We're counting down the weeks until kickoff by profiling a different Big Ten team each week. We decided to switch up the order to reflect 11W's predicted finish for the upcoming season, which can be found here and we'll also reach out to fellow bloggers for their inside opinion on important matters.
This week we take a look at the Michigan Wolverines, who will be looking to start a new streak of consecutive winning seasons, after their stellar 3-9 season in RichRod's 2008 debut.
Most of us Ohio State fans know all about the troubles up north, so there is no need to rehash them in this post. Plus if I would come across too negative, I am on vacation and won't have the ability to monitor the harsh, improper comments that are sure to come our way from the Michigan faithful.
COACHING: I won't say RR is on the hot seat, as I think he will get at least 3 years to work his system into place, but he may have the most pressure on him in all of college football. Another troublesome season will not sit well with the Wolverine Nation.
We invited our buddy Dave from Maize and Brew over this week to help us out and I asked him what areas of improvement need to be shown early on, to give Michigan fans hope that this season will be different.
Is it fair to say "everything"? We kinda sucked last year. I'm pretty sure you noticed en route to delivering a 42-7 butt whuppin on us last year. But it's a new year, new personnel, experienced personnel, yadda yadda yadda.
I think the most important area of improvement has to be the Michigan defense. If you want to nitpick, and pick the biggest position problem area(s) you could say safety play. But honestly, defensive line play, linebacker play and corner play would follow in short order. Everyone harped on the offense not being able to score points last year or that they constantly hung the defense out to dry. That's not backed up by the facts. Though I can't find the link, the average starting position for Michigan opponents was one of the highest in the country. So as a general rule, the defense was playing on a short field. Even so, Michigan was ninth in Big Ten total defense and still gave up a staggering 367 yards a game despite playing on a short field. If you're looking for an indictment of Michigan's defensive play in an easily digestible package, look no further than the Purdue game. It still makes me nauseous. (urp)...
For Michigan to have any hope, especially early on, the defense has to be able to make some key stops early in games. Against Utah, Michigan gave up a pile of early points and yards. Against Penn State, Michigan was solid until the second half. Against Illinois... well, they just sucked. There was no consistency at all, and teams just rolled up yards on our D. Sure, the big play definitely stuck a knife in the side of the team last year, but really, it was already on life support when the stabbing occurred.
The long and short of it is as follows. 1) Safeties have to play better. Since '07 safety play has been atrocious. Better angles, better understanding of their positions, better decision making. Without that, Michigan's sunk. 2) the line and linebackers have to get pressure and play their positions. Too many times last season the line did nothing and the linebackers got swallowed up. None of that can happen this year if Michigan's going to be any good.
OFFENSE: UM returns 10 starters on offense, but also will more than likely be starting a freshman QB. Coming out of spring ball, Calista Forcier, an early enrollee, had the inside track over fellow freshman Denard Robinson, who will get the chance to show his goods once fall camp opens. Nick Sheridan started 4 games last year, but broke his leg in the spring and probably won't get a chance to start again this season, after completing just 46% of his passes last season.
If Michigan can keep all their backs healthy, they could have some serious depth and should see a ton of improvement from this position. Senior Brandon Minor is poised to finally have a breakout season, after leading the team with 533 yards last year. Michael Shaw got a chance to show his stuff at tailback late in the season and responded with 129 yards in the last 3. He missed spring due to sports hernia surgery, but should be ready to battle for the backup spot when camp opens.
Seniors Carlos Brown and Kevin Grady, could provide some depth, but neither one has done much in their first 3 years. If none of the above guys work out, RichRod brought in 3 freshman tailbacks; Fitzgerald Toussaint, Teric Jones and Vincent Smith. All were 3-star recruits by Scout and while Smith may be the least rated coming out of high school, he is one player that Maize and Brew thinks might have a chance to surprise on offense.
One player is diminutive Freshman RB Vincent Smith - (youtubin')...Regardless of whether the Michigan defenders would have trouble tackling their grandmother, that's pretty goddamn impressive.
The wideouts should also be improved, as 6 of the top 8 return from last year. Sophomore Martavious Odoms and senior Greg Mathews combined for 84 catches and 852 yards, but only Mathews saw the endzone, twice. Sophomore Darryl Stonum will also add a threat to the offense and is another player that Dave thinks will make a much larger impact than he did last year.
Stonum's Michigan's deep threat. Great size and speed, and seems to be Tate Forcier's favorite target. I think he could be something special.
