Best and Worst: Pre-Season

Submitted by bronxblue on August 14th, 2014 at 9:18 AM

[ed: bump.]

Seeing as we just had the annual heights and weights delivered to our doorstep with nary an emotion beyond “these large men either got slightly larger or slightly smaller, and that is good”, there really isn’t much else going on until the season starts.  Sure, there was the BBQ and a couple of commitments, but I’d be surprised if much else happened until a couple of days before The Horror II – Horror-ier comes into our lives at the end of August.  So yeah, figured I’d dust off this diary and expound a bit on the UM sports landscape, the upcoming football season, college sports in general, and a couple of other topics. 

Best:  Are You Ready for Some Football!

So it’s been over 8 months since UM last played a down of football (and, frankly, many more months since those downs felt meaningful).  I know a great deal has gone on both locally and nationally to put a dour tone on the upcoming season, but I’m just excited for the sport to return and for my fall weekends to have a bit more entertainment.  Living in NY but being a Lions fan, I’m forced to watch the Jets and Giants try to out-dryhump doorknobs for 3 hours most weeks, and can usually only catch games with teams I care about on postage stamp-sized feeds from random “sports” sites hosted in countries Russia hasn’t realized they might want to take back yet.  But basically every Saturday from August until November I know that I can turn on the television and find some channel with Michigan on it, and for a couple of hours I can be unabashedly zealous over something pretty inconsequential but still incredibly endearing to my heart.  That’s why I love the fall, and why I love having Michigan football back in my life.

[After the JUMP: lots more things that are either the best or the worst.]

Worst:  Welcome to the Rock

So one of the first games you learn as a kid is “Rock-Paper-Scissors”.  It’s incredibly simple yet also addictive, and has depth and nuance that is often overlooked.  The rules are simple: rock beats scissors, scissors beat paper, and paper beats rock.  Each player doesn’t know what option the other is going to throw down until the last moment, so the game is played between the ears, based on patterns, propensities, and personalities. 

And yet, there is a massive flaw in its logic, at least in my estimation.  The story goes that rock beats scissors because a big rock can smash scissors to bits.  And scissors can make short work of paper because, well, that’s why people created scissors in the first place.  And yet, with all this concrete, IRL logic, we are asked to buy that paper beats rock because “[p]aper covers, sands or captures rock?”  Really?  I must have missed the part in history when kings made castles out of construction paper to ward off marauding barbarians.  Has anyone looked at a regular sheet of paper and said “man, that looks like something I can use to wear down a stone?”    And don’t get me started on “covering” a rock with paper, as if a rock is a little caged bird that will, what, fall asleep and loss its rock-iness under an 8.5”x11”.

So what does this have to do with football?  Well, what we always hear from pundits is that football is like chess, with head coaches and lead coordinators constantly tinkering and adapting to what the opponent is doing on offense and defense.  Now, on the micro-level that is absolutely true; watch any football game between two evenly-matched teams and you’ll see exquisite creativity and subtlety in playcalling.  And the pervading sense, at least to onlookers, is that good teams are constantly trying to call players that rock’s a team’s hard-cutting defense, or cuts through an offense’s paper-thin line. 

But look at successful teams (or even just successful units) and you’ll see that they are all premised on finding their rock and bashing their opponents with it every chance they get.  Within the conference, MSU’s rock is that aggressive press/quarters defense that allows them to play a consistent defensive style against any type of offense, whether it be an option-heavy attack or about as MANBALL as you can get in today’s college game.  OSU is all about the QB as a weapon with his feet, focusing on inside zone/gap running with an ever-present threat of the option and forcing defenses to overcompensate.  Though somewhat different in implementation, Rich Rodriguez has had the same basic concept of quick execution and multiple running threats throughout his tenure at a variety of programs.  And Wisconsin has basically been running the game offensive system since  Barry Alvarez, and they have been one of the best teams in the conference for over a decade now.  All these systems have flaws and are obviously beatable (insert comment about RR being VERY beatable at UM), but each provides the base from which the team derives its identity.

Now, while this is a bit simplistic, but can anyone honestly identify Michigan’s “rock” the past couple of years?  The offense became progressively less cohesive as RR’s spread-based recruits filtered through the system and were replaced by players (theoretically) better equipped to run whatever offense Al Borges was trying to install.  On defense, I guess you could argue the team has been a blitzing outfit, but more often than not the past couple of years Mattison’s blitzes have been called to simply provide some semblance of pressure to compensate (unfortunately) for his front 4’s inability to provide organically. The secondary has all the talent in the world to be a shutdown outfit, but whether it be due to playcalling, lack of pressure, or lacking talent maturation, it hasn’t materialized on the field.

So going into this year with a new OC and most of the defense returning, is this the year the team forges an identity?  Defensively I expect to see far more aggression in the secondary considering it goes 8-9 deep with above-average corners and safeties, including guys like Peppers and Thomas who can play multiple positions seamlessly.  The front 7 is what it is at this point, and there are enough question marks at the tackles that I’m not expecting significant improvement from a statistical standpoint (especially against the run) even if guys like Clark and Beyer improve the pass rush.  It’ll be another top-25-ish outfit (the team’s struggles against OSU and KSU to end the year skewed the rankings a bit), but without an organic pass rush I see a repeat of years past where the unit lives and dies on turnovers to get off the field, which isn’t really a recipe for consistent dominance.

