Big Ten Football Previews - Michigan Wolverines
Editor's Note: This is the eighth in a series of my annual summer Big Ten football previews. Stay tuned for the next review at a time and date TBD...
Team: Michigan Wolverines
2005 Prediction / actual: 9-2, 6-2 (T-1st), BCS / 7-5, 5-3 (T-3rd), Alamo
2004 Prediction / actual: 10-1, 7-1 (T-1st), BCS / 9-3, 7-1 (T-1st), Rose
2003 Prediction / actual: 10-2, 6-2 (T-2nd) / 10-3, 7-1 (1st)
2002 Prediction / actual: 8-4, 5-3 (T-4th) / 10-3, 6-2 (3rd)
2001 Prediction / actual: 8-3, 6-2 (T-1st) / 8-4, 6-2 (2nd)
Returning Starters: 6 offense, 7 defense, 2 kickers
Key Returnees: QB Chad Henne, RB Mike Hart, WR Steve Breaston, WR Mario Manningham, OT Jake Long, DT Alan Branch, DE LaMaar Woodley, LB Prescott Burgess, CB Leon Hall, PK Garrett Rivas
Key Losses: WR Jason Avant, WR/QB Antonio Bass (injury), TE Tim Massaquoi, OT Adam Stenavich, OL Matt Lentz, DT Gabe Watson
Looking Back ... Utterly forgettable. All you have to do to rile the Michigan faithful is say “7-5.” So rare is a five loss season for University of Michigan football that you have to go back to 1984, when Bo Schembecler roamed the sidelines and a guy by the name of Jim Harbaugh (who broke his collar bone in a very rare home loss to Michigan State leading to a tough season) was taking the snaps from center. Folks that is over 20 years without a so-called bad season. Sometimes even the good programs need a wake-up call like the one Michigan received last year. Believe it or not, too much of a good thing for so long can put you in a rut. Too bad for the rest of the Big Ten, that rut will be short lived and some teams on the slate in ’06 are bound to pay for that headache of a season.
Perhaps the most unbelievable and very telling statistics from the 2005 campaign come from the offensive side of the ball. Ninth in scoring offense. Ninth in rushing offense. Ninth in total offense. Wait a minute, Michigan, ninth in rushing offense? Say no more. The doldrums of 2005 even have Lloyd Carr on the hot seat. All the guy does is win, win and win and yet 2005 was so gut-wrenching that Carr is considered to be on the verge of early retirement should it happen again. Ah the toils of a national powerhouse. All you have to do is remember that this is Michigan. Hail to the Victors. Winged helmets. The whole nine yards. The bottom line? 2005 will seem like decades ago when 2006 finally kicks off…
Outlook - Offense ...I said it before, I’ll say it again: Ninth in scoring offense. Ninth in rushing offense. Ninth in total offense. Fix that and, well, you probably find at least two more wins last season, maybe more. It isn’t like Michigan was getting blown out. The Wolverines lost the five games by a total of 21 points, not any one of them by more than a touchdown. Of course, the maize and blue also won three games by a total of eight points. So what, you ask? It all goes back to the lack of a consistent running game, an offense that could take heat off of the defense.
One reason for the season long offensive funk that Michigan trudged through was the sophomore slump that felled quarterback Chad Henne. Henne has all of the tools to be the next Michigan signal caller that leads an NFL team to multiple Super Bowls. His problem in ’05 wasn’t that his skills reverted or left him, it was that he pressed too much, too often. Obviously he can make the plays. Doubt that? Look at the last play of the Penn State game or some of the key moments in the win at Michigan State. Henne is bound to be better this year than last and he has plenty of weapons around him. Fortunately for Michigan, he’s been healthy since day one, because the depth chart is a little scary. Of course the second and third stringers at Michigan could probably start at most programs in the country, but with Antonio Bass out of the picture as a possible fill in, it falls on young and unproven Jason Forcier or David Cone if Henne goes down. If you’re Michigan, pray that doesn’t happen…
Looking for the best backfield in the Big Ten? Look no further than Ann Arbor. Mike Hart battled injury last season but is a proven gamebreaker. Kevin Grady came along very nicely as a freshman and will only get better. The next superstar? Remember the name Carlos Brown. Brown was an early enrollee who has a tremendous burst and good size. His presence should push Grady to be better and give Hart a chance to stay healthy – something that would bring consistency back to the Michigan ground game. Back to that first rhetorical question, if you’re hanging on the “ninth in rushing offense” stat that I tossed around twice before, you might be wondering how I can label this the best backfield in the Big Ten. Simple, if healthy, Mike Hart is proven to be one of the best by himself. Throw in Grady and a freshman like Brown and there’s your answer. Mark my words, Michigan will have one of the best running games in the Big Ten this fall.
