Each Michigan football season provides hope for a National Championship. At least half of the Michigan schedules over the last 12 years have given the Wolverines a legitimate chance of going undefeated. Michigan is usually the best team in the Big Ten which gives them a decent chance of going undefeated in conference. On top of that, Michigan’s non-conference schedule usually features a combination of a slightly above average team from a major conference (often the Pac-10), Notre Dame, and a MAC team. These schedules are often eye candy for any Michigan fan. If you look at this year’s schedule, you’ll find one of these schedules except the “slightly above average team from a major conference” is replaced by ANOTHER MAC team. I wish this meant that Michigan will go undefeated this year but that’s hardly the case. It doesn’t matter who’s on the schedule (unless we miss Ohio St. and Iowa and play 3 home games in the non-conference against weak opponents) Michigan will lose 3-4 games per year. It’s a disturbing trend that has plagued Lloyd Carr’s coaching career. So, I suggest you do what I’ve done which is enjoy the helmets and Michigan Stadium. Enjoy the uniforms and close games. Enjoy the blowouts over Indiana and Illinois. Enjoy the tradition. Michigan football is about tempering your expectations unless you’re a masochist. If you enjoy the disappointment, fluke losses, and prehistoric game management, then more power to you. If you're a rabid fan who lives and dies with every play of every game, then I suggest you scale back and enjoy the scenery. There’s nothing like the tradition of Michigan football. Enjoy that.
Now that you know how I feel about Michigan’s National Championship hopes, I’ll preview the team.
I find it hard to believe that the offense will be better this year than last year. I think this year’s offense will score a lot of points and provide difficult matchups for everyone on the schedule. I just have a lot of respect for last year’s offense. As good as Chad Henne played, Braylon Edwards was unstoppable. There is no way Michigan pulls out the win against Michigan St. without Braylon. There is no way Michigan hangs with and almost beats Texas without Braylon. Henne will be improved. Breaston will certainly be more effective since he’ll be healthy. Avant is a good but not spectacular receiver. The passing game will be a strong suit for the team no doubt. I think the following equation holds true:
Braylon Edwards=Henne’s Improvement + Breaston being healthy
Henne’s improvement and Breaston being healthy will offset the loss of Edwards. Nothing more, nothing less. Terry Malone stepped up big time last year with surprisingly effective play calling. There were head-scratchers as usual like the 3rd down call in the Rose Bowl that pretty much ruined Michigan’s chances of winning. The running game was running on all cylinders and Malone called for a difficult out pattern to the sidelines that had no chance of working. But, to my surprise, that was a rarity throughout the season. Malone is obviously more comfortable calling plays than in years past and I think he’ll be a strength for the team.
The running game could be better than last year. I’ve never been a big fan of a running back-by-committee approach. I rationalized that the team will run the same amount of times each game regardless of who’s in the backfield so they might as well use the best back every time. However, that was before I saw Auburn last year. With Ronnie Brown and Cadillac Williams splitting carries, each guy was twice as fresh as the average back. Not to mention, a competition arose between the two where they tried to top each other. The only way to stay in the game is make it impossible for the coach to take you out. I can’t think of a better way to motivate a player to pick up his game. As a result, I think the committee approach will make the Michigan running game better this year than last year. I fully appreciate how good Dave Baas was. He was versatile and dominant. However, it’s important to note that he played center. Center is the equivalent to a safety. They’re important but your team can still be good without a great one. If Ruben Riley can play 80% as well as Baas, then there shouldn’t be an issue. Mike Hart will only get better with more playing time. He was a wrecking ball last year rarely going down on tackle attempts 1-5. He has an uncanny ability to stay on his feet even in the direst situations. Hart is no fluke. It will be hard to watch him leave the game as a fan and I’m sure it will be equally as hard for the coaching staff. However, with Max Martin showing the coaching staff big-time potential and the addition of top 20 high school player Kevin Grady, the coaching staff can opt to keep a fresh running back in the game at all times. This will help the most in the 4th qtr when the opposing defenses are fatigued and the Michigan backfield is just getting started.
We all know the best players on the offense. Henne, Hart, and Breaston will show up. The potency of the offense will depend on how certain key players perform. The players that will determine just how successful the offense will be are Tim Massaquoi, Adam Stenavich, Ruben Riley, Jason Avant, Adrian Arrington and Doug Dutch. Surely there will be other players that step up and play better than anyone expected. However, if I had to choose a group of players that had to have above average seasons for Michigan to dominate, these would be the guys I’d point to.