Offensively, Doug Nussmeier brings a simplified pro-style offense (at least compared to Al Borges’s schemes), but besides 1 good year of Keith Price at Washington and not screwing up A.J. McCarron and the Alabama 5-stars, I’m not sure if we have a great read on what his optimal offense is.  Nick Saban hires OCs to run his offense, which is focused on a brutal inside running game that keeps turnovers low but can open up play-action and your usual package plays when necessary.  But in return for not messing that up he gives his coordinators immensely talented offensive lines and top-flight running backs.  That’s the offense all good Alabama teams run, and recently this has been augmented by elite WRs and, at least with McCarron, a willingness to throw the ball.  The last part is probably where Nussmeier’s creativity and scheming comes into play, and in Gardner he’ll have the most athletic and talented QB he’s ever coached.  The offensive line, though, still looks like a work in progress, and while the backfield may look like one he had at Alabama, it certainly hasn’t played like one.  Coupled with the fact that Nussmeier will likely be moving onto a head coaching position within a couple of years, about the best anyone can hope for is an offense that is simpler but at least repped enough with the inside zone to cut down on the massive number of negative plays the team had last year.  “Competency” is probably the best one can hope, and that isn’t much of an identity for an offense. 

Hopefully I’m wrong and this year’s team becomes synonymous with the next wave of Michigan greatness.  But right now, it feels like the team will still be trying to paper over its deficiencies, and that’s probably not going to be enough against the heavy hitters on the schedule.

Best:  I Don’t Understand Recruiting At All

You’d think this would be a worst, but I mean this in the most positive sense possible.  Consider the fact that UM just finished 7-6 with an, at times, unwatchable offense and a solid-if-unspectacular defense.  The last time most fans would consider UM truly “elite” nationally would have been 2006, when many of today’s recruits were 9 or 10 years old.  In the intervening years, they’ve watched a team basically struggle along at a stitch about .500, suffer through pretty one-sided series with key rivals, and have all three of its head coaches on various “hot seats” throughout most of their tenures. 

And yet unbelievably, the team’s recruiting has largely remained unchanged, and in fact has been downright amazing going into this year.  As of this writing, the team has 10 verbal commitments for 2015*, 8 of which are 4*’s to Rivals, one is a legacy 3* with a pretty good pedigree, and the other is one of the best kickers in the country.  This is particularly encouraging given the fact the team lost verbal commitments from guys like George Campbell, Shaun Crawford, and Damien Harris, and comes on the heels of a pretty good 2014 recruiting class headlined by Jabrill Peppers.

While a great deal can happen between now and NSD, it is clear that the UM “brand” remains pretty strong with top-level recruits despite the team’s recent struggles.  Obviously tradition means something to recruits, and the coaches remain strong advocates for a future that will mean a return to the near-elite status UM enjoyed throughout most of the 2000s.  The chance for a solid education at one of the best schools in the country is obviously a bonus for some, because even if you don’t go to college to “play school” it certainly won’t hurt your prospects for a solid life once your playing career is done.  And the campus itself undoubtedly has a charm to it, one that feels somewhat coastal while retaining its Midwest roots.  Being near a major city (and the ease of transportation) probably helps as well, since family and friends aren’t required to jump through too many hoops (or jump too many puddles) to come see a game.  And yes, as I’ll get into a bit below, there might be some less savory factors that are in play as well, though I suspect they are a relatively minor piece of the whole.

All that said, the fact that a school like MSU, enjoying what is undoubtedly the greatest run of success in the school’s modern history, hasn’t been able to translate that fully on the recruiting trail, while UM is seemingly immune to mediocrity on the field, continues to amaze me.  I’m sure there are reasons and factors behind it, but I certainly don’t “get” how recruiting works, though as a UM fan I guess I’ll just keep my mouth shut about it.

* Returning to an oft-repeated refrain, I have no idea why some people continue to ignore Alabama’s rather flagrant “roster management”.  Over the past 4 years, Alabama has received commitments from 99 players (22, 26, 25, 26), and this year have already received verbals from 21 more.  Since 2010 (5 drafts), the number of players declaring for the NFL draft has been 70.  Even taking into account normal washouts and guys who don’t qualify, I’ve yet to hear a rational argument explaining this number discrepancy.  Sure, you’ll hear the usual “violation of team rules” and “career-ending injuries”, but if the new autonomy granted to the top 5 conferences leads to a curtailing of this type of outright bullshit, it will be a roaring success in my eyes regardless of anything else is accomplishes.

Worst:  The Fault In Our Stars’ (Rankings)

Much has been made about the offensive line’s continued instability heading into the season, with a new round of wailing when Brady Hoke’s purported “first team” line included Mason Cole ahead of former 5* Kyle Kalis.  While I remain confident that the only thing the configuration showed was that Brady Hoke wanted to see how those five players looked on that particular day, this decision was met by some as further proof that this coaching staff can’t “coach ‘em up” and wastes top-notch talent. 

