Thursday, July 23, 2009

Big Ten Football Previews – Part IV

Editor's Note: This is the fourth in a series of my annual summer Big Ten football previews. Check back often to see who’s next...

Team: Michigan Wolverines

Tidbits … The last losing season in Ann Arbor - before last season - was 1967. The last time the maize and blue failed to go bowling - before last season - was 1975. The last time Michigan only won 3 games was 1963 and they followed that with a 9 win season.

Past Predictions/Results:
2008 Prediction / actual: 7-5, 3-5 )T-7th), Champs / 3-9, 2-6 (T-9th), None
2007 Prediction / actual: 11-1, 7-1 (T-1st), BCS / 9-4, 6-2 (T-2nd), Capital One
2006 Prediction / actual: 9-3, 6-2 (T-3rd), Outback / 11-2, 7-1 (T-2nd), Rose
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)

*Note, bowl shown only from 2004 on as I did not predict the bowl berths prior to that season.

Returning Starters: 10.5 offense*, 5 defense, 1 kicker (* given the slew of injuries, Michigan returns 4.5 part time starters and 6 full time starters on the offensive side of the ball)

Key Returnees: WR Greg Mathews, RB Brandon Minor, DE Brandon Graham, LB Obi Ezeh

Key Losses: DE Tim Jamison, DT Will Johnson, DT Terrance Taylor, CB Morgan Trent

Looking Back ... If 2007 marked the end of an era in Ann Arbor, 2008 provided a ghastly start of a new time for college football's winningest program. So anytime you go outside the program and make a hire like Michigan did, there are bound to be growing pains. But no one expected it to be this bad! Just when you thought losing to Appalachian State was bad, there was the Toldeo game. And to lose to every rival by at least two TDs? Ouch. But, as they say, that was then. Those who really wanted change are willing to give it three years. Will that be enough? Will Rich Rodriguez need that much time? Stay tuned...

Outlook - Offense ... The Wolverines return 10-plus guys with starting experience, but I have yet to determine if that is a good thing or not. The offensive front gained a lot of experience in the new scheme last year and developed depth along the way. There is talent at tailback and wide receiver. Tight end Kevin Kroger is underrated. New blood arrives at the skill positions too. But the single key to success will rest on the arm and legs of a true freshman. Tate Forcier - welcome to the spotlight. Michigan players certainly have a better grasp of the offense in year two and there is plenty of talent in the pantry, but can a true freshman lead this team from the depths to contention in one year? Not probable. But then again, Michigan and three wins was not a probable combination last year either.

Outlook - Defense ... Michigan's defense was supposed to carry the team last fall and never really stepped up to the challenge, giving up 35 + points a stunning six times. The good news is that the offense should be better this year, meaning less pressure on the D. The bad news is - unlike with Wolverines' teams in the past - there is only one real star on the defensive side of the ball. Typically Michigan boasts up to a handful of future NFLers, but this year, Brandon Graham is the only one who really stands out - though Obi Ezeh could also fit that bill eventually. Of course there is talent around, this is - after all - Michigan we're talking about, but there is some settling in that needs to be done. The key will be for this group to shake last year's woes and get off to a better start with the basics. Tackling was a big problem last year, but with a new coordinator, new focus and renewed energy, you have to bet that the M defense will be far better in '09 than it was a season ago.

Outlook - Special Teams ... Michigan's special teams play last year was less than stellar. The kicking game only yielded 10 field goals at a .667 clip. Upwards of 13 players tried their hand at the return game and put the ball on the turf at an alarming rate. Only punter Zoltan Mesko had a decent campaign and he may have tired from over-use! Mesko is back and the special teams' units have hopes of vast improvement in 2009. Whether or not they get it remains to be seen.

9/26 - INDIANA
10/3 - at Michigan State
10/10 - at Iowa
10/24 - PENN STATE
10/31 - at Illinois
11/7 - PURDUE
11/14 - at Wisconsin
11/21 - OHIO STATE

Key Games:
9/12 - NOTRE DAME, 10/3 - at Michigan State, 11/22 - at Ohio State

Prediction ... Well, last year was even worse than I expected. Word from the die hard Michigan fans is that expectations are for six or seven wins this year. I think that is realistic. My big question is this: what happens if Rodriguez & Co. have another sub .500 season? Will he get a third year? I expect some new weapons to emerge this year that are much better fits for the team and style, but along with young players comes inexperience and rookie mistakes. It'll be better this year, but it still won't measure up to Michigan standards.

OOC: 3-1 (Notre Dame is the only loss, but don't sleep on Western Michigan)
B10: 3-5 (wins over Indiana, Purdue and Wisconsin)
Overall: 6-6, T-7th in the conference, Motor City Bowl

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