Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Michigan 41, Illinois 8: Riding the M Train

Fouad Egbaria
Sometimes, with the passage of time, you look up at a long-standing symbol and see something in a different light, new and reborn.

I returned to the Big House on Saturday for the first time since 2012, when Michigan scored a hard-fought -- and what then seemed meaningful -- 12-10 victory against Michigan State, the first win against the Spartans since 2007.

What I saw on the field Saturday was something entirely different, unrecognizable in every way from what existed four years ago. Just like the City of Ann Arbor itself, which has seen businesses come and go in just the past few years, Michigan has gone forth with an entirely new business model.

From the very beginning, Michigan flashed its new-age business acumen. The Wolverines took another ride on the M Train, capping a long touchdown drive, the first of four touchdown drives to start the game. The Wolverines set up in a row, like camel riders in the desert, one behind the other, sowing some degree of momentary confusion in the sand.

Then, action. Winged helmets move like electrons around a nucleus of stolid protons and neutrons, zipping to and fro, changing the makeup of the structure, stabilizing and destabilizing, but most importantly, changing. It's difficult to say how much the M Train -- maybe the People Mover is a more physically and locally apropos nickname -- actually flummoxes a defense, but its early returns are indicative of efficacy.

The Michigan offense emerged from the M Train car, headed downtown or uptown or out of town, and lost in the ruckus of travelers was Jake Butt, who crossed the middle of the field for an easy 3-yard touchdown grab (which I saw unfold beautifully from my end zone seats in section 34).

And just like everything Michigan is doing these days, it looked too easy.

You can say Michigan's level of competition hasn't been great, but, then again, great compared to what? The Wolverines have dispatched a very good Wisconsin team, easily handled a Penn State team that just beat Ohio State, eventually handled a Colorado team is that one of the biggest surprises of 2016, and easily handled non-power conference teams (Hawaii and UCF) that, at the very least, appear to be not totally horrendous (UCF is third in the American Athletic Conference's East division, while Hawaii is second in the Mountain West's West division).

The only moments of tension in the stadium occurred when Chris Evans went down on the turf, and later when Illinois scored a touchdown.

Fouad Egbaria
Michigan games this year have been an exercise in cognitive dissonance, not unlike watching certain once-in-a-generation players run, like Vince Young or Jabrill Peppers. The frequently uttered sentiment about Young was "he doesn't seem to be moving fast" -- then you look and he's outpaced the chasing defensive ends and the linebackers, and pulls away from the defensive backs like a sports car racing past a fleet of rickety minivans. 

The Wolverines, similarly, have cruised through some of these blowouts with remarkable ease. Sure, facing Illinois' third-string quarterback had something to do with it, but the Wolverines managed to put the game away before anyone in the stadium even had the chance to ask their neighbors about their post-game plans. Main Street? Sure, but let's sing The Victors for the 38th time first. 

Not long after that, Tyrone Wheatley Jr. caught a ball in the middle of the field and cruised 21 yards to the end zone, looking like Devin Funchess if Funchess gained 40 pounds and didn't lose any speed. 

Illinois did get a first down on its next drive, but Michigan responded to this grave injustice with its customary Gradgrindian efficiency: 10 plays, 81 yards, capped by none other than DJ Khalid. Touchdown runs of greater than 1 yard are unseemly, and Mr. Hill does not bother with them. 

And with all of Michigan's shiny new offensive weapons, namely Evans and Eddie McDoom, it's been surprisingly easy to forget that De'Veon Smith is the senior back who's been through it. Against the Illini, however, he carried it a season-high 18 times, and ran in Michigan's fourth touchdown of the first half. Like the linebacker position, the running back spot has evolved from a preseason sea of disparate pieces to a working committee of diverse, talented players. Smith does Smith, Evans does Evans, Ty Isaac does Ty Isaac. Anthony Thomas, Chris Howard, Clarence Williams -- there's a pretty nice precedent. 

And that's all without even mentioning Karan Higdon, who on pure running ability might be Michigan's most complete ball carrier -- this is a guy who carried the ball 11 times for 19 yards in 2015. He carried it eight times for 106 yards on Saturday. 

On what was a sunny, beautiful day, I couldn't have asked for a better homecoming. "The Victors" sounds much better during a blowout win than in the waning seconds of yet another defeat. 

Michigan is now 7-0 for the first time since 2006 and just the fourth time in 40 years (the others being 1986 and 1997). In the final days of October, the air of perfection builds, breathing palpably -- the form of expectation wisps like frosty breath. 

Later, running toward my end zone, Higdon weaved his way through the Illini defense, 45 yards for another Michigan score. Having not been to a game in several years, the feeling of being in on something that's about to happen came back to me. He hit the hole to the right side, unperturbed by any defensive presence, but eventually cut back to the middle and then carried a couple of Illini defenders for the final two or three yards. 

It looked easy. 

That's probably because it was just that. And while homecoming crowds at Michigan Stadium tend to be somewhat subdued to begin with, this crowd gave off the air of one watching a game without a sliver of tension. 

No tension makes for boring games, but that's sort of the whole reason for the path Michigan has taken: so many games that should have been boring were not boring. Hence, fired coaches, then Harbaugh. 

With that said, no matter how dominant Michigan has been, Ohio State's loss at Penn State on Saturday is proof that guards must stay up. Michigan closes its season with three out of five games on the road, including a much-anticipated trip to East Lansing this Saturday. On Nov. 12, Michigan heads to Iowa City for a night game -- while the Hawkeyes don't appear to be nearly at the same level as last year, night games are night games. A mistake here, a mistake there, and what should be a boring game becomes a nail-biter becomes a loss. 

But, Michigan can only cross that bridge when it gets to it. For now, the road has been far easier than expected. After all, there's no place like home. 

