Big Ten Countdown
By Tony Gerdeman
No. 9 Michigan
Rich Rodriguez’ system is one year older and, likely, about three years better. They’ll be starting a freshman quarterback behind a veteran, yet maligned, offensive line. All of the Wolverines’ offensive weapons are back and more experienced. New defensive coordinator Greg Robinson has designed a 3-4 defense that best suits the team, but they’ll still need playmakers to emerge. The cornerbacks should be better with a healthy Donovan Warren and a sophomore Boubacar Cissoko, but is there anything else of value in the secondary right now? And with a killer schedule (seriously), all questions need to be answered quickly.
Sept. 5 Western Michigan (W)
Sept. 12 Notre Dame (L)
Sept. 19 Eastern Michigan (W)
Sept. 26 Indiana (W)
Oct. 3 at Michigan State (L)
Oct. 10 at Iowa (L)
Oct. 17 Delaware State (W)
Oct. 24 Penn State (L)
Oct. 31 at Illinois (L)
Nov. 7 Purdue (W)
Nov. 14 at Wisconsin (L)
Nov. 21 Ohio State (L)
A bowl game south of Detroit
“There’s no ‘I’ in ‘Barwis’.”
Five Questions Looking For Answers
1. Is Tate Forcier all the difference in the world, or just some of it?
2. Can running back Brandon Minor handle 200+ carries this season?
3. Is this the year the slot receivers start making legitimate noise?
4. Are there four good linebackers and four good defensive backs on this team?
5. Can somebody please hold on to a kick this year?
Something To Look For
The new defense. Michigan brought in Greg Robinson as defensive coordinator, which alone would have changed their defense. But after taking stock of their strengths and weaknesses, Robinson felt the 3-4 was the best fit for the personnel on the team. Rich Rodriguez has admitted that the defensive line is not as deep as he would like it, so this may be one way to combat the shortfall. Fortunately, the defensive line will be anchored by the best tackle in the league--Mike Martin. The little twist to the 3-4 look, however, will be former safety Stevie Brown who moves to a hybrid linebacker/safety position. Brown, who currently holds the Guinness World Record for touchdowns given up in a career with 179, looks to be more disruptive (in a good way) by playing closer to the line of scrimmage. Don’t be surprised when he finishes second on the team in sacks.
Ten on offense, five on defense and the punter.
Defensive End Brandon Graham. Graham finished last season with 10 sacks and was second in the nation with 20 tackles for loss. It is going to be interesting to see what Greg Robinson does with him this season. Michigan should be blitzing quite a bit and don’t be surprised when those blitzes come right beside Graham. He is dangerous enough one-on-one, but he will be even more disruptive amidst the 3, 4, and 5-man fronts we’ll see throughout the season.
Running Back Brandon Minor. Now that Rodriguez realizes Brandon Minor is a pretty darn good running back, the only thing that can hold Minor back this season is injury. If he can stay healthy, he will get the bulk of the carries and he’ll get a chance to show just what he is capable of—especially now that defenses will have to account for a quarterback who can actually throw and run. Last season, the quarterback could pretty much be disregarded on the zone reads, but Tate Forcier and fellow freshman Denard Robinson eliminate that thought process. Minor will have more time and more room this year. He’s got 1,200-1,400 yards in him.
Best Chance For a Big Loss
At Illinois. Once per year, Juice Williams plays a great game. And I’m thinking this season it may come against Michigan’s inexperienced safeties.
Most Important Game
Notre Dame. The real answer is always Ohio State, but how the Wolverines do against the Irish could tell us all we need to know about Michigan’s season this year. If they beat Notre Dame, they should head into East Lansing with a 4-0 record and a chance to be ranked. They would walk into Little Brother’s house cocky and confident that they belong. However, if they stumble against Notre Dame, will their confidence stumble as well? Bottom line, if they beat Notre Dame they are all but guaranteed a bowl berth. If they lose, they are going to have to upset somebody.
