My brother was a tutor at the Cabrini Green after school program here in Chicago. His student was in the third grade when they first met. Every Monday night, my brother would pick up his charge at the Fourth Presbyterian Church and study with him. He did this for weeks on end, and though he felt strongly that his student liked him just fine, he wasn't able to perceive much of a connection. After several months of dutiful service, my brother had to miss an evening. When he showed up the following week, his student (Jamal) walked up to him and said "where was you at?" My brother was touched to the core. And I learned this important lesson: always know where you be at. And thus my observations:
1. Preseason record predictions.
There has been a lot of commentary regarding Michigan's performance so far. I think it is safe to say that the large majority of Michigan fans are pleased with the team's performance and view it as exceeding expectations. I know I am in that group. I predicted that we would be 5-7 this year, but also predicted that the qualitative direction of the team would be highly positive and a significant improvement over last year. I was less interested in record, per se, and more interested in whether Rodriguez' system would make strides. Lucky for me, I have hopes to get both quantitative and qualitative improvement.
But before I get ahead of myself, we have to be candid about the record. Pre-season, I predicted we would defeat WMU, EMU, Indiana, and DSU. I thought we would win each of those games convincingly. I thought we would lose badly to ND, MSU, and Iowa. So where I predicted a 4-3 record, instead we stand at 5-2. A cynic would argue that Michigan's record, alone, does not demonstrate the sea change for which many are hoping. But...
2. Michigan's competitiveness has exceeded expectations.
The but, in this instance, is a big one. First, Michigan played with, and defeated, an ND team that is showing some sparks of life and has a solid record of its own with multiple wins over ranked-ish teams. Second, Michigan was extremely competitive in the Iowa game and, from where I sat, could be said to have outplayed Iowa and deserved to win. While the MSU game was deceptively "competitive" in the sense that it went into OT, it was nowhere near as close as the Iowa game. Still, much can be said of the defensive performance in that game, which allowed our offense to come on late and tie it. The sum up is that Michigan has been competitive in every single game this year, and won most of them -- and this competitiveness materially exceeds my qualitative expectations of how they'd play. Given that I spent last year with my hands covering either my mouth or my eyes, this year has been both fun and better than I expected.
3. We stand on the precipice.
So where do we go from here? The rest of Michigan's schedule is as follows: Penn State (home), Illinois (road), Purdue (home), Wisconsin (road), Ohio State (home). If you look at that lineup, you can credibly believe that Michigan could win every game. If you remember the Indiana game and are sobered by visions of a mediocre Indiana team moving at will in the Big House, you realize that Michigan could also lose all five of these games. So how will it go?
The fact that the Penn State game is at home is significant. With our frosh QBs, we've learned the importance of the home field. It is also significant that Penn State has a steady but uninspiring offense. I'd rather play a team with a solid defense and ho-hum offense than vice-versa. I am predicting we upset Penn State.
We are lucky that our next road game is at Illinois. I have always believed, and this year proves it, that Ron Zook is good at distributing duckets on the recruiting trail, and horrible at coaching his mercenaries once they decide to attend. I get the feeling that Zook has lost this team. I think Michigan is favored on the road, and I think they win it.
Next comes the trap game. Am I the only person that thinks that Purdue doesn't suck that bad? Something happened to this team after their loss to NIU. I thought they outplayed ND (admittedly without the Blond Vajajay for much of the game) and I thought they outplayed OSU. Did OSU turn the ball over a lot? Yes, but the turnovers weren't gimmees, they were caused in the main by good defense. I think the Purdue game could go the way of the Indiana game and be up for grabs in the last minute. My crystal ball doesn't see this far. I can't predict the Purdue game. For argument's sake, let's call it a win. Michigan is now 8-2.
Off to Camp Randall. Wisconsin is not good this year, but they are never that bad either, and they are always tough at Camp Randall. Notwithstanding lots of improvement from Tate and Denard, I think the two are rattled to be back out on the road. M loses and falls to 8-3.
And then the Game. There is a great deal of anticipation by the faithful this year, and for good reason. I have not been impressed by OSU in any game I have seen them play, including USC. I just don't see much of an offense, and certainly not one that exploits Pryor's physical talents. The defense is reliably good. Tressel has been criticized roundly this year, but he has demonstrated himself year in and year out at being good at preparing for Michigan. Unfortunately, my gut says we lose one more year. We are almost there. But I think the vibe that I thought would obtain (an angry, talented Michigan) is going to be missing. If anything, I think OSU may be the more angry and embarrassed team -- especially if they pick up a third loss against Iowa. Plus, you can expect an inspired game from Pryor, amid recent catcalls that he should have said yes to RichRod. I think the Bucs beat us at home for one more year. Michigan falls to 8-4.
4. Am I smoking crack?
5. What are the keys going forward?
Four keys going forward. First, I think RichRod needs to make up his mind, a bit, that we are NOT in fact a two quarterback team. Tate Forcier is the only quarterback who demonstrated the ability to drive us consistently with both passing and throwing. I think Denard is great and may be the better QB every year but this one. I also think he's a good change of pace to be deployed in the second quarter. But I think Forcier is a rhythm quarterback and I think taking him in and out isn't good for his mojo. For whatever reason, I think RichRod has a preference for Denard and has been playing Tate principally based on Tate's excellent on-field performance. I'm in favor of giving Tate all the series but the occasional change of pace, and I'd let him know it.
Second, we need continued improvement from the improving offensive line. Molk's return could be large, and we should all applaud Moosman for his efforts, notwithstanding a rocky start in East Lansing. If this line continues to improve week to week, especially in pass protection, I think we are going to be a tough out.
Third, we need improved linebacking. If I recall, Brian's UFR saw improvement in the Iowa game from Brown/Mouton/Ezeh. We need more of it, quickly, if we are going to stay with teams like Illinois, Purdue, and Ohio State.
Fourth, if the secondary play can hold where it is at, I'd be happy. I know we had the two blown coverages in Iowa. Still, I thought those guys have improved dramatically from the exorcism that was the ND game. While it would be great to wish our secondary would magically become a lockdown all the way across, you have to be reasonable. If they can play like they did against MSU and Iowa, I will take it.
6. One final point.
It is eminently possible that this whole thing melts down and we lose four of the next five and finish 6-6. My view is that I am less interested in our record than in our attitude and player development. I am happy with where we be at, and think you should be too.