Years ago, the University of Michigan's football team was in supposed turmoil. It had been years since Michigan won a national championship, and years since a Big Ten championship. The head coach was effectively a replacement for the legitimate guy, exiled in a media firestorm.
Coming into the season, Michigan seemed to be a distant third behind two conference juggernauts, and that embattled new coach was on the hot seat, to the point of the athletic director getting asked whether or not this guy was good enough, on a live pregame show. That AD defended the coach by saying he's set up to have a great year, and then we'll see.
That embattled coach, of course, was Lloyd Carr. That year was 1997. Michigan was coming off of some 4-loss seasons, and hadn't won a conference title in five years. Carr, who bcame the head coach after Gary Moeller's public meltdown, was seen to potentially be just a transitional guy.
I'm not joking. That clip is below.
At the 5:28 mark, Don Shane questions the future of Lloyd Carr as Michigan coach. At the 3:22 mark, Michigan State head coach Nick Saban spouts generic platitudes about systems and preparation while looking shifty. And at the 13:10 mark, Keith Jackson welcomes you to an afternoon at Michigan Stadium, mentioning Michigan's star defender Charles Woodson, and officially beginning The Greatest Season In Recent Michigan History.
This year, the atmosphere is the same. Michigan is in chaos, according to most of the die-hards. Last year was the worst offense ever, and the team is taking a step back! Devin Gardner had a bad year, and he's the starter again! The offensive line! Michigan State is legitimately good now! It's been X long since Michigan won this thing, or did that thing! Records! Everything off the field! We'll be fine. In fact, we'll be better than fine. Michigan will be good this season. For that matter, Michigan will be borderline great this season. Michigan will do the things that will bring all the national critics around, only this time, they'll be back with a team built upon a foundation.
Michigan football has not been the most fun, record-wise, since 2005 or so. Individual years can be debated, and some games were legitimately exciting. But for what seems to be the tenth season now, Michigan football isn't what we thought it was.
Here's the thing, though: all the pieces are there for Michigan to have a great year. All of the on-field pieces are there for Michigan to be a great team. All of the attrition and injuries to our rivals are there for Michigan to have a great year. Everything within the schedule sets up for Michigan to have a great year.
Michigan returns Devin Gardner, a senior quarterback who was incredibly injured for most of last season, a season that basically ended when this one player was beaten down to the point of not being able to go. Michigan returns a defense that held the team in games last year, and continues to improve. Across the board, Michigan's roster is improving with the maturity of existing players and an incoming recruiting class that includes one star playmaker and a ton of depth. And, the two most glaring problems of last season are gone, personnel-wise. Everything sets up nicely. The pieces are there to have a great team.
Which brings all of us to the upcoming schedule. Appalachian State, Miami, Utah, Maryland, Indiana, Rutgers - all wins. Six wins. Northwestern just lost their top player, win #7. Michigan blew out Minnesota last year, that's win #8 this year.
Is Notre Dame winnable? Absolutely. The Fighting Irish just lost a notable number of starters in an academic scandal, their quarterback situation is worse than ours, and they are always worse than expected. Win #9.
Is Penn State winnable? Of course. Penn State has a new coach who is talking a big game, but that roster still has more structural problems than Michigan's. Penn State will end up coming down a notch from the hype, they will struggle a little over the course of the season, and that will be win #10.
Can Michigan win in Columbus? Sure. This isn't the Rich Rod years, where Ohio State would come out and simply outscore an overmatched Michigan squad. This isn't another game where Michigan will lose in Columbus, because that's just how things are now. MIchigan beat Ohio State in 2011, lost in 2012 due to field-goal kicking and a bad offensive half, and was a two-point conversion away from winning in 2013. Now, Braxton Miller is out for Ohio State, and things are looking grim in Columbus. Is this win #11?
Can Michigan win in East Lansing? Sure. Michigan State had a great defense propel them to a conference title last year, but they've lost some playmakers. Can Michigan's defense rise up to reduce the defensive advantage? Maybe. On the other side of the ball, can a Nussmeier/Gardner offense outduel Connor Cook? Probably. Look, this game isn't a likely win. But it's not hopeless to the point of the Rich Rod years or anything. It could be win #11, win #12, or simply a close-fought loss. All of those options are in play.
It's an optimistic look at the season, but it's not unrealistic. All of those things stand a better chance at happening than a repeat of 2013, where the offense was built around a strong offensive lineman and quarterback, the lineman was an ass, leading to the quarterback getting injured and the offensive coordinator's utter hopelessness. This isn't that. This won't be that.
