Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Everyone Hates Rich

Perception is reality. I've never liked that phrase for some reason. I think it's because I didn't always understand it. When I was younger--and more naive--my reaction to hearing someone say "perception is reality" was to respond under my breath, "No, reality is reality." I have always been a trumpeter of "fairness." I try not to jump to conclusions. I try to consider the source. I disdain bigotry and double-standards. I deplore uninformed opinions and the "mob mentality." In a perfect world, "reality is reality." When I was a child, I made the mistake of assuming we lived in a vacuum. Obviously, that is not the case. We very much live in a world where opinions are influenced and even dictated by the click of a remote or the tone of a headline. We live in a world of groupthink and criticism. It's much easier to just adopt a viewpoint than find a unique one. In this world, "perception is reality."

This isn't meant to be an advanced lesson in human relations or the human psyche. None of this is revolutionary. It's just a simple explanation for why so many people want Rich Rodriguez to fail. People from all walks of life with differing opinions on everything from religion to race to politics have no problem agreeing that Rodriguez is a poor coach and a compromised man. Michigan fans who couldn't name four players on the football roster have no problem concluding that he has run the program into the ground with shady values. How can it be that a guy who was an outstanding coach and, by all accounts, a great role model for his players in the state of West Virginia all of a sudden become a morally corrupt underachiever in the state of Michigan? Logically speaking, that transition doesn't make sense. In our world--a world where perception is reality--logic is irrelevant. What matters is the story that's being told and more importantly, the motives behind the people who are telling the story. People want Rodriguez to fail because they don't like him. They don't like him because they're being trained not to like him.

Not everyone against Rodriguez is ignorant. Some--the minority--are simply opportunistic. This subgroup isn't basing their opinion on mistruths, rather its creating the mistruths. These people have ulterior motives and/or visions for the Michigan football program that don't include Rodriguez. So, yes, there are people out there who don't want Rodriguez to succeed who know full well that he isn't the anti-Christ. However, the vast majority of people who dislike Rodriguez do so because they don't know any better. They've either gotten their information from the people I just referred to who have political motivations or they've gotten it from slanted media coverage. In some cases, they're one in the same.

If you are a Michigan fan, then the anti-Michigan coverage in the local newspapers has been as conspicuous as Charlie Weis in a bikini. If you aren't a Michigan fan, or if you've been quick to buy into the anti-Rodriguez view, then you probably haven't noticed not because it wasn't obvious but because you didn't want to notice. Obvious examples of this have been going on since the day he arrived in Ann Arbor. It started with questioning his character for shredding top-secret, classified documents that never happened. It quickly moved to portraying him as less than honorable for not immediately agreeing to pay his West Virginia buyout (Fighting the buyout was the decision of the Michigan AD). Then it moved to his supposed desecration of Michigan's traditions. Then came the propaganda touting MSU as a rising power and the superior in-state program. The latter was based almost solely on nothing but it didn't stop the newspapers from selling it and the readership from buying it. If you were a Michigan State fan, you'd probably buy it too.

One of the more shameless manipulations came from Mick McCabe of the Detroit Free Press. The local media had been rallying behind MSU's in-state dominance in recruiting for some time (Again, something that simply wasn't true). In August, McCabe released his annual ranking of the top high school football players in Michigan. The state's top player by virtually every reputable national recruiting source is Inkster's Devin Gardner. Gardner isn't just a consensus top 60 player in the country, he is Rivals and MaxPrep's top rated QB in the country. He was one of the top performers at the EA Sports Elite 11 Camp. When the Detroit Free Press released its list, the only suspense was whether it would continue its MSU-bias by rating Spartan-commitment William Gholston out of Detroit first pushing Gardner to second. Gholston is a highly-rated recruit in his own right and the only in-state player even remotely in Gardner's class. As it turned out, Gardner wasn't number one. That went to Gholston as expected. Inconceivably, Gardner wasn't two, three, or four either. In fact, Mick McCabe didn't even think Gardner was one of the top five players in Michigan. McCabe had three in-state Spartan-commitments rated ahead of Gardner. One, Nick Hill, was forced to commit to his second choice--MSU--when his first choice--Michigan--decided not to offer a scholarship. He can't be found in the Rivals250 or Scout250 and is rated the #46 RB in the country by Scout. Either McCabe purposefully penned another anti-Michigan piece, or he is the worst sports writer in the country. As much as I would love it to be the latter, I'm not stupid enough to believe that. If you are a Detroit News or Free Press reader who doesn't follow recruiting closely, after reading McCabe's article, you will likely perceive Michigan State as the dominating in-state recruiting force. You will have no knowledge of the fact that Michigan has secured the state's top in-state player according to virtually all of the major recruiting services. I would assume that is information that you might want to know.