Most of this “player development” concern stems from selectivity bias coupled with a general downturn in performance by the whole team.  People point at the offensive line last year and say “look at all the struggles inside” while ignoring the fact that the line was anchored one 1st-round tackle^ and another 3rd-round tackle/guard, both of whom were developed to a large degree by this coaching staff.  Similarly, a guy like Jeremy Gallon, for all of his mountain-goatiness, doesn’t become one of the greatest WRs in UM history by dumb luck; this staff helped maximize his talents even though he wasn’t exactly suited for the offense they wanted to run.  JT Floyd went from the scrap heap to a two-time B1G honorable mention at corner, and even guys like Frank Clark and Jake Ryan have grown from middling 3* recruits into likely NFL draft picks. 

I’m not saying this coaching staff has been batting 1.000 in terms of players living up to the public’s general expectations, but at least part of that is because these players come in marked with whatever hype the services bestow upon them based on grainy videos, domination of overmatched opponents, and “measurables” and that becomes every player’s floor.  As fans, we are excited when a no-name recruit becomes a binky but we seem unable to accept that sometimes things don’t work out for the higher-ranked kids through no fault of anyone.  Every recruit is a hand of blackjack, and sometimes they hit and sometimes they bust regardless of how you try to stack the deck.  And even that determination of success or failure is subjective and, frankly, a bit disrespectful for teenagers and 20-somethings trying to play the game of football, but that high horse is a bit too lofty for a guy like me who is writing 5,000+ words about a team comprised of players nearly half his age.

My point is that offensive linemen have always been one of the hardest positions to recruit for because so much of it is based on projections of body growth and mastering of intricate technique, and just because a RS sophomore hasn’t turned into the next superstar doesn’t mean anyone is failing at their jobs.  Heck, it may be a sign Mason Cole is better than people expected, or that the best line may be rotating based on opponent and personnel.  I don’t know, and honestly I’m not sure anyone really knows right now, and that includes the coaching staff.  But much of this teeth gnashing seems to be coming from faulty expectations, and that should be treated as more of an indictment of the system performing the evaluations and not of the players being evaluated.

^ I am not one of those who believes that Taylor Lewan was a “wind up and go” type of tackles.  He was raw when he came to UM, and history is marked by players with just as much talent who never panned out nearly as well.

Best:  The Journey Comes to an End

I can think of few players in recent UM history who have endured as much of a roller-coaster ride of a career as Devin Gardner.  He came to Michigan at the tail end of RR’s tenure, with all the hype in the world.  Ranked as one of the best dual-threat QBs in the country (when that distinction apparently still mattered to some) and coming to a team coached by one of the best coaches in the country to take advantage of that very particular set of skills, the possibilities seemed limitless for him, and his appearance in two games before being injured his freshman only further teased everyone.  Even when RR was replaced by Hoke and Al Borges installed a very non-RR offense, the sense was that a kid with that much ability would “just make it work”, and spring game struggles aside the expectation was that he’d bide his time behind Denard before ascending to his rightful role as QB of the future.  And it wasn’t like he remained tied to the bench; Gardner found his was into the backfield for a variety of plays, and due to his freak athleticism even wound up starting his RS sophomore season at WR and had one of the few highlights against Alabama to open 2012.  When finally given an opportunity to start at QB after Denard went down against Nebraska, he produced stupendously and talk soon turned to 2013 and the potential for Gardner to rise to elite status in college football. 

Well, we all know how last year played out.  Gardner had amazing games against Notre Dame, Indiana, and Ohio State, the latter particularly impressive because he played about half the game with a broken foot.  He also struggled in close wins against Akron and UConn and couldn’t seem to get on track in losses to Iowa, Nebraska, and Iowa toward the end of the year.  His interception rate dropped from an unsustainable rate to start the year mostly because he just started to eat sacks, and the lack of a coherent running game and consistent blocking in front of him led to off-balance throws and poor timing with his receivers.  There is hope that Nussmeier will help to improve his mechanics and decision-making, and maybe the offensive line will play better overall in front of him because, well, they couldn’t play much worse.  But anyone expecting a huge jump for a guy on his 3rd OC in 4-ish seasons is more optimistic than me.

Gardner represents the best and worst of the past couple years of UM football.  On one hand, he’s been a fine example for this school academically as well as in the press, and one of the most dynamic players in the country since he stepped under center.  At the same time, he has struggled against some of the elite teams on the schedule, and his failings throwing the ball at the end of the year (save for against IU and OSU) were symptomatic of a team that lacked an offensive identity.  Most draft predictions question his viability as a QB in the NFL, and the (largely unsubstantiated) rumblings of Shane Morris stepping in at QB only places more pressure on him to reestablish himself to start the year. 

I suspect Gardner will have a solid final season, as he has a bevy of receivers with good talent (if perhaps not much production outside of Funchess, Chesson, and Butt when he returns) and, statistically speaking, some expectation of improvement in the running game.  At the same time, it will also feel a bit bittersweet, with potential for something truly great lost to the vagaries of coaching changes and bad timing.  I’m looking forward to watching New 98 give it one more go for the maize and blue, and I hope that everyone remembers how crazy of a ride it’s been for him.

