not foresee were disastrous road losses against Illinois and Purdue, which opened the door for Nebraska to clinch a share of the title as well.
- “Michigan will once again host a regional and probably a super-regional as well and will go all the way to the WCWS. … Winning it all is a lofty goal, but it is well within reach.”
Not quite. Michigan was on track to do exactly this, but faded down the stretch. The stumbles in the latter portion of the Big Ten season and Michigan’s failure to lock up the conference tournament title sent the Wolverines to Tempe to play in Arizona State’s regional. While Michigan triumphed heroically and started off strong in the super-regional (handing Florida State the worst loss in program history), they could not seal the deal, and went home early.
Looking ahead to this season, it is hard to deviate too much from what I said going into last year. I’m a bit more circumspect about our chances to host a super-regional or maintain a consistent top-ten ranking, given how much we’re replacing on the offensive side of the ball. If things come together at the plate, however, the sky could very well be the limit for this year’s team. So:
- Michigan will end the non-conference portion of the season with a few big wins, but suffer too many setbacks to stay in the top-ten. They will still be in position to host a regional, however, with a ranking in the top 16.
- When a team has won seven conference championships in a row and returns this kind of pitching and talents like the Sierras, it is almost impossible to pick against them in conference play. Even if Michigan struggles, the substantially easier slate of opponents will guide the Maize and Blue to another outright Big Ten crown.
- Michigan will host a regional in Ann Arbor, but probably not a super-regional unless the youth movement on offense comes together in a big way. A trip to the WCWS is very much in play, but not a lock.
- A bonus prediction: with Hutch only needing 28 wins to crack the 1,400 mark and having earned at least 40 wins in every single season since 1994, look for her to fly past 1,400 career wins in 2015.
This Michigan team has a number of wild-cards that make prognosticating difficult. Will Wagner & Driesenga finally both play at an elite level at the same time? How quickly can the offense get up to speed while replacing such a huge part of the line-up? Can Michigan maintain their elite defensive play without its host of reliable seniors? Any of these doubts could hold Michigan back from achieving their lofty goals. If these questions can all be resolved, however, Michigan should be a WCWS team, and could very well wear the crown again, just as they did 10 years ago. What we know for sure is that we’ll have a talented, disciplined, well-coached team that plays as a single unit and stays focused on one-pitch softball. February 7th cannot come soon enough!