Wednesday, August 31, 2011


The final seconds ticked off and Michigan had lost again. It wasn't even close and by the time it was over I was already numb to it all. Chris Relf plowing through the line become a philosophical reality, and Bulldog linebackers streaming through our line on all-out blitzes like so many Haley's Comets turned life-destroying asteroids, wiping out Michigan's chances like the dinosaurs. An era was over, and despite the brief hope I held that somehow the vast layer of dust left by the impact would catch fire from some random wayward spark--reigniting the hope that once existed about the spread and Rich Rodriguez and the new and certainly better Michigan that would arise of it--it did not, and everything went dark for a while. We were left, leaderless, to madly wander the heath like King Lear, in the cold and in the dark and without direction or any sense of purpose or meaning. We were kings reduced to common men, crazy men.

Rich Rodriguez waited for his fate after the catastrophic failure that was the Gator Bowl (and much of the rest of his tenure) like Meursault, waiting for the gears of justice to finish grinding in order to provide a favorable verdict. After a while, it is easy to trick yourself into believing that something will turn out better than it will. Meursault's lawyer told him he expected a "favorable outcome," which, for me, would have been the retention of Rich Rodriguez and his offense, with, of course, some serious changes being instituted in an attempt to fix what had obviously been broken. Maybe those fixes were impossible because they were fixes to problems caused by things so deeply rooted in Rich's personality that it would've been like telling a consistently pessimistic person to look at the bright side of life. I convinced myself that maybe that would happen, but, like Meursault's case, it did not.

When the bell rang again, when the door to the dock opened, what rose to meet me was the silence in the courtroom, silence and the strange feeling I had when I noticed that the young reporter had turned his eyes away. I didn't look in Marie's direction. I didn't have time to, because the presiding judge told me in bizarre language that I was to have my head cut off in a public square in the name of the French people. Then it seemed to me that I suddenly knew what was on everybody's face. 
And, like that, it was over.


Five days later, Michigan had a coach. Each day seemed like a lifetime in and of itself as the program wandered like Lear, with the rain falling down turning the ash and the dust on the ground into a soft, extinguishing mud. Each day was stretched out and miserable, leaderless and void of anything, not even anything bad, by which to define ourselves. Each day we were left to twist in the wind, hoping for Harbaugh, for Miles (not me), for someone to come and say that they were the leader of this program and they would get on it then and there. Finally, we had that man, and, for a while, I was unhappy. But, as they say, it's in the past.

We're 72 hours and a tailgate away, and yet I get the feeling that it's happening too fast. I wonder if I've done everything I needed to do this offseason? I wonder if the team is ready? I wonder if Coach Hoke believes the things he is saying or if it's all a show? I wonder how media savvy Coach Hoke really is? Is Greg Mattison really that good? Does Borges really understand what he has in Denard? Does Denard really understand how fast he is, and how when there's nothing there on the pass he needs to go?

These aren't questions so much as expressions of anxiety. After a long hiatus, the 2010 season seems like the distant past, as does most of the Rich Rodriguez era. What came out of the Llody Carr era was rebirth, and from that hope, and from that resistance, and failure, and partial rebirth into failure and failure and failure and part of the partial rebirth into dread, the dread of the end and the dread of the beginning, like stabbing at the surface of a pool once, twice, three times before eventually taking the plunge for better or worse.

We're embarking on a slow shift the other way, the way we desperately strove to distance ourselves from after Crable blocked the outside guy on the final field goal against Appalachian State. The old way of doing things, whatever that may mean. There's nothing sarcastic or critical in that designation (particularly since this old way was more successful than the new way), as trying something new necessitates the existence of a prior way, an SOP of Michigan football. Everybody needs definition or else they risk extinguishing the fire of themselves, the thing that makes them do the things they do. For those five days, the fire fell to a low, dull glow, sickly and meek and embarrassing. It's a wonder what eight months can do. I went to bed on January 1st, thinking about what had just happened, what would happen, wondering what another restart would do to that flame. Those five days bore out our biggest inefficiencies, our at times hamfistedness, our determination to revert, to tear down, to criticize. Some threatened to leave if changes weren't made. Some said that all of this was a mistake. I had poured my entire heart into the revolution, and in the end, too many people had put down their guns and gone home.

I, myself, am furthering myself from certainty. This weekend marks the first home game for which I won't be in attendance since 2006. I don't know what I'll do, or how I'll handle it. This coming Saturday last year, I was in the stadium when Brock Mealer walked across the field. It got dusty.

I was starting my senior year, which I thought would never end, as people always do at the beginnings of things. I've had to adapt, to realize that things are now irrevocably different, that they won't be the way they've been the last four years, where I could walk to my window any evening of the week and hear a faint and distant rendition of The Victors, chopped up in pieces, played and replayed and perfected. I always wondered how they could practice it so many times, because when they played it during the games it sounded the same every single time.

I'm in New York now, a place that represents the antithesis of college football culture. I've seen my share of Michigan gear here and exchanged Go Blue's with people I would never see again. On my way back home to New York after a trip to Alabama in June, I met a Nebraska fan in the airport in Huntsville, AL. I told him I wished him well and that I hoped he would enjoy the Big Ten conference. He said that he was looking forward to it. I had over an hour until boarding; I ended up talking to this stranger, who was kind enough to approach me upon seeing my #16 jersey. He asked me if I was a Michigan fan, and I laughed and said yes while thinking how no answer would ever convey what I was thinking.


I got to watch Mike Hart and those guys for a year, my freshman year, after watching them play for three years while I was in high school in north Alabama, surrounded by Alabama and Auburn fans. Michigan won the Big Ten when Mike Hart and Chad Henne were freshmen, and even they they lost their last two games that season you had the feeling that an endless future extending to infinity existed, that three years of Henne and Hart might as well have been an eternity. Everybody said to wait till 2007, when they would be seniors. If you think this is good, wait till they're older, better, more experienced. Everything gets better, everything is linear and un-tampered with, watch this success unfold methodically. It was the height of certainty, as far as knew it, as certain as I could be as a 15-year old. I got to Ann Arbor in 2007, and things did not happen the way people expected them to, and uncertainty ruled the day.