Best Road Game To Pack Up The Family Truckster And Travel To
At Michigan State. If you do beat Notre Dame, there’s no way you should miss the trip to East Lansing. Given that Spartan fans aren’t quite yet up to speed on big time football, you should be able to scalp tickets fairly cheaply. One area of concern, however, will be the noise. I know as a Michigan fan, you will not be accustomed to stadium noise, so you might want to prepare yourself by playing your radio full blast on your drive to the game. Also prepare your voice by shouting while you tailgate. And as a helpful hint that will be a delightful change from what you’re used to, there are bathrooms aplenty at Spartan Stadium, so you don’t have to “hold it” the entire game. Also, there are more than two exits, so you’ll finally get to experience that as well!
Game On The Schedule That Joe Paterno Would Deny Having Any Knowledge Of Scheduling
Delaware State. After being asked why he scheduled Delaware State, Paterno would look confused and ask, “Della who”? And then he would chase the reporters out of the interview room with a garden hose.
Game They Shouldn't Lose, But Could
Western Michigan. Yes, there are actually games that Michigan shouldn’t lose this year. And Western Michigan is one of those games. However, this is a season opener and the Broncos bring in a veteran high-powered offense against a brand new defense that may or may not know exactly what it’s supposed to be doing.
Best Reason They Won't Be Undefeated
They’re starting a freshman quarterback. If Jimmy Clausen couldn’t lead a team to an undefeated season as a freshman, then it just can’t be done. That being said, Tate Forcier is going to have a good year. Even though he’s the quarterback, Rodriguez won’t push him too hard on the decision-making process. Much of Michigan’s passing game will be based on quick, wide passes that don’t take much—or any—reading on Forcier’s part. But no matter how good he is, there will be mistakes. And those mistakes will cost Michigan at least one game this year, if not more. That’s standard operating procedure for freshmen quarterbacks, though. Just ask Terrelle Pryor.
Best Reason They Will Be Undefeated
Nick Sheridan isn’t starting. Even if he’s listed as Tate Forcier’s back-up, he’s still the third quarterback until Forcier is injured for good against Penn State. As long as Sheridan keeps his headset on, Michigan has a chance.
Player People Are Expecting Too Much From
Middle Linebacker Obi Ezeh. You would probably expect Tate Forcier to be listed here, but I think people know there will be some struggles with him. Ezeh is the answer here because he’s a veteran and the best of a semi-unknown bunch of linebackers, some of which haven’t played much and others of which have never been linebackers before. Ezeh isn’t the fastest guy around and is more of a straight-line defender. And it’s likely that he is going to look even slower at times as he’s trying to make up for teammates’ mistakes. He is a good linebacker--but not great, and sometimes when you’ve got a guy who is going into his third year as a starter, you tend to expect some level of greatness.
Player People Will Be Pleasantly Surprised By
“Linebacker” Stevie Brown. We’ve all grown accustomed to watching Stevie Brown either miss a tackle in the fray or watch a receiver get by him on their way to a touchdown. It’s one of the great things about football season. However, Greg Robinson thinks he’s going to take all of that away from us by putting Brown closer to the line of scrimmage. Brown’s new role will have him covering the slot and doing a lot of blitzing. He will have several duties on the field, but the thing that should make Michigan fans most happy is that almost none of them involve him playing centerfield. This fact alone means he will be a better player this year. And given that he’s going to be over the slot, offenses are always going to have to know where Brown is. This year they’ll be looking for him for an entirely different reason than they looked for him last year. I’m not saying he’s going to be All Big Ten or even Honorable Mention, I’m just saying that he’ll no longer be the worst player on the field.
Quarterback Tate Forcier. Forcier can do much of what Rodriguez likes to do and has been the starter since he arrived on campus. He’s not Pat White, but as long as he doesn’t get broken, he should be more than capable as a runner. He brings the confidence that you would expect from a Michigan quarterback, without the whole “being a statue” thing. Forcier is going to put up decent numbers this year both running and throwing and if he can limit his interceptions, this offense could be quite good. (And watch out for safety Vladimir Emilien as Second-Best Newcomer.)