Best:  Time to Run

I’ll keep this one short because, well, I’m about to go off on a rant and everyone kinda knows this already.  The running game was historically horrendous last year, and this year basically all the pieces come back minus the two best players on that line.  Conventional wisdom would state that any improvements by the returning players would be offset by the loss of Lewan and Schofield, and few are expecting a dramatic turnaround.  I’m a bit more bullish than others about this aspect of the offense because I really do think the offensive playcalling was significantly responsible for the team’s struggles, but even becoming a competent running outfit would feel like winning the lottery.  All that said, the homer in me says there is simply too much talent to have a repeat of last year, and early returns from the spring “game” and reports from practices point toward a unit that at least won’t be going backwards.  Coupled with a healthy Gardner and the talent at receiver, I expect this team to average the 4.0-ish ypc that was the standard prior to RR coming to town.  It won’t obviously come completely from the RBs, but keeping the ball moving forward and Gardner upright will likely do wonders.

Worst:  The Voice for the (perceived) Voiceless

Before his official departure from the WWE in mid-July, the wrestler CM Punk (or Phil Brooks for the Walking Dead/WTF sets) was perhaps best known for his infamous “shoot” promo nicknamed the “Pimp Bomb”, the 6-ish minute evisceration of the wrestling landscape and WWE’s perceived role in its fallowness found above.  In it, Punk took shots at both current titans (specifically John Cena) and former idols (such as Hulk Hogan and The Rock) for playing the political game and currying favor with WWE’s owner Vince McMahon.  He argued that the truly great performers like himself were being held down and ignored so that part-timers like The Rock and Brock Lesnar could work reduced schedules and main event big matches.  And most pointedly, he partially blamed the fans for letting it happen because they seemingly had no compunction about welcoming these retreads with open arms; they may cheer for the underdogs, but their wallets are voting for the former idols.

On one level, this was just CM Punk playing the role of a heel, the disenchanted former face who turns on his fans because of their hollow cheers.  But what made the moment so interesting from a casual fan’s perspective was that Punk broke down the kayfabe wall, that suspension of disbelief that the consumer must accept for the whole enterprise to remain afloat, from fake punches and choreographed finishes to the very conceit of an undead mortician-turned-biker-turned-undertaker-again doing battle with his severely-burned and sometimes-mute half-brother in a match where the loser is “buried alive.”  But while this willful blindness has worked with the younger crowds for generations, the fiction is also what tends to sour older viewers on the product and leads to the inevitable “I was into wrestling what I was a kid, but then [insert ‘it just seemed fake/thought it was kinda, you know/got into real sports/etc.].” At some point, you either have to love the lie and accept that as part of the entertainment or not, but even if you do buy into it you’ll still yearn for the veil to be pierced from time to time, even if it drags up the very unglamorous elements of contract disputes, mediocre storylines, and merchandising shares.  That’s why the Monday Night Wars between WCW and WWF/E was the last real “boom” for the professional wrestling industry; it featured screw jobs and earth-shattering turns based more in real disputes between the parties than those concocted in a writer’s room. 

Now, the difference between Punk’s promo and those iconic moments 15 years earlier is that it came about with a fair amount of cooperation from his employer.  This wasn’t one of those “no-holds barred” Youtube videos where an unemployed former star rants about backstage politics and “names names”; this was a guy still cashing paychecks from the WWE coordinating with writers, bookers, the A/V crew, etc. to call out the hypocrisy he saw around him, to be “the Voice of the Voiceless” inside the machine.  It was iconic and many fans identified with the very-real emotions held by the disgruntled Punk, but because his words came implicitly blessed by the organization he was trying to disrupt, they lost a bit of gravitas.  

So if you’ve gotten this far, you’re probably wondering how this relates to Michigan sports in particular, and college sports more generally?  Well, for most of the year and into the summer, the narrative surrounding UM football has been intimately tied to the greater athletic department and, really, Dave Brandon’s (perceived) fitness as the AD.  This blog has made it’s opinion clear on the man, and other prominent UM voices have chimed in with similar takes.  And in seemingly every instance, the author has either implicitly or explicitly (in the case of Mr. Bacon) argued that she “speaks” for the greater UM community with this take.

The problem is that I doubt there is much a consensus on anything related to UM and the greater athletic department beyond the most general of stances, such as “win more games”, “stop raising prices”, and “don’t cheat”.  While I agree that flagging ticket sales are due in part to ongoing price increases, it is also likely due to an extremely uneven home schedule and UM’s continued struggles on the field.  Similarly, while bringing fireworks in afternoon games was shot down, the rationale that this was a warning of some sort to Brandon and his MBA-driven acolytes seems specious at best.  The Regents have voted for fireworks in the past, including at the very-commercial and very-successful “Big Chill”, and this decision was likely as much in response to complaints from locals about noise and some political pandering as a strong distaste for the direction of an athletic department that is making lots of money.  It also feels that real successes for the department, such as improved facilities, successful marketing of the school, and marked improvements in basketball revenue and national profile, are largely attributed to specific coaches, legacy brand value, or “dumb luck.” 

Perhaps in past eras, there truly was a silent-but-significant minority of UM fans who could be ignored because they lacked effective means to be heard.  I suspect the genesis of much of UM’s internet community would agree with this sentiment, and it is undeniable that they try to represent an  “informed”, passionate portion of the fanbase.  At the same time, though, I’m not buying the argument that that this portion isn’t registering with the decision makers; if anything, I suspect their complaints are being noted but aren’t making much of a difference because, well, there are lots of people with contrary opinions.  I mean, if you were to read just MGoBlog’s main content, you’d have expected RR to still be the coach and flourishing with an innovative offense, the media hoopla surrounding excessive stretching to die down quickly, and for Brady Hoke and Al Borges to never have been hired at UM in the first place.  But even on this blog, there have been clear splits on these topics in the comment sections, and this blog represents a relatively homogenous subset of the UM world. 

