Note: I take this format directly from Brandon Stroud’s Best and Worst of Raw over at With Leather. I love what he does there, and figured it would be a nice style to recap both the OOC schedule and, going forward, each game in the schedule. As with everything on the Internet, reader beware.
So the past five weeks were interesting. UM currently sits at 2-2, with one blowout loss, one blowout win, and a split in games that could charitably be described as “competitive” and uncharitably described as “Big Tehnnn footbah!” The David Brandon Memorial “Millions of Dollars” bowl was what everyone expected once it transformed from that big travel date in the sky to Guards in The Longest Yard’s fantasy it was in reality. Air Force was the workman-like win that service academies typically extract from good teams, and UMass reminded everyone that we should all be happy that they root for a team with First World Football Problems and not a school whose claim to athletic fame was being the other other school John Calipari screwed over after leaving.
And then there was Notre Dame, which absolutely felt like those times in video game football when the computer says “you are NOT going undefeated this season with Brody Boss as your QB of New Mexico State” and your players do everything short of digitally pooping themselves on the field for 4 quarters. For shorthand purposes, I shall refer to this feeling going forward as pulling a “Rooting for Jimmy Clausen.”
But with Purdue coming up next, I figured it would be worth a brief look back at these first four games and highlight the soul-lifting positives and dong-punching negatives as I saw them.
Best: Yeah real Out-Of-Conference Games!
It is a not-so-dirty secret in Ann Arbor that UM almost always treated the ND game as the SUPER HUGE DEAL! game every season, so they rarely tried to schedule another tough opponent before conference play. Sure, you’d get your Baylor/Virginia/Syracuse/mid-level Pac-10 team here and there, but those blockbuster matchups were simply not that common. Whereas in recent years OSU scheduled USC, Texas, and Miami (YTM [when they were supposed to be good]), and various SEC teams were welcoming unassuming programs to the Thunderdome to be pulverized, UM seemingly built its out-of-conference slate around beating leather-helmet enthusiasts who are tears-of-sadness photogenic and who just like to hang out with the guys, bra.
So when it was announced in 2010 that Team 134 would be traveling to JerryWorld to face the good-but-not-yet-terrifying Alabama Crimson Tide the general consensus was “Good, hopefully Rich Rodriguez will have the team ready” coupled with “finally UM is playing a legit team in the OOC schedule.” That was also a more innocent time, when Greg Robinson was a bit more GERG and less interpretive dance/motivational animal rubbing-er.
|This can never be unseen|
But for once, it felt like UM was trying to maintain at least the notion that it would play anyone anywhere anytime, that it measured itself against the best programs in the country. And sure, it was going to carry with it the big-game taxes and costs to see it live, but finally UM would be part of a marquee non-conference game that didn’t include Tom Hammond receiving Pez every time he mentioned the ghosts of Notre Dame past.
|My Coldwell Banker rep sure seems happy today|
Worst: So THAT’S why people don’t schedule SEC teams
The sense when the game was announced was that there is no way Alabama would be as good as the year before when they won the national title, and the narrative of SEC dominance felt like the unholy lovechild of marketing by ESPN and the Power of Tebow, and not, you know, stone-cold reality. But as the years progressed and Alabama kept schooling fools and Michigan did not, then they switched coaches, it became clear that this wasn’t going to be fun.
Of course, there had been rumblings previously that Alabama might up to something, what with the wings of hospitals being filled with former recruits who didn’t quite pan out or signing 135 (!!) recruits since 2008 even though natural matriculation, the NFL draft, and math made that number still too high to meet the NCAA scholarship regulations. And it wasn’t like Saban was pulling a Houston Nutt and crashing his motorcycle while getting a…er, just grab-bagging kids in droves with no regard for ability or need. He was pulling in 4* and 5* kids, and then putting them on special teams because the 5* kids ahead of them were still producing/not suddenly being deemed unable to play sports again.
Best: Are you not ENTERTAINED!
One of the time-honored traditions for most major-college football teams is to schedule “Baby Seals” to play in home games before the regular conference season begins. The goal is to snag a couple of easy wins, get the starters some game-like practice without injury, and to send the alumni and fans home happy after a nice day game. And heck, maybe it will be a bit entertaining.
So that’s why teams typically schedule these Seal teams, comprised of fervent, KISS Army-like followers of British pop/soul musician Seal Henry Olusegun Olumide Adeola Samuel, their anthem a throaty “You’re never gonna survive…unless you get a little crazy!” and their uniforms adorned with a vibrant roses on a gravestones…
Wait, that’s not right. Fans of Seal would be more into the other game of football, and anyway their leader seems like he’d rather memorialize the game and not necessarily participate. No, apparently Seal teams are a crack team of Navy special forces (like the varsity of version of the Midshipmen, but with more guns, less hair, and the most OMG Shirtless-ness of the elite military forces).