I look back on my senior year at Michigan, 2010, and feel as if I'm watching a different program entirely. That year, Michigan took crushing home losses, all by double digits, against Iowa, Michigan State and Wisconsin, the latter of which encapsulated Michigan's inability to stop much of anything. Michigan was one-dimensional, unorganized, dependent on vague, sporadic bursts of magic. That year, Michigan beat Illinois, at home, in triple overtime, 67-65. 

Six years later? It's a different story, in a different book, in another language. 

Fouad Egbaria

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Michigan 45, Colorado 28: Momentary panic

Over the weekend, I saw a question posed that just about sums up college football, especially in September. Paraphrasing, it asked: "Is there a sport in which perception changes from week to week more than in college football?"

The answer to that, I'd say, is that there is not. College football Team X is indomitable one week and worryingly flawed the next. Levels of competition swing widely, and when injuries occur, the dropoff from starter to backup is far greater than in the professional league (where even the third-string guy is supposedly competent, by virtue of even being in the league at all).

Michigan's game -- rather, quarter and change -- against Colorado on Saturday is evidence of the blind swings of perception, more like a mace wielded wildly than a pendulum, for a pendulum indicates order by design.

The Wolverines took two quick haymakers in the game's first five minutes, one a lightning-quick 49-yard drive and then a scoop-and-score off of a Wilton Speight fumble.

Just like that, Michigan found itself in a new situation this season. But, really, how much can you panic 3 minutes, 12 seconds into a game?

A theme for the day, Michigan's special teams gave it a boost, with Grant Perry scooping up a blocked punt for a score, offering a brief moment of relief.

It didn't last long, though, as Sefo Liufau channeled the spirit of the present Tom Brady and orchestrated a 10-play, 67-yard touchdown drive to put Michigan behind 21-7.

Oh, this is real? This is indeed real.

Michigan clamped down in the second quarter and added 17 points to take a halftime lead, but the drama extended to the second half, when a hobbled Liufau somehow was able to loft a perfect downfield strike 70 yards for a score.

In a half and change that was one to forget for Michigan's defense, it was perhaps most forgettable for the safeties, Delano Hill and Dymonte Thomas, who appeared to be culpable on two of Colorado's touchdown passes.

With Jarrod Wilson, the next iteration of Jordan Kovacs, out of the picture, I think most Michigan fans expected some sort of uptick in big plays allowed. That uptick came to pass on Saturday (and to some extent against UCF, too). Luckily for Don Brown and Co., it was Week 3, not a pivotal Big Ten contest.

The big question mark looming over all of this is the return of a triumvirate of Michigan defenders: Jourdan Lewis, Bryan Mone and Taco Charlton. This defense is still good without them, but not the dominant thing it can be. Remember when Michael Jordan pursued baseball, and the Pippen-led Bulls still managed to win quite a few games? Take that analogy and compress it for the college football world, and you have a similar thing going on. Everything is just wobblier without them, even if the defensive line is still capable of wreaking havoc, and Jeremy Clark and Channing Stribling have done just fine to date (albeit against no real top-notch receivers).

Liufau left the game, and it was all over but the shoutin' for the Colorado offense. But, in a way, this was a good thing for the Michigan defense. Sure, they gave up some big plays -- that's going to happen. For all of the offseason Don Brown hype, switching to the third defensive coordinator in three years doesn't forecast immediately positive returns with that third coordinator, no matter how respected.

In short, there will be, and have been, some growing pains.

Offensively, Speight recovered from his shaky start and some early hits to go 16-of-30 for 229 yards, one touchdown and just the one early turnover. No interceptions is good. In Jake Rudock's third game last season against UNLV, a measly 28-7 win, he went 14-of-22 for 123 yards, one touchdown and one interception.

By comparison, against a more talented opponent, I'd say Speight looked just fine, even showing some pocket-passer mobility to shake a Colorado blitzer and pick up positive yardage.

On the ground, Michigan ran for just under 200 yards on 4.1 yards per carry, with DeVeon Smith leading the way with 87 yards on 11 carries (albeit with one of those carries a 42-yard romp on which he wasn't touched until he was already practically in the end zone). It's still early to pass judgment on some of the guys up front (Bredeson, for example), and others more perceptive than I with respect to line play can comment on the line as a whole. Certainly, it's a work in progress.

All in all, it was an imperfect performance, one that momentarily induced a sort of low-level panic. But, the Wolverines did what they needed to do, which was eventually pulverize a far inferior team, even if the score doesn't show it. Other teams have players, too, and Liufau looked the part. We can wonder what would have happened had Liufau remained in the game at full health, but we'll never know. Perhaps even more unfortunate for Michigan, if Liafau is out for an extended period of time, the Buffs are far less equipped to make some noise in league play, which would benefit Michigan's playoff profile.

But, it's over and done, and Michigan has a league slate of its own to worry about.

Somehow, I've come all this way without mentioning the omnipresent Jabrill Peppers. Travel to an alternate universe in which Peppers isn't on that field Saturday. Think of all the plays he had a hand in, in every phase of the game.

If it isn't obviously already, you really need to pay attention. It might be a long time before Michigan gets a player like this again.

Sure, Peppers has some things to work on for his NFL resume (coverage), but he is otherwise a shutdown player, one who can affect a game so profoundly. Look at the other side -- Colorado's Chidobe Awuzie does not have the national recognition Peppers does, but his defensive ability opens up so much for that defense and closes down so much for opposing offenses. Michigan's previously uncoverable wideouts ran into a pair of corners of a caliber they won't see again for a while. It's tough to get open against very good corners -- that's why they're very good. It reminds me of folks quoting a team's record against average or bad competition versus, say, top-10 teams. Well, of course the latter is probably not going to look that great -- top-10 teams are good, usually.

Perhaps the highlight of the game was Peppers finally breaking through for his first punt return touchdown, a breakthrough on the heels of so many almosts. I'm willing to bet it won't be his last this season.

I generally don't like to make comparisons between current players and former elites -- but the Peppers-Woodson comparison is inescapable. On one play, Peppers diagnosed the play and sped into the backfield to level a Colorado back for a loss.