Personally, I’m not particularly surprised by Brandon’s tenure so far; he’s had some good ideas and some bad ideas, just like Bill Martin before him (an AD some loved because he really monetized the UM brand but who was also guilty of the Halo and the clusterf*ck that was the post-Carr hiring process, amongst other transgressions).  I’m now (sadly) getting quite a bit older than the average MGoBlog visitor, and living so far away perhaps I’ve lost the connection to the live experience others feel is under attack.  But even when I was a student, I never cared about how the MMB was used beyond playing a couple of songs during the game and putting on solid halftime shows, and while some of the alternate uniforms have looked silly, others have been kinda spiffy.  My point is that being a fan is so nuanced, so personal that trying to represent a cohesive voice is rarely possible.  And in most instances, when things don’t go your way it isn’t because nobody heard you, only that more people said something else.  Which leads me to my next point…

Worst:  Hello Cleveland

Completing the “Get Off My Lawn” segment of this column, I’d like to touch on a sentiment that popped in my head while listening to a podcast with Chuck Klosterman.  In that podcast, Klosterman was asked about his condemnation of LeBron James’I’m Coming Home” article in which he said “In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have.”  While Klosterman noted that he had no issue with LeBron deciding to leave Miami and return to Cleveland, he took issue with the sentiment that there was something inherently special or “real” about Akron compared to other towns. That being from there somehow endowed LeBron with a character trait or moral superiority that would serve him well making millions of dollars playing basketball, and that his return to the region would somehow convince others to come back and fall in love again with this former rust belt stronghold. 

Klosterman’s argument was that this distorted tribalism just sounds absurd, that this romanticization of one’s home town ignores the fact that everyone is from somewhere, and that the guy born in Wichita or the girl born in Boston probably feels the same way about their hometowns.  With rare exceptions, people aren’t “given” anything when they move to a particular city, and people every have to work for what they have.  This sentiment is nothing more than an “us vs. them” mentality pushed to the n’th degree, and doesn’t represent the reality of communities any more than G.R.O.S.S. being a useful deterrent against Susie Derkins.

And this got me thinking about the ongoing debate revolving around the O’Bannon case and the related “bagmen” that clearly influence college sports.  Because at the end of the day, all of these arguments are about money and power, and yet most fans (me included) try to make it something more than that.  We want to believe that our school is better than that, that the reason our pride and joy fails to measure up is because we are playing the game “the right way”, that everyone else is playing with Aces up their sleeves.  At best, this makes you the mark at the table, the rube who is playing checkers while everyone else is playing chess.  But far more likely, it isn’t that you aren’t playing the dirty game, but simply that you aren’t playing it all that well.  

Yes, a school like UM has a (relatively) clean history when it comes to some of the overt signs of corruption that are endemic to major college sports, and the firewall between the academic and athletic departments is seemingly quite a bit stronger and more fortified than those found at other schools, giving some credence to the oversight and compliance aspects you need to stymie the worst offenses.

But at the same time, the “Michigan Man” meme and the arrogance that permeates part of this fanbase feels almost comical at times.  UM isn’t one of the winningest college programs in history because they do it “the right way” anymore than most programs; instead, I suspect they work pretty close to the margins of acceptable behavior but (a) have the type of self-restraint built into the program to rein it in before it violates the rules and/or (b) have the type of administration that can handle violations quickly and efficiently, with minimal collateral damage.  Our rivals are breaking all the rules, we say, and yet UM is competing in spite of that handicap, which is about as subjective and rose-colored as your glasses can get.  We cock an eye at the Max Bullough’s “weight loss” and laugh at OSU’s various issues, but rationalize sudden weight gains while ignoring UM’s own checkered past with players.

My point isn’t to crap all over UM or push the contrarian viewpoint just to start a debate.  I am a proud alum and value the education (both in the classroom and beyond) I received in Ann Arbor, and do believe that, taken as a whole, UM is cleaner than your average top-flight program.  We all know about John Beilein’s position on various ethics committees, and I can’t think of a football coach at UM who carried much of stink either before or after he walked into Schembechler Hall (and yes, Freep-gate only registers as a scandal insomuch as it provided ample evidence to this myopic and misguided “insider morality” argument).  But I also recognize the hypocrisy in believing UM is somehow intrinsically or morally better than other schools, and that a big reason I came to root for UM was because it was a “winner” in the sports I cared about and I liked rooting for a winner.  You could say I don’t want to know how the “sausage is made”, but it’s simpler than that.  I just want to be entertained, and if that makes me the mark, so be it.  But there shouldn’t be a pecking order, and trying to distinguish who is getting “played more” just makes everyone look bad for taking part in the game.

Best:  Predictions!