Okay, wrong again. Apparently Baby Seals are teams that programs schedule because the talent disparity between the two programs is so significant that there is NO WAY that the Seal could EVER beat the BCS squad.
A great example this year was UMass, the past home of 16-year (!!) NBA star Marcus Camby and current home of former UM victory cigar Mike Cox. While UMass had given the Wolverines all they could handle a couple of years ago, it was clear from the first snap of the game that UM was a significantly better team than the Mintemen and that the only issue would be if Denard Robinson scored more points for UMass than they did on offense. It was the type of victory people need to see more often before it becomes routine, even though there is NO REASON why UM fans should ever be worried about losing to them. Right?
Anyway, it was the type of game where offensive players scamper untouched 5-10 yards past the line, where receivers are constantly blanketed and overmatched offensive linemen are being crushed left and right by future NFL DTs and DEs, and a couple of cheap scores shouldn’t cloud the severity of the beating dished out.
Worst: The other foot
Now, you probably thought that last paragraph above was referring to the UMass game, and it was. But I could copy and paste that text, and really the whole last section save for my weird Seal-based non-sequitur, and it would be a 100% recap of watching the Alabama game. UM was Baby Seal’ed as much as any UM team I’ve ever seen, though I’ll admit to being 10 and definitely not into sports when UM played Florida State. The worst game I ever saw UM play in person was against Iowa in 2002 because it wasn’t a fluky game where UM shot itself in the foot as much as Iowa just blew them off the field (check out the drive chart). Maybe Oregon in 2007 was worse, but that team was shell-shocked so it wasn’t surprising that a pumped Ducks team (which definitely stay together when they play together) with tons of talent beat them badly. I’m sure I’m missing an ND game in there somewhere, and Brian seems to have a thing about the 2007 OSU game, and anyone with knowledge before 1995 or so feel free to add in the comments below.
This has to be photoshopped, right?
But this Alabama game is the worst beating I’ve seen UM experience. It wasn’t that Alabama was the better team on the day, or that they played UM so well. I have watched UM enough, especially during the RR years but even during those down Carr and Moeller years, to know that sometimes this team just isn’t as talented as its competition.
This was different, though. In all previous butt-whoopings, UM at least looked like they COULD have beaten the opposition on a different day. But against Alabama, there was no reality, no world in which Michigan could have beaten that Alabama team. And that includes a reality in which both Michigan’s and Alabama’s players are clowns made of candy and Jim Tressel is a Doozer who built Cowboy Stadium with pixie sticks. I try not to use hyperbole very often, but Alabama UMass’d UM more than UM has UMass’d a team in recent memory (okay, maybe not Delaware St., but go with it). It was a sobering sight to see Al Borges look at his play sheet, throw up his hands in disgust, and just run the ball out of the I-form and punt. And it showed that while Brady Hoke is pointing UM in the right direction, maybe college football has morphed so much in the past half-dozen years that anyone who doesn’t recruit 120 kids and pays NFL-like salaries to state employees is going to be some precious sea animal to be mowed down by the couple of teams that are willing to play fast and loose with the spirit of college athletics.
|Couldn’t find an excuse to put this picture in anywhere else – a bear with chainsaws for claws|
Best: USA! USA! USA!
I was going to make this a Worst because I’m never a fan of playing the service academies. First, they are about as true a “student-athlete” as you’ll find in the FBS – they are not that big, they are not that fast, they all love engineering and science and stuff, and they are definitely Going Pro in Something Other Than Sports. So beating them feels like the varsity team beating a really motivated and disciplined intramural team, if said intramural team was full of smart guys and not brosephs who wear their Oak Red Division II championship t-shirt every time they get their swell on.
Second, they are actually pretty good at football, or at least are resourceful and schematically-unique enough that they can catch even good teams off guard. At least one of them is always a top-5/10 outfit running the ball, they almost never take bad penalties, and their defenses are those annoying blitz-heavy-at-weird-angles schemes that can rattle an offense that knows it probably won’t be getting the ball that often. It’s actually fun to watch them play football except when it is against your team and they are driving for a game-tying score despite having 5’ 9” WRs and linemen significantly smaller than Billy Bob from Varsity Blues.
Finally, it just feels Notre Dame-y to play them, in the sense that certain teams derive some weird morality boost by playing a service academy. To listen to some people describe these matchups, playing Army or Air Force is to Support the Troops® and show why America is great, whereas it always struck me as an easy win on the schedule. It’s not like dropping 50 on them in Dublin was going to make them feel any better as they hunted for Sean Connery or defended Andre Braugher (and yes, I need to stop watching so much TV). It’s equivalent to acting as if Vanderbilt, Northwestern, or Stanford’s football teams are full of geniuses who are also good at football, instead of academically rigorous schools who field football teams that may have a couple of smart guys sprinkled in with guys who are largely indistinguishable from the rest of college sports.