As it unfolded, and he arrived at the ball before the doomed had a second to ponder his first move, I was reminded of another play from 19 years ago, on Sept. 20, 1997:

Sometimes, all it takes to resume calm is to have the best player on the field. On Saturday, Michigan did.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Week 2: Close encounters of meaning, or not

Week 2 

With one more week in the books, the picture becomes clearer in some spots, blurrier in others. 

The nonconference slate is a mishmash of comfortable victories, head-scratching close calls and everything in between: Week 2 offered a diverse selection of all three. Take Clemson, Georgia, Arizona, for example -- and those were all wins. 

Thus far, Clemson looks nothing like the team that closed the 2015 season on a high note, the highest note of any team not named Alabama. Deshaun Watson passed a whopping 53 times and completed just 27 of those attempts, which is fine if you're Texas Tech or the Detroit Lions' Matt Stafford, but not if you're the No. 2 team in the country playing Troy at home. 

Meanwhile, in Athens, Kirby Smart's squad limped its way to a win against Nicholls State (which finished 3-8 in 2015). After a solid win against UNC (made slightly more solid after UNC's thumping of Illinois), the Dawgs came back down to earth, with Nick Chubb managing just 80 yards on 20 carries. Turnovers helped keep the Colonels in the game, as if often the case when the Little Guy hangs with the Big Guy. Georgia can definitely compete in the SEC East -- which, I suppose, is a lot like saying the Big Ten West winner will have a chance at winning the conference title. But this team is another Chubb injury away from some real problems ... an injury that hopefully does not happen, because he's a fun player to watch, and isn't that what all of this is about? 

Arizona, well, they scored 28 unanswered and beat Grambling State by 10. If you need a second to reread that sentence, feel free to do so and meet me at the next paragraph. 

Done? Yes, that is something that happened, yet another drop in the torrential downpour of madness that is the college game. And, really, let's be honest: Is that result even all that surprising? Does that box score move the needle in any way whatsoever? No? I'm not sure what to say about the Rich Rodriguez era in Tucson other than his teams always seem to teeter perilously on the precipice separating resurgence from oblivion. Rodriguez's squad followed his first two seasons, both 8-win campaigns, with 10 wins in 2014, but just seven last year. 

The Wildcats cap the season with trips to Oregon State and Washington State, and the rivalry tilt against Arizona State. But it's the five games prior that will decide the season and, perhaps, move the needle back in the positive direction for Rodriguez and Co. After this week's matchup against Hawaii, Arizona hosts Washington, travels to UCLA and Utah, then hosts USC and Stanford. Win three of those and close out with four straight against WSU, Oregon State, Colorado and ASU and you're looking at eight wins. 

But, you know, who knows. Arizona, like so many others, is just one of those teams that generally does not adhere to philosophical structures of order or reason. They're either firing on all cylinders, zooming down the highway, or crapped out on the side of the road, belching smoke into the pastel Arizona sky. 

Speaking of close calls, you can even look at Nebraska, which dispatched Wyoming with ease, 52-17 -- close call? The Cornhuskers held a 24-17 lead after three quarters. But hey, that's why you play four. 

If all of the above sounds like bad news for the aforementioned teams, maybe it is and maybe it isn't -- but take it all into account, hand-wringing Michigan fan, when you bemoan Michigan's "unimpressive" 37-point victory against UCF. 

That performance was far from perfect, but why is anyone expecting that in the first place? Even Alabama, the colossus from T-Town, didn't look like the same team in Week 2, besting Western Kentucky by "just" 28 points, 38-10. Jalen Hurts threw two picks and the Tide averaged 3.2 yards per carry. None of that means anything. 

Oh, right, there was also that business in Stillwater. What to say? I still lack words for the conclusion of the 2015 Michigan-Michigan State game. Things happen in college football that are spectacular for their lack of decipherable meaning. You can say "why?" but you already know the answer. 

Incredulity, thy nom de guerre is college football. 

If you're looking for sense in anything, college football is the last place you'll find it. You might as well roam the desert looking for a Wi-Fi hotspot, pining for a chance to send that Tweet about how something that happened on Sept. 10 presages either doom or success against a future opponent. 