Even then, the fire burned. It never wavered because I saw Mike Hart carry the ball 44 times against Penn State with strep throat. I saw a gimpy Chad Henne lead the Wolverines to a victory in Evanston after the young upstart Mallett proved to be unworthy of the throne. I watched Mike Hart pick up a fumble that miraculously bounced into his hands--on the first snap that Mallett took after Henne hobbled to the sidelines midway through the fourth--as if he was picking up his laundry and it was all perfectly logical and true to life.

It was absurd and irrational but it was memorable and it kept things alive. Hart did that his entire career; just when you thought things were over, when you thought that Michigan would lose to Michigan State for the first time in six long, dominant years, Hart pulled out a big bucket of kerosene and poured its contents all over his own body and set it on fire to prove a point. Even at the bottom, the smallest, most ridiculous events spawn things beyond their original scope. A seed becomes an apple tree, a fumble picked up like the stray singular sock on your bedroom floor becomes victory; unadulterated, undiluted victory. When I look back, I remember the defeats, but they litter the landscape light stray leaves, secondary aspects of a grander scene. Disappointment is relative, but memories are not. I remember Mike Hart doing that thing, and it was. It still is.

This team has has its heroes. I could go through them, but to draw attention to them is superfluous and most probably not what they would want themselves. The thing that's most worth knowing is that heroes will be born this season, but you might not know it until next year, or the year after, or 20 years down the road when you're wondering what happened to that guy or that guy.

We can't control what happens on the field, but we can control the fire that burns, that must burn, if you're a fan of any sort. I choose to relish the moments, the players, and the experiences I have with Michigan football. There's always a time for moping, a period of days or weeks when it's justifiable to be a cantankerous, horrible version of yourself. We are all allotted this time by ourselves, a special time we've set aside at the beginning that we've condemned yourselves to lose, like walking into a casino and saying you'll lose this much and that it's okay. 

I've learned, in four short years of horrible, frustrating, and exhilarating Michigan football, that you've got to take what comes, assimilate the failures into the overall sum of memories so that in the end they're indistinguishable. Selective memory is just another name for optimism. As long as you keep the fire burning, as long as you feed it and nurture it and remember why you even do it when it shoots up smoke and burns everything around it to the ground, leaving unseemly trails of blackened earth and ashy detritus, then you'll understand, and everything along the way becomes a part of the process, a part of the burning. After all, sometimes the only thing that lets you start over in earnest, is fire. 


Tuesday, August 30, 2011

HTR's Pre-Season Top 25

Although I'm not a part of the official BlogPoll, I figured I'd put out my own version of the top 25 as I see it (with a few comments), mostly as a way to get myself to engage with the college football world outside of Michigan and the Big Ten (i.e., WATCH MORE FOOTBALL), as well as for whatever discussion it may or may not engender.

Florida State
Virginia Tech
Texas A&M
Oklahoma State
Notre Dame
Boise State
South Carolina
Ohio State
Mississippi State
Michigan State
West Virginia
Arizona State

  • I think Alabama's defense is without a doubt the best unit, period, of any college football team in America this year, which includes the Oklahoma, Oregon, and Stanford offenses. Say what you want about Nick Saban (no, really, do it...I won't stop you), but that defense should be very, very good once again. 
  • I like Stanford, and Luck is an unbelievable talent, but...there was just too much lost this offseason for them to be a legitimate national contender. PAC 12 contender, yes. However, their schedule is far from imposing...barring an upset (which is of course entirely possible), their only real challenges are playing @USC, Oregon and Notre Dame at home. I don't think Stanford wins all 3 of those. 
  • This might end up making me look really stupid but I think this is FINALLY the year that Florida State is legitimate once again. Replacing Ponder might be an issue, but EJ Manuel is not exactly chopped liver (talent-wise, at least). He will have to grow up fast with a home date against the Sooners coming in the third week of the schedule. The ACC is fairly mediocre once again, and with no Virginia Tech on the regular season schedule, the Seminoles have an outside shot at a BCS title game berth in my humble opinion. Plus, second year coaches and whatnot. 
  • It's hard to have a good team without a good quarterback (unless you're Alabama and can thrive on a steady stream of Trent Dilfer game manager clones)...which is why I'm high on SEC teams like Arkansas and Georgia, who both have young up and coming guys in Tyler Wilson and Aaron Murray. The fact that Richt is on the "hot seat" is kind of ridiculous in the first place, but I think UGA does more than well enough this year to save their job. They won't beat out the Gamecocks in the East, but they'll give it a good run. Arkansas losing Knile Davis hurts, but Arkansas still have some good options to go with there, as well as being loaded at receiver. The defense has gotten better the last few years too. 
  • While I previously had LSU in the national title mix, I don't anymore, and honestly it's not because of the Jordan Jefferson situation at all. LSU has made a living on winning with no-name quarterbacks (Matt Mauk in '03, Matt Flynn in '07, the hodgepodge of mediocrity they've fielded the last couple year in Jefferson and Lee), but I've lost a little bit of faith mostly because the more I've thought about it, the more unlikely it is that anybody unseats Alabama in the SEC West. LSU will still field a good team, but the offense will look pretty bad at times and you'll wonder how they come out with a win every week. 
  • Sorry guys, but Notre Dame will be good this year. Finding a reliable tailback is an issue, as is the secondary...otherwise, Notre Dame should win 9, if not 10, games this year. I will say that I think the USF game will be an interesting one to watch. 
  • Didn't know who to put at 25...everybody is saying ASU is the favorite in the PAC 12 South. I have no idea. Everything after about the 12 spot is somewhat interchangeable anyway. 
  • OSU is no longer a national championship contender in 2011, but they will still field a formidable defense and an offense that is full of talent and will also be given a chance to gel by a weak September slate before going into East Lansing. 
  • Wisconsin will win the Big Ten but like last year they won't quite be in the mix for the BCS title game. There figures to be a whole bunch of 1-loss teams this year fighting for one of the two spots, and if that's the case I don't think the Badgers get it (assuming they end with only 1 loss, of course). 


