[Ed-S: Bumped to remind you this diary is basically a front page feature]
So we’re back for another year of Michigan football, and with it another year of Best and Worst columns. For a number of reasons, chief amongst them increased work responsibilities and two kids under 3, I’m not sure how deep some of these columns will be this year. In years past I usually tried to knock out 5-6k words even during a bad game, since I felt like there were always storylines and discussion points. But now, if UM crushes Hawaii by 30 and we don’t see much, I’m (probably) not going to write 500 words comparing the win to the time the Rockers beat the Hart Foundation for the WWF tag titles but were never officially recognized because it was at a live show. Sorry.
As for this column, I’m going to attack the general themes of the offseason and the expectations for the year without necessarily diving into each position group. This is mostly due to the fact that (1) the vast majority of my information is from this site anyway, and I assume Brian and co. will have MUCH deeper articles in the coming weeks, and (2) I already read most of the recent HTTV and it would devolve to cribbing notes. As always, I welcome any and all comments (including ones that point out a much better writer at another site created the conceit of this diary series).
Best: Everybody’s Back*
I never know how to start these pre-season diaries, especially when it hasn’t been a particularly momentous off-season (and yes, I know that saying 2015 was “momentous” is like asking Mary Todd how the play was). But after almost a decade of upheaval and uncertainty, of a displaced legend, a dismissed vanguard, and a depressing totem of halcyon days, UM (seems) to be on a trajectory back to the top of college football with Harbaugh at the helm.
And in many ways, it shouldn’t be surprising; the last three coaches all embodied different characteristics of what fans hope makes Michigan “Michigan”. With Carr, you had a model of consistent, sustainable if-not-excellence-at-least-really-goodness. He led the team to their first title in half a century, mostly fought OSU to a draw, and held it all together with class and dignity. He had his flaws strategically (I think he still views mobile QBs as a fad) and definitely valued loyalty over competency with a lot of his staff, but he kept UM in the upper tier of college football when lots of other programs suffered various degrees of downfalls.
[After the JUMP: The story goes...]
But time and mobile QBs from the mountains wait for no man, and so Carr moved on. He was replaced with Rich Rodriguez, a dynamic offensive coach who felt a bit like an over-correction to the mystique of Carr. Where Carr was conservative and content to rely on hard-nosed defense and (increasingly prehistoric formation) punting, RR was focused on tearing defenses apart, spread punting, and expecting his defense to get the ball back a couple of times. Rodriguez was the outsider, the upstart, and (to some) a bit of a consolation prize after Bill Martin seemingly missed on guys like Les Miles in rather spectacularly-public fashion. And while he brought mountains of hype and dreams of blowing the doors off rivals offensively, for a multitude of reasons it never came to be. You know those reasons, so I won’t rehash them. But RR left UM with a losing record, some historically great offenses and equally-historically bad defenses, and a reputation in need of some restoration (which seems to be happening in Arizona).
So again, UM searched for the next evolutionary step in its history, the Pikachu to its Pichu, if you will (see, I can be hip and “with it”). RR proved too much of a shake-up at UM, too much a diversion from what had existed before. Carr wasn’t perfect, but that was closer to what a large contingent of Michigan fans wanted, not 67-65 wins over Illinois. But one of Carr’s most damning failures was building anything resembling a coaching tree; it’s a bit of hyperbole, but the two most viable options from his ranks were Ron English and Brady Hoke, and English was muddling his way through one of the worst coaching tenures I can remember at EMU.
The situation wasn’t helped by Dave Brandon’s piss-poor management of the search process, which seemingly eliminated stronger candidates like Harbaugh and Miles. Internal politics exist everywhere and strong egos can clash, but if you’ve read any number of John U Bacon’s books it’s pretty clear that Brandon’s athletic department was big on pomp and short on coherent plans. And so it came to be that Brady Hoke became the head coach of the Michigan Wolverines. His first year was a rousing success on the field and off, though it was as much due to general horseshoe-from-ass ratios as it was good coaching. UM struggled offensively against most good teams, had amazing play from the defensive line and a heaping helping of turnover luck, and pulled out an 11-2 campaign in the end. But the downward spiral had begun, as the offense struggled to take advantage of the talents left behind by RR and failed to implement a coherent offense in its stead. It’s why Devin Gardner, one of the more physically gifted QBs UM has had, wound up farting around in rapidly-deflating pockets or leading with his ribs on designed runs that everyone knew was coming 2 weeks into the season, while no running back cracked 650 yards in any season after Hoke’s first.