Right now, our biggest problem seems to be that the general attitude towards the whole team is that of a dismissively negative one. Once a closer look is taken, all of the pieces seem to be potentially great, with everything coming together. Just going by realistic on-field expectations, Michigan will go, barring chaos, at least 10-2, with those two losses being close. That biggest problem is simply the scars of the recent past.
And to reference recent history, the worst case scenario is 2011 with more optimism for next year. Optimism in guys like Morris and Peppers, optimism in having all of our rivals at home, optimism for what is to come.
Here's where the negativity comes in. The only two things against Michigan having a great year is idiotic off-field moves and a steady stream of national pessimism that leads to a third thing: local dread. All of these things are easily removed, and will be removed as time passes.
Once football kicks off, everything else will be forgotten. That means you, Dave Brandon, proverbially standing on a highway off-ramp into Ann Arbor, hoping that the incoming traffic will roll their windows down to buy tickets. That means you, memories of 2013, those of the infinite stream of rushes into the middle of an unblocking line. That means you, Arizona bowl game that literally doesn't exist anymore. All of you, gone once actual football starts up.
The reason why these kinds of things become spectres that haunt places like this, is that the college football season is so brief, and the summers so long, that these kinds of things become bigger than they are. There's literally nothing going on, but the appetite for Michigan discussion (or any team, for that matter) never goes away. When easy discussion bait comes up, like Dave Brandon, everyone hops to get it on it, because we're starving to talk about something. Once the game starts, we'll all move on.
It's the same as the sputtering end to 2013. Last season, from the Penn State game on, was almost entirely terrible. Terrible in every possible way, leading to a whole summer with that taste in our mouths. Once the games begin, and we see what the 2014 Michigan team can do, that 2013 team will fade. It will fade into a rough collage of barely beating Ohio State, that field goal against Northwestern, and that horrendous Nebraska home game.
(Playing the games will also cause another unfortunate discussion topic to fade away - Michigan's terrible home schedule. Yeah, we all agree, there are no standout games at home this year. Penn State is not Michigan State, on many levels. No big names are coming in as random highlights on the non-conference schedule. Everyone understands. But once the games begin...that home schedule will be somewhat of an afterthought.)
This leads to the second mark against Michigan, that stream of national pessimism that comes over the course of the summer, cresting in an August of overreaction. The two preseason polls came out, Michigan was unranked in both. The rest of the country, which casually looks at Ann Arbor and sees the faintest glimpse of a rebuilding project, tosses some votes for us sparingly. Which leads to worry and panic, because Michigan isn't ranked.
That ranking, with wins, will come. As someone who tracks the polls more than most, I'd say Michigan gets an official ranking after a win against Notre Dame at the earliest. Michigan is 37th in the AP poll, and 32nd in the coaches' poll, and will inevitably rise with wins and opposing attrition.
Once that happens, of course, everyone will be in town to write/speak/yell about how Michigan Is Back. Michigan's undefeated through their first six games, and Penn State comes to town this week! Michigan just beat Penn State, they're 7-0! Doug Nussmeier is the real deal, so is Brady Hoke! Devin Gardner for Heisman! This team could go to the playoffs! Anyone reading this can see these headlines coming. It happened from 2009-2011. Denard was gonna win the Heisman, remember?
In case you doubt this will happen, look at Notre Dame. Notre Dame flailed their way to an undefeated season in 2012, and everyone was stumbling to write a paean to Notre Dame's return to greatness. Despite a team that wasn't actually that good, the story of the 2012 college football season was ND, from November until January.
If Michigan starts undefeated, that national tide of positivity will come our way. All the momentum of the old days will be back again, as Michigan will be back in the eyes of the national media. It's an easy story, one that would be covered extensively, especially in the Big Ten with Ohio State going down in Miller's injury. Someone will be the media darling towards the end of the season, and it will be the winner of the Michigan-Michigan State game. However, if Michigan is the winner...we'd be the story of the year going into the Ohio State game.
Once all of that starts to happen, and it will, the pessimism of the Michigan fanbase will go away. It will go away until some sort of collapse, pop back up again, and disappear. Michigan football might not have the same offseason aura as the '90s, but it will certainly feel like the summer of 2012, when anything seemed possible after a season that restarted everything.
That leads to the best case scenario for this time next year. We all know what the worst case scenario that is, in whatever little permutation that would be. The best case scenario is a full winter and fall of positive energy coming out of Ann Arbor, with a solid season going into a stacked schedule towards next season.
The last thing that a great season will dismiss is the dread. The fear of another season of getting proverbially kicked in the ribs, of dealing with another offseason of low self-esteem brought on by bad memories. If Michigan has a great year, 2015 will begin in optimism. A high ranking to start the season. A schedule that features two rivalry games at home, a transition out of mid-majors in the preseason, and the return of true/high expectations. All will be well. We just have to get there first.