Monday, August 21, 2006

2006 Michigan Football Preview

Finally, Underrated!

Last summer, Michigan fans by the thousands predicted great things for the 2005 Michigan football team. On the other hand, I penned a two-part reality check titled Anatomy of a Michigan Loss exclaiming why Michigan was destined for disappointment in 2005 and beyond. To my surprise, there were actually people out there that had not realized that Michigan had been one of the premier underachieving programs in college football which prompted me to write a sequel. The exuberance of a young, talented team coming back combined with the near miss against Texas in the ’05 Rose Bowl shielded the reality that had become Michigan football. Lofty pre-season expectations followed by September swoons had become the norm rather than the exception. Fast-forward one year and the only thing that has changed is Michigan’s national reputation. For some inexplicable reason, the entire college football world has missed out on their annual chance to overrate Michigan in the pre-season. To be honest, I’m having a hard time figuring out how this happened. The formula for a generous pre-season ranking generally goes something like:

Maturing team (18 of 22 starters returning) + Well-respected coach (Lloyd Carr) + Previous year underachievement (7-5) + storied program (always ranked high) + little to no attrition (no devastating losses) = High pre-season ranking

Instead of following the formula, various voters from the Coaches Poll and the AP Poll took it upon themselves to trust history over expectations and rank Michigan outside of the pre-season top 10. Maybe they realized it themselves or maybe it took doing two minutes of research but either way, Michigan enters 2006 with its lowest AP pre-season ranking in recent memory.

The last time Michigan was ranked this low in the pre-season, Michigan went on to win a National Championship. I certainly am not predicting a repeat of 1997 but in the one case that Michigan came into the season under the radar, they proceeded to exceed expectations. On a much smaller scale, I think the 2006 Michigan Wolverines will exceed expectations. As I stated in my New Twist on the College Football Preview, this is by far the weakest college football season in terms of caliber of highly rated teams in a long, long time. If Michigan played USC or Texas at home in September, I would actually expect Michigan to win. Those teams have zero experience at quarterback. The Trojans and Longhorns are just two of a slew of highly rated teams with big-time issues on offense or defense. So, Michigan gets better by simply staying the same.

In a season where the pre-season top ten is laden with uncertainty, Michigan has very little to be uncertain about. Michigan “should” be better at every position. Chad Henne and Mike Hart couldn’t possibly regress from last year’s performances. Henne is entering his third season as the starting quarterback and seems to have finally taken over the leadership role on offense. Hart is healthy again and word has it that he’s sufficiently motivated for the season. I can’t recall many instances when a team has returned a third year starting quarterback and a third year starting running back both of whom were mega-stars as freshman and still managed to fall under the radar. Henne and Hart alone would usually be a strong enough combination to merit top-five consideration from at least one media outlet.

Even though fan favorite Jason Avant graduated, Michigan will likely attempt and complete more big plays than it did last season. New/old Offensive Coordinator Mike DeBord has gone on record saying that the landscape has changed in college football to a point where teams need to score a lot of points to win. A seasoned Mario Manningham will give Michigan a better “playmaker” than it had all of last season. Also, Steve Breaston can’t be any worse than he was last year. Michigan will likely involve tight ends in the game plan more often than in previous seasons. It would be great if Tyler Ecker could summon the vibes of Jerame Tuman with the bootleg but I’d gladly take Bennie Joppru at this point. Even though there isn’t a Braylon-esque receiver on the team this season there will be a number of talented players vying for playing time including LaTerryal Savoy, Adrian Arrington, and Doug Dutch. I would be willing to bet a sizeable sum that Michigan’s 2006 passing game will easily usurp the 2005 passing game. I would, however, caution against getting too excited by the prospects of some of the lesser known players (i.e. Savoy, Arrington) because Michigan has a habit of shelving underclassmen after the first game of the season and going with experience over talent.

The offensive line should be no worse than the 2005 unit. A lot has been made of Michigan’s focus on trimming down the offensive line for increased athleticism. This might sound like a trivial change but I think this will pay big dividends this season. Even though this might be the greenest offensive line in terms of experience since Michigan started three freshmen in 1997, hope is in the air. Jake Long may reach his potential yet having dropped 20 lbs which should significantly increase his mobility. The rest of the line will likely feature a combination of Rueben Riley, Mark Bihl, Adam Kraus and Mike Kolodziej (if healthy) all of whom have been around for 3+ years. Giving depth to the line is a bevy of underclassmen with high expectations including Alex Mitchell, Jeremy Ciulla, Mark Ortmann, Dave Moosman, and Cory Zirbel. One would hope that with that many options, the Michigan coaching staff could find a five-man combination that works well together. With the renewed off-season focus on athleticism, Michigan may actually be able to call and execute legitimate running plays that have all but disappeared from Ann Arbor over the past 5-10 years. The counter or the delay handoff has replaced the power run. My guess is that, over the last decade, Michigan’s line regressed athletically to a point that complex blocking could not be executed against more athletic defensive lines. When I was growing up watching Jamie Morris, Tony Boles, Jon Vaughn, Tyrone Wheatley and Timmy B., the Michigan offensive linemen had their way with the opposing D-lines. Things have changed so much recently that Michigan has been forced to bail out the O-line with strategic play-calling. Hopefully the emphasis on athleticism will bring back the bullying ways of old.