And that didn’t even take into account Brandon’s emails, the Shane Morris concussion fiasco, and the myriad of little indignities UM fans had to deal with (constantly losing to hated rivals, shameless cash-grabs like putting a noodle in front of the stadium or not letting people bring in water on blistering days, ticket prices rising while the product on the field cratered with poor scheduling and even poorer performance). It was a clusterfuck following an earlier clusterfuck, and like most sequels, this one was even less entertaining.
The one thing Hoke did consistently was recruit (let’s remember that before Gary signed, Peppers may well have been the highest-ranked commit UM had gotten in the modern recruiting era), and those efforts formed the backbone of Harbaugh’s first two teams. And the guys Hoke recruited have largely stuck to the program, clearly loving their old coach but also buying into the mantra that Michigan is what matters, not the men not wearing headphones or donning khakis. Harbaugh supplemented the few deficient areas with position switches and grad transfers, most notable Jake Rudock.
2015 started off inauspiciously, and early on it seemed like Rudock had been passed over in Iowa for good reason. But about midway through the conference season, the offense started to click, with the passing offense finding its groove. This was fortuitous timing, as the defense, whose first half of the season was truly dominant, faltered as injuries took hold. The MSU game was…that…and OSU took UM to the woodshed after being semi-competitive at the half, but the team had found it way and you could see the team improving for the first time in what felt like decades. The year ended with UM running a pretty good Florida off the field, and entered 2016 with all the hype in the world. And unlike after Hoke’s first season, this feels sustainable at least for another season, as the vast majority of the defense returns and the offense has some cohesiveness despite having to replace the battery of Glasgow and Rudock at the center of it all. And that optimism is mostly due to…
* I didn’t realize Brian referenced the WTKA podcast post with the same song. Good to see a fellow 30-something father can’t escape the pull of late-90’s Boy Band pop.
Best/Worst: The Harbaugh of it All
Up front, I’m going to cop to being a hypocrite. I didn’t like Harbaugh all that much when he was getting into fights with Pete Carroll about whose deal was whose and slapping Jim Schwartz on his back after beating the Lions. I was suitably annoyed with his comments about Michigan's and Stanford's comparative scholar-athletes, not because they were necessarily wrong (though the Cardinal isn’t above making exceptions in their admissions for football players), but because it was both disingenuous for any coach to point out how athletes are treated differently when you are still collecting a check on their backs AND because it was basically a grown adult questioning the aptitude of college students and the majors they chose with a sweeping statement about a particular concentration. He always seemed to balance on that razor-thin edge between confident and smug, a man who doesn’t care what anyone thinks about him or his decisions. And while that characteristic is certainly prevalent in some of the most successful people in the world, it’s also the mindset of my 2 1/2-year-old in a grocery store and people who think telling people why they stopped masturbating** is interesting.
This is all meant to say that Jim Harbaugh can be “polarizing”, someone who “disrupts” the status quo and is happy doing it, who can “rub people the wrong way”, and all the other euphemisms the screeching heads on <insert sports show in cable/radio/internet/barstool> use because they can’t say “an asshole”. By his very nature, he sucks the air out of any room; rival fans complain about UM winning the summer championship because of all the media coverage these past two years, but it is absolutely true. Just this summer, he has gotten into Twitter beefs with about half of college football, saw multiple conferences and (briefly) the entire NCAA pass bans on satellite camps, and even made a sourpus out of normally-jovial Mark Dantonio.
And above all, Harbaugh is relentless in being, well, “Harbaugh”. He signs his emails with flair, he travels across the globe, and he even found time to add another lil’ Wolverine to the world. He seems to actively try to kill UM’s various SIDs with the death grip he has on his Twitter account (I mean, the guy gave a top-5 of Drake songs). Hell, he appeared with multiple rappists and met The Boss, all while recruiting his brains out and promoting the cult of Michigan to anyone willing to listen.