As horribly biased as the Gardner-debacle was, it wasn't the local media's most slanted work. That goes to its unequal coverage of two criminal issues: one involving Michigan and the other involving Michigan State. Rich Rodriguez dismissed Justin Feagin from the Michigan football team in late-July. The details remain murky but he was either involved in an actual drug deal or tried to rip-off someone in a fake drug deal. Either way, Rodriguez sent him packing immediately. A totally different scenario happened just a few miles up the road in East Lansing. Glenn Winston, a Michigan State running back, was convicted of a brutal assault on a Michigan State student. He was sentenced to 180 days in jail. In August, he was released early due to overcrowding in the Ingham County Jail and was immediately reinstated by Mark Dantonio. On one hand, a coach quickly dismissed a player who had engaged in troublesome activity, and on the other hand a coach immediately welcomed back a player who, if not for the spatial confines of the Ingham County Jail, would still be incarcerated. One coach acted the way you'd hope a coach would and the other did not. Here is how that was portrayed in the local media:*

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*Screenshot from Mgoblog

I promise I did not make that up. If you hadn't guessed already, Drew Sharp is the author of the above words. The coach who got rid of a non-violent troublemaker was criticized for running a program with character issues, while the coach who welcomed back a violent criminal with open-arms might as well have been applauded for giving him a second chance. Neither the Detroit News nor Free Press questioned Dantonio's decision when the story broke. The irony here is that Sharp says that "perceptions are changing" while being unwittingly responsible for changing those perceptions. The newspaper he works for hammered Rodriguez for recruiting troublemakers and then sat idly by when Dantonio made a reprehensible decision. If this is the story the newspapers are selling, how else would readers perceive this situation?

If you're a Detroit News or Free Press reader, after reading this story, you're likely to perceive Rodriguez and Michigan as morally corrupt. You're also likely to conclude that Mark Dantonio is a passionate coach who cares deeply for his players. Since we don't live in a vacuum, that perception has become reality. People hate Rich Rodriguez because they perceive him in a way that he is not. That he "is not" doesn't really matter. The sad part about all of this is that no amount of logic will change the perception. You can talk to someone who views Rodriguez in a negative light until you are maize and blue in the face and it won't change a thing. Trust me, I've attempted it far too many times. To these people, Rodriguez is a morally ambiguous coach who has lost control of his football team. That perception will last until he wins. When that happens, he will magically become a coach of great character. In the vacuum, nothing will have changed but, in our world, the only thing that matters--perception--will have.

The reason that Michigan--and Rodriguez--have become the object of the media's vitriol is twofold: 1. "Michigan" sells newspapers and 2. Michael Rosenberg is part of an influential anti-Rodriguez faction. If Rosenberg was exported to a more fitting place, like Antarctica, some of this would still be going on. Controversy sells and blasting the most popular sports team in the area sells papers with or without Rosenberg. If the newspaper industry wasn't so desperate to sell papers, Rosenberg would still probably get his jabs in on Michigan but it's unlikely the Free Press would allow a writer to bend journalistic integrity to the point of massive criticism like Rosenberg has. Individually, these influences are enough to distort the truth. Together, they are strong enough to completely alter reality.

