Prior to 2008, the thought of a MAC opponent revealing anything remotely telling about Michigan’s season was unfathomable. Since Michigan managed only 26 combined points against the two worst teams in the MAC Conference last year—suffering its first loss to a MAC team ever in the process—the home opener against Western Michigan was going to reveal quite a bit. I don’t want to get carried away here. We weren’t going to find out if Michigan could compete with Ohio State and Penn State. That’s just not something that a game against a MAC team can reveal. However, we were going to find out very quickly just how much has changed since last season. Usually, a game against Western has the damned if you do, damned if you don’t feel. If you win, so what. If you lose, it’s an embarrassment. This game was different for two reasons. First, a win—by any margin—would’ve alleviated the negativity that was building following months and months of personal attacks on both Rich Rodriguez and the football program. Second, and most importantly from a fan’s perspective, this game was an early litmus test for how competitive Michigan would be this season.
Here’s why: Last season, Michigan played two MAC teams—again, the two worst MAC teams—whose combined record was 5-19. Miami (OH) and Toledo gave up 33 and 31 points per game, respectively. Michigan managed just 16 points against Miami (OH) and just 10 points against Toledo. Last year was abysmal and I can’t think of a better example to illustrate that than Michigan’s offensive futility against two horrible teams. Western Michigan, on the other hand, gave up just 24 points per game. The Broncos were one of the top teams in the MAC last year and one of the favorites to win the conference this year. They have one of the top five quarterbacks in the country. They beat Iowa in 2007 and Illinois in 2008. Illinois clobbered Michigan by 25 points last season if you recall. So, while beating Western Michigan isn’t a launching pad for a national championship run, it certainly could answer many, many questions. And, it did.
Michigan scored 31 points against Western in the first half which is more than the 26 combined points in two full games against Miami (OH) and Toledo last year. Instead of struggling to score against horrible MAC teams, Michigan dominated a very good MAC team. Perhaps the number one unanswered question surrounding the Michigan football program by fans and pundits alike was: will Michigan be better this season? The answer was already pretty obviously yes if you follow the program closely, but the answer after the opener against WMU is: unquestionably, yes.
I guess the next question is: how much better is Michigan? Well, that’s the one drawback of having a litmus test against Western Michigan. It can tell you if you’re better but it can’t tell you how much better. We won’t find that out until the aftermath of the Notre Dame game. However, one of the points of this post is to argue that it doesn’t matter how much better Michigan is. For the first team in maybe forever, I don’t want Saturday to come. It has been exhausting--albeit rewarding--defending both Coach Rodriguez and the program over the last 18 months. To finally see results on the field is enough for me. After this season, success will be measured by wins and championships. This season—even after what we saw on Saturday against Western—success should be measured by competitiveness. This was supposed to be a 6-6 or 7-5 type season that lays the foundation for a successful run in 2010. Saturday was easily one of the most enjoyable Michigan football games I have ever witnessed. I can’t think of too many instances in 20+ years of watching Michigan football where Michigan played a better half. I just want to enjoy it for what it is instead of giving into the temptation of ratcheting up expectations for the remainder of the season. That would be unfair to Rodriguez and the players.
Keeping expectations down was hard enough after watching Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson play like seasoned quarterbacks on Saturday. Seeing Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin—three of Michigan’s ‘09 road opponents—look pretty weak on Saturday makes it even more difficult. Before Saturday, fans had no choice but to mark those games down as probable losses. Now, they seem like toss-ups. All of a sudden, a quick look at Michigan’s schedule might reveal nine and ten-win projections. I think we need to hold off on projections. Right now, Rich Rodriguez is playing with house money. Just four days ago, blowhard journalists were trying to push him out the door. Several brain-dead talking heads across the country were saying that he would lose his job if he lost to Western. Nobody—not Spartan fans, not Michigan fans, and not national pundits—were projecting Michigan to have anything close to a successful season. Nearly all projections peaked at 7-5 as the absolute ceiling. I just hope people remember that in November regardless of how the season unfolds.
It’s tempting to ramp up the expectations for the remainder of the season. I’ve been in a minute by minute fight with myself ever since Saturday to keep those expectations down. Michigan still has two true freshmen quarterbacks leading the offense. It still has four difficult road games in East Lansing, Iowa City, Champagne, and Madison. This season should be what last season was supposed to be. The great travesty of 2008 wasn’t how poorly Michigan played. It was that it meant absolutely nothing moving forward. It was a dead end season. Steve Threet was not going to be the quarterback this season. Nick Sheridan was never going to play significant minutes ever again. The most important position in Rich Rodriguez’s offense, by far, is quarterback. Last season should’ve been a 12-game prep for Michigan quarterbacks moving forward. Instead, it was an epic waste. Even though Michigan is clearly much better, that 12-game prep has simply shifted to 2009. Any success that comes this season should be viewed as free money. I wrote a post last season that argued that 2008 should be stress-free because at the very worst, the players were learning the system. For the first time in my lifetime, not being good was OK because there wasn’t an expectation to be good. I didn’t realize at the time that the worst case scenario was much worse. So here we are a year later and I could write the exact same post about this season. Except, this time I would be right.
I don’t want Saturday to come. I don’t want the new expectations that I have—the expectations that I’m not supposed to have—to be shattered. Every second that passes I become less excited about Saturday’s win and more trepid about Notre Dame. The prospect of seeing the hope that was gained on Saturday dashed is unnerving. The only thing worse than seeing expectations dashed with a loss to Notre Dame might be seeing expectations blow-up with a win. No matter what happens on Saturday, it should not be lost that 2010 was and is the ETA on Michigan’s return to the national stage. Rodriguez deserves the courtesy of not having that timeline moved up.