An improved ground game is going to give Chad Henne more opportunities to find Steve Breaston and Mario Manningham through the air and let them work their magic. Breaston has been a special teams star for three years and has come along as a receiver as well. But it is Manningham, the hero of the Penn State victory, that you need to watch. The speedy sophomore has all the makings of being the next Michigan wideout worthy of wearing the number 1. The only concern with the receiving corps is depth. The depth chart took a hit when Antonio Bass went down this spring with a serious knee injury. The loss of Bass hurt at wide receiver and potentially, quarterback. That means redshirt freshman LaTerryan Savoy and sophomore Adrian Arrington will need to be ready to step into the playing group. Both have size and great speed but the lack of experience could hurt in early season battles. Michigan is in solid shape at tight end despite losing Tim Massaquoi to the NFL. Tyler Ecker has great hands and is a solid blocker and Mike Massey has plenty of upside as well. Combine this group with Henne and the fantastic running backs and the Wolverines should be able to dust last year’s offensive output, especially in the games that really matter.
Ask most of the experts and they will tell you that Michigan’s offensive woes in 2005 stemmed from inconsistent line play. Yes, Adam Stenavich, Leo Henige and Matt Lentz all garnered some All Big Ten recognition, but things just didn’t seem to click for the front five last fall. Maybe it was too much size and not enough speed. Maybe it was the constant moving of bodies due to untimely injuries. Whatever the case, Michigan needs to show improvement here or the skill players that are available to the Wolverines will never get a true chance to shine. With huge left tackle Jake Long back in the mix, that may well happen. Long is a star in the making and gives Chad Henne comfort in knowing his blind side will be well protected. The other starters are players that have experience both in terms of time in the program and on the field. Tackle Rueben Riley and guard Adam Kraus are seniors as is center Mark Bihl. The youngest starter is sophomore right guard Alex Mitchell. If this unit can avoid injury and put their summer trimming and toning to work, Michigan should be right back among the best offenses in the Big Ten this autumn.
Outlook - Defense ... A lot of the failures in 2005 were blamed on the offense. Rightfully so in many cases. However, there is no excuse for a defense this talented to not dominate more games and make more game-changing plays. New defensive coordinator Ron English will be called upon to use the speed and athleticism of his players more than his predecessor. Don’t expect Michigan to do anything crazy, but do look for subtle changes that let the playmakers loose more often. There are plenty of potential stars on the defense, now it’s time to see them shine.
If you follow my previews this year and over the years, you know that I put a lot of weight on a defenses’ overall ability based on what a team has up front. Michigan has some players that will be stars on Sunday in very near the future. First and foremost, there is LaMarr Woodley. The defensive end has been on the verge of something spectacular since he suited up in the maize and blue and this is his season to act on that. He will be among the best pass rushers in the league and can be a nightmare to ward off with linebacker speed in what has matured into a perfect defensive ends’ body. He doesn’t have to do it alone, however, and that’s what really makes him dangerous. Fellow end Tim Jamison is also a former linebacker and he is poised to become a household name as well. Tackle Alan Branch is a house inside and a definite candidate for all conference honors. Terrance Taylor will help people forget the underachieving space eater Gabe Watson. But what about the depth? It is solid. Rondell Biggs has been a spot starter and gives Michigan a nice rotation at defensive end. Marques Walton is light on experience but with tremendous upside and offers the Wolverines more options inside. Look for this unit to shine in ’06 and to make more highlight reel plays in every game.