If you're still not convinced of who's really responsible for Rodriguez's unpopularity, take a look at how nearly the same event was portrayed in two totally opposite ways. Coming into the season, Michigan State was universally predicted to finish in the top three of the Big Ten. Some even had the Spartans challenging for the Big Ten Championship. MSU lost a number of close games last year, and that experience was supposedly going to bring them riches this season. Michigan, on the other hand, was predicted to finish anywhere from the middle of the conference all the way to last. Michigan was 3-9 last year and was expected to be plagued by inexperience including at the QB position where it was expected to start a true freshman. In no uncertain terms, this was a championship-contending year for Michigan State and a rebuilding year for Michigan.

Both teams played Iowa within two weeks of each other in October. Iowa is currently undefeated and ranked 4th in the BCS. Michigan went to Iowa as an 8.5 point underdog. Despite a number of costly turnovers and defensive breakdowns, Michigan lost by two points when a last-minute drive ended in an interception. Two weeks later, Iowa travelled to East Lansing. Michigan State was favored by one to two points depending on the source. Iowa prevailed by two points on a last-second touchdown. So, on one hand we have Michigan--a team that was picked to finish in the bottom half of the Big Ten--going on the road to play an overwhelming favorite and losing by two points. On the other hand, we have Michigan State--a team that was picked to challenge for the Big Ten Championship playing at home against an underdog and losing by two points. Without involving media influences, while both losses were unfortunate, the Michigan loss is the one that should be viewed in a more positive light. Here are the headlines from the Detroit News and Free Press following Michigan's two-point defeat in Iowa City:

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The take-home for readers: Dissention and controversy were the themes of the day. Big bad Rich Rodriguez was seen yelling at his players on the sideline. He probably hits them with belts, too. The Michigan football program is falling apart at the seams. Sure, they only lost by two points against a top 10 team on the road but that was totally by accident. Michigan was trying its hardest while Iowa was only trying a little bit. The Michigan football program is a disgrace and continues to unravel.

Here is how the News and Free Press reported Michigan State's two-point loss to Iowa:

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Michael Rosenberg--known to have an anti-Rodriguez agenda--even managed to reference "one of the greatest plays in Michigan State football history" in his headline about the MSU loss. Notice that the loss is a "setback" for Michigan but "full of vital experience" for Michigan State. Never mind that the entire theme for Michigan State last season was a year of gaining vital experience. Also, notice that Michigan State was experiencing "heartbreak" after the loss while Michigan was too busy benching Tate Forcier to feel heartbreak. It is distortions like these that enable an otherwise ignorant mass to hate a man that they know nothing about. It is also what has Rodriguez's tenure at Michigan somewhat in jeopardy even in the midst of a progressive rebuilding process.

Don't get me wrong, Rodriguez isn't going to get fired anytime soon. He's more likely to leave this cesspool of criticism before he ever gets fired. Still, there's only a certain amount of negative publicity that both Rodriguez and the University of Michigan can take. People quit or lose their jobs everyday because of outside and unrelated pressure. Rodriguez has been hit with one enormous mess after another. Whether he lasts at Michigan has nothing to do with whether he's a good coach or not. I would take out a massive loan and bet it all on "Rodriguez succeeding" if he were in a vacuum. He's not. Whether he lasts has to do with whether he can start winning before the accumulating pile of faux negativity becomes so big that it isn't worth it for both Rodriguez and Michigan to deal with it anymore. Thanks to Bill Martin's forward-dating retirement, that's at least a year away which should give the local newspapers plenty of time to create more realities--if, of course, they stay alive that long.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Two-Game Season

