As most of you undoubtedly have, I’ve been struggling to figure out my expectations for the 2011-12 football season. On the defensive side of the ball, things are looking up. On offense, however, there are signs of inclement weather, which may pose problems come September.
Galactic Punter II aside, special teams remains the foul abode of ancient demons and Boschian nightmares. On the other hand, it's still very, very early. So I tried to work through the most plausible scenarios rationally, to assess their relative likelihood based upon what we know now, and where things may be headed. No fancy statistics or charts here, just old-fashioned logic and informed speculation. Take that with a grain of salt, and please tell me what I’ve got right and what I’ve got wrong.
1. Roses-Tinted Glasses
Scenario: Basically everything goes right. Mattison’s schemes and emphasis on fundamentals produce not improvement, but a seismic shift in our defensive performance. We tackle, we swarm and we don’t lose contain. The young, middling recruits of yesteryear turn into MEN who play MANBALL. Over on offense, Borges shows his utilitarian side, keeping plays and formations that were effective last year, but also introducing new schemes that dramatically improve our scoring efficiency and flexibility against stout defenses. A running back or two establish themselves as go-to guys, putting less pressure on Denard’s feet and keeping him healthy. Denard does still dazzle us with his running ability, but he also looks comfortable in the pocket and shows maturity as a passer. Hagerup ensures we dominate the battle for field position, and thanks to Matt Wile, we can actually kick field goals!
Record: 10-2, or a really good 9-3 in a parity-filled year, a chance to play for the inaugural Big 10 Championship game and a possible trip to Pasadena.
Odds: 9/1. Given our recent luck with injuries, a big and uncertain transition on offense and the gauntlet-style conference schedule we face, I’d rate this as possible, but highly unlikely. Too many things would have to come together: too many gaping holes on defense filled with underwhelming sophomores and rusty seniors, too many apparent problems in our execution of the West Coast offense wrapped up quickly and emphatically, too much pressure on a true freshman kicker and too many depth issues at key positions all over the field solved with fairy dust and magic wands.* Of course, surprise performances do happen from time to time. How about PennStatein 2008-9? That was a team that had been decent but kind of “meh” the year before, and had a host of pre-season issues making a championship campaign unlikely. Another example closer to home would be our 2006 team—lots of returning starters but some uncertainty based on staff changes. Still, those were teams that could consistently win with defense. We’re just not there yet. And besides, if there’s one thing we’ve come to expect in 4 of the past 5 years, it’s the ruthless smashing of dreams by Angry Michigan-Hating Gods. Don’t get your hopes up.
*An 11-1 scenario would also likely require some help, in the form of criminal charges beyond the pale of re-instatement in East Lansing, Apocalypse Tressel in Columbus and locust plagues just about everywhere else in the conference.
2. Remember the Alamo…er…Outback Bowl!
Scenario: Mattison’s coaching and more experience on the DL and in the secondary produce immediate dividends on defense. We upgrade from “historically bad” to “somewhere in the middle.” Teams just can’t score on us like they used to, we hold steady on 3rd down with some regularity and tackling is as tackling does. We adjust to life in the West Coast offense pretty well, do better in the field position battle than last year and manage to kick some field goals here and there. However, we do suffer from some transitional pains on offense, and, despite improvement, are still not great on defense.
Record: 9-3 or 8-4, with a signature win over “Little Brother” or “Ohio.”
Odds: 6/5. As I see it, this is the most likely scenario. We win a couple we’re supposed to lose, but lose at least one we’re supposed to win. Iowa and MSU, in particular, look ripe for the pickin’. Perhaps we even beat the boys from Tatville! That said, we should probably splash ourselves with the cold water of reality: our schedule is still brutal.* Going 5-3 or 4-4 against ND, SDSU, MSU, Northwestern, Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska and OSU seems like a plausible outcome for a team with a still-explosive-but-somewhat-slowed offense, a still-questionable-but-fast-improving defense and an extra year of experience and conditioning for our pantheon of returning starters. Beyond that lie clouds, fantastic things to stare at and imagine as corporeal, but are in actuality little more than concentrations of moisture in random shapes. This is where we appear to be headed, or perhaps more accurately, this is where we should be headed. So wax nostalgic about the Lloyd Carr years, friends, for they may be back.
