A random look at next fall, sans the inevitable injuries, suspensions and other pratfalls of the interim.
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The least you should know about Michigan...
11-2 (7-1 Big Ten, 2nd)
Past Five Years
47-16 (32-8 Big Ten)
Returning Starters, Roughly
11 (7 Offense, 4 Defense)
I don’t want to imply that this selection is biased in any way, or that Mike Hart actually isn’t personally responsible for the greatest cumulative effect for good on Michigan’s roster, however one wishes to define it. But I myself am not what you would call a tall man – hell, apparently, none of us are these days. And though it’s no secret hulking left tackle Jake Long is inducing genuinely disgusting levels of saliva among the coveted Mel Kiper Jr. demographic, it’s Hart who embodies the spirit of the shrinking American man: short, slow, facing professional uncertainty (his major, like many Wolverines, is "general studies"), Hart comes to work every day and outperforms everyone on instinct, guts and undefined but indefatigable vision. Mike Hart is about results, not theoretical ideals; Mike Hart is the market at work. Plus he’s just strong as a mofo.
Michigan claims 11 national championships, ten of them prior to or within three years of the end of World War II, and maybe this helps explain my impression of the program as one that clings the hardest to the days when it could still be considered "West" to the dominant Ivies – this is true of the Big Ten in general because of the Midwest’s much older commitment to heavily-populated bastions of higher education and correspondingly grand stadia in that post-World War I Deco style, but the winged helmets and stripped-down unis, the oldest of old school fight songs, "MEE-she-gan," the Board of Regents, excessively modest cheerleaders, a dedication to salt-of-the-earth power running, hand-wringing over luxury boxes, and most of all a self-admittedlyquiet, "down in front" kind of crowd, the noble workingman too dignified for the antics of those uncouth Southern ruffians, it’s all very The Male Animal. Or at least I want it to be. Certainly even the crotchety Michigan fans who roomed with Hurry Up Yost aren’t still walking around in oversized letter sweaters and beanies hip-hooraying the T-formation, but can’t the mighty Regents make this happen? As a penance for the skyboxes?
Bizarre Item of Dubious Interest
Michigan’s monstrous bowl (dude: heh) has packed more people per game than any other every year since the mid-seventies, with one exception: 1997, when newly-expanded Neyland Stadium beat out the Big House before Michigan quickly took the arms race up to 107,500. That year, of course, happened to produce the Wolverines’ only mythical championship team since Truman trumped Dewey. So maybe they should start thinking about, I dunno, scaling back? Just as an experiment – there’s strong correlation there!
Startling realization of the day: as the assessments begin Month Four (well behind schedule, I might add), Michigan is the first team from the Big Ten to come up. I've covered the magazines' near-unanimous Badger love and written about most of the conference elsewhere, but the Wolverines pop the conference's cherry here when it comes to some good dissectin' accompanied by an irreverent chart. As always, the selection process is completely random, outside of my conscious control, and therefore reflects no hesitation to write about the beautiful Middle West; there's probably a Big Ten avalanche waiting to spring from the thinned field, in fact, so you bastards will get your fill soon enough.
What's Changed: For two months last fall, I was sold on Michigan's defense as a truly historically dominant unit, a perfect storm of personnel and production based on its sack-happy humiliation of Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Penn State and Iowa; the Irish had managed four yards rushing, the Badgers twelve yards, PSU minus-fourteen, Tyrell Sutton and Northwestern slightly better at minus-thirteen. Alan Branch hauled everything in the stadium - 160;runners, blockers, the tail ends of certain graphs - towards his planetary gravitational pull. Lamarr Woodley was the progenitor of unparalleled havoc in opposing backfields. When he had to worry about a pass leaving the quarterback's hands, Leon Hall was doing first-round-pick sorts of things at corner; top tackler David Harris was quietly benefitting from the attention commanded by Branch and Woodley and eating up most of the tackles in the middle. Rondell Biggs (6 sacks) and Prescott Burgess, a 250-pound ubermenschen prototype marauder once ranked by Phil Steele as the top defensive back in the nation out of high school, only had room to be role players, such was the stacking of talent unleashed at last by aggressive new coordinator Ron English.
There's no way to continue the superlatives of devastation in a world where Troy Smith delivered his one unquestionably Heisman-worthy performance in a 42-point, 500-yard barrage against that same defense, or where Florida seized the mantel of historic dominance by raking a very bloated-looking Smith across the coals a few days after another Most OutstandingTM<sup> campaign was forged against the Michigan secondary in the Rose Bowl. Not that either breakdown directly caused the nervousness over the state of defensive affairs, the inevitable child of critical departures, but taken together they nudged it toward crisis. The corners that had such problems against OSU's spread and USC's sheer athleticism are weaker minus Hall, and without the reliable cycle of run-stuffingpredictable down-and-distance/ferocious pass rushing facilitated primarily by Woodley, Branch, Harris and Burgess up front.
They'll get some of that back in Tim Jamison and Shawn Crable, who have both played a lot and gotten after the quarterback, and with new guys like Brandon Graham and Jonas Mouton who come with being Michigan. But the line won't have anybody like Branch occupying double and triple teams every snap, and probably not like Harris cleaning up at linebacker. Big, veteran lines like Wisconsin's and Ohio State's - maybe Penn State's and Illinois', too, though probably not Notre Dame's - are going to put their young inexperienced quarterbacks in better position via the run to hurt the secondary, which inexperienced passers or not desperately needs incoming Donovan Warren or somebody to clamp down Hall's old spot pronto.
What's the Same: They're all inexperienced next to everlasting Chad Henne, 37 starts out of 37 games, the dean of Big Ten passers and one of four seniors I can pick out nationwide (Bret Meyer, Shaun Carney and Erik Ainge are the others) who have been the starting quarterback from their first game forward. And two of the others shared and/or lost the job at some point.