Monday, August 29, 2011

Things That May or May Not Happen: Season Predictions

It's game week at last, and so it might as well be time to start locking in some ultimately meaningless predictions. These types are things are just about as pointless as preseason polls, but The permutations are endless, and settling on one prediction is like filling out a single bracket come March Madness. As somebody who usually fills out a few each March, you can conceivably fill out one hundred of those things and still feel good about each and every one of them. This year is another high-variance year; Michigan could come out and look legitimately better as a result of better defensive coaching and another year of experience for a host of underclassmen. However, even if Michigan's improvement is fairly obvious (particularly on the defensive side of the ball), I'm not quite sure that Michigan's record will improve from last year's 7-5 regular season mark.

In short, this is more for my purposes than any black and white determinant of what will/should happen. It's always nice to see where we end up compared with where we thought we'd end up at the beginning. As always, people should keep in mind that Michigan could go 7-5 again while still looking like a much better team. At the same time, it's entirely possible that the Michigan team of the first half of the season and the team of the second half. With that in mind, I'll look at each game and give my thoughts, some general conference predictions, as well as a few others.

Western Michigan: This will be a strange game for me, as it will be the first home game that I won't be in attendance for in a long time (graduating...don't do it). In any case, while hubris does not befit the Michigan Man of late, I think this game should be a slam dunk victory for the Wolverines. WMU is 0-5 against the Wolverines all-time, and I don't think that winless record changes this season. The Broncos return Junior QB Alex Carder, who had a pretty solid year last in 2010 by the numbers: 3,334 yards passing, 30 TD's to 12 INT's, and a 63.1% completion percentage. Carder also proved to be somewhat mobile (relatively), rushing for a little over 400 yards last season.

WMU also returns their top receiver Jordan White, who was granted a 6th year. Honestly, he is probably the only weapon that should register any sort of concern with the defensive staff. His stat line is impressive: he hauled in 10 TD's in 2010 on 94 receptions and 1,378 yards. White isn't a big guy (6'0'' 215), but he seems to produce just fine. WMU does lose their other prolific receiver from last season, Juan Nunez, so it will likely be much easier for teams to focus on White. Other than that, WMU will field a few average backs, in addition to having to replace three of last year's lineman. All the pressure will be on Carder and White.

I don't know if Michigan shuts WMU out, but the result will be very much like the one we saw in 2009...Carder will be running for his life most of the time, and Michigan likely won't show too much on offense with ND coming to town the next week. However, they'll squeeze enough out of the spread remnants of the gameplan, and Denard will have at least one big play (i.e., long touchdown run) on the ground (probably more). Michigan wins 34-7.

Notre Dame: This one, on the other hand, I will be flying in for. Needless to say, the atmosphere will be bizarrely raucous; I can definitely see myself looking around at several points to ask myself if I'm actually in the Big House.

For many years, this game has been a sort of litmus test for the Wolverines. This game is certainly important, but the fact is, ND is one year ahead of us in their program's rebuilding plan under Kelly, and to measure ourselves against them within the context of even this season alone is a little unfair and kind of pointless. Michigan could very easily lose this game and still go on to do good things. Of course, losing this one doesn't affect the Legends standings, so there's that to remember. As a general aside, if somebody asked me "you can only beat two rivals and you have to lose to one, which is the one?", I'd pick ND without hesitation.

Going back to last season, we all remember the sentiment, coming from Michigan and ND fans alike, that we wouldn't have won if Crist had not been forced out for much of the game (hearkening back to the '04 MSU game, in which Drew Stanton was destroyed by one LaMarr Woodley). Crist is once again the starter after an extended battle with the less touted Tommy Rees. After the Michigan game, though, Crist was having a decent season, until he was eventually knocked out with an injury early on in the Tulsa game. Rees then took over and led the Irish to four straight wins (Utah, Army, USC, and Miami), but people quickly forget that the Notre Dame defense improved upon its performance significantly in that span. Rees is a ice backup but Crist is definitely better.

Notre Dame finally loses Armando Allen and the consistently underwhelming Robert Hughes, bringing back formerly highly-touted Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray. However, ND returns 9 of their top 10 OL, which may or may not mitigate the lack of quality (or proven quality) among the RB corps. Of course, ND returns future first rounder Michael Floyd, Theo "Chronicles of" Riddick Jr., and TJ Jones (whom you may remember for this little moment).

Defensively, ND will be stout. Everybody knows about Manti Te'o, and Senior safety Harrison Smith is a guy who has been around and produced (93 tackles last season). The rest of ND's front 7 will be strong, and that's without even mentioning the potential impact of true freshman Aaron Lynch.

This one is really tough to predict, but I'll just go ahead and say it: Michigan probably won't win this game. It will be close, but Michigan got a performance for the ages from Denard and still only barely won. Sure, the game is at home and the atmosphere should be pretty electric, but that only goes so far. ND's offense doesn't scare me too much (I'm sure Cam Gordon is happy that Kyle Rudolph is gone). Crist is a good quarterback and he can occasionally beat you with his legs, and the OL figures to be pretty good. The tailbacks don't seem to have a star as of now, but you never know with that position. It's not like mediocre ND running backs haven't had success against us before.

I think Michigan will still be trying to work out the new offense, and Michigan likely won't be able to take advantage of ND's weakest defensive position group (i.e., the secondary). The defense will still not be good enough to hold ND's offense down. It will be close, and it certainly wouldn't surprise me to see Michigan win. How much spread stuff Borges deigns to run will also be a pretty big factor here (i.e., more is better at this point in the season). Michigan loses 28-20.

Eastern Michigan: No point in wasting too much time on this one. Michigan will win, and win big. Mike Hart in the Big House again will make for some solid game week fluff. Michigan wins by a lot, does it really matter the score? Okay, how about 45-10.

