The 2008 Michigan Wolverines suffered their worst season since 1967 and everyone noticed. It was the year where Big Ten teams and hated rival Notre Dame got their best shot to hammer a suddenly rudderless and overmatched team. But that's all in the past; it was horrible and I was there at the beginning and at the freezing, merciless end. MGoBlog and others have moved onto an impressive Wolverine basketball team and a recruiting season that took some positive turns of late. But since Spring Practice doesn't begin for two months and one week, let's take a quick look at some comparisons to the Wolverine's groundbreaking nose dive to mediocrity and what we can look forward in the 2009 season.
Because of the tremendous advantage that big money FBS schools hold over their smaller counterparts, these well endowed institutions can sustain success for a long time. The University of Michigan, using their winged helmets and former Swoosh inspired sponsorship, is obviously one of those schools. Starting in 1968, the Maize and Blue hadn't suffered one losing record and impressively compiled 21 Big Ten titles. Since the BCS era began, Lloyd Carr had a 93-32 record with four Big Ten titles. Recent Wolverine success has been well chronicled through their steady stream of NFL quarterbacks, the first defensive player to win the Heisman, and highly ranked recruiting classes.
So even with the preseason warnings from every sportswriter and Wolverine blogger, nothing could prepare college football fans for the inaugural season under RichRod. The Wolverines played a complete game only once, shutting down a slumping and injury filled Minnesota team. The highly touted defense, expected to carry the Wolverines while the offense got acclimated, set the Michigan single season record for most points allowed (347, or 29 ppg). Worst of all, the Wolverines lost badly to its three hated rivals in the same season.
But who cares, right? It was a rebuilding year, round peg, square hole, etc. Let's look at some other programs that took one year breaks from being dominant overdogs to see what the causes for their single season ills were and what was done to correct this possible anomaly.
Miami (FL) 1997: 5-6 Record
Embarrassing Loss: 47-0, Florida State. 1998 Record: 9-3
Since Howard Schnellenberger went down to the southern tip of Florida and established a top notch Hurricane program in 1979, Miami (FL) boasted an above .500 record for 17 straight seasons, including an eight year stretch of 10+ wins each season. The ‘Canes featured so many talented Florida athletes that it seemed the domination would go on forever. But in 1997, the perfect combination of NCAA sanctions, low octane offense, and big game choking pushed this Butch Davis-led team out of the rankings and into a world of embarrassment. The 47-0 thrashing at the hands of arch-rival Florida State was the obvious low point of the season. And although there was great weeping and gnashing of teeth, Davis stayed on as coach and didn't alter the program's offensive system, a popular move nowadays. The "U" reloaded with talented athletes like Ed Reed, Edgerrin James, Santana Moss, Outland Trophy winner Bryant McKinnie and Butkus Award winner Dan Morgan. A win over Florida State wouldn't be obtained until 2000, but Miami's subsequent 9-3, 9-4, and 11-1 records were enough to make Hurricane fans forget about the 1997 aberration.
1997 Texas: 4-7 Record
Embarrassing Loss: 66-3, UCLA. 1998 Record: 9-3
Texas can rightfully boast all day long about their unbelievable past players and plaudits. Darrell Royal created a monster program, spurred on by legends like Tommy Nobis and James Street, and won three national titles while college football was coming into its own. The Longhorns can also claim the most famous signal in college sports ("Hook ‘Em Horns") and don't forget they created the Option offense, which ruled college football for 25 years. But after Coach John Mackovic led Texas to consecutive conference titles in '95-96, the '97 team was an exercise in futility and defensive ineptitude. Mackovic's troops allowed the most points in Texas history and suffered humiliating losses to UCLA, Baylor, Missouri, and Colorado. Fans booed and then left in droves before halftime of the UCLA game (and here I am thinking that leaving a Texas football game early is an offensive punishable by death in that state).
Mackovic got the ax and Heisman winner Ricky Williams led newly minted head coach Mack Brown to a 9-3 record the following year. Since then, Texas has won a national title and never came close to its horrendous 1997 season.
2008 Auburn: 5-7 Record
Embarrassing Loss: 36-0, ‘Bama. 2009 Record: 0-0
A Tiger program renowned for its strong running game and its even stronger defense pulled the rug out from under itself this year, scoring a meek 17 points per game and losing 6 SEC games. The 8 year streak of winning seasons was washed away by close losses and the inability to settle on a suitable offensive philosophy. Offensive Coordinator Tony Franklin was fired halfway through the year as his version of the Spread crashed and burned at Auburn. Respected coach Tommy Tuberville resigned after the disastrous year amidst calls for him to stay. The hiring of incoming coach Gene Chizik was attacked by the press and fans alike because he was perceived as underqualified and the hiring process was viewed as racist (unfairly in my opinion).
Auburn, Miami, and Texas can teach one valuable lesson to the 2009 Michigan team and administration: Stay true to your system. When Franklin noticed that his blocking schemes and players weren't meshing in his Spread, he toggled it to include more straight ahead running plays that had worked in the old Auburn offense. This merely confused his team and stopped the offense from getting valuable repetitions in the new spread offense. When Butch Davis struggled so badly in 1997, the administration figured it was a product of a strong schedule and sanctions. They stuck with Davis and were rewarded with a string of winning records and talented players.
Some readers chided me for being supportive of RichRod amidst the upset losses and poor play. But really, what other choices do Michigan fans have? We asked for change from the typical 8-4 Lloyd Carr season and received it in the form of the nation's hottest coach who had taken a novel offensive concept and brilliantly turned it into three straight 11 win seasons. As long as RichRod sticks with his system, one has to believe that the powerful Michigan recruiting will help him yield some positive results. The 2009 Michigan recruiting class, filled with a stud QB they wanted and a highly rated DT, will probably not hurt the chances of RichRod to reverse the fortunes from the improbably disappointing 2008 season.
Recent history shows that once on top of the college football world, it is pretty damn hard to get you off that seat of power. In the last 10 years, uber-programs USC, Texas, LSU, Florida, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Florida State, Michigan, Virginia Tech, and Georgia have combined to accumulate 3 losing seasons. According to the kind of recent history, there is a large chance that Michigan will be back at the top of the Big 10, wrestling for conference supremacy again.