The Story 2014: A Counterpoint

Submitted by Gordon on August 25th, 2014 at 3:26 PM

Years ago, the University of Michigan's football team was in supposed turmoil.  It had been years since Michigan won a national championship, and years since a Big Ten championship.  The head coach was effectively a replacement for the legitimate guy, exiled in a media firestorm.

Coming into the season, Michigan seemed to be a distant third behind two conference juggernauts, and that embattled new coach was on the hot seat, to the point of the athletic director getting asked whether or not this guy was good enough, on a live pregame show.  That AD defended the coach by saying he's set up to have a great year, and then we'll see.

That embattled coach, of course, was Lloyd Carr.  That year was 1997.  Michigan was coming off of some 4-loss seasons, and hadn't won a conference title in five years.  Carr, who bcame the head coach after Gary Moeller's public meltdown, was seen to potentially be just a transitional guy.

I'm not joking.  That clip is below.

At the 5:28 mark, Don Shane questions the future of Lloyd Carr as Michigan coach.  At the 3:22 mark, Michigan State head coach Nick Saban spouts generic platitudes about systems and preparation while looking shifty.  And at the 13:10 mark, Keith Jackson welcomes you to an afternoon at Michigan Stadium, mentioning Michigan's star defender Charles Woodson, and officially beginning The Greatest Season In Recent Michigan History.


This year, the atmosphere is the same.  Michigan is in chaos, according to most of the die-hards.  Last year was the worst offense ever, and the team is taking a step back!  Devin Gardner had a bad year, and he's the starter again!  The offensive line!  Michigan State is legitimately good now!  It's been X long since Michigan won this thing, or did that thing!  Records!  Everything off the field!  We'll be fine.  In fact, we'll be better than fine.  Michigan will be good this season.  For that matter, Michigan will be borderline great this season.  Michigan will do the things that will bring all the national critics around, only this time, they'll be back with a team built upon a foundation.

Michigan football has not been the most fun, record-wise, since 2005 or so.  Individual years can be debated, and some games were legitimately exciting.  But for what seems to be the tenth season now, Michigan football isn't what we thought it was.

Here's the thing, though: all the pieces are there for Michigan to have a great year.  All of the on-field pieces are there for Michigan to be a great team.  All of the attrition and injuries to our rivals are there for Michigan to have a great year.  Everything within the schedule sets up for Michigan to have a great year.

Michigan returns Devin Gardner, a senior quarterback who was incredibly injured for most of last season, a season that basically ended when this one player was beaten down to the point of not being able to go.  Michigan returns a defense that held the team in games last year, and continues to improve.  Across the board, Michigan's roster is improving with the maturity of existing players and an incoming recruiting class that includes one star playmaker and a ton of depth.  And, the two most glaring problems of last season are gone, personnel-wise.  Everything sets up nicely.  The pieces are there to have a great team.

Which brings all of us to the upcoming schedule.  Appalachian State, Miami, Utah, Maryland, Indiana, Rutgers - all wins.  Six wins.  Northwestern just lost their top player, win #7.  Michigan blew out Minnesota last year, that's win #8 this year.

Is Notre Dame winnable?  Absolutely.  The Fighting Irish just lost a notable number of starters in an academic scandal, their quarterback situation is worse than ours, and they are always worse than expected.  Win #9.

Is Penn State winnable?  Of course.  Penn State has a new coach who is talking a big game, but that roster still has more structural problems than Michigan's.  Penn State will end up coming down a notch from the hype, they will struggle a little over the course of the season, and that will be win #10.

Can Michigan win in Columbus?  Sure.  This isn't the Rich Rod years, where Ohio State would come out and simply outscore an overmatched Michigan squad.  This isn't another game where Michigan will lose in Columbus, because that's just how things are now.  MIchigan beat Ohio State in 2011, lost in 2012 due to field-goal kicking and a bad offensive half, and was a two-point conversion away from winning in 2013.  Now, Braxton Miller is out for Ohio State, and things are looking grim in Columbus.  Is this win #11?