San Diego State: This one, on the other hand, is not getting enough consideration. Although Hoke and Borges are gone, SDSU should still be a dangerous team. If you read my run down of the 2010 TCU game, you'd know that the Aztecs have a pretty talented offensive unit. Unfortunately for the Aztecs, they will be without their top 4 receivers from last season, losing Vincent Brown and DeMarco Sampson to the NFL and Dominique Sandifer and Jay Waddell to injuries. As such, the offense has essentially been declawed, but they still return QB Ryan Lindley, RB Ronnie Hillman (who rushed for 1532 yards and 17 TD's last season), and TE Gavin Escobar. Defensively, SDSU returns 5 starters, but the defense will consist of mostly juniors and sophomores.

Michigan will win this game, but not before SDSU gives the Wolverines a bit of a scare in the first half and into the third quarter. Michigan wins 38-24.

Minnesota: The Gophers are just a bad team and they will probably suffer as a result of the Tim Brewster era for a couple years more. Jerry Kill figures to bring Minnesota back to their ground and pound days under Glen Mason, but the fact is the scheme doesn't really matter because the talent isn't there. Minnesota loses long time starter Adam Weber, who seemed to put up the numbers in a pass-heavy offense but really was fairly terrible. MarQueis Gray is a guy who was somewhat touted and brings some mobility to the QB position. Unfortunately for Coach Kill, Minnesota's leading rusher DeLeon Eskridge left the program  this offseason, making things that much tougher.

The defense returns 8, but they gave up 33.0 ppg last season. Minnesota is not good (how they managed to pick off Illinois and Iowa at the end of last season is a mystery). Gray might be able to run around for some yards but Michigan should be able to gash this defense on the ground and through the air with ease...Michigan wins 35-13.

Northwestern: This is another tough one to judge, but it's certainly winnable. If Michigan has developed enough momentum at this point, they should even be favored despite the Dan Persa hype train. I'm pretty sure the same things could be said about the Wildcats that have been sad about them for the past several years; for Northwestern, that's not at all a bad thing, because it means consistency. Northwestern returns 16 starters (9 on offense), including, of course, Persa and leading receiver Jeremy Ebert. Northwestern's OL also figures to field its best starting five in recent years. Like Michigan, Northwestern leaned on their quarterback on the run game, and it will be important for the Wildcats to find a reliable tailback to carry the ball if they don't want Persa to get injured halfway through the season. However, it looks like that decision might've been made for the NU offensive staff, as an Achilles injury that Persa is still rehabbing will likely force him to remain in the pocket.

Defensively, Northwestern returns 7, but this is not a unit to worry about. They only notched 17 sacks in 2010 (one less than Michigan did) and 29.0 ppg. Vincet Browne--who was 2nd Team All-Big Ten last
year--led the Wildcats with 7.0 sacks, making him probably their only standout.

Northwestern...they are what they are. Some people look at the numbers and call them one of the "luckiest" teams in the NCAA. While that may or may not be true, Fitzgerald has done the most with the minimal talent that he has, and a talented senior quarterback in Persa will be a tough assignment for the Michigan defense. This is the first road game for Michigan, but anybody that has been to a Michigan game at Ryan Field will tell you that there will assuredly be more Michigan fans than Northwestern fans present. By  this point in the season, I think the Wolverines will have started to improve on both sides of the ball, winning this one 31-28, and putting Michigan to a solid start of 4-1.

Michigan State: Okay, so for the first time in a while the Spartans truly have the attention of the Michigan fanbase. Michigan State had a very good season last year, but getting thumped by Alabama and Iowa, while also missing Ohio State, makes it a little less impressive than it seems on paper. With that said, I think MSU comes down a step this year.

Defensively, MSU should field a pretty strong DL, headlined by future first rounder Jerel Worthy and his tattoo. However, the Spartans will need for former Michigan target William Gholston to improve, as Tyler Hoover only registered 3 sacks at the other end position. At linebacker, they will be without the services of Greg Jones and Eric Gordon, only returning SLB Chris Norman. This position group figures to take a step down this season, although how much of a drop it ends up being depends on how former 4-star MLB Max Bullough performs.

Offensively, MSU looks like a team that can win the division and even the conference except for one, tiny issue: the offensive line. The Spartans only return 2 starters, and the departures included LT DJ Young (who was 2nd Team All-Big Ten) and RT J'Michael Deane. The Only Colors runs through the list of candidates to replace Young, one of which is a converted defensive lineman. Nobody will confuse Michigan's defense with Nick Saban's group of 11 Terminators, but this OL is something I'd be worried about if I was a Spartan fan. Otherwise, the skill positions look very good, with Cousins, Cunningham, Martin, Baker, and Bell coming back. Thus, everything hinges on the performance of the line. MSU's skill position guys won't do them much good if their lineman can't block anybody (see 2011 Capital One Bowl).

This game is enormous for Brady Hoke and for Michigan as a program. As much hype as the ND game is getting (and rightfully so), Michigan needs to win this one more. I think Hoke et al will have the team focused and prepared for this game, and the Wolverines will escape EL with a victory, finally flinging the monkey that is MSU's three game streak into the Detroit River. Michigan wins in 2007 fashion...Denard leads a late 4th quarter touchdown drive and Michigan wins 24-21.

Purdue: It's pretty sad that I'm giving this game, a conference game, about as much thought as the EMU game, but...Purdue is bad at football, and Michigan will win easily. The only concern here is a "hangover" after an emotional game in EL, but Michigan is much better on offense than Purdue is on defense (no Ryan Kerrigan is a plus), and Purdue's offense is just laughably incompetent, even more so now with Purdue's annual ACL explosion bonanza victimizing QB Rob Henry. I could see this being like the 2007 Minnesota game for a little while (come out slow, eventually wake up and turn it into a blowout), but ultimately Michigan should get to play a lot of second teamers by the 4th quarter. Michigan wins 38-10. 

Iowa: Michigan is, at this point, sitting at 7-1. Even I will admit that this might be a little optimistic, even considering that the next few games, as I will explain shortly, should go a little differently. However, Michigan's schedule really isn't that tough this year, so a 7-1 start is not out of the question. Beating State in EL is probably the only thing that's somewhat of a reach, and I feel pretty strongly that we'll get that done.