  • Iowa State is truly bad. This is a fact that only underscores the awesome accomplishment achieved by Iowa in its 42-3 win against them. The Hawkeyes have found a way to lose to some wretched Cyclones teams over the years, but not this time. Really, I was far more impressed by this victory than one ought to be. We're not talking a hex of the late 1990s/early 2000s, when ISU beat Iowa five years in a row, but ISU did take three of the last five before this year's matchup, including the 2012 9-6 game. That ISU team finished 6-7. They also finished 6-7 in 2011, another winning year for ISU over Iowa, and 2-10 in 2014. This is probably more than you needed to know -- the point? Beating a bad Iowa State team by many points is significant for an Iowa team that has struggled to beat bad Iowa State teams. 
  • Remember Danny Etling? If you do, you're either a recruiting buff or a Purdue football die-hard. Regardless, he played most of a football game this past Saturday ... for LSU. Etling, who transferred from West Lafayette to Baton Rouge, went 6-of-14 for 100 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Which, somehow, was worse than Brandon Harris' performance in Week 1 against Wisconsin. It really is difficult to think of a program that has squandered so much talent based on its inability to get one thing even sort of right (i.e. quarterback). Gone are the glorious days of Matt Mauck.
  • The Seminoles head to Louisville to take on QB Lamar Jackson and Co. this week in what promises to be an exciting matchup. Jackson posted another big day in a Week 2 win against Syracuse. In two games, he's passed for 697 yards and completed 59.7 percent of his attempts. He's also rushed for 318 yards. Needless to say, FSU is a step or two up from Charlotte and Syracuse. But if early returns mean anything, Jackson is a step up from the quarterbacks FSU has faced to date. 
  • There's still something strange about seeing Washington sitting there at No. 8. They went 8-6 and 7-6 in Chris Petersen's first two years, yet somehow found themselves in the preseason top 10. Why? I don't know. It's not even that they necessarily don't "deserve" to be there, so much as their inclusion feels very strange, like a curly fry that finds its way into a batch of regular fries. With that said, unlike many other teams, the Huskies have taken care of business thus far, and the schedule actually looks quite manageable. UW hosts Stanford Sept. 30 and visits Oregon Oct. 8, but after that I don't see any games that are slam-dunk losses. A trip to Utah is always tough (ask Michigan), USC is the Pac-12's LSU (hey, look at all that talent) and the Apple Cup is a rivalry game still, even if the Cougars have failed spectacularly to date. If UW wants any chance at a playoff berth, it will need to sweep that Stanford-Oregon stretch. 
  • The game of the week? Arkansas-TCU, which was actually sort of a snoozer until the very end. The unsnoozeification of this one began when Arkansas missed a 22-yard field goal, then up 20-7 late in the third. TCU stormed back to take a lead, until Arkansas went 58 yards in 62 seconds to tie it with a minute to go at 28-28. TCU had a chance to win with a field goal, a 28-yarder. That was blocked, because the very notion of field goals resides in the realm of Bad Possibilities, and Arkansas went on to win in overtime. It's still unclear to me what Bret Bielema and Arkansas' path to success in the SEC West is, but one thing's certain: Razorbacks games are worth the watch. A Sept. 24 date with Texas A&M will likely be another one worthy of viewing consideration. 
  • After a rough first quarter that saw Tennessee trailing Virginia Tech 14-0, the Vols bounced back to notch a comfortable win at Bristol Motor Speedway (it's a brave new world). Tennessee gets a breather with Ohio this week -- well, in theory -- but then the schedule gets brutal before finishing with a pretty breezy five-game stretch. After Ohio, UT gets Florida at home, Georgia and Texas A&M on the road, and Alabama at home. The Vols were talked about as a playoff contender heading into this season, but that four-game stretch always loomed large. Assuming they get to the SEC title game and score an upset against Alabama, they can't afford to lose more than one of those four. Maybe Tennessee figures things out and manages to go 3-1 there, win the final five and have a shot at a play-in game in the SEC title game. Either way, like the Stanford-Oregon stretch for Washington, the Florida-Georgia tilts in consecutive weeks are must-wins. 
  • If college football can be likened to Game of Thrones, then Nebraska's 2015 season was akin to the guy who jumps on the bandwagon of the deity in vouge at exactly the wrong time. That's really the only explanation for Nebraska's insane run of bad luck last season. However, looking at their schedule, the 'Huskers have a chance to be one of the notable bounceback teams of 2016. In one of the more quietly interesting games of the week, Nebraska welcomes Oregon to Memorial Stadium, a team that is undoubtedly a few notches below what it once was. The Ducks can still score, sure, but they've given  up yards and points like they're hosting a yard sale. Excluding UVA QB Kurt Benkert's -27 yards rushing, the Cavaliers racked up 220 yards rushing on the Oregon defense this past weekend. ESPN's Power Index gives Nebraska a 74.2 percent chance at victory. If Nebraska can score a win -- which would only be an upset in terms of the arbitrary nature of early-season polls -- then a 7-0 start is not out of the question. Nebraska follows this one up with games against Northwestern, Illinois, Indiana and Purdue; that is, the antithesis of the middle of Tennessee's schedule. 

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Week 1: The princess is in another castle

Week 1

The first week of a college football season is almost always anticlimactic, failing to deliver on an offseason's worth of pent-up excitement. 

The opening slate typically features an array of snoozers, like a pedestrian hotel continental breakfast. You'll get just enough, but not what you really want, like a omeleteer serving up whatever egg-based dish you like at 7 in the morning. No, you'll take the toast and wake up to the season with a generic roast and USA Today. 

Take, for example, Michigan versus Hawaii: a classic Week 1 no-doubter. The game was over before you could say "Colt Brennan." Michigan rolled, 63-3, and it was fun until it wasn't, the point where every fan of a brand-name team wonders if there is even a point to this particular contest and if it should even be played at all. When one starts to truly feel bad for the other team is the exact moment in which that realization of the game's lack of utility takes root. 

Michigan, a team of four- and five-stars, experienced and talented, versus jetlagged Hawaii, which had already given up 51 points in a game before even coming to Ann Arbor: Welcome to opening weekend. 

The Wolverines won, but like wins scored by so many other teams dotting the top 25, the win means little. I't's Level 1, a step, the initial foray into the great unknown. 

The princess is in another castle. 

Then there's Alabama. 

Alabama, winners of last season's national title, lost its usual bevy of talent to the NFL, reigniting another round of The Process. 

The Crimson Tide opened with USC, a matchup of name brands. Coke and Pepsi, Rolls Royce and Bentley, Apple and Microsoft -- you get the idea. 

Alabama even had the courtesy to let the Trojans hang around for about a quarter. USC struck first with a field goal, but they would never lead again. Alabama started the game with Blake Barnett at quarterback, but finished it with Jalen Hurts, who offers a scary thing: an Alabama quarterback who is an active playmaker for the offense, as opposed to the parade of game-managing types of recent years. 

Hurts fumbled early, but proceeded to dissect the Trojans defense like a film class recitation one might take on the USC campus. Hurts started things with a 39-yard strike to ArDarius Stewart, then Alabama added a field goal and a pick-six to enter the half up 17-3. Against anyone not named Cam Newton, that means the game is over. 

And it was. The Tide rolled to a 52-6 win. Maybe USC isn't that good, but even the most cynical observer of the Trojans program probably doesn't think they're 52-6 bad.  

Once again, everyone is chasing the team from Tuscaloosa. 

And yet, despite the Tide's aura of invincibility, they have been prone to the occasional slip-up. In recent years, that has been at the hands of Ole Miss, who the Tide face in Week 3 in Oxford. The Rebels are fresh off of a crushing collapse against Florida State in Orlando -- maybe they'll be eager to prove that was a fluke? 

