Big Ten Countdown - Legends Division - Fourth Place
By Tony Gerdeman
4. Michigan Wolverines
A dynamic quarterback who is looking for some help on the ground. Talented receivers and an offensive line dying to be aggressive. A defense that could blossom with adequate coaching, but the talent level is below Michigan standards. The special teams will be relying on a freshman kicker.
Nine on offense, eight on defense and the punter.
Sept. 3 Western Michigan (W)
Sept. 10 Notre Dame (W)
Sept. 17 Eastern Michigan (W)
Sept. 24 San Diego State (W)
Oct. 1 Minnesota (W)
Oct. 8 at Northwestern (L)
Oct. 15 at Michigan State (L)
Oct. 29 Purdue (W)
Nov. 5 at Iowa (L)
Nov. 12 at Illinois (L)
Nov. 19 Nebraska (W)
Nov. 26 Ohio State (L)
"The suck stops here."
A Big Ten Championship. Brady Hoke hasn't shied away from talking about winning championships at Michigan and it's doubtful that he is going to be swayed by the current reality.
Ten wins. In a perfect Michigan world, they would normally chalk up every home game as a win, which isn't impossible with this schedule. However, in that same perfect Michigan world, splitting these road games is probably the best they can hope for. The Wolverines are certainly capable of winning at Northwestern, Iowa and Illinois, but do you really expect them to win at all three?
Four wins? Obviously you don't expect the worst case to actually happen...four years in a row.
Five Questions Looking For Answers
1. How much will Denard Robinson be carrying the ball?
2. How much different will the passing offense be?
3. Is there a workhorse tailback on this team?
4. How long will it take for the defense to learn how to tackle now that they're finally being taught how?
5. The defense will be better, but is the talent level where it needs to be?
Best Chance For a Big Loss
At Michigan State. Clearly Brady Hoke will have his team amped for this game, but Mark Dantonio takes no greater joy in life than inflicting misery on the Wolverines. If Michigan was an ant hill, Dantonio would be the punk kid kneeling over the top of it with his magnifying glass shining in the sun, and the Spartans have the type of offense that will give Michigan trouble because they are solid and multiple.
Most Important Game
Ohio State. There comes a time when everybody has to back up their talking, but it's always a bit different when the one doing the talking is actually looking forward to backing it up. That's Brady Hoke. This game has the chance to immediately change the momentum of this series...or completely confirm Ohio State's dominance...or be vacated in a year's time.
Best Road Game To Pack Up The Family Truckster And Travel To
At Northwestern. The Wildcat fans are tremendous hosts. They always leave 60% of the stadium available for the real fans.
Game They Shouldn't Lose, But Could
San Diego State. The Aztecs went 9-4 last year, losing at Missouri, at BYU, at TCU and to Utah--none by more than five points, and they return eight starters on offense.
Something To Look For
An early-season search for a bell cow at running back. Offensive coordinator Al Borges doesn't like the running back-by-committee approach, and would prefer to have one tailback get the bulk of the carries. Right now Michael Shaw and Vincent Smith are getting the starter's reps, but neither of those two are Big Ten workhorses. There is big Stephen Hopkins (6'0" 228), who has the size but hasn't necessarily shown the toughness. He's also getting some snaps at fullback right now, so Borges might be introducing him to the toughness that he is going to need. A couple of freshmen will get a look as well. Michigan will have one of the best offensive lines in the conference, so they will be able to make room for a talented tailback.
Quarterback Denard Robinson. Think what you want about him, but his numbers last season were undeniable. No, he's not a great passer, but since when has that been a prerequisite to being a great college quarterback. As Denard goes, so go the Wolverines. That's why the offensive staff will try as hard as they can to protect him, but at some point they're just going to have to let him run. Like Secretariat at the Belmont - and Al Borges is Diane Lane.
Defensive tackle Mike Martin. This will be the season everyone has expected from Martin since he emerged as a freshman back in 2008. In a real four-man front, he will be allowed to make plays and not just occupy blockers. He's got the speed to get down the line or up the field, and the strength to do anything else he wants. He's the best pass rusher on the team, and the defensive staff is going to let him show it. He will anchor this defense.
Player People Are Expecting Too Much From
Middle linebacker Kenny Demens. Middle linebacker Obi Ezeh was the bane of many Michigan fans' existences over the last few years, and when Demens finally took the starting spot from him against Iowa last year, people rejoiced. Starting the final seven games in 2010, Demens averaged 10 tackles per contestt, and, more importantly, he wasn't Obi Ezeh. So now people are understandably excited about Michigan's present at middle linebacker, but let's not lose sight of the fact that before Demens was inserted into the lineup, Michigan had given up 250 yards rushing to none of their first six opponents. After he was inserted, the Wolverines had three opponents rush for over 250 yards. Yes, this is a result of Illinois, Wisconsin and Ohio State being on the schedule later in the season, but it's also an indicator that Demens isn't some cure all. He should be fine, but he's not David Harris.
Player People Will Be Pleasantly Surprised By
Running back Thomas Rawls. He's big enough (5'10" 219), fast enough, and has enough wiggle to do some damage in between the tackles, but he also runs tougher and stronger than the guys who are slated to carry the ball for the Wolverines this year. It might not happen right away, but Rawls is the type of runner that offensive coordinator Al Borges is looking for.