Beginning with the trip to Iowa City, the schedule gets much tougher, and I think Michigan will struggle. I don't necessarily think Iowa will be anything out of the ordinary this year, but I just have a bad feeling about this one. Iowa only returns 9 starters total, the fewest in the conference, and they will have to replace American hero Ricky Stanzi with junior James Vandenberg. I don't really have any concrete analysis for this one; Michigan will drop a road game (if not 2 road games), and I think this is one of them. Iowa seems to do well when expectations are low, and after losing their 5 games last year by 7, 1, 4, 3, and 3 points respectively, I think chances are they turn it around this year even if the team isn't necessarily better than last year. Iowa has never beaten Michigan three times in a row, but I think that trend is finally broken this year...Michigan drops a frustrating one, 28-17.

Illinois: As horrible of a coach as Ron Zook is, this is another dangerous road game for Michigan. As entertaining as last year's game was, I think we will not see nearly the same offensive production in this game. Illinois returns 6 starters on defense, losing Corey Liuget and Clay nurse on the line. The Illini should still have some experience here, but one would think it's going to be nearly impossible to replace Liuget this season. Ilinois gave up 23 ppg last year (good for 48th in the country), surprisingly good for a team you'd figure to be much worse. However, the Illini will almost certainly give up a few more points this year; Illinois will not be able to replace the production of Liuget and MLB Martez Wilson (and Nurse, to a much lesser extent).

The offensive side of the ball is where the Illini worry me. Despite being very much of a project passing the ball, Nathan Scheelhaase developed into a dangerous dual threat QB as a freshman last season, and he figures to only get better. The Illini lose Mikel Leshoure, an admittedly pretty huge loss, but Jason Ford should do alright as the top guy (he ran for 480 yards last season at rate of 4.8 yards per carry), and Scheelhaase will carry the ball a lot anyway (868 yards and 5 TD's last season). AJ Jenkins is also back catching passes for the Illini after a pretty good 2010 (56 receptions, 746 yards, and 7 TD's).

Like the Iowa game, I could easily see Michigan winning it, but I just think that Michigan will have trouble containing Scheelhaase. Michigan wins in a number of alternate universes and/or pick sets, but in this one, they lose 21-38, dropping the Wolverines to 7-3.

Nebraska: This is the first game where I feel the Wolverines are probably outmatched. Nebraska showed signs of weakness near the end of last season, when they lost 3 of their last 4 to Texas A&M, Oklahoma, and Washington (in addition to an inexplicably bad loss to Texas in October). Much of this can be pinned on the health of Taylor Martinez, who was pretty much lightning in a bottle until the Texas game. While Nebraska fans have much of the same concerns about Martinez that Michigan fans do about Denard, the Nebraska offense should be better if Martinez can simply stay healthy. Star tailback Roy Helu is now in Mike Shanahan's offense in Washington, but Rex Burkhead almost ran for a 1,000 yards as his backup last year, averaging 5.5 yards per carry. None of Nebraska's receivers really put up big numbers, but Brandon Kinnie and tight end Kyler Reed are the best returning targets, putting up 5 and 8 TD's respectively last year. Martinez will improve as a passer, but it's unclear by how much, especially if he's forced to continue to carry the ball so many times. Sound familiar?

On the other hand, the defense is Nebraska's bread and butter. Nebraska returns 7 starters from a unit that gave up 17.4 ppg last year. They return three pre-season all-conference types--one in each position group--in DT Jared Crick, MLB Lavonte David, and CB Alfonzo Dennard. This team is talented and well-coached, and although their number went down from '09 to '10 after Suh's departure, they are still a very good defense and certainly one of the best in the conference, if not the best.

Michigan will have a hard time containing Martinez (much like Scheelhaase), and the Huskers will score enough points to come out of Ann Arbor with a relatively comfortable victory. Michigan loses 31-17.

Ohio State: As important as the MSU game is, this one is about a million times more important. According to what I have so far, Michigan will be 7-4 coming into The Game. OSU likely won't be as good as they have been, and they could come into this meeting with 3 losses. Like Michigan, OSU is very much a high-variance team as far as what their best case and worst case scenarios look like this year (of course, OSU's "best case" is much better than Michigan's).

A lot rides on the quarterback situation (understatement of the century), a situation which is still not settled but has been whittled down to two candidates in freshman Braxton Miller and Joe "Methusela" Bauserman. I previewed the Buckeye quarterbacks earlier this summer, so my thoughts are already out there. I think Bauserman takes the first snap, but Miller will eventually take over, much like in 2008 when Pryor eventually took over after Todd Boeckmann started the season as the starter after taking the Buckeyes to the BCS title game in 2007. In the wide receiver corps, the Buckeyes have a lot of talent in guys like Verlon Reed, Philly Brown, etc. but not many of them are proven. DeVier Posey is the top target, and he will of course be available for the Buckeyes in the Michigan game after he starts the season serving out a 5-game suspension. Jake Stoneburner is a pretty decent talent at tight end but when was the last time the Buckeyes really utilized the tight end position? I'm not sure that this is the year. In the same vein, the Buckeyes will have Dan Herron back for this one, and after him the Buckeyes boast a stable of talented backs that can fill in here and there in a pinch.

Defensively, the Buckeyes only return 4 starters; however, this will be another good defense for OSU, and it will have to be because Fickell and Co. will depend lean on it. OSU loses a number of big names (Rolle, Homan, Hines, Chekwa, and Heyward), but they will reload. Will the defense be as good as last year? I'm not sure, but they will still be pretty good, and definitely top 2 in the conference. Nathan Williams and John Simon on the ends should make for a formidable pash rush, and Garrett Goebel and former kind of Michigan target Jonathan Hankins should be at least okay (with Hankins seeming to get some hype in Buckeye circles this offseason). The Buckeyes replace the linebackers with Andrew Sweat, Etienne Sabino, and Storm Klein. There is a lot of talent there, and Buckeye fans seem to be pretty excited about all three, particularly the potential of Sabino and Klein. Sweat seems like a guy who will be your standard, dependable tackle machine; however, I'm not sure that the other two positions are as sure of a thing as many Buckeye fans seem to think. Sabino and Klein were both 4-star recruits, yet they haven't done much of anything thus far in their careers. Sabino even took last year off, taking a redshirt because he saw a stacked depth chart and a chance to start in 2011 while not wasting a year of eligibility. The Buckeyes are talented in the secondary as well, but losing Chekwa, Hines, and Torrence will hurt. One figures that any growing pains should be mostly behind this unit by the time The Game rolls around, but you never know.