Whatever highlight reel plays the front four doesn’t make, the linebackers will handle for them. Michigan is loaded with talent at linebacker, starting with senior Prescott Burgess. Burgess made the move from safety before last season and it paid off big time for the Wolverines. He is talented in all facets of the defensive game and will challenge for all conference honors. The thing is, it doesn’t stop there. Fellow senior Dave Harris is a playmaker as well and the leading tackler from last season. He was a tad inconsistent at times in ’05, but expect him to join Burgess and junior Chris Graham to make up one of the best linebacking corps in the Big Ten this fall. The better news for Michigan is that there is some talented depth that will see the field as well. Shawn Crable and John Thompson have experience and could start anywhere else in the conference. With a more aggressive game plan on the agenda, look for this group to produce big time for Michigan come September.
Talent. Depth. Experience. The Michigan secondary has it all. Perhaps the only issue heading into camp is what to do with everyone? For now, it appears that the starters will be speedy senior cornerback Leon Hall, sophomore cornerback Charles Stewart, and senior safeties Ryan Mundy and Brandent Englemon. This group alone would make defensive coordinators all over the Big Ten green with envy, so think of how they feel when they peer at the depth chart. Senior Willie Barringer will push Mundy for time and corner Morgan Trent might just be the next coming of Charles Woodson. Toss in Jamar Adams and Brandon Harrison for good measure and now you understand why all the hype. This group snagged nine picks last season, to go along 24 pass break ups. Think of what they can do with another year of experience, spring practice and fall camp under their belts…
Outlook - Special Teams ... Michigan brings back both kickers and all-world return man Steve Breaston, but while the return game is superb, the kicking game, returning starters and all, is lacking a tad. It seems like Garrett Rivas has been booting field goals for the maize and blue for a decade. At times, maybe Michigan fans feel the same thing. Rivas isn’t a great option from deep, but he is a steady kicker inside the 40 and you can’t complain about a pretty sure bet for points when the offense bogs down. Punter Ross Ryan had rather ho-hum statistics, though he was good at forcing fair catch situations. Still, the coaches would like to see a little more leg out of Ryan this fall.
9/2 – VANDERBILT
9/9 – CENTRAL MICHIGAN
9/16 – at Notre Dame
9/23 – WISCONSIN
9/30 – at Minnesota
10/7 – MICHIGAN STATE
10/14 – at Penn State
10/21 – IOWA
10/28 – NORTHWESTERN
11/4 – BALL STATE
11/11 – at Indiana
11/18 – at Ohio State
Key Games: 9/16 – at Notre Dame, 9/23 – Wisconsin, 10/7 – Michigan State, 10/14 – at Penn State, 10/21 – Iowa, 11/18 – at Ohio State
Prediction ... This won’t be a repeat of 2005, when eight of Michigan’s 12 games was decided by a touchdown or less and five of those eight were losses. Sure, there will be close games – anytime you play all of the conference big dogs (Michigan avoids predicted lower tier teams Illinois and Purdue) and Notre Dame – that is bound to happen. But, this team is more seasoned than a year ago, and at least for now, major injury free. Only Notre Dame poses a threat as far as the non conference slate goes, though Michigan will be hungry for payback and to help out the league, which has four straight weekends with N.D. on the schedule. In conference play, the losses will be gut-wrenchers at Penn State (a little payback for the Nits) and at Ohio State where Jim Tressel owns Lloyd Carr like Mo and Carr owned John Cooper. Nine wins and back to a New Year’s Day bowl it is…
OOC: 3-1 (loss to Notre Dame)
B10: 6-2 (wins over Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan State, Iowa, Northwestern, Indiana)
Overall: 9-3, T-3rd in the conference, Outback Bowl berth