Something They Do Well
Run the ball. Michigan averaged just 148 yards rushing per game last season, which was their worst total since 2002. Given Rich Rodriguez’s history, we can probably expect at least a 40-yard jump this season. I know he used to average around 300 yards rushing back in his heyday in the Big East, but that’s just not going to happen in the Big Ten…yet. The machine won’t churn like it used to, but it is still going to be quite effective. And even though the rushing total was down, the average per carry was pretty normal. They just punt too much to run the ball more. That should change to a degree this year. Expect the average to go up as well. The best yard per carry average Michigan has had the last decade was 2000 when they averaged 4.8 yards per carry. They should approach that number this year.
Something They Don't Do So Well
Defend athletic quarterbacks. The list is fairly substantial: Brian Johnson (Utah), Juice Williams (Illinois), Darryl Clark (Penn State) and Justin Siller (Purdue) all had some of their best games of the season against the Wolverines. Though they did contain Adam Weber (Minnesota) and Terrelle Pryor, so maybe all is not lost. But their troubles didn’t just start last year, meaning the quarterback issues have now spanned two regimes. Quarterbacks aren’t getting any less-athletic, so the Wolverines might want to tighten the screws on the defense a bit.
The forward (and sideward) pass. Say all you want about Michigan starting a freshman quarterback, but Tate Forcier can throw every pass that Rich Rodriguez wants in his offense. As soon as he signed his Letter of Intent, Forcier had the best touch on the Michigan football team. So many times last year, either Steven Threet or Nick Sheridan would have an open (or semi-open) receiver downfield, and the throw would either be five yards too far or five yards too short. This year Forcier should be able to tighten that up. The wide game will also be better this year simply because there are more players to choose from. Last year, Martavious Odoms pretty much had to carry the load as a freshman. But this year with another recruiting class in tow, there are more pieces to the puzzle. Look for redshirt freshmen receivers Terrence Robinson and Roy Roundtree to get quite a few looks as Michigan searches for playmakers.
What's Gotten Worse?
The Schedule. With last year’s schedule, this team could probably win eight games. But this year the schedule is not going to cooperate. Two of their four home games are against the two best teams in the conference, which is never a good thing. Their other two conference home games (Purdue and Indiana) are gimmes that would have served Michigan better to occur on the road. Instead, they face a road schedule that will see them as an underdog every single time. And let’s not even get into the fact that Northwestern and Minnesota are both off the schedule, which is also never a good thing. Basically, there are only two conference freebies for Michigan this year, and that’s making a couple of sizable assumptions.
Anything Else We Should Know About?
The safeties. If Stevie Brown stays at linebacker, then Michigan will have two brand new starters at safety this year. The three main candidates are sophomore Michael Williams, junior Troy Woolfolk and true freshman Vladimir Emilien. The best two will play and while Emilien may not start out as one of the best two, he will likely finish there by the time November rolls around. It’s hard to know just how good this group will be, but there’s little doubt they can’t be as bad as Stevie Brown was.
The new punting rule. Last year, Rich Rodriguez would sometimes have punting savant Zoltan Mesko roll out and do a rugby kick. And a couple of times, Mesko would actually keep the ball and run for a first down. In an effort to curtail Mesko’s power and speed, the NCAA changed the rule on these types of kicks and have essentially said that if your punter runs wide, then he’s “live” and can be hit pretty much just like a quarterback. It will be interesting to see if Rodriguez continues to employ this tactic given the fact that all of Michigan’s opponents will be told by their coaches to take Mesko out on those types of kicks.
Brad Pitt Role Or Movie That This Team Resembles
Snatch. Mainly because of Rich Rodriguez’s accent. I can’t understand a word that guy says.
Tate Forcier will miss at least one game due to injury this year.
Against Ohio State, Michigan will have the ball with the chance to tie or take the lead in the fourth quarter.