Michigan has four games remaining but only two really matter. At the beginning of the season, schedule prognosticators en masse were in agreement. Most had Michigan at 4-4 through eight games. The optimistic went with 5-3. Michigan did its part to secure the better of the two predictions by upsetting Notre Dame. Fans, however, did not do their part. They ratcheted up expectations so much after the win over the Irish that 5-3 was no longer an optimistic view. After losing to Penn State on Saturday, Michigan fell to 5-3--or the pre-season optimistic view--yet there isn't a whole lot of optimism. Nobody likes to see their team lose. Nobody likes people who overreact, either. There is a whole lot of overreacting going on. Despite all of the pessimism that has come from Michigan performing the way everyone thought it would, the maize and blue are in position to clinch a successful season over the next two weeks. Unfortunately, they could also be two weeks away from deserved criticism and disappointment for the first time this year. The next two weeks will define Michigan's season.

Of its remaining four games, Michigan plays two that are winnable and two that are functional losses. If Michigan wins its two winnable games against Illinois and Purdue, then it will guarantee a winning season and a bowl game. If Michigan beats Illinois and Purdue, there's always the possibility that it'll grow enough in those two games to give Wisconsin and Ohio State a run. However, that's irrelevant. Would I like to see Michigan win those games? You bet. I'd also like to see Ohio State on probation and chocolate milk flow from my faucets. One of the cornerstones of being a good fan is being realistic. Therefore, all I care about is beating Illinois and Purdue. I would say improving from 3-9 in season one to 7-5 in season two would qualify as an acceptable level of improvement.

Michigan's on-field atrocities in 2008 have been well-documented. It was the worst Michigan team in 46 years. While last season's futility certainly did a number to the record books in a negative way, the most devastating consequence had nothing to do with any of the black marks that are now permanently in the record books. Rather, it had to do with what those black marks prevented after the season. Because Michigan did not qualify for a bowl game, it was not permitted the 15 bowl practices that come with it. That is a considerable penalty to a young and inexperienced team learning a new system. To compare, college football teams are only permitted 15 practices over the entire spring practice period. The 68 teams that were permitted those bowl practices had double the practice that Michigan had between December and August. Teams that were already better than Michigan--Iowa, Penn State, etc.--had the luxury of more practice time. If there's any team that absolutely needs those 15 bowl practices, it's a team coming off a 3-9 season. That is the quintessential example of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. Missing out on those practices unquestionably delayed Michigan's development. In my opinion, more important than beating Ohio State or getting the second "signature win" that everyone seems to be begging for, is qualifying for 15 bowl practices and the additional game that comes with them. Players like Denard Robinson, Justin Turner, and Jeremy Gallon would get almost as much practice from 15 bowl practices as they had in their entire careers coming into the season. Some of Michigan's most promising players have yet to enter its two-deep because of inexperience. Players like Ricky Barnum, Patrick Omameh, Taylor Lewan, Quinton Washington, and Michael Schofield need all of the extra practice they can get. The vast majority of Michigan's talent comes from players who don't start. Those players need practice to understand their assignments and improve their technique. Bowl and Spring practices are where players can make great strides. It's very difficult for underclassmen and experienced players to make significant progress during the season because teams are too focused on their next opponent. It's after the season when players make the biggest improvement.

I've been critical of fans who have unjustifiably raised expectations. This team did not need to be burdened with additional pressure simply because it went out and played well against Notre Dame. Those increased expectations are solely responsible for the sense of disappointment that seems to have multiplied over the last few weeks. However, I have no problem defining success (or failure) as beating Illinois and Purdue. If Michigan doesn't win both of those games, then fans should be pissed. They should express disappointment in both the team and the coaching staff. Illinois has essentially given up on its season. The Illini are 0-5 in the Big Ten and have lost all five games by double digits including games against Indiana and Purdue. I have no doubt that Juice Williams will magically morph into the genetic combination of Vince Young and Dennis Dixon upon site of the winged-helmet but even if Williams plays well, Michigan has no business losing. Purdue has been competitive this season in losing close to Oregon and beating Ohio State but that doesn't change the fact that the Boilermakers are not a good team. In year two of a multi-year rebuilding effort, I am willing to accept close losses to Iowa and Michigan State and a beatdown at the hands of a clearly superior Penn State team. I fully expect Michigan to lose to both Wisconsin and Ohio State because they are superior teams. I have patience. I have reasonable expectations. This season will be a success, if not an overwhelming one, if Michigan simply beats Illinois and Purdue and receives an invitation to a bowl game.* Some of that success will come from winning seven games but the majority of that success will come from what the 15 spring practices and extra game means for next season. On a schedule that features such prominent teams as Notre Dame, Michigan State, Iowa, Penn State, Wisconsin, and Ohio State, I have no problem saying that Illinois is the most important game of the season. More so than any other sport, college football is dictated by passion and motivation. Michigan is talented enough that if it comes with aggression and focus on Saturday, it will easily beat Illinois. If we are treated (or tricked) to another version of the twilight zone against a team as sorry as Illinois, then criticism will reign and I won't do a thing to stop it.

