Michigan would have had a pretty good defense this year regardless of whether it was fueled by pizza (bad) or by chocolate milk (good). Fortunately, the switch was made from the former to the latter in the off-season. As a result, we should expect—I did say no expectations earlier but that was in reference to wins and losses—to see the most punishing Michigan defense since 1997. Michigan boasts four players who should be at the very least locks as All-Big Ten selections. Morgan Trent, Donovan Warren, Terrence Taylor, and Brandon Graham were already pretty good. I suspect new D-Coordinator Scott Shafer’s aggressive approach on defense combined with the strength and conditioning gospel provided by Mike Barwis will help these four players reach their potential. That is something that almost certainly would not have happened under the previous regime. Need evidence? Vernon Gh…er, I mean…Brandon Graham.
The rest of the defense is pretty much a giant question mark. The linebackers are untested and unknown. Taylor’s tag-team partner on the D-Line is Will Johnson and a bunch of guys with the initials TBD, and Tim Jamison is entering his 15th consecutive season on the “poised for a breakout” team. However, it’s important to remember that the Michigan roster is scattered with four-star recruits. There is more talent on Michigan’s defense this year than Rich Rodriguez saw in his seven years at West Virginia combined. The days of seeing Pierre Woods, Prescott Burgess, and Shawn Crable toil around for four years underachieving and surviving solely on their natural-born athleticism are over. Remember the envy that built up inside every time you watched Ohio St. since 2001? Remember wondering why nobody on Michigan has ever looked like Vernon Gholston? Remember wondering how it was possible for Ohio St. to take essentially the same caliber recruit as Michigan and turn him into a much, much better football player? Those days are over. You can expect to see heralded and unheralded recruits alike pop-up out of nowhere with guns (figurative guns, or large biceps) and speed to burn under Rich Rodriguez. The days of hearing about players blowing up in practice like Chris Graham and Markus Curry only to see them fizzle on the field are over. The college football world is about to find out how good Michigan can be when it combines the best players with the best conditioning and coaching. In just a year or two it’s going to be something like (Ohio St. + Florida + USC)/3.
I’m not ready to make any predictions about the offense in year one. It could be anywhere from average to historically bad. I do know there will be a lot of talent but most of it will be in the form of freshmen. The fact that Gerry DiNardo predicted Nick Sheridan to be Michigan’s starter on August 30 makes me a little queasy. My guess would be that regardless, Michigan’s offense will be unspectacular but not horrible a la Florida ‘06. Georgia Tech has proven in recent years that a truly horrible offense combined with an elite defense is enough to make a seven-win season all but guaranteed. In fact, there is no reason to think that Michigan—with better players and a forgiving schedule—will perform any worse than Georgia Tech did over the last decade or so. A Georgia Tech-level performance is worst-case scenario, IMO. Considering Georgia Tech has won at least seven games and made a bowl game in 11-straight seasons, that’s not too bad of a worst-case scenario. First table ever in 3…2…1
The Georgia Tech Precedent
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If you're concerned about Michigan this year, you're not alone. The rest of the country has the spectrum of predictions covered and a lot of it is “death by offense.” Michigan opened as a 16-point underdog to Ohio St. last week. Kirk Herbstreit predicts a 6-6 record. I can understand how the uncertainty of a totally new coaching staff combined with the loss of virtually all offensive contributors could be worrisome. However, that same uncertainty has me jovial. In the event that you can't contain your nerves, just remember Georgia Tech. It might also make you feel better that Georgia Tech had five players who were four-star recruits when it won nine games in 2006. Michigan will suit-up 41 on August 30.