As we sift through the ashes of the 2008 Michigan Football Season we’re all wondering what this new era will bring. How do you set expectations for future seasons? What do you do on New Year’s Day when there is no Michigan football to watch? Even though you know it is prudent to give Rodriguez time to mold the team, how much patience will you be able to show when Michigan loses to an inferior opponent in 2009?
So I set about trying to figure out how optimistic we can be for next year. I’m trying hard to find reasons to get excited for next season as opposed to bracing ourselves for another bowl-less finish. (Note to reader – your health and sanity would probably be better off if you set your expectations low for 2009 and even 2010.) Personally, I was a skeptic when they hired Rodriguez and was thinking 6-6 as the over-under for win-loss record but I got pressured into optimism by pieces like this before the 2008 season. So take this with a grain of salt:
Reasons for Optimism:
1. Time – Year number one in a coaching change is always going to be hard, no matter what school, coach, or system you’re running. This year was going to be particularly tough with the returning talent level and the radical change in system. Another year in the program for the players will only help.
2. Depth Chart – When you’re basically starting six freshman on offense, you’re bound to fail. This isn’t basketball where you can get away with that. In football experience counts for a LOT, especially on offense. They return EVERYONE (sorry Pat Massey) from offense. If you look at every position group you’ll see that the only one that clearly suffers a loss is at DL. In twelve positions five of them should get definitely better and only two will likely be worse. That’s reason for optimism.
• QB – IMPROVED.
Threet is more experienced, Sheridan never sees the field again, we have more than one division 1 quality QB in the depth chart. Forcier and Beaver are freshman, but they’re division-1 talent, unlike Feagin and Sheridan.
• RB – IMPROVED.
Assuming no one leaves, the top six running backs return. The top four backs all lost significant time due to injury. That’s not going to happen two seasons in a row. Even losing McGuffie wouldn’t be the end of the world with three freshmen coming in.
• WR – IMPROVED.
The three starters return, two of whom will no longer be freshman. Robinson and Hemmingway should have been significant contributors but sat out the season hurt.
• TE – SLIGHT IMPROVEMENT.
Koger will be improved as a sophomore and full-time starter, but the depth chart is thin.
• FB – NO CHANGE.
Moundros was arguable the best offensive player this season and will be around again.
• OL – IMPROVED
The top thirteen, that’s right – THIRTEEN offensive lineman return. While some of them may be mediocre, a year of experience never hurt anyone. And now all of those red-shirt freshmen are available to challenge for playing time.
• K – SLIGHTLY WORSE
Unfortunately Lopata wasn’t as good in 2008 as he was in 2007, but he was still competent. Turning the duties over to a true freshman or Bryan Wright is likely a downgrade in this position….but not definitely so. Lopata was only 10-15 and that’s not a difficult percentage to match.
• DL – WORSE
Anytime you lose three and maybe even four starters you’re in for a rough transition. Vanbergen and Martin showed excellent potential, but they’re still young and raw. The freshmen will be asked to contribute and that’s not always a good thing at this position. If Graham does stay the down grade won’t be significant, however.
• LB – NO CHANGE
Mouton got better as the season went on and will be a starter from day one. Ezeh is still mediocre, but he won’t be any worse and might get a little better. The third spot is a wild card, but Thompson won’t be hard to replace.
• CB – NO CHANGE
This was the most disappointing position on the field in 2008 so it is hard to think they could get worse. Warren should be better and Cissoko showed promise – at least as much as Trent. The nickel spot could be a wild card.
• S – NO CHANGE
I suppose this could get worse with Stewart and Harrison departing, but I can’t believe this unit could possibly play worse than they did in 2008. Our favorite punching bag will still be around and probably not any better, but there’s hope that he learns from 2008. The other spot is a total wildcard, but it wouldn’t take much to match Stewart’s level of performance.
• P – NO CHANGE
Is there a way to extend Zoltan’s eligibility?
3. Turnovers – It simply cannot be possible that Michigan can match the turnover problems of 2008. If so, that will be the best ever documented proof that there is no all-powerful God. I honestly think that if Michigan would have performed at league average in the return game that they would have won two more games. The previous six seasons Michigan lost an average of 10 fumbles per year. This year they had 18. Imagine picking any 8 fumbles from 2008 and pretending they didn’t happen. The parade of fumbles returning kicks cannot, and will not be repeated in 2009.
4. Schedule – It is hard to say what the level of competition will be in conference, but in 2009 Michigan won’t be playing a top ten Utah team and will be playing Notre Dame, Penn State, and Ohio State at home. MSU loses their workhorse running back and doesn’t have much else going for them. We replace Northwestern and Minnesota with Indiana and Iowa – probably an even swap.
5. Luck – This is a general term meant to summarize Michigan’s performance in close games. In 2008 Michigan went 1-4 in games that came down to a couple of plays. They could have easily won the Utah, Toledo, Northwestern, and Purdue games. Assuming 2-3 more wins from these types of games is not unrealistic. On top of that, the Notre Dame and Michigan State games were decided by 5-8 plays and it isn’t a stretch to think that Michigan could have won one of them. That leaves only the OSU, PSU, and Illinois games as blowouts. In all of those three games Michigan was within a touchdown at half time. Going 9-3 is highly unlikely, but looking at the 2008 you can see how 7-5 is possible.
Those are some fairly convincing arguments for why 2009 could be a fairly dramatic turnaround. The ceiling is probably 8-4, but the floor isn’t 3-9 it is probably 6-6. But before you start looking for hotels on New Years Day, there are a couple of big reasons for pause:
• Beaver and Forcier are significantly better than Feagin and Sheridan, but they’re still going to be true freshmen and that’s never a recipe for success in big time college football.
• It is sadly quite likely that there will be unexpected defections by players who were going go be counted on to contribute in 2009.
• The defense was supposed to be solid in 2008 and was frankly quite bad. A year of experience by the coaches and some modest improvement at LB and S should help, but it is hard to make an argument that the defense will improve.
• Expecting improvement by the OL and WR is very realistic, but they were so inconsistent and poor in 2008 that it is hard to expect them to become above average by 2009.
What other reasons for optimism can you think of? Am I looking too hard at this, are there more reasons to be worried?