Can Michigan win in East Lansing?  Sure.  Michigan State had a great defense propel them to a conference title last year, but they've lost some playmakers.  Can Michigan's defense rise up to reduce the defensive advantage?  Maybe.  On the other side of the ball, can a Nussmeier/Gardner offense outduel Connor Cook?  Probably.  Look, this game isn't a likely win.  But it's not hopeless to the point of the Rich Rod years or anything.  It could be win #11, win #12, or simply a close-fought loss.  All of those options are in play.

It's an optimistic look at the season, but it's not unrealistic.  All of those things stand a better chance at happening than a repeat of 2013, where the offense was built around a strong offensive lineman and quarterback, the lineman was an ass, leading to the quarterback getting injured and the offensive coordinator's utter hopelessness.  This isn't that.  This won't be that.

Right now, our biggest problem seems to be that the general attitude towards the whole team is that of a dismissively negative one.  Once a closer look is taken, all of the pieces seem to be potentially great, with everything coming together.  Just going by realistic on-field expectations, Michigan will go, barring chaos, at least 10-2, with those two losses being close.  That biggest problem is simply the scars of the recent past.

And to reference recent history, the worst case scenario is 2011 with more optimism for next year.  Optimism in guys like Morris and Peppers, optimism in having all of our rivals at home, optimism for what is to come.


Here's where the negativity comes in.  The only two things against Michigan having a great year is idiotic off-field moves and a steady stream of national pessimism that leads to a third thing: local dread.  All of these things are easily removed, and will be removed as time passes.


Once football kicks off, everything else will be forgotten.  That means you, Dave Brandon, proverbially standing on a highway off-ramp into Ann Arbor, hoping that the incoming traffic will roll their windows down to buy tickets.  That means you, memories of 2013, those of the infinite stream of rushes into the middle of an unblocking line.  That means you, Arizona bowl game that literally doesn't exist anymore.  All of you, gone once actual football starts up.

The reason why these kinds of things become spectres that haunt places like this, is that the college football season is so brief, and the summers so long, that these kinds of things become bigger than they are.  There's literally nothing going on, but the appetite for Michigan discussion (or any team, for that matter) never goes away.  When easy discussion bait comes up, like Dave Brandon, everyone hops to get it on it, because we're starving to talk about something.  Once the game starts, we'll all move on.

It's the same as the sputtering end to 2013.  Last season, from the Penn State game on, was almost entirely terrible.  Terrible in every possible way, leading to a whole summer with that taste in our mouths.  Once the games begin, and we see what the 2014 Michigan team can do, that 2013 team will fade.  It will fade into a rough collage of barely beating Ohio State, that field goal against Northwestern, and that horrendous Nebraska home game.

(Playing the games will also cause another unfortunate discussion topic to fade away - Michigan's terrible home schedule.  Yeah, we all agree, there are no standout games at home this year.  Penn State is not Michigan State, on many levels.  No big names are coming in as random highlights on the non-conference schedule.  Everyone understands.  But once the games begin...that home schedule will be somewhat of an afterthought.)

This leads to the second mark against Michigan, that stream of national pessimism that comes over the course of the summer, cresting in an August of overreaction.  The two preseason polls came out, Michigan was unranked in both.  The rest of the country, which casually looks at Ann Arbor and sees the faintest glimpse of a rebuilding project, tosses some votes for us sparingly.  Which leads to worry and panic, because Michigan isn't ranked.

That ranking, with wins, will come.  As someone who tracks the polls more than most, I'd say Michigan gets an official ranking after a win against Notre Dame at the earliest.  Michigan is 37th in the AP poll, and 32nd in the coaches' poll, and will inevitably rise with wins and opposing attrition.

Once that happens, of course, everyone will be in town to write/speak/yell about how Michigan Is Back.  Michigan's undefeated through their first six games, and Penn State comes to town this week!  Michigan just beat Penn State, they're 7-0!  Doug Nussmeier is the real deal, so is Brady Hoke!  Devin Gardner for Heisman!  This team could go to the playoffs!  Anyone reading this can see these headlines coming.  It happened from 2009-2011. Denard was gonna win the Heisman, remember?