And so, if you are a fan of the 127 other D1 teams, especially those who have accomplished more on the field recently than UM, I get why this blowhard with a smirk coming off a 10-win season (that totally could have been 8 wins) with losses to 2 main rivals and the biggest scalp being an okay Florida team would stick in your craw. I get it, honestly, and if he didn’t coach in A2 I’d probably be rattling my own saber.
But he isn’t coaching any other team; he’s coaching Michigan. We’ve seen this brashness from him before, and he does have a track record of backing up his confidence on the field. He’s had Michigan in his DNA since he was born, and that kind of connection is impossible to repress for too long. And that’s why his fanaticism comes by naturally; in wrestling terms, he “lives the gimmick” because it isn’t one. Maybe he dials it up a bit for the cameras at times because it lets him do his job better, but he is the genuine article in a profession that drowns in sanctimony. While other coaches complain about having to earn their millions all year round (especially rich coming from guys like Hugh Freeze who are walking NCAA violations), Harbaugh is hosting camps for athletes in many cases with, at best, tangential benefits for recruiting, seemingly because he wants to spread the gospel of the sport.
And what tends to be overshadowed with all the drama is that the man is a fantastic coach; he’s an offensive innovator and a QB guru who identifies talent (both on the field and in the coaching booth) quickly and puts them in positions to succeed. Raise your hand if you thought Jake Rudock, Jehu Chesson, Amara Darboh, and Jake Butt would be part of the most efficient passing offense in the conference by the end of the year, or a cast-off from Iowa (!!) would lead the conference in completion percentage and be second overall in passer rating? Or take a defensive unit full of good players and put together one of the more dominant stretches we’ve seen in decades? And when someone important moves on from the staff, he goes out and finds the best available replacement.
Harbaugh isn’t a snake-oil salesman, here to trick UM faithful into believing winning the spring and summer supersedes the fall. He’s an elite coach who wins spectacularly wherever he lands, and typically leaves the programs in a better place than when he arrived. At the same time, it can feel like his life is run 100% by his id at times, and that type of intensity has a knack of going from endearing/passionate to obnoxious very quickly. Replace him with Mark Dantonio or Urban Meyer, for example, and I think MGoBlog would have been a smoldering crater by mid-May. Coupled with the massive amount of hype UM has been receiving, there’s part of me that wishes Harbaugh would sometimes stay off the radar a bit. But then he wouldn’t be true to himself, and Harbaugh is the success he is because of it.
So yeah, I think I’ll always have a conflicted relationship with Harbaugh, which is fine. I’ve never loved a coach unconditionally, and in many ways Harbaugh is the embodiment of the three men who preceded him: he’s a resolute throwback to the Bo legacy like Carr, he’s an offensive innovator like Rodriguez with a bit of an outsider flare, and like Hoke, he bleeds this program in the purest way. 2016 looks to be a defining year in the history of this program, and it wouldn’t exist without this native son. I’m ready to enjoy the ride.
** I predict this will be the most-clicked on link in this entire post, perhaps in the entire history of my posts at MGoBlog.
Worst: The Hype
Up front, I’m not trying to be a contrarian here; I think UM is one of the best teams in the country. Most preseason rankings have them comfortably in the top 5-6, and they are the most popular bet to win the MNC and are a heavy favorite to at least make the playoffs. They return one of the best defenses in the country last year by basically any metric, and have experience on both lines and skill positions save for QB, a position under such heavy competition whoever emerges should be pretty good.
But at the same time, this level of excitement and expectation seems really dangerous. Heck, look no further than 2015 with OSU, a loaded team everyone expected to just roll over people like they had on the way to the title in 2014, only to see them struggle with questions at QB and put forth lackluster performances until the nadir against MSU. The fact they then turned it on to destroy UM and ND doesn’t remove the sting of a lost season.
UM isn’t as good as that team, and maybe that won’t matter. Harbaugh is adroit at hiding weaknesses wherever he’s been, and there isn’t anyone on the schedule before the last weekend of October who seems capable of challenging them save maybe Wisconsin (though I think Colorado is way better than some people are giving them credit for).
Yes, there will be a new QB, and both Speight and O’Korn have issues (O’Korn was exceedingly erratic the last time he was seen on the field before transferring, while Speight was just fine in the game against Minnesota and still has that thick Borges stank on him). And the less said about the linebackers and depth charts at safety and on the offensive line the better. And they are breaking in a new defensive coach for the third time in three years (though having Mattison as a throughline over the years helps), and no matter how good Brown is as a DC there will be integration issues.