I had a tough time picking Michigan to beat State on the road, but this one will be an even tougher pick to make (not that there's really anything at stake here other than the risk of being wrong)...there's no doubt that the difference in talent between the two programs is not insignificant. Michigan will narrow the gap in the coming years, but just look at Ohio State's talent and depth and you can see why they've been the powerhouse that they've been for most of the last decade. At the same time, much of OSU's talent is unproven and inexperienced, and that is not even mentioning the fact that Luke Fickell will be roaming the sidelines and not Jim Tressel. Luke Fickell is not Jim Tressel. Say that out loud, it feels pretty good.

By the time this game rolls around, Michigan will have been hardened by the Big Ten schedule and some tough losses (which can be piled unceremoniously on top of the experiences of the last few seasons and the general scrapheap of futility and ruined Saturdays). The new starters will have a season of experience under their belts, and with guys with good football minds like Mattison and Borges instructing them on a weekly basis, it's difficult not to envision a team that is much better, tactically and fundamentally, on November 26th than it was on September 3rd.

As talented as OSU is, Michigan fields a wealth of talent of its own. A strong offensive line and group of receivers, as well as a talented group of tailbacks of which hopefully one will emerge as "the guy" (Toussaint?), will form an above average group by the end of the season, even with the subtle shift in offensive philosophy. Oh, and there's Denard too. If Al Borges was able to turn Jason Campbell into a first round pick, I think he can do some things with Denard Robinson.

The defense is of course another story, but there are a few things that encourage me: 1) A year of Greg Mattison's coaching 2) another season of experience for guys like Cam (and Thomas) Gordon, Courtney Avery, Kenny Demens, etc. 3) a Buckeye offense which will have serious issues at the quarterback and wide receiver positions 4) Hoke's/Michigan's desire to win this game. Yes, I realize the last point is completely intangible and doesn't really win games (execution does), but it's there and you can't deny it. Seven in a row? Has it really been that long? You know that the preparation for this will be thorough and intense, and the desire to win among the seniors will be at an all-time high. For three hours, Troy Woolfolk will think he's Marlin Jackson, Kenny Demens will think he's David Harris, Junior Hemingway will think he's Braylon Edwards.

More on this later, but for now I will say that Michigan will beat Ohio State. I won't even give you a score because it doesn't even matter. Michigan will win. It won't quite be 1969 in its significance, but it will be the biggest win since the 2003 contest, and the argument for it being the most important win since the 1998 Rose Bowl victory is a cogent one.

That means that Michigan finishes 8-4, which is good for the Outback Bowl or something. Honestly, I went into this thinking possibly 7-5 (which I could still easily see happening if you flip either of the Northwestern or MSU predictions), but it was so very hard for me to predict that Michigan would get off to a start similar to the ones they had in 2009 and 2010 only to fall flat on their faces come conference play. 8-4 is my prediction, though, and I'm sticking to it (and if it comes to fruition, with wins against MSU and OSU...Brady Hoke for President?).

Bonus Predictions:
  • Denard carries the ball no more than 180 times, and definitely no more than 200 (down from last year's 256).
  • Shaw runs for 800 yards, Toussaint for 600, and Smith for 400. Denard for 1,100 yards
  • Hemingway steps it up in a big way, picking up the slack in Stonum's absence: 60-70ish rec., 950 yards, and 7 touchdowns. 
  • Kenny Demens leads the team in tackles. 
  • The defense will improve to top 70 in total defense, while also shaving a few points off of their mark of 35.2 ppg in 2010...31.0 ppg sounds like reasonable shot in the dark (Minnesota gave up 33 ppg and Northwestern gave up 29.0 ppg last year). 
  • Devin Gardner will be a significant factor in at least one win this season. 
  • Leaders division champion: Wisconsin, Legends: Nebraska--Big Ten Champion: Wisconsin
  • Other conference champions--ACC: Florida State, Big East: West Virginia, PAC 12: Oregon, SEC: Alabama, Big 12: Oklahoma
  • BCS Title Game: Oklahoma vs. Alabama--Alabama wins second title in 3 years

Friday, August 26, 2011

The Horror Pt. II: This Time It's Personal, 8/26

The last football-less weekend is finally upon us. To be quite honest with you, this offseason has been the swiftest one I can remember ever having to slog through, and up until the recent flurry of transfers, was just about perfect. Brady Hoke fattened the media up on the empty-calorie foodstuff known as fluff, the VHT recruits are coming in like they used to, and OSU has a laundry list of questions to answer on and off the field. In any case, I'm looking forward to what the season has in store, but I advise all to savor the quiet calm that will be this next week. Once things get going there's no looking back.

As far as this blog goes, I'm excited to keep things going throughout this season. I started out with a certain vision of what I wanted to write about, and if you've read anything here you'll know what I'm talking about. I love to write and I love Michigan football, two inclinations which converge to form long-winded posts on games against bad Indiana teams. Everybody has their flaws.

I've tried to produce some more day-to-day type content to bridge the gap between my longer posts. I'm still trying to feel things out, and I've been helped out immensely by Brian at MGoBlog, as well as the guys at Maize and Brew and The Wolverine Blog, for linking to my work; without their help in that respect, this blog would not have advanced much farther than my own circle of friends. With that said, my interest is not in the aesthetics of the blog or even the number of views I get, and I would still do this even if my close friends were the only people that read it. I started this thing late one night last summer, and I had no idea what I was doing, what my "niche" would be, how long I would continue to write, and what my "voice" was or would be. I'm still trying to get a feel for all of these things, but it's coming along. I haven't posted as frequently as I would have wanted, but the new season is the perfect opportunity for me to throw some words out there into the great big void that is the Internet and whomever reads it, reads it.