In case you doubt this will happen, look at Notre Dame.  Notre Dame flailed their way to an undefeated season in 2012, and everyone was stumbling to write a paean to Notre Dame's return to greatness.  Despite a team that wasn't actually that good, the story of the 2012 college football season was ND, from November until January.

If Michigan starts undefeated, that national tide of positivity will come our way.  All the momentum of the old days will be back again, as Michigan will be back in the eyes of the national media.  It's an easy story, one that would be covered extensively, especially in the Big Ten with Ohio State going down in Miller's injury.  Someone will be the media darling towards the end of the season, and it will be the winner of the Michigan-Michigan State game.  However, if Michigan is the winner...we'd be the story of the year going into the Ohio State game.

Once all of that starts to happen, and it will, the pessimism of the Michigan fanbase will go away.  It will go away until some sort of collapse, pop back up again, and disappear.  Michigan football might not have the same offseason aura as the '90s, but it will certainly feel like the summer of 2012, when anything seemed possible after a season that restarted everything.


That leads to the best case scenario for this time next year. We all know what the worst case scenario that is, in whatever little permutation that would be.  The best case scenario is a full winter and fall of positive energy coming out of Ann Arbor, with a solid season going into a stacked schedule towards next season.

The last thing that a great season will dismiss is the dread.  The fear of another season of getting proverbially kicked in the ribs, of dealing with another offseason of low self-esteem brought on by bad memories.  If Michigan has a great year, 2015 will begin in optimism.  A high ranking to start the season.  A schedule that features two rivalry games at home, a transition out of mid-majors in the preseason, and the return of true/high expectations.  All will be well.  We just have to get there first.


Wolverine 73

August 25th, 2014 at 3:49 PM ^

Hey, I like the way you think, but to say that "everything in the schedule" sets up for us to have a great year . . .well, I don't see how you can say that when all three main rivalry games are on the road.  Now, in 2015 . . .


August 25th, 2014 at 4:05 PM ^

Everything sets up well in the schedule because outside of those rivalry games, the schedule is really favorable.  Outside of the rivalry games, every game should be a win.  And the rivalry games aren't as daunting as people make them out to be, especially considering recent performance in those games.

Wolverine 73

August 25th, 2014 at 4:56 PM ^

We have had a consistent and unfortunate inability to win on the road recently.  Until we prove otherwise, I don't see how you can say those games are not daunting.  When was the last time we won in EL?  Or Columbus?  Winning in SB is only a sometime thing also.  Hey, I'm all for 11-1, but pretending those games won't be really hard is kidding ourselves.


August 25th, 2014 at 5:29 PM ^

Love your optimism. I'm on-board. I do believe we'll lose to MSU, but win every other game in the regular season. I can't predict the bowl game quite you. Keep up the good analysis!

An Angelo's Addict

August 25th, 2014 at 6:45 PM ^

Great writeup Gordon! Love your positivity and I also agree with your overall optimisim. I can certainly see us winning every game. MSU and OSU are the only true toss ups I have in my mind and I just feel like we are due to win those this year as well. Only 5 more days...


August 25th, 2014 at 7:54 PM ^

Front Page this!!

This board needs a bit more True Blue Michigan Slappy Optimism!

It's nice to know that there are others out there with the deep seeded faith that Michigan is better simply because it's Michigan, and that we expect to win because we're Michigan, Media and fair weather fans be damned!!!  12-0 baby!  And the Lions are going 16-0, and Tigers are going to the Series, and Wings gonna win the cup, and the Pistons.... well, they still suck... But yeah!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


August 25th, 2014 at 10:01 PM ^

It's always fun to watch the trolls respond to reason with unreason.  He may be overestimating the chances for Michigan to win 11 regular-season games this year, but the emo namecalling and absurd rhetoric from the likes of you is what makes MGoBlog so truly "special." 