But like I said, this a schedule with basically three important games on it, all on the road, and all three teams have at least as many questions to address as UM. If anything, UM has had to hear about their strengths and weaknesses for months now; this isn’t going to be a team unmoored by media scrutiny. And my guess is that this squad will sort of fade into the background as the season progresses, since beating PSU or Wisconsin won’t move the needle much nationally, so the growing pains won’t be front-and-center the way they might be for other clubs.
But that lump in the back of my throat isn’t getting any easier to swallow, and this remains a team full of potential but still not much to show for it beyond glossy magazine covers and breathless analysis. And it’s just that this attention feels somewhat unearned; UM is an historically great program, but over the past decade they’ve been profoundly mediocre (77-51 since 2006). I used to laugh whenever SI would come out with some article about Notre Dame’s “stirring the echoes” because they won 9 or 10 games one year, only to crash and burn after that, and a piece of me is scared UM is falling into that routine. I’m sure in 3-4 years we’ll all look back and wonder why everyone was so worried, but UM still hasn’t earned that assumed dominance I used to give it as a youngster, and while they don’t need to do anything to “earn” that back from me, I’m still going to be a bit gun shy about taking off the seatbelt on the bandwagon.
Best: So Many F***ing Walls
And now, onto the good stuf. Michigan’s defense is going to be really, really good this year. Like, “people from the SEC might be confused why Alabama switched to blue and yellow” good. On paper, it’s loaded with NFL-quality defensive linemen, a secondary full of athletes that can erase receivers, and a linebacker corps that…well, needs only be “not a flaming bag of poop” to be deemed a success.
And while I have my trepidation about the near-complete overhaul of the linebackers, it’s not like (a) Morgan, Bolden, and Ross were basking in glory every week, and (b) the people replacing them are (largely) well-regarded recruits. This isn’t a situation like you saw in years past where Johnny Sears is your #1 DB or a converted FB is expected to be a starting LB. These are people generally recruited to play the positions they are slotted for, and in Gedeon’s case saw a plurality of snaps last year and at least didn’t explode upon contact. Of course, the fact Gedeon couldn’t earn starter minutes from the three incumbents is mildly discouraging, but I reserve my panic until I see him chasing behind a bunch of Rainbow Warriors for the 10th time.
And there’s competition behind the starters with the freshmen, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Bush worked his way into the rotation toward the end of the year. So it’s not great depth, but it does exist and should benefit from top-notch coaching. Plus, even if guys like McCray, Furbush, and Gedeon struggle at times, they are surrounded by a dominant defensive line and guys like Peppers, Hill, and Thomas in the defensive backfield to minimize breakdowns. Heck, even Lewis can lay into a RB or TE if necessary.
You’ve heard the stories about the defensive lines for months; even with a late-season swoon as the competition spread them out and guys like Glasgow and Ojemudia were lost to injuries, it was still a fantastic front line. This year, they lose Henry, Ojemudia, and Stone but return everyone else, and also add Mone and all-world Gary. Plus, guys like Taco Charlton seem poised to make even more of an impact with increased playing time. Even with the switch from Durkin to Brown, it’s safe to assume the line play will still be stupendous, especially if someone emerges as an edge rusher (come on Lawrence Marshall) or Don Brown’s preference for aggressive blitzing manufacturers chaos. And remember, this is a line that welcomes one of the best defensive line recruits in recent memory and nobody expects him to outright win a spot from anyone on the front 4. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say the backups at each position would be a top-20 line nationally all by themselves. That’s pretty amazing.
The defensive backfield is similarly stacked, with a couple of All Americans in Lewis and Peppers roaming around while Dymonte Thomas, Delano Hill, Jeremy Clark, and Channing Stribling are all seniors with lots of experience. As long as there are no follow-up questions regarding the depth chart behind them, we are good. Losing super-boring Jarrod Wilson is going to hurt a bit, but even if UM busts a bit more than in the past, you’d like to think they’d compensate somewhat by generating more than the 9 INTs the unit picked up last year.