Jason Avant: If Avant can become a reliable possession receiver then the offense will be tough to stop. Last year, if Avant was open, then great but if he wasn’t, Henne had the Braylon option. Avant was not relied on for success last year. His numbers weren’t overly impressive and they didn’t need to be. However, without Braylon to bail out the offense, Avant needs to be a factor. He’ll be called on in key 3rd down situations. He has shown a knack for hanging on to the ball and making difficult catches. That’s fine and dandy but he’ll need to become a reliable target to keep the chains moving.
Tim Massaquoi: Ever since Massaquoi came in to the program as one of the top wr’s in high school, hopes have been high. It’s safe to say that most people thought that he would’ve contributed more by now. Massaquoi has had good games and will likely improve upon last year’s performance. For Michigan to reach its potential on offense this year, the TE position will need to be a strength. Michigan has been at its best historically when all facets of the passing game are going which includes the TE. Massaquoi has all the physical attributes and now has the experience to go with it.
Ruben Riley: So far, the only thing Michigan fans know about Ruben Riley as far as ability is that he’s versatile. He can play anywhere on the line which makes him an ideal candidate to replace Baas. Ever since the Michigan coaching staff made the decision to start the best 5 lineman regardless of position, the line has been effective. Riley should make it possible for this strategy to continue. If Riley stumbles, the running game could suffer as it did with Mark Bihl at center at the start of last season.
Adam Stenavich: Stenavich surely has ability. You don’t start on the OL at Michigan during your freshmen year without being good. However, Stenavich is probably the most overrated Wolverine on the team. He’s constantly in a position battle with his understudies. He’s been more like Tony Pape than Jake Long in terms of being a reliable pass protector. CFN pegged him as one of the best lineman in the country which is high praise for someone who hasn’t sniffed their potential. If Stenavich plays as well as CFN thinks he will, then get ready for the Rose Bowl. However, I’m just hoping for some improvement over last year.
Doug Dutch/Adrian Arrington: I think most Michigan fans feel the same way here. It doesn’t matter who steps up as long as someone does. Dutch is fast. Arrington is big. Can either be good? I think both will get a fair shot at the number three wr spot. The problem that exists with Breaston and Avant as the top two wr’s is that neither is a physical mismatch for the opposing team. Breaston is slippery and quick but a bigger DB will be able to play physical. Avant is tough but he’s not big or fast. The offense needs a big, physical WR in the mold of Braylon, David Terrell, and Marquise Walker. Breaston and Avant don’t fit the mold. If the offense is going to have someone like that to take the pressure off of Breaston and Avant, it will likely have to come from Dutch or Arrington.
The 2004 defense was one of the worst defenses in Michigan football history. The hype entering the season was that Michigan had more depth than anyone in college football on the defensive side of the ball. Marlin Jackson and Ernest Shazor were pre-season All-Americans in the defensive backfield. Gabe Watson was supposed to dominate the running game by himself. The expectations for Pierre Woods were astronomical coming off of his one-man-show in the 2004 Rose Bowl loss to USC. With an early season schedule that featured one-dimensional offenses such as Miami (OH) and San Diego St., Michigan seemed to be living up to the expectations. However, the last few games of the season provided Michigan with its first showdown with legitimate offenses. The results were atrocious. Drew Stanton made a mockery of the Michigan defense as Michigan St. dominated the Wolverine defense before Stanton left with an injury. Ohio St.’s sometimes starter, sometimes backup Troy Smith smoked the Wolverines defense time after time as the Buckeyes routed Michigan in an embarrassing regular season finale. Unfortunately for Michigan fans, the worst was yet to come. Vince Young turned in a Michael Vick vs. a high school team type performance as Texas rolled up 38 points in the Rose Bowl. Michigan’s only effective defense came in the form of the game clock reaching :00. It was ugly and it was ugly often.
With the expectations not even remotely close to last seasons, Michigan’s 2005 defense may just surprise a few people. Jackson and Shazor are gone. Lawrence Reid is gone. Larry Harrison Jr. is gone. Markus Curry is gone. But most importantly, the 3-4 and Jim Herrmann’s untouchable status as Michigan def. coordinator are also gone. There has never been a talent problem on the defense. There aren’t many teams in college football that would take their players over Michigan’s talent-laden roster. That leaves the blame squarely on the coaching staff. With Lloyd Carr finally holding Herrmann responsible for his inept game-management, and the debacle that was the 3-4 defense, I think the 2005 defense is headed for a revival.