So after 5,000 words discussing various aspects of the team and the ecosystem surrounding it, you may be wondering how I see the actual season playing out.  Well, for starters I expect this team to be bowl eligible pretty quickly.  The Horror won’t happen again - full stop.  I’m not buying Notre Dame’s QB situation even if Golson winds up starting for them, and the defense is replacing a major playmakers in Shembo, Tuitt, and Nix.  Utah has Dres Anderson and not much else offensively, and it’s probably a bad sign for your team when your only other two preseason award watchlist players are punters and kickers.  The Rutgers game is going to be played at a stadium named after an IT services firm, which is somehow worse than playing at a stadium sharing a parking lot with a Cabela’s.  Minnesota and PSU seem like to the two biggest challenges before the bye week, and both are very winnable games at home.

After that the season gets hairy with Indiana sandwiched between trips to MSU and NW, and after another bye you’ve got Maryland and a trip to the Horseshoe.  Going 3-2 out of that group should be viewed as a best-case scenario, and even that’s premised on the dubious notion that Mattison and co. will have figured out how to play against tempo by that point.  Shake that all out and I’m expecting the team to go 8-4 during the regular season, maybe 9-3 if MSU or OSU take a step farther back than people expect.  They’ll probably gack up a game somewhere along the way that they shouldn’t, but the defense should be solid against the pass and a semi-competent offense will be able to score against most of the defenses they’ll see this year.  It won’t be pretty, but this season feels like less like a team in reverse and more like one slowly transitioning into first or second gear.  The “building” continues on, but we can probably start removing the “re-“ before it.



August 10th, 2014 at 2:15 PM ^

As always, extremely well written and thought-provoking. I'm especially struck by the part about the ethical arrogance of some of the Michigan fan base. You explained that in a nuanced way that matches my own take on it. I'm really looking forward to the upcoming weekly installments!


August 10th, 2014 at 6:26 PM ^

Love this series, though reading it at times last year during the implosion contributed delirious mental state, that was probably appropriate.

One quibble: I assume when you say Peppers and Thomas, you mean Dymonte. I don't think either of those have demonstrated that they can play one position, let alone multiple positions. Their recruiting rankings and high school play aside.


August 10th, 2014 at 7:33 PM ^

Yeah, I did mean Dymonte.

By all accounts Peppers could line up at any position in the defensive backfield and be a playmaker, and Thomas came in with a rep as a great athlete who could play safety or corner with relative consistency.  I'll admit a good deal of that is based on recruiting reports, but with young kids I guess I'm being a bit optimistic. 


August 11th, 2014 at 10:12 AM ^

You got me on Goss - I remember it being torn down under Martin's run, but it was constructed by Goss.  

Personally, I thought Martin was a fine AD.  I think his handling of Carr and RR was rough, and this may be more perception than reality, but it felt like he focused more attention on the football program versus the basketball program, especially given the fact the team was slogging through the Fisher sanctions at the time.  And Martin was somewhat protected by the fact that the internet simply didn't exist to such a degree as it does now, so mass public bitching and nit-picking was far harder to organize than now, and the flaws of an administration are more easily ignored.


August 14th, 2014 at 11:29 AM ^

Actually, I think Bollinger has publicly admitted that the halo was more his and Roberson's idea than Goss'.  The halo got installed on Goss' watch, but it wasn't his brainchild.

That said, Goss was a horrible AD.  He managed in 3 years to take a profitable, self-sustained department and run it millions of dollars into the red.  He's responsible for giving us Brian Ellerbe and poisoning our relationship with Nike.  For all the criticism Martin took during his tenure, Goss was orders of magnitude worse.

turd ferguson

August 11th, 2014 at 9:54 AM ^

Well written, though I'm not fully with you on the arrogance/cheating thing.  I've always found it obnoxious that much of the Michigan arrogance critique seems based on Michigan fans taking pride in their programs being relatively clean.  Fans hate programs like Kentucky basketball and Miami football for their sleaziness, but then they resent programs like Duke basketball and (pre-Kelly) Notre Dame football for doing things the right way (and yes, being a little nauseating about it).

My belief, which is admittedly based on little evidence, is that Michigan football and basketball are considerably cleaner than most similarly high-profile programs.  That's important to me.  Yes, everyone breaks some rules, but the fact that "everyone does it" doesn't make me think, "Whatever, we're all dirty.  Just win."  Cheating a little - or almost cheating - is a lot less disgusting to me than cheating a lot.  I couldn't be an Ole Miss fan right now, even if I were an alumnus, and I paused my Michigan fandom when the Fab Five stuff came out.  Maybe that's arrogant, but I want my team to play by the rules - and I want other fans to want their teams to play by the rules - even if some of those rules are stupid.


August 11th, 2014 at 10:08 AM ^

I don't disagree that UM runs a cleaner program than most other major ones; there is a reason the Freep-gate situation hit so hard because it really was the first time the football team even sniffed breaking "major" NCAA rules.  That said, ND hasn't always been that clean (there were always stories about Holtz covering up issues and recruiting some corner case kids like most programs), and Duke is clean by basketball standards but I'm sure if you dig a bit deeper there are stories that violate the rules, if not the spirit, of college basketball.  And I think that's the difference between a "dirty" and a "clean" program - intent.  UM, ND, Duke, etc. seem to want to follow the spirit of the rules, while schools like Miami, Kentucky, and Ole Miss view winning above all other factors.  That seems to be the distinction you are making as well.