* Technically, Michigan could make a bowl game with a 6-6 record but it would not be guaranteed. Last season, two 6-6 teams were not invited to bowl games. The Big Ten has seven or eight bowl slots depending on how many BCS bids the conference gets. If two Big Ten teams play in BCS bowls, then the conference would receive eight bids as long as there are eight teams that qualify. If Michigan splits with Illinois and Purdue and loses to Wisconsin and Ohio State, it will stand at 2-6 in the conference. In a scenario where the conference only has one BCS team, Michigan could have a difficult time getting to a bowl at 6-6. As things stand now, it appears as though Ohio State, Iowa, Penn State, Michigan State, and Wisconsin are going to comfortably make a bowl game. Northwestern needs one win to reach six wins. Since it still plays Illinois, there's a good chance that win will come. Minnesota needs two wins to reach 6-6 and it will likely get there with games remaining against Illinois and South Dakota State. If Michigan loses to Purdue, and Purdue beats Indiana (quite possible) and Michigan State at home, then the Boilermakers would also be 6-6. The Big Ten could easily have nine bowl eligible teams for only seven bowl spots.I have read through the NCAA Handbook for postseason selection and it appears as though all 6-6 teams are created equal and not ordered by conference record. It doesn't specifically say this, but it doesn't say the opposite which is the key. If that is the case, then that bodes extremely well for Michigan. Assuming only one BCS selection for the conference, if five Big Ten teams reach 7-5 or better (which seems likely) and four teams finish at 6-6--Michigan, Minnesota, Northwestern, and Purdue--then bowl organizers would likely have the luxury of choosing based on attractiveness. Fair or not, this would seem to favor Michigan. The bottom line is that at 7-5, Michigan would be guaranteed a bowl. At 6-6, there are no such guarantees.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Bill Martin's Final Contribution

The collective dread that you heard race through the Michigan fanbase on Wednesday morning was the stunning announcement of Bill Martin's forthcoming retirement. Martin has done an exquisite job as Michigan's Athletic Director. He overhauled the Athletic Department's undisciplined spending habits to make it one of the most profitable in the country. Somewhere in his agenda of fiscal responsibility, he managed to bring renovation to Michigan Stadium to the tune of $226 million. He also built the program one of the premier practice facilities in the country which cost an additional $26 million. Martin's financial acumen served Michigan extremely well as he managed to simultaneously bring the Athletic Department out of the red while providing elaborate and dire renovations. Some of his best work, however, came when coaches needed to be hired. Both the Michigan football and basketball programs had long thrived on having better players. The Michigan name virtually guarantees recruiting success and the talented rosters that come with it. What neither sport has had in quite a while is an advantage on the sidelines. Martin sought to end that trend and did so with authority. His first major coaching acquisition was John Beilein who is widely regarded one of the top tacticians in college basketball. Beilein has surprised nobody by quickly restoring Michigan's basketball prowess. Martin's most controversial and possibly influential hire was his coup of Rich Rodriguez from West Virginia fresh off a near-National Championship season. Rodriguez, like Beilein, is widely regarded as one of the brightest minds in college athletics. While Martin's decision-making will surely be missed, it might be the loss of his political neutrality that will be felt the most in the immediate aftermath of his departure.