Henne and Mike Hart are already Michigan's all-time passing and rushing leaders, respectively, through longevity and the twelfth game and counting bowl games, etc., but determined conservatism against mediocrity obscures the offense's status as the best on-paper front line, man-for-man, in the country. There's no better "big three" than Henne, Hart and lineage-sustaining rainmaker Mario Manningham, maybe no better lineman period than Jake Long, if you believe the hype, and breakthrough-ready Mannigham complement Adrian Arrington was reinstated from a suspension for some unknown offense after running 100,000 seats daily as a penance.
One more Rose Bowl, sirs, then the congratulations.
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Statistically, Michigan hasn't averaged 400 yards in the Henne-Hart Era and only edged over 30 points as Braylon Edwards-aided freshmen because of that triple overtime barnburner against Michigan State in 2004. But make no mistake: this is a consistent, efficient offense that has everything but the option at its disposal when Henne is protected and accurate - which he was last year until the Rose Bowl - and if it's kept from those benchmarks again, Mike DeBord's preference for lulling defenses (and crowds) to sleep when possible will be the culprit. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
Overly Optimistic/Cautiously Turbulent Post-Spring Chatter (Depending on Your Perspective): Arrington was redeemed, sophomore heirs apparent Justin Boren and Steve Schilling remained on track to assume "next great lineman" status, Ryan Mallett didn't transfer. So is Lloyd Carr retiring soon, or what?
Nobody can understand Carr, anyway, so his mumbling and dodging about his immediate future and what he tells recruits sounds just like Lloyd Carr talking anytime, and doesn't necessarily mean he's obfuscating his impending sayonara. But Carr has been more forthright about the fundamentally rumor-y nature of the annual retirement rumors before, and more tellingly, language in his contract was altered in January that gives Carr an opening to move out of the coach's job and into an assistant AD desk or some such paper-pushing position at the end of the upcoming season. Previous links in this section include the Detroit Free Press' Drew Rosenberg and Brian Cook each citing some vague "decision" about Carr's future confirmed and coming publicly "at some point" while hinting at a power struggle over his successor with AD Bill Martin, and you get quotes like, "It wouldn't surprise me if this was Lloyd Carr's last year. You hear rumors about his health," from an anonymous opposing coach in The Sporting News, and Brian thinking "all signs point to 2007 being Carr's final year as Michigan's head coach," and for what all that's worth, his retirement after this season couldn't really surprise anyone. Not when there's still time for the old coach to explore other options.
Michigan on YouTube: For all the complaints about the field conditions during last year's OSU-Michigan game, the 1950 Snow Bowl in the middle of the worst Columbus blizzard since before the Great War was instantly described as a "mockery" that should have been called off, a "nightmare" in which 50,000 people actually showed to watch the Rose Bowl bid decided by teams determined to "run a play or two into the line - straight in - and then kick, preferably on third down because if a fumble occurred a fourth down for kicking would be available."
Watch the decisive second quarter, featuring Michigan's winning touchdown and hands so numb they can't even begin to control the ball:
Check out Michigan's version of the Notre Dame Box. First quarter action is here. Spoiler alert: Michigan punts on the first play.
Conventional Wisdom: The magazines are consistent with top ten, BCS prognoses, though they disagree whether it will be as Big Ten champion in the Rose Bowl (Phil Steele, The Sporting News, Lindy's) or somewhere else as consolation to a Wisconsin title (Street and Smith's, Athlon). Not one outlet picks the Wolverines in the mythical championship game, even TSN, which predicts they'll finish 12-0 and still be snubbed behind Southern Cal and LSU, but on a brighter and probably more important note given the 1-5 thing against Jim Tressel, none picks Michigan behind Ohio State in-conference, either.
Enough, my god, enough of the torment. How long can a man be expected to go on like this?
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Best-Case: This is obviously one of the four or five really prime mythical championship contenders, and reasonably a favorite in every game - the only real threats barring some wild development over the first ten games are Penn State and Oregon, both at home. Just like last year, Ohio State is the elusive buck in the sights at the end of the trail, although this year that path puts a game at fellow conference favorite Wisconsin immediately in front of the finale. Any kind of rematch with USC is not likely to be met with much optimism, whether its in the Rose again or the designated championship game, but that looks like the route to a championship.
Worst-Case: Penn State, high-flying Oregon and even massively overhauled Notre Dame can't be tossed aside flippantly, when any two of those teams could cobble together enough momentum to win in Ann Arbor before the real gruesome twosome wait in November with their own championship designs. Even the best Michigan teams - most recently, think 2003, 2004, last year - have squandered chances to run the table, and there's enough on this schedule with Oregon's offense, Penn State's defense, Wisconsin's freezing, raucous home field and Ohio State's recent ownership of the series to hand a bad luck team four regular season losses. It could lose twice in September, in fact, and have bad vibes out of the gate.
Non-Binding Forecast: If there was a year of destiny, it was with last year's defense, but here Michigan has three tough September home games, a cruise of an October to get the defense up to speed, and it ought to be undefeated again going into its defining finale - only it's two of them serving as culmination now, one on the road against the league co-favorite and the other against a rival that claims some kind of psychological ownership of the series. The Wolverines' history of bombing out of a perfect scenario at some point says either Wisconsin or Ohio State will be a killer defeat, though I wouldn't venture which one. If that's all, it's still on to the BCS, maybe even to the Rose Bowl, depending how tiebreakers fall, but I can't take this team losing Woodley, Branch et al, even with no Ohio State-level overlord in wait, to improve its championship lot without them.