In short, for the handful that have kept up with this blog: thank you, and I'm looking forward to writing about the 2011 season.

Hey, remember that time? ME NEITHER: So, Dave Brandon clearly has not learned from past mistakes. As you all know, Michigan has scheduled the Appalachian State Mountaineers to a rematch, to be played in 2014. Yes, I know. Dr. Saturday expresses the universal dread-filled sigh exhaled by Michigan fans everywhere upon hearing this news:

For most Michigan partisans, Sept. 1, 2007, is a black hole. A void that never existed. A Saturday that the calendar, somehow, just sort of … skipped. All they know is that they went to bed that Friday night excited for the season opener, and came to the following Monday feeling terrible.
A lot of interesting emotions will be floating around Ann Arbor that day. The atmosphere will be part dread, part apprehension, part disingenuous apathy, and part vengeful bloodlust. Playing this game is still stupid, no matter how much anybody wants the "revenge." There is no number of points that Michigan could win this game by that will eliminate any of the embarrassment of that day. I had a similar reaction to Brian when I saw this...I don't think any fanbase ever has panicked more than we have/will about an FCS opponent 3 years down the road. As weird as it is to say, this game, which took place on my third day on campus as a naive freshman, will always be a significant part of my fandom and of my aggregate memories of Michigan football. Not that I want that to be true, of's horrible. No amount of mind bleach will ever erase the painful memories of that day. It was a surreal part of your every Michigan fan's fandom, an absurd memory that just kind of latches on to your memory and never lets go, not unlike the time you had to watch The Miracle of Life in middle school. Some things stay with you forever.

At least Armanti Edwards can't hurt us anymore.

Hello Goodbye Again: Exit TX TE Chris Barnett, adding to the recent string of departures. This is the third incoming recruit to not make it to Sept. 3rd. Attrition is unfortunate, and by all accounts Barnett was a very talented player (i.e., not your generic stone-handed in-line blocker). Having garnered offers from two schools that have recently produced elite tight ends (Oklahoma-Jermaine Gresham, Arkansas-DJ Williams), Barnett was a big get for Michigan. Unfortunately, he ballooned in size throughout the spring and summer, apparently reaching a hefty 280. There's no telling if that was the sole reason behind his transfer (if it is...why?), but in any case, this is unfortunate simply for the fact that there's currently not very much talent waiting in the wings behind senior Kevin Koger. Michigan is probably good at the tight end position for this class, but it will definitely be a priority next year, as will the Barwisization  Wellmanization of Ricardo Miller.

Meanwhile in Columbus: 11W previews the season, but not until they talk about how long the offseason has been for them. Eventually, they get to some prognosticating: 4 out of 8 contributors have the Buckeyes going a Carr-esque 9-3, with two claiming 10-2, one for 8-4, and one for 11-1. Basically, they'll be in Florida playing an SEC team, which would be their most disappointing season since 2004 (which should just about tell you how far apart Michigan and Ohio State are right now). Personally, I think 9-3 is a good bet. A pretty tough slate in October will make or break this team, with the road test in Champaign being particularly interesting. Who those three losses will come to is up for debate, and I'm not quite willing to go on record right this minute if Michigan is one of those three (FWIW, general season predictions post should be coming next Monday).

They also each identify the one thing that would make the season a "failure": four involved some form of Michigan, with three being "losing to Michigan" and one being "losing to Brady Hoke."

CtK Day 8:

Wolverine Historian: Tired of watching last season's Illinois shootout on the BTN every other day? Here's something nice to mix things up a bit:

It's So Fluffy: More offseason fluff, this time in the form of a Q&A with former assistant Jerry Hanlon. A couple bits aren't exactly anything new, per se, but should serve as some needed reassurance for the legions of people worried about the offense:
They will do some zone blocking, but they will also do some swiping and double-teaming. They pull and trap. They pull every man along the line of scrimmage, from the tackles to the center to everybody. It allows you to take more advantage of what the defense is doing to you.
There it is, it's out there. No speculation necessary about what Michigan will or won't do (with more emphasis on the latter, perhaps). Michigan will zone block, despite Hoke's notorious rhetorical aversion to zone blocking and his offseason-long diatribe re: its incompatibility with overall team toughness. Michigan will also do some man blocking. It seems like a distant relic of the past, given that we've been zone blocking since 2006. Everything, include Borges's own words and SDSU's offensive philosophy under Hoke/Borges, point toward a balanced, diverse offense. The offense will probably not be too complex early on (looks like it's 65-70% of the SDSU playbook as of now), but, by the end of the season we should be looking at a fairly dangerous offensive unit. What that translates to in terms of cold, hard production is tough to say, but an improved defense (top 70?) and a competent kicker (PLEASE) would go a long way towards easing the transition and ultimately leading to maybe an extra win this year.

Hanlon also makes note of some potential difficulties with the receivers:
There will be a change with your wide receivers. They'll be more interested in blocking downfield, as well as running patterns. Of course, they're going to have to run much more disciplined patterns, where they read a defense and know what they're supposed to do and make a cut, come back to the ball. The pocket passing game is more geared to that.
This is perhaps the most underplayed issue involving the offense, particularly when most consider the talent and depth that the Wolverines are blessed with at the position. For all of RR's offensive brilliance, his passing schemes were actually fairly simplistic. There's nothing complicated about getting a receiver open after Denard carries the ball for several long gains on a given drive.

Notre Dame figures to have a pretty strong front seven, but Michigan should be able to win its fair share of battles in the secondary if Denard and Roundtree, Hemingway, etc. are on the same page.

More? Dr. Saturday continues with his BlogPoll...OSU comes in at 17. Spencer Hall trolls hard in the paint. Delonte Hollowell et al, I think the word y'all are looking for is "tremendous." If this is what the future looks like then I'll stay right here, thanks. Dick Tressel thinks brother Jim will coach again...good luck with that. The Daily on Michigan's practices leading up to the opener...Borges: "Our practices are not for the faint of heart."