Or, maybe, Alabama will see them coming this time, particularly after losses to the Rebels in 2014 and 2015. If there's one thing you don't want, it's an Alabama that sees you. 

Speaking of, Florida State seemed destined to both get blown out and get its quarterback, freshman Deondre Francois, injured Monday night against Ole Miss. 

The Rebels raced out to an early 7-0 lead, scoring in under two minutes. They eventually led 28-6 after a 10-play, 80-yard touchdown drive. Jimbo Fisher and everyone else on the FSU sideline looked bereft of answers or words, like someone who has just missed a flight. 

Francois and Co. couldn't get much of anything going, much of it the fault of an offensive line that played like five large pieces of rice paper. Even star tailback Dalvin Cook (23 carries, 91 yards), with a free run to the end zone, simply dropped the ball out of bounds at the 3-yard line (FSU would eventually have to settle for a field goal). 

Nothing was working for the Seminoles -- another top-10 team appeared ready to topple. 

Then, having enough of it, Francois started firing in the face of heavy pressure. I'm not sure what happened or what unseen switch was flipped, but the redshirt freshman started making throws even fifth-year seniors can never hope to make. 

Less than six minutes into the third quarter, FSU led, 29-28. Blink and everything can change in an instant. In the span of less than a quarter's worth of NBA action, the Seminoles turned a 22-point deficit into a one-point lead. 

Questions now abound about Ole Miss, which looked unstoppable to start and completely flustered to finish. Whatever the Ole Miss season becomes, this was a hello to the college football world from Francois (whose debut compares favorably to the guy who recently won FSU a national championship). 

A tricky trip to Louisville on Sept. 17 beckons for the 'Noles, not to mention a home game against UNC followed by a trip to Miami. Then, of course, there's Clemson on Oct. 29. 

Can they run the table? Maybe, if Francois' brilliance on Monday night is any indication. But the offensive line will need to protect him and get Cook going, or they might not even get a chance to set up a matchup of potential undefeateds against Clemson. 

And as we all know, freshman quarterbacks usually mean a slip-up is just around the corner. 


Clemson went down to Auburn's Jordan-Hare Stadium, riding as high as one could on the heels of a national championship game defeat. After that loss to Alabama, everyone acknowledged Deshaun Watson and Co. as legitimate, an anointment that can these days only come after going head-to-head with Alabama and nearly winning on the biggest stage. This is "little ole Clemson" no longer. "Clemsoning" was once a word with meaning, but has sharply disappeared from the college football lexicon, lost in the gradually roiling seas of language transformation. "Clemsoning" is Middle English of yore -- in the dictionary, it's marked "archaic." 

Now, some might be down on the Tigers after a less-than-impressive 19-13 win. Watson went 19-of-24 for 248 yards (1 TD, 1 INT). Wayne Gallman carried it 30 times for 123 yards. Mike Williams caught nine balls for 174 yards, dismissing the Auburn secondary as if it wasn't there. Hunter Renfrow, hero of the national title game, fittingly reeled in a key touchdown grab. 

The score is not impressive, but the result and the individual performances are worthy of praise. Clemson didn't start with Hawaii or Furman or Wofford or Tumbleweed State -- they started with an SEC foe on the road. 

Now, say what you will about Auburn, a team with no offense led by an offense-first head coach, but Clemson doesn't need style points like, say, Houston does. The win is enough. 

There were hairy moments, moments when Clemson appeared destined to fall into one of Bowser's many lava pits or run into a whirling dungeon fire bar. 

But time expired, and Clemson found itself at the end, meeting Toad. The princess is in another castle, he says. 

Things lighten up for the Tigers the next few weeks; that is, until Lamar Jackson and Louisville roll into town Oct. 1. 


The madness continued Sunday night in Austin, when Texas took down Notre Dame with an 18-wheeler and a freshman gunslinger. 

Both teams used two quarterbacks, but the Longhorns were far more effective in their deployment, buoyed by freshman Shane Buechele's 280 passing yards and Tyrone Swoopes' three rushing touchdowns. Meanwhile, Malik Zaire got the start for Notre Dame, and even got the first series of the second half, but proved ineffective. Deshone Kizer took over down the stretch, finishing 15-of-24 for 215 yards and five touchdown passes. Kizer, a Toledo native, makes one wonder: What if he now wore the winged helmet instead? 

After 6-7 and 5-7 seasons to kick off the Charlie Strong era, this was one he, and Texas, badly needed. It's one thing to ambush a much better Oklahoma team in a rivalry game like they did last season -- it's another to beat a team like Notre Dame in a nonconference tilt. 

Like many of the other teams discussed here, Notre Dame's fate is yet to be determined. Texas could turn out to be good, and this loss would just mark an unfortunate loss concurrent with the rise of the Longhorns. 

Notre Dame will have a chance to collect itself and get back on track with a contest against Michigan State on Sept. 17. A loss there, and the outlook for Notre Dame takes on a blue-gray hue that's more gray than blue. 


The opening weekend was full of the usual array of upsets, pseudo-upsets and near-upsets. Northwestern won 10 games last year but couldn't do enough to stem the tide that was the Western Michigan Broncos, who rowed their boats onto the shores of Lake Michigan and claimed the City of Evanston for Kalamazoo County. 

Mike Leach's Washington State Cougars proceeded to plunder the good will of a nine-win 2015 season by losing to Eastern Washington, at home. 

Oklahoma fell against Houston, much to no one's surprise. That's not to say that many would have thought a Houston win a certainty, but its possibility was seen a mile away in the pensive hours of the long, long offseason. Houston will both take its long shot at a playoff shot, plus the more likely possibility of a conference upgrade. 

Indiana led FIU 12-10 at the half. Michigan State beat Furman 28-13. Tennessee just barely avoided casting themselves in "Appalachian State: The Sequel." No. 16 UCLA crawled back from a 24-9 deficit at Texas A&M only to lose in overtime. The Aggies appear to have a quarterback, but check back later, as folks thought the same thing for the last two seasons with Kenny Hill and Kyle Allen, who both now play at different Texas schools. 