Before I get into the position breakdown, I want to highlight the single best move the Michigan coaching staff has made in my lifetime. Stealing Steve Stripling from Michigan St. will turn out to be a genius move. He is a fiery defensive line coach who has had success wherever he’s been. Most Michigan coaches come from within the program and thus have little on their resumes in terms of success at other places. Stripling is different. He’s had dominant and active defensive lines wherever he’s been. He’s succeeded at Louisville, Minnesota, Indiana and Michigan St. just to name a few. He lead Louisville to 77 sacks in two seasons and an impressive ranking in total defense of 22nd in 2002. He helped Minnesota to 44 sacks and a 22nd rated defense in 1999. He helped Michigan St. lead the Big Ten with 45 sacks in 2003. To put those numbers in perspective, Michigan had 29 sacks in 2003 and 21 sacks in 2004. I would venture to say that the athletes that Stripling had at Louisville, Minnesota and Michigan St. were not as talented as the ones he will inherit at Michigan. Because of this, I think Michigan’s defensive line will explode in 2005. Stripling is a fresh face with a proven track record. I’m taking the bait on this one hook, line, and sinker. Things will be better.
There is no question that the defensive line is the strength of the defense already without Stripling’s influence. I can’t remember a deeper line not only in Michigan history, but college football history. I’m not saying it’s the best line, but when you can go 9 deep, you’ve got something. Gabe Watson is back and ready to improve 2% like he’s done the last two years. Despite not reaching coaches and fans expectations, Watson is a load in the middle of the line and can dominate opposing OL. Lamar Woodley was often the best player on the field last year and will benefit from the return to the 4-3 defense. Woodley’s first step is lightning quick and could set Michigan’s all-time single season sack record. He is Michigan’s first true pass rushing terror since David Bowen’s brief tenure. Pat Massey will not do anything extraordinary but he keeps fighting all game and interrupts passing lanes with his 6’9 frame. Jeremy Van Alstyne production will likely be greatly improved as he finally comes into a season healthy atop the depth chart. I don’t know what to expect from Van Alstyne since he hasn’t been on the field much but the coaches rave about his ability. I expect absolutely nothing from Pierre Woods. He had 0 impact on last year’s season and it would shock me if he even played at all. No expectations=no let down. If he contributes then it’s a bonus. The rest of the depth includes Tim Jamison, Will Johnson, Alan Branch, Marques Walton, Rondel Biggs, Will Paul and two exceptional freshmen in James McKinney and Terrance Taylor.
Lawrence Reid was unheralded. Despite the lack of attention, Reid was a tackling machine and will be missed. I feel bad for a guy that’s obviously worked hard to get to where he’s gotten. However, the linebackers will be a pleasant surprise. Just when the disappointment from last season started to creep into the expectations for this season, reports of Chris Graham’s ability began to hit the internet. If I didn’t know better, I’d be expecting to see Ray Lewis in a Maize and Blue uniform this fall. In reality, Graham will likely be a pleasant surprise and a much needed help to a depleted position. Reports of McGlintock possibly losing his starting job are actually a positive since it signifies some semblance of depth. Michigan fans will finally get to see Prescott Burgess for an extended period of time. Until now, Burgess was best known as a guy that we stole from Ohio St. I have to admit, at the time, I was just happy we took someone out of their own backyard. But, it’s been 2 years and it’s time to see Burgess do it on the field. I think his athleticism will be a great attribute to the Michigan defense. Like Burgess, Shawn Crable was stolen from the buckeye state in a classic recruiting battle. He hasn’t seen the field much but should see significant playing time this year. One thing that seems to be the theme for this year’s linebacker corps is the athleticism. As we’ve seen in the past though, athleticism is no antidote to missed tackles. The success of the linebackers will be judged on missed tackles and little else. If they limit the yards after first contact, the Michigan defense will already be ahead of last year.
This is where things get a little dicey. Marlin Jackson and Markus Curry are gone. Jackson was very good. He’ll be missed. Curry was terrible and will not be missed. Lloyd has mentioned that Leon Hall could be one of the better corners that he’s ever had. If that’s the case, then Jackson’s loss will be little if any. However, I have a hard time believing hype without much to base it on. Hall was ok last year. I have not seen any reason to think he’ll be better than ok. I hope I’m wrong. Curry’s replacement couldn’t possibly be worse unless his name is Andre Weathers, James Whitley, or Todd Howard. And to the best of my knowledge, their eligibility is up. The players in the mix for the 2nd corner spot are Grant Mason, Brandon Harrison, Darnell Hood and Charles Stewart. To be honest, I have no idea how any of these guys will perform. Usually I have a good idea based on previous performance or spring practice reviews but these guys are really unknowns as far as ability. I know that Grant Mason looked pretty athletic last year on special teams and was fairly effective in limited action in the secondary. The safeties will be green as well. Ryan Mundy is back. He isn’t terrible. But, after seeing how he performed in the Pennsylvania/Ohio High School All-Star game, many fans were thrilled when he arrived on campus. In fairness to Mundy, he’s only a junior this year and has two years left to make his mark. I would consider his career up to this point to be a wash. Mundy has time to make a name for himself and I think he will. The other safety position goes to Brandon Englemon or Jamar Adams. Both have little experience and big shoes to fill. I will reserve judgment since I have not seen enough of either guy. The bottom line here is that unknown commodities can turn out to be gold or busts. The defensive backfield is clearly the big question mark for the defense. I honestly think that things will be better this year. There will be the patented blown coverage that Michigan has been so good at and you will see our db’s chasing after wide open wr’s as they head for the end zone. However, with Markus Curry graduated and Ernest Shazor off the team, the potential for this group is unlimited.