UM vs. Northwestern

"He's got great concentration, he's fearless and certainly that's one of those catches that people are going to remember."

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

True Grit: Nathan Brink

"They tell me you are a man with true grit."

When you're a walk-on, it's pretty easy to get lost in the shuffle. It's a thankless job, kind of like being an unpaid intern for four straight years with no chance of promotion to a regular position except in the case of extreme circumstances (people quitting, getting fired, not being good at their jobs, desperate executives/coaches, etc.). You wake up for practice every day and never complain even though the only time you'll ever see the field is against FCS schools and senior day. You do it because you love Michigan and you'll never have the chance to wear that helmet and stand on the sidelines ever again in life. 

The life of the walk-on is not very glamorous, you see. Usually, it takes the failure of many other many talented folks to even have the faintest glimmer of an opportunity come to the average walk-on. Here, we of course refer to Will Campbell, who, after a summer of encouragement and supposed strides in the weight department (going from fat guy to slightly less fat guy), has apparently been knocked down the depth chart, with Nathan Brink, pictured above, taking his place on the line (forcing an RVB move to the inside, with Brink playing the 5-tech). Many are focusing on the negative news re: Campbell, but Brink's ascension as just as important; in fact, it's probably of greater importance, given that he will actually ostensibly be on the field. So, who is this so called Nathan Brink fellow and what can we expect of him? 

According to his official bio
  • Brink, a RS Sophomore, is from Holland, MI, where he was a two-year varsity performer.
  • He was co-captain of a state championship team his senior year. 
  • Brink stands at 6-3 263. 
  • He also lettered in basketball...he was all-conference honorable mention his junior year and all-conference and all-area his senior year. 
  • Useless fact of the day: he was a high school teammate of Seth Broekhuizen. So there's that. 
  • In probably the most important stat of the offseason for Brink, he has added approximately 17 pounds, upping his weight from 250 to 267...which is still small, but can be mitigated by technique and heart and GRIT. Besides, not like we have any other attractive options. 

According to Brady Hoke in yesterday's presser
"If we play tomorrow, he'd be the starting 5-technique defensive end. You feel him a lot out on the field."
Obviously, we're not playing tomorrow. Like I said yesterday, I'm still holding out hope that all of this is just a motivational ploy for Campbell. It might be, but, then again, it might not be. Wishful thinking is wishful thinking.

Holland Christian assistant coach Josh Rumpsa:

“The thing I remember most about Nate is that he loved to hit people. Whether he was playing offensive tackle or defensive end for us, he just loved to reek havoc."
 Hoke in the same article from the Holland Sentinel:

“(Brink is) one we may not have seen earlier,” Hoke said. “Coming out of spring, we thought he could help us some, but I think he’ll probably help us more.”
 Greg Mattison don't care who you are:
“It doesn’t matter to me if a guy’s a walk-on or a fifth-year senior,” Mattison said Tuesday. “They’re all Michigan football players, and they’re all supposed to play that way.”
 More Mattison:
“I hate to talk about a young man because, when I do, he goes down the tubes. But, this guy has come out every day as tough as he possibly can,” Mattison said Tuesday at his weekly news conference. “Michigan people are going to be happy about him."

Still, Hoke said Sunday this would be a pivotal time of camp, because it’s the team’s first full week with full pads, there are three two-a-days and there is a scrimmage Saturday. He hopes to make out his first two-deep roster around that time.
So, Brink getting reps at this juncture does mean something — if he’s not a candidate for playing time, then at least there is a message being sent to Campbell. Either way, that’s significant.
A small positive according to Brian at MGoBlog:

Brink appears to have beaten out a healthy, senior Will Heininger, so he's got that going for him.
Heininger, also a walk-on (albeit a walk-on that people actually knew about), was slated to log seriously time last season before injury cut his 2010 short before it began.

Brink's biography listed on the school's Web site is bland. He prepped at Holland Christian in Michigan where he was a two-year varsity player, earning a couple of modest postseason awards. Brink redshirted his first year on campus in 2009 and made his college debut last season in a blowout win over Bowling Green. He never played again.
As the Blade article notes, being a starter at this point (or any point, really) for Mattison's defense means very little, and is probably a nominal designation at best.


Brink is a walk-on, and as such he will certainly be gritty and try really hard at all times. This sounds like I'm being sarcastic or facetious, but I'm not. Trying hard is something that many people are not capable of in this world, and it has been that way since people have been on this planet. With that said, as Brian jokes, odds are we do not have the next JJ Watt on our hands, but that's okay. With RVB moving to the inside and Brink manning the 5-tech, you have to wonder if teams won't just run right at that side with zero hesitation. If that ends up being the case, you're liking at a line of Roh (?)/Black, Martin, Van Bergen, and Brink from right to left, with weights of 269/260, 304, 288, and 267, respectively. Now, you wouldn't call any of these guys small to their face, but I have some concerns that, despite all the grit certain to come from Brink's play, we will have trouble holding up against some of the better rushing teams.

In short, I think Brink is a plug in the dam until Campbell gets it together and the coaching staff has enough confidence that he will go out there and not get blown up on your standard straight ahead run. He's a starter, for now, but a lot can happen between now and September 3rd. I wouldn't even be surprised to see Brink start the Western game, only to rotate out fairly often, giving Campbell a chance (perhaps his last?) to get out of the dog house. Thankfully, Michigan won't face any rushing attacks that keep me up at night in the first half of the season. San Diego State's Ronnie Hillman is a good player, but we should be able to do enough things to limit that attack.

In any case, the plan is to hope that Campbell can do whatever it takes to figure out...he'll certainly get the chance to do that in Mattison's rotation-heavy defense. If that doesn't happen, we just need to hope all of the aforementioned coachspeak is genuine praise; I don't doubt that some of it is, and I don't doubt that he's as gritty as he seems to be. Unfortunately, that often isn't enough to get the job done in major college football.