Perhaps only Alex Rodriguez can match the sheer volume and veracity of criticism that Rich Rodriguez has endured since he was hired at Michigan in 2007. Maybe it's that people subconsciously hate the name, "Rodriguez." Or, maybe they hate first names with four letters. Whatever it is, Rich Rodriguez has been blasted from every conceivable angle from lacking family values and overworking his players, to lying about grades and engaging in shady business practices. It sounds a bit conspiracy theory-ish but the firestorm that has followed Rodriguez is not an accident. Various Michigan factions are doing whatever possible to undermine Rodriguez's tenure. According to a Michigan-insider on one of the premium sites, there are no fewer than 10 political factions behind the scenes of Michigan Athletics and the only thing they can agree on is that they don't want Rich Rodriguez to succeed. That power struggle is why Rodriguez's name has been dragged through the mud over and over again with weak and contrived exposes by compromised media cronies. Hardly any of it is true and the people who orchestrate the lies and innuendos know it isn't true. But, they also know that people tend to believe what they read in the newspaper. Fortunately for Rodriguez, he has had the ultimate ally in Martin. Rodriguez is Martin's guy. He hired him. His legacy is somewhat attached to Rodriguez's success. With Martin at the helm, none of the mudslinging ever threatened to effect Rodriguez's job security. You can bet, though, that with Martin's departure, the people who want Rodriguez to fail are looking to pounce. They'll want to have influence in the naming of Martin's successor in order to seal Rodriguez's fate. The thought of life after Martin brings up fears of a wild west environment where lawlessness reigns and fairness is thrown to the side. The people who are fearful of the repercussions of Martin's departure have a right to feel that way. Until a successor is named, uncertainty will shroud over the football program.

That's the bad news. The good news is that Martin clearly thought about all of this ahead of time. It's likely not a coincidence that his retirement will be as of September 4, 2010. That means that Rodriguez will head into 2010 without even a hint of job security issues. Martin knows that Rodriguez is building something special at Michigan. He knows that it takes time to overhaul a major football program. He also knows that Rodriguez needs cover from his political adversaries while still in the process of building his program. If Michigan leaps into the upper echelon of college football next year as expected, then Rodriguez won't need any protection. Winning will shut everyone up and secure Rodriguez's place at Michigan for as long as he wants. Getting him to 2010 unscathed, though, is a necessity and Martin has ensured that by forward-dating his retirement date. The other piece of "good news" is that Michigan's President, Mary Sue Coleman, has a great relationship with Martin and fully supported the Rodriguez-hire. It's doubtful that any successor to Martin will be able to make any major changes without the blessing of Coleman. Through the blurry goggles of uncertainty, it seems as though there are a number of steps in place to make sure Rodriguez is not dealt a raw deal by an administration change.

While Martin's departure is not the most comforting news for the Michigan football program, it is not nearly as bad as some first impressions might indicate. A moderator from one of Michigan's Recruiting subscription sites said that Martin's departure likely means that Saturday's game against Penn State is a must-win. He said that it could be the difference between Rodriguez staying and going. Many informative things come from subscription sites but this is not one of them. Whether Michigan beats Penn State or not has absolutely nothing to do with Rodriguez's job security. Martin has secured Rodriguez the 2010 season at a minimum. Barring a total collapse where Michigan loses its final five games in embarrassing fashion, nothing that happens this season has anything impact on Rodriguez moving forward. Next season will be the earliest any of those issues come into play. Since Michigan is widely expected to take another giant step forward in 2010, it's doubtful that fans have anything to worry about. By next season, it will be obvious to everyone what Rodriguez is building at Michigan. Thanks to Bill Martin, even if someone with an anti-Rodriguez agenda replaces him or one of the jockeying factions has undue influence on his successor, by the time they're in a position to make decisions, it'll be too late to do anything about it. Rodriguez will be off and running. Hopefully, it's for 300+ yards a game.