The line retunrs all 5 starters and 7 players who had at least 4+ starts. This unit will be lead by All-Conference candidate, Stephen Schilling, who has started 24 games in the last 2 years and has the potential to be the best left guards in the B10. Surprisingly, the line only gave up 22 sacks last year, the lowest at UM since the 2002 season, but with a freshman QB back there, they will have to improve tremendously if the Wolverines are going to be able to move the ball this season.
All in all, the pieces are in place for RichRod's system to take some necessary steps towards being a force at Michigan, but it still has to be proven that his system can work in a more physical conference. Michigan scored more than 30 points (42 in a loss at Purdue) only once last year and failed to score more than 20 in half their games.
DEFENSE: As Dave pointed out above, last year was a failed season by Scott Schafer, so RR brought in former Syracuse HC Greg Robinson, who in his career has been DC for 2 Super Bowl winning teams (Denver) and a dominant Texas team in 2004, amongst others. He inherits just 5 returning starters off a team that allowed 29 points a game and a 57.8 completion percentage to opposing QB's.
If there is any good news, 5 of the top 8 tacklers return, including linebacker leaders Obi Ezeh and Jonas Mouton, who combined for 174 stops last year and 11.5 TFL. Stevie Brown, who recorded 64 tackles himself also returns as the new hybrid S/LB.
Along the line, Brandon Graham returns for his senior season, after registering 10 sacks and 10 TFL's in 2008. Robinson implemented a 3-4 scheme in the spring to help offset the lack of depth up front. Graham should be joined by a couple of sophomores, Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen. Martin has the chance to be really good and could garner some post season B10 awards. You can also add DT William Campbell to the mix, a player that Buckeye fans may have to watch come November 21.
Campbell is going to be a beast at Defensive Tackle, a position of great need for Michigan, and is almost a lock guarantee to see a lot of playing time with just Mike Martin (who is awesome) and Renaldo Sagesse (who is Canadian) in front of him. Very explosive and strong, surprisingly seems to get penetration on passing plays but stand his ground on running plays. Can eat up two defenders in the way Terrence Taylor occasionally would.
In the secondary, junior corner Donovan Warren will man one side, while rising star Boubacar Cissoko (also on Doc's upcoming defender's list) replaces the departed Morgan Trent. At the safety position, both starters will be new, though they both got some experience last year. Sophomore Michael Williams and junior Troy Woolfolk should have the edge at starting, but as Dave points out, don't sleep on Justin Turner, who could see time as the nickel and eventually become much more.
Justin Turner will see plenty of playing time this year in Michigan's Nickle defenses (CB) and probably as a safety. Turner was one of five Army All Americans, and easily the most impressive. Good in tight coverage and has great wheels. I think he's going to be a legit All American candidate in three years.
KEY GAME: September 12, Notre Dame in Ann Arbor. I know this maybe a little early for a key game to an entire season, but the Irish whooped UM last year, causing 6 Wolverine turnovers, while jumping out to a 21-0 lead 5 minutes into the game. The Irish are supposed to be a top 10 team and an upset over them could get the RichRod express rolling, but another performance similar to last year and the boo-birds are sure to come out early and often. The key game easily could have been their opener against Western Michigan, as the Wolverines have lost 2 straight season openers.
BEST-CASE: For this, we go back to the local expert.
Absolute best case? 9-3. That's a every break goes our way, no one gets hurt, everyone plays well, no screw ups, etc. prediction.
Realistically? 7-5 with an outside (waaay outside) shot at 8 wins. There's a lot to be positive about, even after last year, but there's still a lot of work to be done. I think the offense will be leaps and bounds better, but the defense is going to take two to three years to get back to being dominant again. You can't change schemes 3 times in three years and not have problems. The program is definitely still in transition, but the schedule is somewhat manageable this season. I think Michigan can realistically go 3-1, and maybe even 4-0, in it's non-confrence non-conference slate. But 2-2 drops them to an outside chance to reach 7 wins and likely 6 wins.
Someone once cursed me by saying "may you live in interesting times." I am. And this season will certainly be interesting for Wolverines fans.
WORST-CASE: Honestly, I am not convinced this offense is going to work in the Big Ten and I am still not sold on RichRod's overall style. Michigan opens up with 4 home games and their other 2 OOC games are against Eastern Michigan and Delaware State. They go on the road to face MSU, Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin, with home games against Indiana, Purdue, Penn State and of course the might Buckeyes. Let's say UM goes 3-1 in the OOC slate and I'll give them wins against IU and PU, but all 4 road games are losable and so are the PSU and OSU games. If RR can't get his system going on offense and the new 3-4 scheme doesn't work, this team could slip to 5-7 and miss a bowl game for the second consecutive year, after appearing in 33 straight.