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

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