July 10, 2009
A random, too-soon look at the Wolverines' prospects next fall, sans the inevitable injuries, suspensions and other pratfalls of the too-long interim.
What's Changed. First-year defensive coordinator Scott Shafer came in with a reputation for bringing the heat at Stanford and Western Michigan, and delivered immediate results:
These were, of course, the wrong kinds of results: Michigan was generally respectable against the run but finished ninth or worse in the Big Ten in every other major category while being ripped to shreds by competent offenses -- Illinois, Penn State, Michigan State and Ohio State all racked up well over 400 yards on more than six yards per snap, as did Purdue in an ill-fated experiment with an extra defensive back that yielded 48 points and drove the final nail into the season in early November. Shafer wasn't necessarily responsible for that move (the 3-3-5 look down the stretch has Rich Rodriguez's fingerprints all over it), or for all the woes of one of the worst defenses in school history, generally, but he did take the blame for them on his way out, leaving a relatively clean slate for his replacement, deposed Syracuse boss Greg Robinson.
I mean "clean slate" in almost every regard: The Wolverines are shifting into a new system under Robinson, a warped 4-3 that will sometimes play a defensive end more like a 3-4 outside linebacker, and are swapping in three new starters on both the line and in the secondary. The two holdovers, end Brandon Graham and cornerback Donovan Warren, are entrenched, and early returns say well-regarded noobs Mike Martin and Boubacar Cissoko should live up to the hype at tackle and corner, respectively. But the other half of the line and the safeties are totally unknown (the safety spots could conceivably fall to one redshirt and one true freshman) and after the hatchet job Robinson pulled in four dreadful years at Syracuse, Michigan partisans remain a little stressed out by his presence.
What's the Same. The '08 offensive line was an unmitigated, all-hands-on-deck disaster that sent the offense spiraling into one of the deepest, darkest holes in the universe -- last in the conference in passing, pass efficiency, scoring and total offense, and truly among the worst overall units in the country. So this is one area where returning seven different players who started multiple games last year -- four of whom began the season as backups, including one who entered fall camp as a defensive tackle -- is equal parts blessing and burden.
It may be some comfort that this isn't a young group: Six of the seven returnees, all but redshirt sophomore center Dave Molk, are in their fourth or fifth years, and should be further whittled into the nimble zone blockers Rodriguez's scheme requires, as opposed to the steamrolling grinders they were recruited to be. Things did pick up when Brandon Minor returned from a broken hand over the second half of the year, when he averaged almost 90 yards in five full-time starts and the offense increased its overall rushing output by more than 30 yards per game. Given Rodriguez's history of engineering prolific rushing attacks at Clemson and West Virginia and assuming either of the two incoming quarterback candidates (see below) will be a vast upgrade in athleticism from the clearly overwhelmed duo of Stephen Threet and Nick Sheridan, the running game could actually qualify as a strength -- and it will certainly need to, because even if they pick up the offense mentally, neither Tate Forcier nor Denard Robinson (nor, heaven forbid, Sheridan) will be stretching the field with his arm.
Nobody better lay a finger on my butterfingers. Rodriguez has complained that the young skill guys "just dropped the ball" too often last year, which is all too obvious to anyone who watched them: Michigan lost an incredible 18 fumbles, including at least one in 10 of 12 games, and finished minus-10 in total turnover margin for the year, the worst number in the Big Ten. The loss at Notre Dame was directly attributable to the Wolverines' six giveaways (four of them fumbles), a week before they coughed up five turnovers to Wisconsin. The nightmare goes on and on, and a lot of the struggles in terms of scoring defense can be traced to the consistently terrible field position it found itself in on a weekly basis.
Loyal Phil Steele followers know the rule re: turnovers: Of the 200-plus teams the (frustratingly Web-averse) guru has tracked with a negative turnover margin in the double digits since the mid-nineties, more than two-thirds improved their records the following year, because it's almost impossible to duplicate a result that bad. In Michigan's case, improvement in ball security seems pretty certain, if only because it can't possibly lose 18 fumbles again -- the Big Ten average last year was 11 fumbles lost, which the Wolverines equalled in the first five games alone. It must also help that Forcier, the likely starter, is universally applauded for his polished fundamentals, which should lead to many fewer yakety sax moments.
Overly Optimistic Post-Spring Chatter. Threet's transfer and Sheridan's broken leg -- to say nothing of their usually horrendous play last year -- meant Forcier was handed the baton from essentially the moment he stepped on the practice field in March, a frightening and nearly unprecedented situation for a true freshman at the start of his career. In some ways, Forcier is well-suited for the transition: As mentioned, he's as camped-out and coached-up as they come out of high school, a three-year starter with two older brothers who signed as big-time college quarterbacks (one, Jason, initially chose Michigan before transferring to Stanford; the other, Chris, left UCLA for Furman last month) and has consensus praise for his accuracy. He's smart enough and committed enough to enroll a semester early. He's a scrambler. And for what it's worth, he had a terrific debut in the spring game (10 of 13, four touchdowns with no picks), even if you don't edit it and add ridiculous music for effect:
On the other hand: He's skinny (185 on a 6'1" frame, though that listed height may be generous), doesn't have a big arm and, while elusive in the pocket and allegedly very good throwing on the run, isn't drawing any comparisons to Pat White as a regular running threat. (Though Denard Robinson certainly is.) In other words, Forcier is the classic within-the-offense hero: Solid and not likely to get you beat if he's well protected and can lean on the running game, but also not likely to rise above any confusion around him. At least not yet.
Best-Case. Optimistically assuming a split in back-to-back road games at Michigan State and Iowa in early October, the key to a fast start will be Notre Dame in week two: A win over the Irish in Ann Arbor could singlehandedly knock the taste of 2008 out of the Wolverines' mouth and very plausibly get them to Penn State's visit on Oct. 24 sitting at 6-1. It gets dicier from there: Between PSU, Illinois, Wisconsin and Ohio State down the stretch, there are two and probably three losses, especially considering the more winnable games in that series -- Illinois and Wisconsin -- are both on the road. Still, if they can hang on through Halloween and avoid another Appalachian State/Toledo-level collapse, an 8-4 comeback would be one of the biggest single-season turnarounds of the decade.
Worst-Case. Nothing is a sure thing for a 3-9 team starting a true freshman quarterback, including the opener against Western Michigan, which knocked off Illinois last year and returns most of a pretty decent offense. An opening day upset -- which would be the third in a row after App. State and Utah -- could knock everything off the tracks. Among potentially winnable toss-ups, the Wolverines look like probable underdogs against Notre Dame, Michigan State, Iowa and Illinois, at least, and even at best with Wisconsin; four of those five games are on the road. A 1-4 record against that stretch and a slip against WMU or Purdue could leave Big Blue at 5-7 and Rodriguez simmering in his own expectations.
Non-Binding Forecast. I think the Wolverines should focus on two attainable goals: a) A winning record, and b) A competitive effort against Ohio State in the finale, which would be a strong gauge for whether the team is at least moving in the direction of its old glory. Otherwise, if Michigan can manage to win two of the four Big Ten road games -- at Michigan State, Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin -- a 7-5 finish, .500 conference record and bid in the Champs Sports or Insight Bowl should be good enough to keep Rodriguez out of the broiler for now.
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Previous Premature Assessments: Fresno State, Clemson, Kansas State, Colorado State, Virginia Tech, Hawaii, Kentucky, Texas A&M, East Carolina, Arizona, Iowa, Connecticut, Purdue, Tennessee, California, Auburn, Nebraska, Miami, Illinois, Arkansas, Texas Tech.