As I stated earlier, we usually know who’s going to be good. However, that wasn’t the case last year. Clearly, Shazor and Woods were monumental disappointments. They were akin to having Henne and Hart lay a stink-bomb this year. With the Michigan defense, it’s never a given who will perform. I think the most important players on the defense this year will be Gabe Watson, Lamar Woodley, Prescott Burgess, Chris Graham, and Leon Hall.
Gabe Watson: When he’s on his game, the opposing offense has nowhere to run. This creates a Charles Woodson-esque situation by cutting down half the field. The difference being that Woodson always shut down half the field while Big Gabe shuts it down 10% of the time. If that percentage can get somewhere in the neighborhood of 50%, then the defense will be imposing. Gabe’s conditioning has been an issue since he committed to play for Michigan out of high school. If by some miracle he comes into the fall in good shape, then the defense could be special. It’s hard to pin the success of a defense on one guy but the difference between lazy Gabe and active Gabe is so big that it has an effect on the overall effectiveness of the defense.
Lamar Woodley: Woodley can go in two directions. He can go the route of Pierre Woods and become a total bust. You have to remember that after Woods’ 2004 Rose Bowl performance, the expectations on him were much higher than the expectations on Woodley coming into this season. So a Woodley free-fall wouldn’t even be the biggest bust of the last two years. The other direction Woodley could go is that of a pass-rushing terror. I am inclined to believe he’ll go the way of the latter. He’s fast and strong. He’s not a tweener like Woods. Woodley is a prototypical defensive end and he’s got two more letters in his last name than Woods. To me, that’s the difference. If Woodley can provide consistent pressure off the edge, then the opposing offense will not have as much time to toast our db’s. The important equation here being: more time for opposing qb to throw=our db’s turning into burnt toast.
Prescott Burgess: I hope he’s good. He hasn’t had much playing time so nobody knows for sure what he’ll do this year. If he can clean up his missed tackles, he’ll be a force for the defense. His numbers and accolades in high school were ridiculous. If they can translate into success in big time D-1 football, then Michigan will be able to turn an unknown into a strength. If the d-line can occupy the OL on a regular basis, I think you’ll see Burgess turn into a ball-hawk. The only question here is whether he’s that good. Time will tell.
Chris Graham: I put Graham here because it sounds like he’s already the best linebacker in Michigan history. If he’s even 50% of that statement, then he’ll help Michigan improve greatly over last year. Graham sounds a little bit like Dat Nguyen to me. I would take that in a second. I don’t think Graham will live up to the spring practice expectations since it would be nearly impossible to be that good. However, I think Graham could have a very productive year.
Leon Hall: In my mind, and likely many Michigan fans minds, you’re either a good cb or a terrible cb. There is little room for error. It sure seems like that’s the case for Michigan corners. There aren’t too many players that I can say, “Yeah, that guy was an average db”. Because of this phenomenon, Leon Hall will likely either make or break the secondary. If he’s good, then the secondary can be good. If he’s terrible, then the secondary will probably be terrible. I hate to pin it on one guy but I think that’s how it’s going to be. As a matter of personal opinion, I think he’ll be good.
The special teams have taken a lot of heat over the past few years and deservedly so. However, I think this could be the best special teams unit we've seen in quite some time. Garret Rivas was very accurate last year in terms of field goal %. I get nervous every time he kicks regardless of the distance. But, he made them and that's what counts. Steve Breaston was dynamite two years ago and will be dynamite again this year. It's been a while since Breaston has been explosive on a regular basis. It was really only the Texas game last year where he got comfortable. The punting duties have yet to be handed out, however freshmen Zoltan Mesko is getting plenty of publicity without having ever played a college game. Word of his booming kicks and lengthy hang-time have penetrated Michigan message boards ever since he committed. It would be nice if Mesko could provide more consistency than Adam Finley. Finley was good some games and middle school-ish in other games.