August 25th, 2014 at 8:38 PM ^

The 2014 team has a chance to have a great year. But predictions for the individual games -- especially before the first snap of the season -- mean little. Who thought a year ago that the 2013 team would be outplayed by both CT (ranked 121st in Sagarin EOY) and Akron (137) and feature the worst offensive line in college football?

Are the pre-season expectations for this team really higher than they have been for any season since the Lloyd Carr era?

With the exception of App State and Miami of Ohio (and arguably Rutgers), there are no automatic wins on the schedule. That said Michigan also has a chance to make the national championship playoff. I would bet under 9.5 wins for what it is worth.

The stage is set for a level of disppointment that dwarfs what 2013 produced if this team struggles.


August 25th, 2014 at 10:10 PM ^

I think we expected the line to be poor last year.  I don't think anyone was predicting the defense to be so soft, though.  As far as being outplayed by both UConn and Akron, I missed the games in whatever sport that happened.  In football, Michigan outplayed both, measuring either by points or yards gained.  Let's not go emo because those games were closer than expected.


August 25th, 2014 at 10:29 PM ^

People thought the line would be poor but also said they would gel and get better as the season continued. That, as you well know, didn't happen.

This year people are saying they will start off poor but will gel and be better as the season progresses.

Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me. I really hope the OLine proves the skeptics wrong and kicks some serious tail this year. If they are even average I think we'll have a great year. Just is hard to see them getting to average this year though many people didn't see the defense making the jump from 2010 to 2011 so who really knows?


August 26th, 2014 at 1:30 AM ^

I know it has been said  before, but our OL play never improved last year because it was always changing.  If it wasn't the personnel changing, it was the scheme.  Last year, we had indications of a tire fire when the projected line shuffled daily during fall camp.  Traders (non HFT) make money by betting against the consensus and I think this may be one of those times, discounting appropriately for my passion.  The line was remarkably consistent throughout the fall camp.  The only spot that really seemed fluid was RG and even that competition was to back up Glasgow, the presumed starter.  The angst this year has been due their collective performance for a100+ plays that were open to the public and the absence of an injured Kalis stoking our justifiable communal cynicism.  I am no longer a betting man, but if I were, I would wager our YPC increases and our sacks allowed decrease YOY.  Here's to hoping for a 10+ win season.  Cheers.


August 25th, 2014 at 10:59 PM ^

Not all the pieces. Our offensive line will not be able to consistently run the football, so we'll have trouble closing out games and scoring in the red zone. Hopefully we jump all over teams early with our passing game and the defense never lets them back in.

I think we can beat every team on the schedule. But we'll need to be 2011-lucky.

As for the people who are apoplectic about Hoke's road woes, I offer some optimism. In 2012, we started 12 freshmen. In 2013, we started 10. Those guys were all seeing away stadia for the first time. They will be much more comfortable in those stadia this time around. They've all seen Spartan Stadium. Most of them have seen the Shoe and Touchdown Jesus. This doesn't mean that we win, or that we are favorites. But I like an experienced team on the road, if for no other reason than they know the locker room, they know how the fans behave, they are familiar with the decibel level.


August 26th, 2014 at 3:33 AM ^

Great job with that video clip fom '97.  What jumped out at me was at 10:30 when Don Shane picks Colorado to beat Michigan because "Michigan has a lot of young players, especially along the offensive line."  

I remember the lead up to that game distinctly - there was already plenty of pre-season buzz about Woodson, but prior to the game Colorado's head coach (Rick Neuheisel) announced that they would not shy away from throwing at Woodson.  True to their word, they tested his side of the field several times until this:  Later in the same game, Woodson went on to score a touchdown on offense, pretty much cementing his status as a star.  

Later that year Michgan had to play a MSU team on the road that had won their last 7 home games against Michigan.  Michigan intercepted MSU six times (Woodson and Marcus Ray had 2 a piece) holding MSU scoreless (MSU scored its points on special teams on a fake punt).