So yeah, this defense is great. Maybe not #1 in the country great, but I’d argue more dominant than the 2006 unit everyone raves about because they seem more adaptable to different offenses. You know it’s great when you have to replace an entire layer of it and everybody just sort of assumes running games aren’t going to be able to get past the front and receivers aren’t going to get any separation in the back. And again, the LBs are not a collection of lost souls; they are guys who couldn’t beat out 3 seniors and/or were injured for parts of the year. Now, 2017 is going to be interesting when the bulk of these players graduate, but that’s a concern for later.
Worst: Overrated depth concerns
I sort of touched on it above and I’ll mention it later when discussing the offensive line, but this team is sort of bi-modal in its distribution of players. It’s a team loaded with seniors and a large number of underclassmen, but there’s this chasm between the two where there are maybe 8-9 juniors who you’d expect to see the field at all this year or next. And while college football (like basketball) has become more receptive to freshmen stepping in and playing important minutes early on, you’d still rather see a 20-year-old out there than an 18-year-old who last played a game against other teenagers. Coupled with a switch to a new defensive approach that can be quite intricate, you hear the concerns that if UM suffers from poor injury luck, this team’s performance could drop precipitously.
To that, I say that’s true for virtually every team in America. It’s the reality of a sport with scholarship limits that relies on predicting the capabilities of high schoolers to fill out your roster for 3-4 seasons into the future. Glasgow went out last year and the run defense largely went with him, in part due to the fact UM was already dealing with limited depth at the tackle position. Connor Cook’s shoulder went from NFL-level to whatever it was at the end of the year and MSU’s offense largely went with it. If Deshaun Watson or Delvin Cook tears an ACL, those teams will probably not look anything like we expect them to. Heck, if Peppers goes down the defense would basically have to shift a decent part of their philosophy around to compensate. Great players getting hurt is part of the game, and sometimes your depth chart isn’t going to have a star replacement every year. I still think that UM goes deep enough at most positions that they could weather an injury or two, but it’s still a reality. It’s why I try to not get too worked up about the backups unless it is glaringly terrible, which isn’t really the case this season unless we have a “"Never Forget” situation again.
Worst: Big Okay Uglies
Now, I know I just ranted about not worrying too much about a particular unit, but I will say that the buzz around the offensive line feels a bit premature. It’s not that the offensive line was bad last year or anything, but it was basically average. That’s perfectly fine, but then I see them ranked in the top 10 a couple of places and I’m a little, what’s the expression…
Mason Cole, by far the most consistent performer these past two years, has been moved to center, which is great because somebody needs to fill in for the departed Glasgow but also leaves a whole lot of hope and prayers on Grant Newsome to fill in at left tackle. You know what you are getting with guys like Kalis, Magnuson, and Braden, but Newsome is a relative unknown with a lot of potential but also a lot riding on him. I guess if he really struggles you can always roll Cole back out there and hope Kugler can step in the middle, but it’s still a unit that averaged about 4.2 ypc last year, which would be the second-worst rushing offense of the Brady Hoke era or, more appropriately, the worst rushing year at Stanford under Harbaugh past his first season. Yes, blame falls on the running backs to an extent, but you have to hope another year under Tim Drevno will click for these guys.
And as I said, there is a new left tackle seeing his first consistent time at the position on a line that had some trouble protecting Rudock, especially early on in the year (a total of 17 sacks allowed, for a sack rate of 4.2%). Breaking in a new QB isn't going to make that job any easier, even though I do think some of Rudock's early sack issues were due to him learning the offense and holding the ball too long, something you'd hope O'Korn or Speight would have minimized by now. So while I'm expecting solid improvements by the line, it might be a bit premature to expect the type of jump in performance presaged by the rankings.
Best: A QB Battle Worth Having
We’ve seen QB battles around here before, but they tend to be one-sided: Long ago, in a time before most of us used message boards, there was the Henson vs. Brady conundrum, though it never turned out that Brady was under much of a threat by the upstart golden boy. Tate Forcier vs. Denard Robinson was debated heavily around these parts (I’ll admit to being on Forcier’s side following a solid freshman campaign), though looking back it probably was a foregone conclusion, especially when Forcier didn’t seem to prepare adequately for the season or keep up in the classroom. And who can forget the “competition” between Devin Gardner and Shane Morris that led to him starting against Minnesota? And even last year, few believed Jake Rudock came to UM without an expectation of beating out Morris for the starting job, and nothing happened during the year to dissuade that assumption.