*ALLBig 10 Schedules are brutal, every year. This one is not as bad as the one we get in 2012, which has the added pain of Alabamaand Air Force, but it still poses major challenges for an ascending lower-middle-of-the-pack team like us.
3. Gator Vu All Over Again…
Scenario: Our defense may get better, but it’s still not up to snuff against proper competition. Our offense, on the other hand, has a rockier-than-hoped-for transition to Borges’ West Coast scheme. The combination of these two factors doom us to a different kind of the same mediocrity we experienced in 2010. Or, things do go according to plan, but injuries rear their ugly head and things fall apart during the toughest part of the season. Either way, at times we put it all together, and at others, nothing seems to work.
Record: 7-5 or 6-6, and a rematch with the SEC midrange.
Odds: 9/5. Sadly, this is another plausible scenario, and an obstacle to our return to Big 10 relevancy. Basically, start with all the factors outlined in the Outback scenario, and then add a few drops of cyanide. Said cyanide can take multiple forms. Take, for example, the home-and-away factor in the pivotal 8 games mentioned above: ND, SDSU, Nebraskaand OSU are at home, and MSU, Northwestern, Iowa, and Illinoisaway. Location held constant, all those away games are winnable; playing them away makes them less so. The home games, by contrast, include the two we’re least likely to win no matter where they are played. Despite everything I said in the last entry, this is a problem. Another one is depth, and what a few unlucky injuries could mean to the best-laid plans of mice and men. Can you imagine us going 3-5 or even 2-6 across that stretch? I can. Of course, our roster doesn't appear as frighteningly thin as it was last year,* and all that experience will count for something. Hopefully it will. If not, 2011 could look a whole lot like 2010.
*It didn't look quite that bad in May 2010 either.
4. A Moonwalk to Oblivion
Scenario: In this final scenario, everything that can go wrong does. Mattison’s coaching can’t turn this ragtag bunch into anything even approaching competence, and Borges goes all square-peg-meets-round-hole on our offensive personnel. Our RBs continue to sputter, and our WRs, it turns out, really aren’t suited to a West Coast offense. Denard gets injured, or regresses into an interception machine. We still can’t kick a damned field goal.
Record: 5-7 or worse. No postseason and another hard sell on the recruiting path.
Odds: 9/1. We can sleep relatively well tonight, because this isn’t too likely. But it does happen sometimes. In 2009, Charlie Weis took a Notre Dame team stacked with upperclassmen and promptly went 6-6. Though our expectations aren’t as high or as delusionary, our schedule is likely tougher. We’ve also had a string of bad luck and poor coaching decisions the past few years, which contributed to our historically bad defenses and—in 2008 and 2009—our sputtering offenses. If this string of luck and poor decisions continues (albeit in different form), it would severely complicate the transition currently under way. As I see it, this would take another injury-and-attrition apocalypse like the one that produced our Decimated Defense in 2010 combined with another “shock-therapy” transition on offense like we had in 2008. To be frank, I don’t think it’s too likely for lightning to strike twice in two years, and a return to 2008 production is unlikely, given differences in personnel.* All that said, our vat of returning starters, apparent upgrade in defensive coaching and reassuring noises from Borges about using shotgun sets and QB keepers make this is about as likely as going to the Rose Bowl. In other words, not very.
*But the consequences would also be more painful, given what we expect from Denard n’ Co.
Inevitably, some readers will draw connections to our recent coaching change and the on-going feud between the Rich Rod loyalists and the Hoke brigade. I do have my opinions on this topic, but I’d rather not go there. Suffice to say, Rich tried his best to put something special together here, and it just didn’t turn out the way he hoped. Dave Brandon made a decision to change things because he didn’t see a roadmap to sustained success, and felt the Michiganbrand was suffering as a result. Only time will give us a concrete idea as to whether Brandonmade a good or bad decision. I’m not trying to comment on the wisdom of that decision, or lack thereof.