Last season, Michigan fans could essentially be split into two groups. The first group blamed Lloyd Carr for Michigan’s perennial underachievement. The second group blamed Jim Herrmann. Sure, there were hybrid groups that blamed both or neither. However, the vast majority had a beef with one guy and one guy only. Since Herrmann is long gone for the 2006 season and beyond, the second group will either be proved right, or be forced to turn its anger to new Defensive Coordinator Ron English. English has been the source of a lot of hope entering the season. His vision on defense consists of less complexity and more tenacity. English fancies a defense around getting after the quarterback at all costs. Michigan may give up the occasional big play but it will force more turnovers and intimidate the opposition into playing out of its game-plan. That is the type of defense that Michigan fans were proud of before everything fell apart in 1998. In the world of college football, defensive scheming can be successful without overwhelming talent. If English knows what he’s doing, Michigan’s inexperience on defense won’t hinder the chances for a successful defense. If Leon Hall, LaMarr Woodley and a number of other talented players live up to expectations, Michigan’s defense could be dynamite. Michigan’s defense under Herrmann had been so bad for so long that people forgot that it is still possible for Michigan to have a great defense. Herrmann was the lone consistent factor in every one of Michigan’s defensive disasters over the last eight years.

Despite the low expectations by the national media, Michigan still has an abundance of talented players on defense. With the graduation of Mr. Complacency (Gabe Watson), Michigan will be able to stack the defensive line with more active and athletic defensive tackles in Alan Branch and Terrance Taylor. Branch and Taylor are both big-time NFL prospects. They will punish opposing offensive running games. In addition, Michigan looks to have two healthy, motivated defensive ends entering the season for the first time in ages. LaMarr Woodley and Tim Jamison are both preceded by their reputations which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. That just means that this is the year for these guys to step up. If these guys get after the QB like they’re supposed to, nobody will remember last year or the year before. All in all, the defensive line should not disappoint. I hate to sound cliché here but this might be the best UM line in terms of discipline and execution since 1997. That’s not saying a whole lot but any improvement will be welcomed.

The linebackers will likely continue the trend of average to below average play. In the early 90’s, Michigan was a linebacker-producing machine. Guys like Erick Anderson, Steve Morrison, Jarrett Irons, and Sam Sword were just a few of the prototypical menacing linebackers that were fan favorites. In 1997, Michigan had success with smaller, running back-type linebackers in Ian Gold and Dhani Jones. That success continued with Larry Foote but the dividends stopped paying off after Foote. Michigan’s focus on smaller, faster linebackers has all but eliminated the 6’2 250 lb behemoths that used to roam the field. Considering Ohio St. still churns out big, mean linebackers with extreme success, Michigan might want to consider going back to what worked so well in the 80/90’s. The current unit enters the season with big-time press clippings from the high school level and little else. Dave Harris has a chance to shine as a prototypical linebacker. He is the one guy that looks and acts like a linebacker on the field. After owning the title of “greatest Wolverine who has never played a down” entering 2005, Graham was overmatched on the field. In Graham’s defense, expectations were so high from some circles that it would have been impossible for him to live up to them. I have confidence that Graham will step it up this season. His size can go one of two ways. He could become UM’s version of Ernie Sims, or he could continue the trend of disappointment from the UM defense. Prescott Burgess came to Michigan as a Safety. This is just speculation but I’m guessing after UM coaches pointed out video of Cato June’s career at UM, Burgess made the switch to linebacker. Unfortunately, that move hasn’t paid off in the slightest. Burgess’ tag-team partner in anonymity is Shawn Crable. Crable is a million feet tall and looks more like a basketball player than anything else. Yet, he’s playing linebacker. Michigan’s strategy of taking square pieces and shoving them into round holes has become protocol. Without much success to show for it, Michigan may finally realize that big, strong, fast linebackers still get it done in football. I hope I’m wrong about this group but I am fearful that the trend will continue this season making Michigan just as susceptible to the run as the past few years.