Week 1 is also about noise, much of it meaningless. Is Tennessee that bad? Probably not. Is Texas A&M "back"? Texas? Who knows. Michigan State? Well, they beat Western Michigan by 13 in 2013 and again by 13 last season, and they went 13-1 and 12-2 in those seasons, both ending with conference championship. 

At this point, you simply shrug and move on. That's all you can do. 


College football is a constantly unfolding story, with climactic moments not woven in but thrown in seemingly at random. Rather, it's a collection of short stories, anchored by a central theme but by no means wholly tethered to it. 

Results are like the stars -- sometimes you try to connect the dots, but you'll often have to take someone else's word that the Big Dipper or Orion are in fact up there. 

They are, but you have to wait .Wait for them to come into focus -- and don't get distracted by that fleeing comet, or you might lose the picture, as the sky reverts to a sea of bright lights, apart and alone. 

Monday, September 5, 2016

Michigan 63, Hawaii 3: Shutdown

Not all blowouts are equal.

In 2014, Michigan beat Central Michigan, 59-9, to kick off its season. Devin Garden threw a pair of interceptions (Shane Morris also threw one) and Derrick Green carried the ball 11 times for 58 yards, which sounds nice until you know that one of those carries went 30 yards (leaving an average of 2.8 YPC on the remaining 10). Fitzgerald Toussaint carried it 14 times for 57 yards, with a long of 20.

CMU didn't do much of significance on offense, but it did crack 200 yards on the day. The Wolverines also gave up a 27-yard kickoff return.

If that feels like nitpicking, then you're right -- Michigan did win by 50, after all.

But when juxtaposed with a win like Saturday's, a 63-3 no-doubter against Hawaii, it feels a little different. It's like, on the one hand, trying to rationalize a B movie into an all-timer versus watching something that requires no rationalization, because it just is great without your attempts to hold it up.

Michigan sent out wave after wave of defensive linemen and running backs, overwhelming the visitors with depth and talent. It was a rout of yore, like the 49-0 blowout of Long Beach State in 1987. Bo's teams were before my time -- his last season was my first season being alive -- but from everything I've read and clips I've seen, those old-school blowouts bore a particular resemblance to Saturday's: staunch defense paired with running back after running back after running back.

There's not much to gather, big picture, from Saturday's win, except insofar as you might compare it with the performance of other major-conference squads playing lesser competition. Florida beat UMass 24-7. Tennessee scraped by Appalachian State in overtime. Michigan State beat Furman 28-13. No. 13 TCU gave up 41 points against South Dakota State. Washington State, a 9-4 team last season, lost to Eastern Washington.

So, there's that feather. More importantly, Michigan proved it could still look exactly as dominant as you'd expect without many of its best players playing even a single snap (and others, like Taco Charlton and Bryan Mone, having their days cut short by injury). This isn't 2007, where the absence of Mike Hart for a couple of quarters seemed to short-circuit Michigan's entire team against Appalachian State.

Pleasantly, the game turned out to be a snoozer, but only after the brief faux drama of Wilton Speight's interception on the offense's first play from scrimmage. He finished 10-of-13 for 145 yards and three touchdowns.

On the ground, Michigan racked up 306 yards on 39 carries. DeVeon Smith didn't need to do much, but when he did it was classic Smith.

Frankly, none of the backs had to do much of anything, but Chris Evans, he of the recent fall practice hype, stole the show with his 112 yards on only eight carries. While it remains to be seen what Evans can do against real competition, he offers the raw speed and burst that Smith (and even Ty Isaac) lack.

Whatever the case, this isn't like 2015, where a dinged up DeVeon Smith is an ominous thing. Think of this like 1997, with Smith as the dependable but plodding Chris Howard, with a little Anthony Thomas and Clarence Williams mixed in. The Wolverines don't need Smith to be Mike Hart or Chris Perry circa the 2003 MSU game. He can be Chris Howard, and that would be perfectly fine.

Defensively, Michigan's front eviscerated the Hawaii protection like one might do playing on the easiest difficulty level on NCAA. If we gleaned anything useful from the day, it's that Mike McCray can definitely play -- or, at the very least, can definitely not not play. McCray led the way with nine tackles (3.5 for loss), playing a position group that is considered one of the few real perceived weaknesses of the squad heading into this season.

On top of that, given the thinking that Don Brown's defense will be a decidedly more high-risk outfit, Michigan gave up very little in the way of big plays. The longest Hawaii run of the day went for 17 yards. The longest pass went for 28.

Channing Stribling and Delano Hill returned interceptions for touchdowns. The defensive line burst into the backfield upon the snap like a a crowd waiting to get into a concert venue. Jabrill Peppers zipped to and fro and jumped over people because he could.

Michigan didn't punt in a game for only the fourth time in its history. Eleven players ran the ball and 11 players caught a pass. Chris Evans carried the ball into a gaping hole, stopped, turned to the crowd, and recited the entire oeuvre of Shakespeare before zipping to the end zone. 

I could go on and on. Minus injury scares, the performance was just about perfect.

Things can only get more challenging from here, but early returns are positive. In a weekend full of name-brand teams not looking like legitimate contenders -- including an LSU squad that is perpetually a quarterback away from contention despite having a roster of NFL talents -- then you can't ask for much more than Michigan gave on Saturday.

They put the fans to sleep, pleasantly, without fanfare. That is what Week 1 is about, most of the time. There will be time for sleepless nights later in the season, when the leaves change color and the air begins to chill.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Almost there

The air hangs still.

The days until Michigan takes the field for the 2016 season have hit the single digits, but all who have paid attention over the years know that this final week never produces proximity.

For months, the arrow of Michigan's fortunes has trended upward, almost improbably so given its 2015 losses. With one dominant showing against Florida, things changed.