So there are a bunch of reasons why playing service academies is a dumb idea…
EXCEPT I just can’t get over how much fun it is to see them on the field and see the respect fans everywhere give them. I’m no Mitch Albom or Gregg Easterbook, but I love seeing names like “Service” and “Freedom” on the back of jerseys, see the cadets in the crowd jump up and down in perfect unison, and remind myself that football is still pretty much a game and even though it drives me crazy when Al Borges doesn’t throw a f’ing LAZER screen against Alabama nobody is going to permanently scarred as a result. I’m not going to go watch the Columbia University Lions play the Princeton Tigers every weekend (though good seats were DEFINITELY available), but sometimes it is refreshing to watch a mid-sized David battle a slightly-larger Goliath for an afternoon, provided that Goliath doesn’t, you know, lose.
Worst: I was into Groundhog Day back when it was just looking at a land-beaver getting out of a hole.
It has been my goal on this site to never disparage a college kid when he does something bad on the football field. I hate yelling at 22-year-old kids for screwing up in a position where I would turtle as soon as the ball was hiked. So I’m not going to call out Denard for the 5 turnovers against Notre Dame because there are various reasons why the ball was turned over, and not all of them are on his shoulders.
That said, after he threw interceptions on consecutive passes in the second quarter against Notre Dame AND gained a first down running the ball on three straight plays, you just knew that as soon as he rolled out to throw the ball bad things were going to happen. I love the chutzpah Denard has shown over the years, the fearlessness and supreme confidence in his abilities that helped him pull wins out of his butt and give the team hope after going 3-9. But at the same time, he has the problem every other college QB has – he has his safety valves, his “break on pressure” switches that lead him to lock onto Tacopants 50 yards down the field and just say
Or find the slot receiver triple covered and try to phase the ball through two of them into his arms. And yeah, UM QBs have been doing that since the beginning of time (John Navarre practically tethered his large intestine to Marquise Walker when he was being pressured), but this team doesn’t have the elite-type WRs those guys had, so they don’t usually get separation and can’t jump over the coverage and save him unless they are Baby Megatron.
Now, I don’t think you put any kid in that position if you can help it. The coaches should have had him keep running the ball until Notre Dame found a way to stop it. Then give the ball to Fitz, or a short dump-off to Funchess, or anything else that has a tiny chance of being turned over. Everyone knew he was a little rattled and that is fine; give him a series to get his feet under him again even if it ends with a punt. The defense was keeping the game close and Tommy Rees was under center on the other side of the field. Trust me – the game wasn’t over.
And I guess that will be Denard’s legacy at UM – a preposterously athletic kid who tried to play QB in an offense that is just too risky for some people’s tastes, who put up numbers but also seemingly came up a couple short when he needed them most. Even if the team wins out, he’ll be defeated against Penn St. and Wisconsin for his career, 1-3 versus MSU, and 2-2 against an OSU team that is itself in transition. He’ll have the career yardage mark but also the career interception record; the most rushing yards but also a disturbing number of fumbles. He’ll be a memorable figure in UM history, the epitome of the good and bad that occurred when UM tried something new for the first time in most of our lifetimes.
Barring Al Borges and Brady Hoke getting seduced by the siren song of Dana Holgorsen, the next 6.02X10^23 QBs are going to be majestic rocket-armed missile launchers who look down a crashing DE and thread three needles to get the ball to a 6’5” TE donkey-busting a DB down the sideline. And they’ll make all the correct reads (even when they don’t) and have just enough wiggle in the pocket to get time in the pocket (except when they can’t). And that will be glorious, if a bit sad. I happen to like little guys who make me smile every time they touch the ball.
My favorite dumb line (outside of, you know, this one) from the best dumb movie about football, perfectly embodies what the rest of the year holds for this team. At 2-2, nobody is thinking of a backdoor shot at some national title chase, nor were those wins or Notre Dame loss filled with any defining thru-line regarding how this team will play going forward (except, maybe, that the defense will be better than expected). But with 8 games to go in the conference slate, this squad can still put together a pretty nice season. Sure, they’ve got to beat OSU in the Horseshoe and Nebraska at the Astrodome North, and MSU looks like they will cobble together a gameplan wherein Bell runs the ball 90 times and they win by 3, but nobody is going to run away with this conference. Robinson may have games like 2012 Notre Dame at times, but he also has games like 2011 Notre Dame, 2010 Notre Dame, and 2011 Ohio State where he is the most dynamic player in the country. So starting with Purdue on Saturday, if this team plays like it is capable of, it has a chance at going from 3-9 to a conference championship in 4 years. That' isn’t just amazing, that’s heroic.
(Jebus, I need to update my Netflix queue…)
So provided this doesn’t stamp my ticket to Bolivia, I’ll be back with another installment after the Purdue game.