Early risers

Early risers
By Dan Wetzel, Yahoo Sports
August 8, 2005

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports
ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Michigan has won more football games (842) than any other school in the country. It has the best winning percentage (.746), more conference championships (42), more consecutive bowl games (30) and more all-time TV appearances (344) than anyone, too.

It also plays in the biggest stadium (107,501-seat Michigan Stadium) and has one pretty cool fight song ("The Victors").

So you can understand how last fall, amid all of that tradition, expectations and pressure, Lloyd Carr took one look at his injury-ravaged depth chart, saw true freshmen starting at the two most important skill positions (Chad Henne at quarterback, Mike Hart at tailback) and gulped.

"The thought went through my mind, 'How are you going to win a championship with two freshmen?' " said Carr, the Michigan head coach now in his 11th year.

Last season was understandably wild. There was a 17-point fourth-quarter comeback over Michigan State as well as gut checks against San Diego State, Purdue and Minnesota.

And in the end, under the Pasadena sun, there was Michigan, Big Ten champions once again.

"What happened was, on a daily basis Mike Hart got better," Carr said. "And Chad Henne got better. They gained confidence. It got going."

All the way to the Rose Bowl.

Now, here on the eve of training camp, with Hart and Henne back as mature, grizzled, weathered sophomores, the single goal is to return to Pasadena. Only this time, it's for all the marbles, the BCS championship.

"USC did it two years ago when they were all sophomores; it can be done," said Hart, the water-bug back from Syracuse, N.Y. who ran for 1,455 yards last season.

"Winning it all is always on the back of our minds," said Henne, the strong-armed Wyomissing, Pa. native who threw for 2,745 yards and 25 touchdowns a year ago.

Expectations for the future here always are grand, but Wolverine fans are understandably breathless right now. A sophomore combo like Henne and Hart is rare in college football, so why not dream the biggest of dreams.

For at least the next two years, Michigan has two mega-stars in the backfield.

"Last year we just went out and played," said Hart, who had just one fumble his freshman season. "We didn't know what to do. Now we can read defenses. We know the playbook. You are going to see a difference."

What kind of a difference?

"Watch out for Chad, man. Chad is going to be the real deal. Now he knows where to throw it."

That always helps.

Last year, Carr inserted the two kids, kept things simple and let their natural talent carry Michigan to a 9-3 record. Now the Wolverines' traditionally complex offense can be fully unleashed. The raw talent has a clue.

It is just part of the maturation process.

A year ago, Henne and Hart were anonymous recruits. By the time each took over as a starter (Henne in the season opener, Hart a week later at Notre Dame) the hoopla just exploded. The only thing fans like more than talent is young talent. Suddenly neither one could get across campus.

"It got to where in class you didn't want to say your last name," said Henne, who became the first true freshman ever to lead his team to a Big Ten title. "You just wanted to say, Chad.' "

That's out the window now. A throng of cameras and reporters from throughout the Midwest were here Monday for media day, and most wanted a picture or a comment from one of the Baby Bombers.

Carr is about as old-school and unapologetically anti-hype as they get. ("Hey, coach," he was asked, "What's the goal of the defense this season?" "Tackle the quarterback," he said dryly.) But even he can't deny what he has.

In part because of the two young players, Michigan finds itself in and around the top five in the preseason polls. Its two young guns are on all the magazine covers and will sneak up on no one.

But with a favorable schedule, no non-league road games and Ohio State in the Big House, there is a strong chance for a sixth Big Ten title in nine seasons – not to mention a reasonable path to the BCS championship game, where maybe mighty USC would await.

"It's early," said Carr, when asked to discuss that possibility.

Otherwise known as right on time for Chad Henne and Mike Hart.

Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.

Updated on Monday, Aug 8, 2005 4:44 pm, EDT

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