Kicker Matt Wile. Rawls might eventually become the best newcomer, but the freshman Wile will be counted on from day one, and with punter Will Hagerup's four-game suspension, Wile will also be looked at as a punter. That's an awful lot of pressure to put on a freshman kicker, especially since kickers are notoriously mental anyway. Still, there is no conceivable way that he could be worse than what the Wolverines have had to deal with for the last two seasons. It is impossible.
Best Reason They Won't Be Undefeated
The talent just isn't there in the secondary. Michigan's defense should absolutely have some sort of a rebirth this season with guys playing the positions that suit them best, but we just don't know how many of the back four are upper division Big Ten caliber players. The entire secondary is a question mark. The only player approaching a sure thing is cornerback Troy Woolfolk, and he missed all of last season with an injury. Safety Jordan Kovacs has more heart than conjoined quintuplets, but he can't cover as well as they can. Will there be a spot for him in Greg Mattison's defense? There are no proven defensive backs on this team except for Woolfolk, and his worth may be overstated simply because of his absence last season.
Best Reason They Will Be Undefeated
The schedule isn't terrible. All four non-conference games are at home, as well as Nebraska and Ohio State. Penn State and Wisconsin aren't on the schedule. Michigan State is a road game, but Brady Hoke has a countdown clock for that game and any time a team has a countdown clock for another team, the records go out the window. The three other road games (Northwestern, Iowa, and Illinois) are against teams that all have their flaws.
Something They Do Well
Put pressure on a defense. Any time a defense goes against Denard Robinson, there are eleven players playing "clenched". They have to keep one eye on their assignment and another eye on Robinson.
Something They Don't Do So Well
Defend the pass. There was very little pass rush last year for the Wolverines, and with a team that can't cover receivers, that's a death wish. That wish was granted many, many times last season. With an increased pass rush this season, the secondary shouldn't have to cover as long, but the unproven safeties are still a very big question mark.
The defense. There was no where else for the defense to go but up. That doesn't mean they'll be a top six defense in the conference right away, but they could close strong, and with games against Nebraska and Ohio State to end the season, they would gladly take gradual improvement as long as it culminated in two wins to end the regular season. However, just because they're finally being coached up, don't expect the turnaround to be immediate and epic. Remember, Helen Keller wasn't out doing the grocery shopping the day after she learned what hot and cold were. These things take time.
What's Gotten Worse?
Denard Robinson's fit in the offense. Frankly, Robinson doesn't fit in Al Borges' offense at all, but fortunately for everybody involved, Borges is adjusting his offense to suit the personnel that he has. Robinson is too explosive to not have him running the ball, and Borges has said as much, but they want to limit his carries and keep him healthy for the long haul. Robinson will have to adapt as well. If he can't show that he can throw the ball and run the offense like Michigan needs, then they'll have almost no choice but to revert back to 'Denard left' and 'Denard right', though Borges did say that his passing game wouldn't be as vertical as Rodriguez's, which should only help Robinson's completion percentage and interception numbers, but it will also bring the defense closer to the line of scrimmage and the point of attack.
Anything Else We Should Know About?
The receivers took a hit with Darryl Stonum's punishment, but they should still be pretty good. Roy Roundtree and Junior Hemingway are both solid Big Ten receivers. It will be interesting to see what happens to Roundtree's numbers when he isn't running free in the slot and benefiting from Rich Rodriguez's offense, however. Hemingway's 18.5 yards per catch led the conference. He has good body control, but is still developing consistency. A young receiver or two should step up, and there's always Martavious Odoms hanging around in the slot as well.
The defense is bigger. Now that Michigan is going back to a standard four-man front, the Wolverines will be able to put more bulk on the line of scrimmage. That bulk includes defensive tackle-turned offensive guard-turned defensive tackle William Campbell, who has actually slimmed down but is still listed at 322 pounds. Defensive end Craig Roh is up to 269 pounds and has added strength. The front four will be much more capable of handling a Big Ten rushing attack this year than they were last year. They may actually even look forward to the challenge this season. With the addition of a front four, the linebackers will be able to flow more freely and make plays. They won't be as occupied as they were before and ball carriers will be easier to find.
Make a Wish
A running back - any running back - who would step up and make something happen with 20 carries per game, thereby saving Denard Robinson's life.
Defensive end Craig Roh will exceed his career total of 13 tackles for loss in 2011.
Scandal Most Likely To Rock the Program
Practice-Gate. Oh wait, that already happened.
If The Head Coach Was a Superhero, What Would His Super Power Be?
The power of super persuasion. Brady Hoke could run into a home, see a peaceful family sitting in front of a roaring fireplace, and convince the occupants that their house was on fire. Believing Hoke instead of actually checking things out for themselves, everybody then evacuates and they call 911 from Hoke's house across the street. Once the police and fire department arrive and they tell the family that there never actually was a fire and that they can safely return to their home, the family would ultimately decide that instead of going back home, they'd rather stay at Hoke's house because they'd "just feel more comfortable there".
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