About a month ago, it seemed like Michigan might be playing for the Big Ten championship. Sure, they had a couple of head scratching close calls against some bad teams, but c'mon, man, this is Michigan. Brady Hoke, Sugar Bowl winner two years ago. They were winning, and slowly climbing up in the polls.
Then Penn State happened. Then Michigan State. Then Nebraska and Iowa. From the optimism of two OSU-Michigan games we had when fall camp started, now Michigan is a two touchdown plus underdog at home, looking at a 3-5 conference record, playing in front of a home crowd that might approach 50% Ohio State fans.
Seriously, what the hell happened? Brian Gillis and I tried to get to the bottom of it:
Ted: So once again, it's time. It's time for the Greatest Rivalry In All Of Sports, Ohio State-Michigan. It's been an interesting couple of years for both teams, as we welcomed new coaches in 2011 and 2012, and it seemed like we were going to have a new era in this rivalry. But I have to tell you, as we approach Saturday, I don't think I can remember a time where there's been a fanbase more dis-spirited than the Michigan one. I know you guys have been in a slump, but this is The Game! Anything can happen, right? Why so down in the dumps?
Brian: It seemed like we were entering a new era in the rivalry, didn't it? A new ten year war? Well, we still may be, but for one side at least, we're further away from that than initially thought.
I agree, I can't remember when the mood surrounding the Michigan football program was this bad. The fanbase is definitely dis-spirited, and is so for a few reasons. First of all, this isn't just a slump. Despite Brady Hoke's assertion that Michigan is a mere ten points away from a ten win season (which may be true), that doesn't mask the fact that this is not a very good team. There are a number of reasons for this, but it all starts with a historically bad offensive line. Al Borges, Devin Gardner and others have received more than their share of criticism this year, but when you have an offensive line that can neither run block or protect the quarterback, what do you expect? Michigan's offensive issues are well documented, so I don't need to provide a lot of facts or statistics to substantiate this, but here's one anyway - against Penn State, Michigan tailbacks rushed for 28 yards on 30 carries - and since then their running game has only gotten worse.
But it's more than that. Michigan has had bad teams and bad seasons before. The reason for all the gloom and doom this year is that more was expected of this team. Fans thought this year's team would be a step closer to the power football team that Hoke wants the Wolverines to become. Yet Michigan is not only no closer to being that team, it's proven to be a few steps further away. Realistic or not, this is not where most thought Michigan would be in Hoke's third year, and that's why the disappointment is as extreme as it is.
Anything can happen? School spirit and optimism are nice, but they need to be based in reality. In the early 90s, the Michigan teams that upset the highly-ranked John Cooper teams were good teams, just not great ones. They could run and stop the run and had their share of future pros. This year's team has rushed for negative yards twice and seems to get worse offensively every week (as evidenced by eight three-and-outs against Iowa last week). The defense has played well, but it can't do it all. A win this weekend would make 1969 look like a mild upset.
Ted: Wow, okay. So it's bad...and yeah, I can't disagree. I think Saturday is going to be close early because of the emotion and the rivalry, but Ohio State will start pulling away in the second quarter. The only thing that worries me is if OSU coughs up the ball a couple of times, and we go into halftime within a score, or God forbid Michigan has the lead. At that point, one team kind of starts doubting itself, the other thinks they have a chance, the crowd is really into it, and the next thing you know, we've got a football game.
But moving forward into 2014 and 2015, how do you see your team? I mean, Hoke's acumen has been recruiting offensive linemen for his 'Manball' philosophy, and he's had some excellent recruiting classes. How do you see the out years under Hoke, and give me the fan reaction if Al Borges returns?
Brian: That's a big part of the reason for the disappointment this season. It's not just a response to a season lost, but more about a newfound uncertainly about the future. No reasonable fan thought the Wolverines would compete for a national championship this season, but most thought they were on the path to doing so, and looked to 2014-2016 as a timeframe when the Wolverines would be among the nation's elite teams. Watching this season unfold, that timetable, at best, needs to be adjusted.
Hoke received a lot of attention for his early recruiting success, and for good reason. And it wasn't strictly the number of four and five star recruits he netted, but the type players he recruited that was important. Hoke focused on the trenches, loading up on offensive and defensive linemen, and appeared to be building his team from the inside out. However, that strategy takes time. UCLA's current success notwithstanding, rare is the underclassman that excels on the offensive line, something that has certainly proven to be true with this year's offensive line.
But this is where some are jumping the gun a bit. Lately you've started to hear a lot about Hoke and his coaches not developing players. And while it's hard to find anyone other than Devin Funchess who has made major strides over the past year, a lot of Hoke's players are still young, so it's a bit early to throw in the towel - or to reach the conclusion that Hoke and company can't develop players. But that said, the next couple of years will be telling. Perhaps it was asking too much for so many young players to pay such large roles this season, but that will not be the case next year and the year after.
Yes, fans will likely be upset if Borges returns next year. And perhaps even more so if offensive line coach Darrel Funk returns, but I would be surprised is either is replaced. Borges has been criticized throughout his tenure at Michigan, and in many ways, deservedly so. Despite claims that he could adapt his offensive philosophy to the talent he had, Borges never figured out how to use Denard Robinson, and people are still scratching their heads over last season's Ohio State play calling. But again, with an offensive line that can neither run block or protect the quarterback, what do you expect him to do? Other than the end of the Penn State game, play calling has not been the problem this year.
Ted: Okay, problems aside. How do you see this panning out tomorrow, and where do you see Michigan at this time next year? I think OSU wins, simply for the fact everything has to go right for Michigan to win. This time next year, though, things might be much different.
Brian: You mentioned that your biggest fear is that the Buckeyes commit a few early turnovers. Iowa did that and Michigan turned those turnovers into a 21-7 lead, yet if you watched the game, you knew that lead was unlikely to hold without the benefit of a few more Iowa turnovers. Michigan's defense has played well and has kept Michigan in games, but it rarely gets help. At some point Michigan's offense will have to do something. That's been the exception rather than the rule this season, and I don't see that changing this weekend, at least not consistently. No, I don't see this going well for the home team.
And while this season is certainly troubling with respect to the development of the program, it's not the final chapter. I thought Michigan would be a much better team this year, not strictly in terms of wins and losses, but in terms of style of play. I thought Michigan would be able to start moving people off the ball on offense and getting critical stops on defense. That obviously hasn't happened, and it's not likely to magically happen overnight - or over an offseason. I expect to see improvement next year, but not significant improvement. I think the 2015-2016 timeframe is the earliest you can expect to see a really good Wolverine team - when they are able to field a team loaded with juniors and seniors rather than freshmen and sophomores.