The offseason came and went like a breeze, punctuated by occasional blips of noise -- tweets, satellite camps, seemingly every coach in the country being asked What do you think of Jim Harbaugh? If there's anything else I take away from this offseason, it's a longing for that quixotic time when nothing-controversies didn't burst from nothing like wildfires.

Meanwhile, in actual football news, Michigan brings back most of a 10-win team, including a defense that should prove to be its best in a long time -- 2006-level is certainly within reach. Even that '85 Bears of recent Michigan lore, the 1997 Michigan defense, is not an unattainable goal.

Only this time, instead of Steele and Sword and Gold and Woodson and Renes, it's Wormley and Glasgow and Lewis and Charlton and Peppers. This isn't 2011, when a smattering of talent and several winning lottery tickets yielded something more than what probably should have been.

What Michigan has is something real, something definitive and sharp. Michigan has a defensive front that eats offenses and a secondary that guards its airspace with precision and expertise. For a long time, that wasn't the case. For a long time, Michigan football was a series of mistakes, compounded, an edge blunted by a lack of precision and expertise. That's not to denigrate the coaches and players who came before -- it's simply what happened.

Each season begins with its own set of expectations, a reasonable subset of all possibilities. For Michigan, that subset was limited indeed for some time.

Now, though, the whole playbook of expectation is in play. The Jabrill Peppers carry is as much a part of it all as the handoff to De'Veon Smith or the deep throw to Jehu Chesson. Nothing is out of play, too farfetched, too crazy.

If this all sounds hyperbolic, well, maybe it is. But why hold back when it's so plainly obvious?

The schedule sets up nicely (albeit with road games at Iowa, Michigan State and Ohio State) and Harbaugh has a proven track record when it comes to developing quarterbacks. Juxtapose that record with what Michigan did with Denard Robinson late in his career and what Devin Gardner's career became, and the divergence in ability and expertise is stark.

Setting aside all of that, the team is fun to watch again. It was fun in 2011, but even as I sat in the Superdome watching Michigan concoct a win out of hopes and prayers like an underfunded scientist, a sense of ersatz success lingered. It looked good until it didn't -- when that happened, when the light focused on the guts and bones of it all, it revealed a body unwell. Crumbling, deteriorating, unable to stand consistently.

In one year, that changed. That's not to say that Michigan is now a perfect team without question marks, or that it is surely destined for a playoff berth. What changed was the level of precision and purpose.

Think of all the minutes and hours in the day wasted. The times you get up to do something, wander around the hallways of your home like an intruding ghost, only to make a sandwich and sit back down, not having done that thing. Then you remember, oh, right. 

That was Michigan under Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke. Wandering listlessly, making unintended sandwiches. Under Rodriguez, the sandwiches were unique, but weren't sandwiches at all, for they lacked the bread that would have made it a sandwich. They were, figuratively, piles of deli meat, doused in hot sauce and other exotic dressings and toppings.

Under Hoke, Michigan ran out of deli meat in Year 1 and subsisted on mayonnaise sandwiches for the next three years. This was not a good time for anyone involved.

Now, though, Michigan makes sandwiches and remembers to do the other things. It rakes the leaves, takes out the trash, assembles a TV stand and drinks enthusiasm, the caffeine of life. Things are done in order and time is not wasted.

And, as this sandwich metaphor threatens to become unwieldy, threatens to burst, let me also say that this sort of adulation naturally makes me uncomfortable.

The best thing about sports is the unvarnished hagiography it produces, the good things we want to believe (and often should believe, for they are true and good). That is, it's the best thing until it no longer is. And as we've seen in recent years, when hagiography is flipped upside down, revealing something else, those engaged in that categorical praise are more likely to avert their eyes than not. To be honest, I hesitated about including this passage, but felt the need to say it, as it's generally how I've come to view the game and sports in general -- and nowhere is the cult of the coach stronger than collegiate athletics, especially college football (in certain places, it's the basketball coach, but that is more exception than rule). A casualty of growing older and more cynical, maybe. Of reserving praise until it is truly earned, and even then holding the door open for the doubt without. This isn't so much a warning as it is self-preservation -- because there's no doubt that if things go south here, they will do so in a new and likely more acrimonious way than they did with the last two gentlemen who threw their hats into the Michigan football head coaching ring.

That unanticipated aside, well, aside, the season is coming. The offseason is almost completely behind us, the year's night slowly receding as the sun rises in the east.

If you're like me, maybe you pretend, maybe you put on a show, that all of this isn't so important. Maybe, just maybe, this is the year a particularly crushing loss won't affect you out of nowhere, like the honk of a car's horn behind you as you sit entranced at a green light for a second longer than you should but a half-second sooner than is appropriate for one to be honked at. You blink and shake your head through the intersection, on to the next block.

There are no surprises now. There are no doubts about what needs to happen. Michigan's merry band of defensive stalwarts will look to render the quarterback situation a mere footnote. The offense will aim to balance that with fireworks of its own: Smith plowing through defensive backs like they are sentient tackling dummies, Chesson streaking past all like a fiery comet, Peppers zipping around like a 205-pound electron.

When it comes to what we think will transpire on the football field, during the games we care about, the prognosis is positive. And, thankfully, we'll soon no longer have to lean on predictions -- we'll soon have reality, screaming at us knowingly.

On Monday, Harbaugh said:
"…the unique thing about college football is there’s no preseason, there’s no spring training, there’s no exhibition season, there’s no warm-up games. It goes right into the season. I don’t think there’s any other sport in college athletics that’s like that. Certainly not in the professional series. College football is a stand-alone in that way. So, yeah, the practices rage on. The competitions rage on."
The competitions will likely rage on until the final minute, the final moments. We're almost there.

Come Sept. 3, we'll start to know for sure. What is real? What isn't? Even in September, we won't truly know, and maybe not even until the end of October.