But this is the first time in recent memory when there isn’t an incumbent or a clear-cut starter on the roster but a number of viable options. It’s actually sort of exciting, in that instead of the team defaulting to one player (somewhat regardless) of proven ability, the man who lines up under center to start the year will have competed and won the spot against game competition.
The buzz last year was John O’Korn probably could have started over Jake Rudock early on, and everyone sort of expected him to take the position easily in the spring. And yet, all I’ve seen and heard is that it’s a real battle between him and Wilton Speight. That’s good for this team because both of them have been in the system for a season and have been evaluated by Harbaugh and the staff. Last year, Harbaugh saw what was in the cupboard and went shopping; this year he seems content with his choices and didn’t pursue another grad transfer. And Harbaugh knows good QBs. So that gives me hope that either of these guys will be a suitable replacement for Rudock, and with years to eligibility remaining there should be some consistency at the position going forward.
Best: So Many Guys to Run and Catch the Ball
Michigan probably has the most complete group of receivers in the conference coming back this year, headlined by All American TE Jake Butt and All Conference Jehu Chesson. And as is apparently the running theme in this preview, I’m going to apologize for doubting players – in this case Chesson (and to an extent Darboh) - these past couple of seasons. Here’s me from last year’s preview:
With the departure of the much-maligned Devin Funchess, the receiving core is basically two semi-known commodities (Darboh and Chesson) who probably both top out at competent #2/#3 receivers, a track guy in Chesson who might just be fast and a great special teams blocker, and a bunch of potential that is either freshmen (Cole and Perry), coming off injuries (Harris), or Moe Ways, who will probably get the reputation for being great catching contested balls because he can’t get away from anyone. I know there’s been some buzz about Darboh stepping up, but he collected nearly half of his yards and 40% of his receptions against IU and Miami (NTM), struggling to get separation against anyone else even when Devin Funchess was healthy and, theoretically, drawing more attention from the defense.
I also once compared Chesson to Luis Mendoza from the Mighty Ducks 2 movie, so…yeah. I’m not expecting Chesson to have a Braylon/Manningham-type final season, but he’ll absolutely take the top off most defenses in this conference. Timing with the QBs, especially coming off the PCL injury, is a concern, but I’ve not heard anything particularly ominous thus far. Darboh should even be more of a handful this year, and if you get him in space on little flares and screens he’ll just grind down corners for those extra yards all day.
As noted above, Jake Butt is really, really good at catching the ball, and should be even better another year with Harbaugh. Ian Bunting is probably as much of a mismatch as Butt but will likely be seeing the guy who isn’t good enough to be blown away by Butt, which must be terrifying for defensive coaches when UM puts them both out there. And Wheatley is absolutely going to crush a couple of poor cornerbacks/safeties after he blows by linebackers trying to keep up with him.
Yes, you’d like to see Drake Harris or Moe Ways emerge to be the next wave of UM receivers, but there is a lot of talent ahead of them and so I assume we’ll see glimpses barring major injuries.
As for RB, it’s basically De’Veon Smith at the top, some buzz about Ty Isaac, plus a bunch of other pieces. I assume Drake Johnson won’t be run over by a forklift again so he’ll get some carries, and Hill and Poggi will have to fill in for the departed Houma and Kerridge at FB but (at least with Hill) they bring some offensive capabilities as receivers.
Smith’s style and physical limitations probably tap him out as a B+ back, but he’s the best Harbaugh “type” back on the roster and is an excellent blocker to boot. Isaac has all the tools in the world but I’ll believe it when I see him get carries and not stapled to the bench because he doesn’t hold onto the ball. I also assume Kareem Walker will work his way into the rotation; I know his recruiting star got dinged a bit last year, but the biggest complaints seemed to be “he’s consistent” and “he’s not that big”, which are probably issues Harbaugh can work with.
My one hope for the running game is that someone emerges and gives the team a bit of an identity. I mean, last year Purdue, Rutgers, and Maryland all had leading rushers with more yards than Smith, and hell Indiana had 2 1,000 rushers in Redding and Howard. I hate to be all “This is Michigan”, but FFS this is Michigan, a Harbaugh Michigan! Let’s run over a bunch of people and get some yards!