Nobody expected much out of Michigan that year.  Michigan's OL was extremely thin after the loss of 2 former lineman to the NFL.  After a pre-season injury to Jeff Backus, the OL was so bad that two defensive lineman (Steve Hutchison and Chris Ziemann) had to be converted to offense. The only offensive lineman that had started a game at OL prior to that season was Jon Jansen.

To top it off, Michigan had the toughest schedule of all 112 Div I teams (based on last years record).  Expecting a Big Ten Championship - let alone national championship was highly improbable.  But that team had (apart from an elite defense) an "it" factor that didnt give a shit about what anybody else thought about how good the team was or what they were supposed to do.  

If this team can find a similar way to assert themselves, there is a lot less on this years schedule to stand in their way.



Turn Texas Blue

August 26th, 2014 at 1:53 PM ^

I tend to be a realist (could be read as pessimist) when it comes to Michigan football. I tend to dismiss most national stories about is as many of them really have no idea what's really going on with the program, but still find myself doubting the program. This is a refreshing take on what might be accomplished by this team, but I'm not holding my breath...

Cranky Dave

August 26th, 2014 at 2:01 PM ^

Ivan Maisel has a very different view of not only Michigan but Northwestern 

5. It won't get much better at Michigan.

The Wolverines found a way to go 7-6 last season despite an inconsistent offense. Doug Nussmeier has come in from Alabama to run the offense and the injured are healed, but the freshmen forced into action on the offensive line last season remain young. It has been 10 years since Michigan won a Big Ten title. This once-feared program has spent one week in the top 10 in the past six seasons. The schedule does no favors with visits to Notre Dame, Michigan State, Northwestern and Ohio State. The Wolverines are what their record (15-11 the past two seasons) says they are.



6. It will get much better at Northwestern.

Even though the player expected to be the Wildcats' biggest offensive threat, Venric Mark, is playing for West Texas A&M, this is a veteran team with seniors and juniors starting at nearly every position. And these are upperclassmen with something to prove after the way they went 5-7 last season, losing two in overtime and two more by a field goal. If head coach Pat Fitzgerald is right, and the unionization issue knit his team together, this is a team good enough to win the Big Ten West. 


August 26th, 2014 at 4:33 PM ^

I'm clearly very biased but..... What? In what way will this be a worse team than last year?

And people were saying the same thing he is about Northwestern before last season, loom how that turned out. Talented upperclassmen, yada yada. I see no reason to believe they are a better or different team than last year, and they lost by far their best player.

I usually appreciate Maisel's commentary, but he could not be closer to wrong here.


August 26th, 2014 at 4:25 PM ^

Note: I'm including the Bowl Game, but not including a B1G Championship Game.

If Michigan wins all the other games (including ND at South Bend), they can go 0-3 against MSU, OSU and in the Bowl Game.  (It would leave a bad aftertaste, but it's still 10 wins).

If Michigan wins even one of the three games against MSU, OSU or in the Bowl, they can lose to either the Irish, Penn State, or another goodish team (Utah, Northwestern or Minnesota), and still get to 10 wins.  OR, they can loose a DOH! game to anyone on their schedule, and get to 10 wins.

As a subset of the last paragraph, I think a win against either MSU or OSU means a realistic shot at the B1G Championship Game, and then we are talking TWO chances to get to 10 wins, or more likely, 11 wins are part of the conversation.

If Michigan wins two of the three games against MSU, OSU and in the Bowl, they can have TWO DOH! losses, and still get to 10 wins.

Summary, I think 10-3 is substantially more likely that 8-5.  The latter record presumes none of the promising youngsters pan out and the team does not gel at all as the season progresses.  It assumes Michigan does not win a single game against an evenly matched opponent, and has a couple of DOH! losses.  It assumes the vast majority of the lucky breaks go against the Wolverines.  All of those things have happened consistently in the past 10 years (2011 excepted), but regression to the mean is our friend.