Everyone is allowed to define his or her fandom how they feel, which was the point I was trying to get at in my other discussion.  I hate people telling me how I should feel about the teams I root for, and that's why I get annoyed when prominent media members try to take up the charge of the "People" by coopting their message.  Personally, I was fine with still being a fan of the basketball team after the Fab Five issue because it didn't change how great those teams were and, if most successful programs were honest, virutally every championship team of the past 20+ years has various skeletons in the closet that could sour the public's opinion.  Yes, Ed Martin was a bit more blatant than others, but I suspect it wasn't that uncommon.  

Monocle Smile

August 11th, 2014 at 3:42 PM ^

Well, I guess our rock in past years has been "Denard does something unplanned and magical." Unfortunately, this rock tended to phase in and out of our plane of existence just before impacting the skulls of our opponents, though it stayed corporeal more often as Denard got older.


August 14th, 2014 at 9:44 AM ^

I really enjoyed reading the diary; it was nuanced and appreciative of reasonable dissension among Michigandom. I love MgoBlog but agree that often one perspective is trumpeted and other views are inexorably mistaken.  

Excellent work

LS And Play

August 14th, 2014 at 9:52 AM ^

I agree that 8-4 seems likely. I disagree that this indicates Michigan will be turning things into first gear any time soon. Given the schedule, 8-4 would be nearly as miserable as last year.


August 15th, 2014 at 10:15 AM ^

I'm a bit more pessimistic than others, so 8-4 was kind of the floor.  But UM is on the road against 3 of the 4 toughest games on the schedule (ND, MSU, OSU), so even going 1-2 against that group still leaves them with losable games at home.  And IU is one of those scary offenses that could run away with the game.  Maryland, who knows.  That's where I see the 4 losses, but 9-3 wouldn't be a shock.  10-2 would be fantastic. 


August 14th, 2014 at 11:21 AM ^

if Michigan goes anything less than 9-3 - first person to reply to this comment, bookmark this and set a calendar reminder. I'll buy you tickets to the 2015 home opener. (email to remind me - karpodiem at gmail dot com)

There is no way in hell we go 8-4 or worse.

My only stipulation on this wager is that that Gardener starts every regular season game, like he did last year. Hell, even msu/ohio is pretty much f'ed if their starting QB goes down, Michigan isn't any different in that regard.


August 14th, 2014 at 10:11 AM ^

"Offensively, Doug Nussmeier brings a simplified pro-style offense (at least compared to Al Borges’s schemes), but besides 1 good year of Keith Price at Washington and not screwing up A.J. McCarron and the Alabama 5-stars, I’m not sure if we have a great read on what his optimal offense is."

Actually, he was pretty clear during his presser -- "You shape the offense around the players." To which I screamed in my head, THANK YOU!!  Yes you can try to recruit players to suit an offense, but once you got 'em you have to evaluate their growth and at some point stop asking them to do things they can't or won't do.  When drawing up a gameplan, you get into problems when you try to factor in elements that exist only in your mind.  Funchess' ability to block a DE, for example.

Nuss is going to run a base offense, but what it winds up being will depend on the how the players perform in practice.  It'll probably be IZ/OZ/Power-O but the playcalling may at first resemble a West Coast offense with screens and horizontal passes to our loaded receivers corps to take pressure off the O-line.  I predict a lot of 3- and 4-receiver sets because that's where the weapons are.  I doubt he'll use DG in the same way as McCarron.  Borges seemed to use DG's legs as a scripted changeup, but I expect Nuss to give him a read/checkdown, e.g., "X is a decoy on this play; he's running a post route on a 5-step-drop.  Check Z, check Y and if they're both covered then just go."  Force the defense to account for DG's mobility, even if he only has like 5 scripted runs a game.  A changeup isn't intended to work in a vacuum; it's there to complement the go-to pitch.  Similarly, if Funchess draws double coverage and Freddy Footwork can shred the zones while the defense has to keep a spy on DG, well, eventually you run out of defenders behind the DL and that IZ just might be easier to run.  What kind of offense do you call that?  I don't care, as long as it works.


August 14th, 2014 at 10:26 AM ^

This idea is pleasing to me.  From what they've said, at least so far in practice it seems Devin has a better understanding of "check down, then run".  This will rob us of some fun (and some big gains), but it should lead to fewer turnovers.  I would like to watch every game this year and see Devin with a 7-yard gain in front of him and take it, rather than keep scanning the field and throw off is back foot into questionable coverage.


August 14th, 2014 at 11:47 AM ^

This along with seeing tangible proof that Nussmeier adjusts well as the game goes along.  The thing that was so frustrating with Borges was his seeming inability to counter when the opposing defense made effective adjustments  to his gameplan. 

This is one of the things that I think makes Mattison so good at what he does on the defensive side of the ball.  He always seems to have a counter and then another counter as the game progresses and the defense as a result usually keeps the team in a position to win.  Seeing Nuss show that ability would be very exciting.

Can you imagine how giddy we'd all get if MIchigan came out this year and actually made MSU pay for that A-gap blitz they love to run from their MLB?


August 14th, 2014 at 12:13 PM ^

zomg, yes.  We've been looking for that for so long.  I'd like to see Devin bring back the Manning-style snap count fake to draw them offsides, for one.  Then yes, an actual counter that hurts that play.

