2011 Preview Review: Special Teams and Stupid Predictions

Submitted by Ace on May 3rd, 2012 at 2:00 PM

Special Teams: Bit of a mixed bag, just not in the way you expected.

Previously: The offense, the defense.

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:


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?



May 3rd, 2012 at 5:40 PM ^

In 2009 he was arrested for rape after a lady accused him of forcible intercourse at a frat party. He admitted consensual sex with the girl, and I guess she later recanted and the charges dropped. But stil,l a bad experience for anyone.

G Money

May 3rd, 2012 at 3:33 PM ^

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.

Careful,  you almost implied Hoke did something better than Rich, rather benefitting from luck.


May 3rd, 2012 at 4:17 PM ^

Good God, people -- can you please dial down the "Brian hates Brandon (and Hoke by proxy), and is still pining for Rodriguez" rhetoric?  Especially when, y'know, Brian didn't even author the post in question?  Between this thread and the playoff one below, it's positively mind-numbing.  I'm reasonably sure Brandon and Hoke can handle Brian's criticism without dissolving into a pool of tears -- particularly where, as here, it's actually Ace, and a compliment.

G Money

May 4th, 2012 at 12:01 PM ^

You need to read Brian's posts more. Relax, it's his opinion and it's on the record.

Rich is a great X and O guy who is a tragic hero. A victim of circumstances. I have rarely read Brian putting much responsibility of the worst 3 years in UM football history on Rich. It's this or that that led to UM's poor performance and Rich happened to be here when it happened. Like I said, it's opinion and it's a free country. Which is why I can post this (and you are free to respond). Brian is a great writer IMO which is why I'm on this site.

Hoke is a "manager" (without much comment on his coaching).

I don't have any opinion on Brian's opinions on DB except that he didn't like the Hoke hire and how the process went. A lot of people felt that way, so no biggie.


May 4th, 2012 at 1:53 PM ^

Check out Brian's post after the Ohio State game:  here's the link. Not only does this post refute your premise as a general matter, it gives the specific credit you claim has been denied to Hoke -- namely, for his superior handling of the kickers.

Beyond that, I still maintain -- foolishly, I know -- that a discussion/critique of Brian's opinions would be better placed in a post authored by Brian.


May 4th, 2012 at 8:25 AM ^

I thought about this all last season and couldn't figure it out. Now looking at it I think Hoke was just doing them a solid in giving them playing time. But we should've switched it up to find the best Kick Returner!!! It is a crucial play in the game and is so important in the field position game and taking in consideration to DROBS skill set we should be doing everything possible to have our drives start between the 30-40 yd line. We do that and we get some kind of points on most of the time!!


May 6th, 2012 at 7:51 AM ^

You always do a great job for us and you always seem to be able to put everything in perspective. Thank you for all that you have done this season and I hope that your summer goes well.


There is a lot that can happen during the football season and it is awesome to read entries that really sum up the differences and give some predictions.