Basically, other little notes that aren’t worth a heading.
- Special teams should be fine. Losing Blake O’Neill will hurt in the field position battle (as will John Baxter going back to USC), but there are people with legs who can kick the ball far on this team, and as long as they don’t revert to dinosaur punting it should be manageable. As for kick returns, DON’T USE IMPORTANT PEOPLE LIKE PEPPERS AND LEWIS! There are fast people on this roster who aren’t All Americans. In big games, sure, put them back there to scare the crap out of MSU or OSU. But I think, I don’t know, Tyree Kinnell or Chris Evans are available to take a knee in the endzone or scamper out to the 25. But let Peppers stay on punt return duty, if for no other reason than I need the jolt of terror every time he fair-catches a ball with a dive.
- Plus, I’d much rather see Peppers on offense this year. I expect him to a hyperized version of Woodson in 2007; he’ll see the field more and won’t always be a novelty, but instead part of the offensive gameplan. Harbaugh is smart and will deploy him sparingly early on, but he’s a rare athlete who can beat anyone on the field in space. UM will take advantage of that.
- This schedule is all sorts of terrible, mostly because, again, Dave Brandon couldn't do his one job and make sure OSU and MSU alternated yearly. Those OOC games are always a crapshoot, as UCF was in a BCS bowl only a couple years ago, and at some point you have to assume Colorado figures it out. But it remains a home schedule that lacks a real marquee team save, I guess, PSU, and having to go to both rivals in a season is extremely daunting.
So yeah, you might have just skimmed down to here. I don’t blame you.
It’s isn’t breaking news that this season basically comes down to @MSU and @OSU. I’d add that winning in Iowa is just as hard, and while Ferentz’s club isn’t likely to pull off the same streak as last year, the Hawkeyes are still going to be a tough road game.
But yeah, if UM is going to earn a playoff bid, they have to beat MSU and OSU, or at least beat one of them and hope that the other stumbles just enough so that they make the conference title game. Personally, MSU seems more vulnerable; due to the placement of the OSU game, the Buckeyes will have weathered whatever transition bumps along the way by then, and should be about as dangerous as expected. MSU, though, is a team replacing a bunch of talent on their lines and at QB/WR, while also (I assume) suffering a bit of a reversion from the amazing TO ratio they enjoyed last year. And make no mistake about it; UM took MSU’s best shot last year. Cook and Burbridge were amazing, and while MSU had some injuries on the offensive line, they still had most of it intact (Jack Allen was the only player kept out). It will be a war as usual this season, but UM is the better team and even the most ardent MSU faithful sort of recognize that. Doesn’t assure a win by any means, but the distance between those two clubs has definitely shrunk.
As for OSU, I don’t know man. They lost 105 players to the first 4 rounds of the NFL draft***, but they also have lots of elite talent on that roster. Barrett returns and, while he struggled at times throwing the ball last year, is still incredibly dangerous. Losing Elliott to graduation is going to slow them down somewhat, and Dunn being dismissed takes another bullet from the chamber, but it’s OSU; they’ll find a way to pound people into the sand. Their defense will probably take a step back just because of attrition, but Schiano is a good DC and they have enough playmakers to round into form by November. It will be interesting to see if the defensive discipline remains; that was a major change you saw when Ash took over, guys didn’t just throw themselves at receivers and let plays bust big.
***[ citation necessary ]
My assumption is that UM is undefeated and 7-0 heading into East Lansing. The pessimist in me assumes UM will lose again to MSU by some equally random occurrence (like every UM running back gets mono and MSU returns 3 kickoffs back to TDs), and then UM stumbles against Iowa and OSU on their way to another double-digit-but-disappointing year. More realistically is that UM heads into Columbus undefeated and then loses a heart-breaker to the Buckeyes but get into the B1G championship game due to tiebreakers. From there, they crush, let’s say, Wisconsin again, and they are the 4th seed in the CFP.
But guess what? I’m an optimist. I am fine being wrong. I mean, what’s the worst thing that could happen?
UM is going undefeated and playing Notre Dame(that’s right, Notre Dame! with all their crazy luck and the best offensive line in America) for the national title! This is an artist's rendering of everyone older than 40 and/or in sports media:
And if they get that far, you don’t need to ask who I’ll pick as the national champion.