The secondary has more in common with burnt toast than it does with post-it notes. Unfortunately, that has been the case for a number of years now. That is why Michigan “recruitniks” invested so much hope in Michigan bringing in top in-state high school DB recruits Ronald Johnson and Dionte Allen. Johnson may still end up at UM but he won’t help this year. Marlin Jackson and Ernest Shazor came in with the same fanfare and their careers were plagued by inconsistent play and big-game letdowns. Much like everything else on defense, Michigan hasn’t had a great defensive backfield since 1997. I can all but guarantee it won’t have a great defensive backfield this season either. There just isn’t enough ability in the secondary for Michigan to be any more than mediocre at defending the pass. If this unit is going to have success, it’ll be because the defensive line is pressuring the quarterback consistently. Leon Hall is not a terrible corner. In fact, many people will actually go as far as saying he’s very good. I’m not buying Hall as anything more than a slightly above average corner. That’s fine if he is complimented by other slightly above average corners and safeties. Unfortunately, Michigan is stuck with a bunch of players that are unproven. Charles Stewart has the size necessary to match-up with big receivers but he hasn’t shown much. Brandon Harrison is fast but his 5’9 (in high heels) frame makes him a mismatch against most receivers. Ryan Mundy, Jamar Adams, Brandent Englemon, Willis Barringer and Morgan Trent are the other unheralded members of the secondary. Michigan will be tested in the air in 2006 which means things could get ugly yet again.

However, there is one caveat that may change the outlook for the Michigan defense. The most important unit on defense is, and always will be, the defensive line. A very good defensive line can wreck havoc on the running game and force the QB out of the pocket. If opposing QB’s are constantly under pressure and/or forced to abandon the pocket, the secondary is then able to play from a position of strength. Likewise, if the D-line can consistently gain leverage on the opposing O-line and tie up blockers, the linebackers will then be able to play from a position of strength. If the D-line doesn’t pressure the QB, players like Brady Quinn, Drew Tate, and Troy Smith will sit back and pick the Michigan secondary apart. If the D-line doesn’t control the line, Michigan’s inexperienced linebackers will continue to get brutalized. This season, success on defense starts and ends with the D-line. You will know after the first half of the opener against Vanderbilt whether or not things will change for the ’06 defense. If you don’t see Vandy’s QB running for his life, this will be another long season.

As I’ve mentioned quite a few times in the last month, this is by far the least talented group of teams at the top of the rankings in recent memory. Of the teams that make up the top ten in various pre-season polls, only West Virginia appears to be better than last year’s team. Notre Dame should be close to the same. Everyone else should be significantly worse than last year. Michigan, on the other hand, is definitely not worse. It’s a coin flip as to whether Michigan will be better this season or not but by simply remaining the same, Michigan has gained on the elite teams in college football. With three road games against three good teams and a home game against a top 15 team, Michigan has a tough schedule ahead. However, Michigan should be favored over Penn St. and Iowa. That means if Michigan can somehow sneak past the Fighting Irish in South Bend, Michigan will be favored in every game leading up to The Game. To look at the season as 12 games, one would have to view Michigan’s chances of success as minimal at best. However, going one game at a time, Michigan’s season hinges entirely on the Notre Dame game. A loss would push Michigan down the same old dreaded path. A win, however, would immediately thrust Michigan into the National Championship picture.

I can say with certainty that I will enjoy this season more than last. I still feel the exact same way as I did when I wrote Anatomy of a Michigan Loss. The only difference is that instead of being vastly overrated, Michigan enters the season slightly underrated which is infinitely more exciting from a fan’s perspective.

Here are a few Michigan previews by national media outlets:

2006 Michigan Football Preview by Fox Sports

2006 Michigan Football Preview by Wikipedia

2006 Michigan Football Preview by SI

2006 Michigan Football Preview by Yahoo!

1 comment:

sabir said...

I think the Notre Dame game this Saturday is the single most important game in terms of Lloyd Carr's legacy. In an ideal world, Carr's job would ultimately end up riding on the outcome (since the 2006 season essentially rides on this game), but in the world of the complacent Schembechler-worshipping good ol' boys who call the shots, Carr will never lose his job no matter what he does.

I am optimistic though, and I do have enough respect for Carr to believe that he realizes something is indeed wrong with Michigan football. The revamped coaching staff gives me hope; Mike DeBord coached the offense the only three seasons of the past 10 that we didn't lose our first road game ('96, '97, and '99). Ron English's focus on toughening up the defense, DeBord's statements about scoring a lot of points, and the coaching staff's emphasis on boosting the team's overall athleticism seem to indicate that they sense the changing landscape of college football and are at least attempting to adjust to it. I was actually relieved we didn't have a high preseason ranking; after all, the last time we were ranked this low, we went on to win the National Championship.

But it all depends on Saturday. Saturday will answer the question of whether Michigan is really ready to reclaim its position amongst the ultra elite or continue its 7-year pattern of underachievement.


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