Will Nuss have sideline checks?  That's one thing I haven't seen.  He had them at UA.  I would like a check with me if I'm being greedy.

EDIT: Borges didn't adjust out of a bad play.  Didn't even really seem like Gardner had the option, barring the occasional audible to ISO right/left.  If the defense had him checked, the play was dead.  He didn't like playing chess in this way, he just took the hit and came back the next down.  Combine that with a bad OL and so, so many plays and confusion, and that explains a lot of the negative plays.  Oh, and running into 9-man fronts, which the OZ piece yesterday reinforced as monumentally stupid.


August 14th, 2014 at 12:35 PM ^

It's one thing to make adjustments; they have to work.  But he is saying all the right things, to me at least.  Borges' bromance with Heiko was entertaining but otherwise his pressers were exercises in frustration for me because they seemed so one-sided.  As in, he talked like he had it all figured out and what was left was simply "execute" like football is a Rube Goldberg machine; he never had a satisfactory answer if the opposing DC outmaneuvered him.  I don't doubt he knows the intricacies of football far better than all of us combined, but one thing he seemed to have forgotten over the years is that he doesn't control what the other side does.  Sometimes his complicated gameplans worked to perfection, like against ND.  Other times he's stuffed by a pedestrian defense because every single one of his 8,462 plays are tipped in stupidly obvious ways.  "But I stretched the defense with a post route!"  "Yeah, but you had Norfleet out there.  Gallon could've run a pretzel route and the defense wouldn't have noticed; they weren't even looking at him."

Mattison indicated in his presser that Nuss will make adjustments, but only specified day-to-day.  There's only so much that can be said for in-game adjustments; personally I think they're overrated.  Coaches don't just pull unrepped plays out their asses; I've never coached but it seems to be they identify what the defense is overcompensating on and RPS it.  However, Nuss sounds more willing to shape the offense toward the players' strengths instead of trying to ignore their weaknesses and that makes the defense's job tougher, in-game adjustments or no.


August 15th, 2014 at 10:13 AM ^

I agree that Nussmeier has an offensive philosophy that is a bit more coherent than Borges', but we also heard for years how Borges would call an offense that maximized the abilities of his players on the field, which is why Denard was asked to take 5-step drops from under center for years and UM ran tackle over as a base running style. :-/

My point is that I have much more confidence in Nussmeier than I ever had in Borges, but I'm reserving judgment until I see him do it with this collection of players.  Telling me he plans on using the weapons appropriately is great, but I'm a little jaded.


August 15th, 2014 at 11:22 AM ^

I don't recall Borges saying that.  He talked more about "not wanting to take away a player's talents" in part of his game-planning, meaning the play came first, and it showed.  He'd have Denard run, for example. . . but completely defeat the purpose of the option (and Denard's speed) by pulling a lead blocker.  He'd send Funchess downfield. . . but also try to get him to block as a TE.  He believed in his plays, so if it didn't work out it's because the players didn't execute.  When he was pressured to take responsibility for his play-calling he always spoke reluctantly and in platitudes.

Yeah, we'll have to see how Nuss pans out, but I don't need him to light up the scoreboard.  Sanity would be a nice first step.


August 14th, 2014 at 10:41 AM ^

9-3 seems like a good baseline (though Maryland is going to present problems).  Lose one they shouldn't, steal one they shouldn't.

But isn't most of the uncertainty on the upside?  I may just be a homer, but it seems the lightbulbs are out there to be lit, and if they do it could be a great year. 

WR is untested, but Darboh, Canteen, and Chesson could be an incredible complement to Funchess.  There doesn't seem to be a lot of risk that they suck.  Add Butt a few games in.

Interior DL is what a lot of pundits are missing.  So many bodies and so many opportunities for improved play from a year ago.  Again, doesn't seem like a lot of downside risk.

All the other position we know and are baked into the 9-3 (OL bad, RB OK, QB good/great/bad/incredible/inconsistent, DE OK, LB good, DB good).  Maybe Clark and Charlton represent upside potential, with Ryan to MLB posing some risk (I'm a little leery of his reading ability too).

Then scheme - Offense philosophy seems like it has to be better.  Defensively a more aggressive scheme helps us in a weak B1G.  Again, little downside risk it seems, with opportunity on the upside.  Homer in me is probably biased though.



August 15th, 2014 at 10:07 AM ^

I think there is a fair bit of upside, but at the same time Gardner was pretty durable last year considering, and he's one bad block away from getting knocked out and pushing Morris into the starting lineup.  I'm confident Morris could be a good QB, but that's how I see the offense kinda derailing.  Defensively they should be one of the better units in the conference, and I don't see how they take a step back outside of massive injuries.  


August 14th, 2014 at 2:40 PM ^

"...every Saturday from August until November I know that I can turn on the television and find some channel with Michigan on it, and for a couple of hours I can be unabashedly zealous over something pretty inconsequential but still incredibly endearing to my heart."  Well put sir, well put.  I also agree whole heartedly with your expectation of this team.  They could go 9-3, they will be better, and it won't be as hard to watch as last year, but they will still struggle at times and are not quite what we think of UM football yet, and 8-4 seems pretty likely.  We continue to have larger expectations next year.