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Respect the Depths

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One of the hardest things this time of year is to separate the "brand" from potentially harsh realities – what we know from the past against what we can see coming, at least in the short term. In the balancing act between outgoing success and upcoming, unproven talent, how far down is the safety net?

What we know about Michigan from the past is that eight wins is so automatic, mere winning records can feel like stretching the net dangerously close to the rocks at bottom. It’s only come up short of eight wins twice in 40 years since Schembechler sired the modern program.

But it’s not Bo’s show anymore, nor that of any of his seed, for the first time since 1968. And what we see coming with the Wolverines is a year in the wilderness:

About this, so far, everyone agrees: the earliest online polls excluded Michigan entirely, as have all of the magazines released to date, most of which pick the Wolverines in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten. With the offense facing a worst-case scenario – no experience, no projected stars, no line, no quarterback, a new, completely different system, and ill-suited personnel for that system, on top of it all – that’s probably the worst they can imagine from Michigan. It looks about like 2005. Which for Big Blue partisans, is pretty bad.

Wait, who's my quarterback? Dammit, can we get the ‘09 recruits in here early?
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But it’s not outrageous. Athlon thinks games with Utah, Notre Dame, Michigan State and Purdue are virtually certain wins – they put the ‘W’ next to them in ink – and Wisconsin, Illinois and Penn State are toss-ups, about which the magazine is noncommital. Only unanimous favorite and current conference juggernaut Ohio State is a certain loss. Worst-case in that scenario: 8-4. Best-case: 11-1. That had better be one hell of a defense – but then, it’s Michigan, right? How bad can it be?

The main reason I’m so much more skittish about the Wolverines, maybe the sole reason, is because of their nearest parallel entering the season: 2007 Notre Dame. This is not a logical comparison based on probabilities. ND was in the same kind of woeful shape, personnel-wise, heading into last season, and everybody knew it; the Irish didn’t get a vote in anyone’s preseason top 25, either, off back-to-back BCS games. Losing a slew of quality career starters will do that for a team. But it won’t necessarily result in the worst record in school history, or one of the worst offensive performances of all time; there are no demerits for failure to predict depths so completely outside of anyone’s experience. Applying the same pessimism to Michigan based on one nearby, at-the-ready example is beyond hyperbole, if for no other reason than the Wolverines won’t be facing ten straight bowl teams to open the season; even if they did, two of them would play in the MAC and another from the Mountain West. It’s not the kind of schedule that will let any halfway respectable outfit bottom out that quickly.

But then, that’s what the Wolverines almost did last year, after losing a game that looked much friendlier than Utah, a team Phil Steele ranks in his top fifteen. If they meet Notre Dame halfway – on the way down, with the Irish inevitably on their way up – the game in South Bend is a toss-up, at best, as it always is. The first three Big Ten games are against the teams every poll out now has finishing 2-4 in the conference behind Ohio State: Wisconsin, Illinois, at Penn State, all close games for Michigan last year either without Henne (Penn State), without Hart (Illinois) or without both (Wisconsin, which really was not even as close as the 16-point margin suggested), and all games UM seems certain to enter this time as an underdog. An 0-3 conference start is not only conceivable: it borders on likely, with Michigan State and Purdue waiting to pounce on a demoralized group in the next two. The Spartans have lost six straight in the series, but they’ve led in the fourth quarter three of the last four years. They won’t have a more obvious chance to break that streak.

I don't see any way the bubble around a pair of BCS teams doesn't burst here in fairly spectacular fashion. Again, Notre Dame has taken so many of its close games the last two years – 3-0 in games decided by one score in '06 – but hasn't been nearly as competitive in losses. That's a potentially ugly trade-off: two or three close, come-from-behind wins can become losses with such little experience on hand, but there are no corresponding close losses to "turn" that might balance that.

I wrote that last summer about Notre Dame, and not much has to change to apply to Michigan a year later. The Wolverines have a few built-in wins (the Ohio-based Miami, Toledo, probably Utah and at least one of the ND/Purdue tandem, each of which they’ve crushed two years in a row), but they were 3-1 in games decided by ten points or less last year (Illinois was really a closer game than the 27-17 margin), and none of the three non-App. State losses were all that competitive (by the fourth quarter, the final 11-point OSU lead might as well have been by 30 in the conditions). They are staggeringly green on offense. They don’t know who the quarterback will be. They don’t know who the playmakers will be. They may not know how to run the plays. The same warning I leveled at the Irish applies here: it's not reasonable to expect such a young team to do much better than breaking even through the first seven games, maybe through the first nine. And then there’s Ohio State, waiting at the end to snuff out whatever’s left.

Again: not logical, and certainly not a prediction. The idea should be taken for what it is, which is an extreme form of paranoiac pessimism. A kind of hypochondria. The defense looks like a normal, generally rocking Michigan defense that, at worst, will keep the bottom from falling out. Most likely. All I’m saying is, for the next year, anyway, some of the symptoms are there.