Tuesday, July 22, 2008

In Defense

It’s still mid-July but my efforts to contain my excitement about the college football-season have failed. This year—more so than any other—has intrigue. The Ohio St./USC game is one of the most anticipated non-conference matchups ever. In an era that sees teams rewarded for putting together a buffet of cream puffs on the non-conference schedule, Ohio St. continues to impress by playing everyone from Miami (FL) and Texas to USC, Tennessee, Virginia Tech, and Oklahoma. I’m also looking forward to seeing what Paul Johnson accomplishes at Georgia Tech. I don't think there's any doubt that he'll give opposing defensive coordinators fits immediately. Combine that with a defense led by All-American and likely top five draft pick Michael Johnson and the ACC could have a new king sooner than later. The SEC race is going to be as exciting as ever with every team but Vandy, Mississippi, Kentucky, and Mississippi St. poised for a run at the SEC Championship. However, by a trillion billion light years, the most exciting thing about college football this season will be watching Michigan football with no expectations for the first time in my lifetime. Every negative can be slid under the rug and every positive can be littered with hyperbole. This is literally a once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity to just sit back and enjoy. Thankfully, due to what should be a spectacular defense, this season could be every bit as successful as Urban Meyer’s inaugural season at Florida. Remember when nobody thought Meyer could win right away using his system with Florida’s personnel? Sounds familiar.

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






















YearOffensive RankDefensive RankWins
200770187
200657209
2005100177
2004107247
2003106357




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.

2 comments:

jim said...

On a related note, I like Georgia Tech too...but more because they're Jon Barry's alma mater than the fact their football program turned out Megatron.

It is pretty freakin' sweet when Michigan fans can sit back with a lot of dormant high hopes, but outwardly claim they have "no expectations", isn't it? No one's giving us anything, so most everything is there for the taking. Totally reliant on defense to win? Might as well give them the one characteristic the Big Ten fails to cultivate: speed. Offensive line a concern? Bring in the offensive packages designed for mobile QBs. UM fans disgusted with the losing to the Suckeyes? Bring in a coach with the one system that gives Tressel fits (see: Illinois).

Maybe we should thank Lloyd Carr for making Michigan routinely overrated these past ump-teen years, without our lofty (sometimes undeserved) pre-season expectations, 1-11 with a win in C-bus will be cause for celebration.

Jake said...

Jim,

You haven't give up on Megatron, have you? I'm pretty sure you're just saying you like Ga. Tech for basketball more than for football.

Go Blue!

 

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