Special Teams: Bit of a mixed bag, just not in the way you expected.
This is the final edition of the 2011 Preview Review, focusing on special teams and Brian's "stupid predictions"—his term, not mine. Instead of breaking it down in the categories I've used in the two previous posts, I'm just going to go prediction-by-prediction for this one, since there's obviously less to cover here.
First, however... never forget:
This picture, encapsulating the gawd-awfulness of Michigan's 2010 attempts to split the uprights with a football, prefaced the preview section for kickers. The general assumption, given said gawd-awfulness, was that highly-touted freshman Matt Wile would step onto campus and immediately take over the starting job. Instead, three photos of post-shank Brendan Gibbons graced the top of the "kicker" section ("Rating: 2?"), followed by this caption:
WHAT THE BALLS WHY IS THIS MAN'S PICTURE HERE
It was a legitimate question. Gibbons went 1-for-4 in the 2010 regular season, lost his job to Seth Broekhuizen (3-for-9), then put a fitting cap on RichRod's final season by completely biffing a 35-yarder in the Gator Bowl. Optimism, well, was justifiably absent:
The idea of Gibbons hitting the field again gives me hives. At least this time around there's another option, though it's an option that lost out to Brendan Gibbons. Guh.
I always punt on kickers I haven't seen play but the chances Michigan has come up totally incompetent on two straight scholarship guys is low. Either Gibbons has gotten a lot better or they're trying not to put too much on Wile's plate.
So, of course, Gibbons goes out and hits 13 of 17 field goals, then cements himself in Michigan lore by drilling the game-winner in the Sugar Bowl while thinking about brunettes. By midseason, I wasn't even hiding my eyes when Hoke sent out the field goal unit. Gibbons improved dramatically; I won't attempt to figure out why—kickers are weird—but the stark contrast in reactions between Hoke and Rodriguez when the kicking game went to hell isn't a bad place to start.
The aspect of the kicking game that purported to be rock-solid was punting, where Wile was supposed to hold down the fort for four games until Will Hagerup made a grand, Zoltan-esque return from suspension.
If he manages to get through September without immolating his career, Michigan will have one of those punters color commentators call a "weapon" whenever he strolls onto the field. In Hagerup's case this is almost not hyperbolic.
Brian gave the punters a rating of "3, then 5" with the expectation that Hagerup would put behind him the early struggles of his freshman season and punt like the guy who averaged 44 yards per boot in Big Ten play. Instead, he wasn't even the best punter on the team: Wile averaged 42 yards per punt, while Hagerup managed just 36. Hagerup still started for most of the season, but when he shanked punts for 26 and 24 yards in the Sugar Bowl, Wile came on in relief and again performed better. Michigan finished the season 109th in net punting, a bitterly disappointing effort from a unit that was thought to be a strength.
Less surprising were Michigan's struggles in the return game, where Jeremy Gallon's contined presence at punt returner after finding every conceivable way to fumble in 2010 was deemed "inexplicable." There was one mission, and one mission only:
Gallon and the kick returners? Ask again later. I'm not expecting miracles. Just HOLD ON TO THE DAMN BALL.
There were no miracles. Gallon averaged a hair over ten yards per punt return as the Wolverines finished 53rd nationally in that category. Martavious Odoms and Vincent Smith handled most of the kick return duties; both were underwhelming, and Michigan was 117th in the country, averaging just 18.4 yards. Fumbles were notably absent, however, and thus the masses were placated.
Now we delve into the "Heuristics and Stupid Prediction" portion of the preview. Brian again recounted RichRod's "weird evil turnover juju," then predicted that Michigan would experience a much-needed regression to the mean after finishing -10 in turnover margin in 2010, in large part due to a competent defense and experience (say what?) at quarterback.
If Robinson remains healthy Michigan should improve significantly. The defense has to suck less and Robinson's responsibility should improve rapidly relative to players more than a year removed from being novelty freak shows. I'm afraid that Robinson is just a fumble-prone guy—Mike Hart didn't need experience to hold on to the damn ball—but the interception rate should dip considerably.
On the other side of the ball, a defense that rushes more than three players and has Martin, RVB, and Roh should get back to at least average in sacks. The center of the Gaussian distribution here is probably –3 turnovers on the year; even that would be massive improvement.
Robinson's interception rate, unfortunately, did not take a dive, but that didn't stop the Wolverines from vastly exceeding those expectations. Michigan finished +7 on the year, jumping from 109th to 25th in the national rankings.
The part you all want to see, however, is the final, "stupid" prediction. Before the ultimate unveiling, Brian put forth best-case and worst-case scenarios. Your nightmare season:
There's no bottom if Denard and a couple of other key defensive players are hurt. Leaving the worst-worst case out, a relatively healthy Michigan has no business losing to WMU, EMU, Minnesota, or Purdue at home.
San Diego State, Northwestern, Illinois are all losable but Denard should be able to snake at least one of those. 5-7 is the floor.
Obviously, none of that happened, because this website is not devoted to pictures of kittens. As for the best-case season:
The schedule is fairly soft, with no true road games until Michigan State (the game at Northwestern will be at least half M fans) and both Penn State and Wisconsin rotating off. If the offense maintains its current level of productivity and Mattison mediocres the defense real good, the only game that still seems entirely out of reach is Nebraska.
That's not to say Michigan can reasonably expect to win all games in reach. Taking more than two from Notre Dame, Michigan State, Iowa, and the Akron State Golden Bobcats seems to be irrational optimism. 9-3 is about all you can reasonably hope for.
Take out what ended up being overblown faith in Nebraska and understandable skepticism about the defense being anything better than mediocre and this is essentially what happened. Hooray for besting the "best-case" scenario. Less hooray for overrating Iowa and seeing them beat us anyway.
And finally, Brian's actual prediction:
I add it up and I come up with eight wins and change. Assume one irreplaceable player is annihilated and that comes back down to an even 8-4. Unlike last year, when I predicted 7-5 but thought 6-6 was more likely than 8-4, I think Michigan is more likely to surprise to the positive until such time as we have another Woolfolk ankle explosion pity party.
Some commenters have suggested that the exactingly specific predictions in the previous posts today suggest I'd be predicting something better than 8-4, but I think turnovers, while getting much better, will still be in the red. Though the special teams issues can't be as bad they will still be a problem that could kill Michigan in a close game.
Robinson, Martin, Van Bergen, and Demens all survived the season without significant injury; dodging those potential bullets cannot be understated in its significance. Throw in Michigan's turnover reversal, a defense that surprised even the most irrational optimist, and a competent kicking game—plus the implosion in Columbus—and you get a 10-2 regular season, landmark victories over Notre Dame and Ohio State, and a (completely fluky) Sugar Bowl triumph over Virginia Tech.
Please predict 10-2 this time around, Brian. That's how these things work, right?