One of the main themes coming out of Big Ten media days is that Michigan's locker room was massively divided last year and that this was a major reason for the fractured splat mess that Michigan's season ended in. (And pretty much started in.) Frank Clark:
"There's no point in yelling at someone. Yelling to another grown man isn't going to get you very far. You've got to have a certain level of respect for that individual. And if he respects you, then there's not going to be that type of level of disagreement."
The implication is that this is a change from 2013.
This is both unusual and not. You often hear about chemistry problems in the aftermath of an unpleasant season; lord knows that I have heard it and fervently believed it about Michigan hockey the last couple years. It is a standard trope whenever sports people have to talk to media before a season, up there with Leave Touted Freshman Alone and We Are Only Motivated By Our Haters. That it's emerged after Michigan's 2013 is no surprise.
The unusual part is the not-quite-on-the-record vehemence being directed at one particular player. That would be Taylor Lewan. No one wants to come out and say it directly, but read between any two particular lines about locker room divisions and they land squarely on him. The result: regular threads on message boards about what a bad captain he was and how unity will unify us all now that he's gone.
I am not buying this.
I don't come to praise Caesar here. There's plenty of circumstantial evidence that Lewan was a dick, from his role in the Gibbons mess to the still-pending assault charges to his increasingly unhinged behavior in last year's Michigan State game. When Mike Spath did his annual piece from Big Ten Media Day in which he gives players anonymity in exchange for real talk, a couple of them called Lewan out for being over the line:
"I don't know how that plays at Michigan, but if my teammates were doing that, it'd be like dead silence in the room, and everyone would know what he's really about.
"That's not the guy I want leading my team."
So yeah he's not exactly Denard. No one is disputing that.
That said, the NFL grabbed him in the first half of the first round. And his performance matched that during the year. He took piles of criticism because Michigan couldn't move the ball, all of it ridiculous since the guy next to him—sometimes both guys flanking him—were blowing the play as he executed his assignment.
You know what doesn't get talked about when you're winning football games? How much of a dick player X is. "Chemistry" is often an effect of other stuff, not a cause. Before the departures of CJ Lee and David Merritt tanked a Beilein team I would have gone with "always" in the previous sentence; nowadays you have to acknowledge that sometimes it is a real thing.
It's not likely to be a big factor in last year's collapse—insofar as a pile of rubble can collapse. Fracturing was always going to happen once that offense was so so bad and the defense got sick of running on the field after a three and out six times in a row. There was always going to be a falling out with the coaches after their ham-handed attempts to fix things made them worse. If Michigan's players weren't questioning what the hell they were doing on offense, there's about to be some bad news about their ability to pass classes at Michigan.
When [Hoke] arrived at Michigan in 2011, he routinely discussed that the group's seniors would carry the club. They'd be the backbone, and the team would be playing for them.
In 2011, it worked. Hoke's senior group was close and welcomed everyone in -- and the team won 11 games. In 2012, it seemed to work again. Even during the moments when the team struggled, it never seemed to unravel.
But with a mostly younger group in 2013, it never clicked. The team stopped fighting for one another, and became disconnected.
When did the team "stop fighting for one another"? During the Akron game like two games into the season? Or on the two point conversion that might have beat Ohio State at the end? It "worked" in 2011 because Michigan got lucky repeatedly; it did not in 2013 because they did not. The offensive line was a shambles against Notre Dame, but Gardner played out of his mind.
There is no narrative in which the fight goes out of Michigan. The pattern here is not one of increasing incompetence, but game-to-game variability: beat Minnesota with a good ground game, get that tackle over set annihilated by Penn State. Run the ball against Northwestern, get 150 yards of offense against Iowa, put up 41 on Ohio State in consecutive weeks.
They were up and they were down and that was mostly because they weren't any good and the offense was mismanaged. Taylor Lewan's affability was at worst 1% of a problem that started with Rich Rodriguez's offensive line recruiting. Losing him isn't going to solve a problem. Winning will.