But in the wormhole that is a college football season, it'll all happen in an instant. One second, we're subject to the laws of the world, an interminable offseason marked only by rumors and news of other, lesser sports.

Once it starts, there's no going back, no way to reset. And for this team, at this time, there should be no mulligans. All the pieces are there -- now it's time to put them together. The script is being written, but it will likely change along the way, many times. Luckily, Michigan has one of the best directors in the game -- remember that as you pop your popcorn and turn off your cellphones for this move experience with no previews. This is college football: Forget the trailers, just give me the action.

After two failed coaching administrations, we've become accustomed to the notion of "giving a coach time" -- don't you know you have to give a guy a full recruiting cycle before you can really judge him? This isn't an unreasonable sentiment, but in the context of the last two regimes, it's one borne of unreasonable hope in a hopeless situation.

This is Year 2, but we're not talking about time. We're not talking about vague incremental improvements, waited upon absurdly. Vladimir and Estragon have gone home.

We're talking about now, the present, the always-existing fulcrum of time. Everything balances on now, not next year or the year after. What better time to do something than now, when everyone is there, ready to go and do it?

Now is the best time. Now is the only time. There will be time to worry about another time another day.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The joy and agony of expectations, from Armour Square to Ann Arbor

Fouad Egbaria
As I sat watching the White Sox take on the Cubs tonight, not long after Big Ten Media Days wrapped up not far away at the Hyatt Regency McCormick Place, I was reminded how expectations can distort.

A White Sox fan since I had the agency (and interest) to make the choice, my expectations for the squad were middling entering the season. I expected, pretty much, what the Sox are at now: hovering around .500 (with tonight's win against the Cubs, the Sox inched back to .500, at 50-50, a true paragon of mediocrity).

But the South Siders surprised in April, starting the season on the heels of the truly silly LaRoche saga with a 23-10 run.

Just like that, those previously modest expectations evaporated. The first Cubs-Sox World Series was sure to happen, the first since Teddy Roosevelt's administration -- before the first World War, before the formation of the National Park Service, before, well -- you get the picture.

Alas, April proved to be a mirage. The Sox plummeted, losing their once-sizable division lead in the blink of an eye.

I don't have time to tune into every game anymore, but I still tune in when I can, even now. And when I do -- or when I hop on the Red Line toward 95th to catch a game at U.S. Cellular Field -- I'm just looking to consume the sport in its rawest form. Watching just to watch, to see something fun: maybe a home run, some fireworks, a meaningless win. It's all in good fun.

And if those things don't happen, it's fine. Bereft of the weighty albatross of expectations, you can hold your head high, no matter the result.

Meanwhile, on the gridiron, behold a different view.

Michigan is being talked about -- not just Harbaugh and his endeavors, but Michigan as a whole. No, not "is this the season coach X gets fired" talk -- Michigan is being discussed as a possible playoff team. How crazy is that? Two years ago I watched Michigan eke out a miserable win against Northwestern in Evanston, wondering how this Michigan program could possibly be cut from the same cloth as the one I saw in 2000, when Drew Henson's Wolverines battled Northwestern (and ultimately lost) in an spectacle of offensive pyrotechnics, back when they were still novel things.

This is far different than 2007, when Michigan entered the season ranked in the top 5 after a brilliant 2006 season capped by losses to good Ohio State and USC teams. It made sense, then, to have expectations. The 2007 season was meant to be a logical continuation of 2006.

Does it make sense now, to have those expectations? Is it logical, tethered to reality, believable? Yes, the pieces are all there, but after Michigan lost to its three toughest regular-season foes last year (and in spectacularly poor fashion against Ohio State), I'm not sure the same level of preseason certainty can be had.

That's what I would think, if Michigan didn't have Jim Harbaugh, the motor behind it all, the ultimate X-factor. Given Harbaugh's clear penchant for baseball, and the baseball theme of this post, it should be noted that his career coaching WAR is impressive, worthy of consideration when pondering the future.

This summer, Harbaugh has worn seemingly every jersey under the sun, traveled more than Carmen San Diego, angered SEC coaches, traded Twitter barbs with said coaches and wore a Michigan ballcap during his Media Days appearance. The whole enterprise, the idea of it, has picked up steam, gathering hype and attention magnetically.

With all of that, of course, comes expectation. And at a certain point, hype gives way to imminent reality. The season will start and all of the offseason antics will become a distant memory, a pleasant diversion, a rallying cry, a beacon of pride leading the Michigan fan base away from an era in which there was not much pride to be had.

While I love the White Sox, I look forward to having expectations again. Sports are made by stakes, and stakes are raised up high or brought down to the Midwestern earth by the lever of expectation.

Many fans expect a Big Ten East division title, a Big Ten title, a playoff appearance -- even more than that, possibly. None of those things are totally unrealistic. There are question marks lingering, but not necessarily enough of them to invalidate the hype.

A callback to his younger days in Chicago, Harbaugh will throw out the first pitch tomorrow at Wrigley Field, adding to the now expansive inventory of "Harbaugh throws a baseball" photography. I can't say whether he'll throw a ball or a strike.

I will say this: I expect the latter. And if he doesn't, we'll laugh and move on.

But come September, October, November, that will change: the games are no longer just fun and games. Everything indicates, however, that Harbaugh, the rest of the coaching staff and the players are ready for what's to come.

But what about the fans? What happens if Michigan falls at Iowa or Michigan State? Or, once again, at OSU, keeping that Henson-led 2000 team as the last Michigan outfit to win in Columbus?

Those moments mark the point when the taut line of expectation whips back against those who expect.

But failure and success are each meaningless by themselves without the idea of the other. The taut line slackens when none of it matters at all.

As time marches on toward kickoff, the line tightens and tightens with each day. It extends forward, like a sharp line drive, girded by expectations and hope.

Will it fall, shattering upon impact by virtue of its hardened material? Maybe. But maybe it won't.

And if it doesn't, Michigan can tight-rope across that line, all the way to what once seemed an unattainable light in the distance.