Monday, October 19, 2009

This Endless Criticism Thing is Endless

The Michigan football program had the audacity to schedule a I-AA opponent (I will not give in to the FCS lingo) on Saturday which resulted in a brutal drubbing to the tune of 727 total yards. What could the brilliant minds in the Michigan Athletic Department have been thinking when they scheduled this public execution? Clearly, the mighty Michigan Wolverines had nothing to gain against the sting-less Delaware State Hornets. Wolverines all over the world should be ashamed to call themselves alumni of a university willing to schedule such a detestable scrimmage. Can you imagine another big-time college football program doing such an obviously ridiculous thing? Other than Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, Clemson, Florida, Florida State, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Miami (FL), Mississippi, Mississippi St, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio St, Oklahoma, Oklahoma St., Penn St., S. Carolina, Texas Tech, Virginia Tech, and Wisconsin, I can't think of a single school that would schedule and then clobber a horrible I-AA team. I'm so disgusted by the events of this past weekend that I can barely gather my thoughts for this post. However, in the name of fake journalism, I'll try to set aside my disgust just long enough to finish my thought.

The only teams missing from the massive and virtual comprehensive list of major college football powers listed above are teams from the Pac-10 as well as Texas, Tennessee, and LSU. You don't see USC, Oregon or UCLA routinely scheduling I-AA cupcakes not because of any sort of philosophical objection but rather because the Pac-10 plays nine conference games leaving only three non-conference opponents. The other BCS conferences play at least four non-conference games leaving ample room for a I-AA filler. Don't be quick to lavish Texas, Tennessee, and LSU with praise for avoiding I-AA opponents. It would be easy to champion the "anyone but I-AA" cause but clearly the standard should be more than that. Texas, Tennessee, and LSU routinely play some of the worst non-conference schedules in college football. This year alone, Texas played Louisiana-Lafayette, Wyoming, UTEP, and UCF. Failing to schedule even just one BCS opponent is every bit as egregious as scheduling a I-AA opponent, if not worse. Miami (FL) scheduled I-AA Florida A&M this year but also added Oklahoma and a road game at South Florida. Which schedule is more abhorrible, Texas's or Miami's? Tennessee--while avoiding the dreaded I-AA opponent--managed to fit Ohio, UAB, and Memphis on its schedule. LSU scheduled the Tour de Louisiana with Louisiana-Lafayette, Tulane, and Louisiana Tech. Is it worse to schedule one I-AA opponent in an otherwise challenging non-conference schedule or routinely schedule horrible non-conference opponents who hang on to I-A status by name only? Underneath all of the faux outrage created by Michigan's beatdown of DSU lies the real issue: without a playoff, college football has become the most superficial of beauty contests where fake breasts and straightened noses are treated as the real thing. All that matters is the final product--or record--and how it's achieved is irrelevant.

It has become chic to talk about the proliferation of I-AA opponents as if this phenomenon popped up out of nowhere but the truth is that these glorified scrimmages have been a part of college football for years. Miami (FL) started the trend of making a I-AA opponent a staple of its non-conference schedule back in the early-90's. Starting in 1992, Miami played I-AA opponents for five consecutive seasons resulting in the following scores: 52-6, 49-3, 56-0, 30-7, and 38-0. Like any good trend, scheduling I-AA opponents caught on like wildfire. Following Miami's lead, Kansas and Oklahoma St. were two of the pioneers of scheduling annual I-AA matchups. Kansas has scheduled a I-AA opponent in 11 of the last 12 years. Oklahoma St. has been almost as dedicated doing so in 9 of the last 10 years. What Michigan did on Saturday has been going on for decades right down to the quality of opponent and final margin of victory. A lot was made following the game of just how bad DSU was and how big the margin of victory was. Contrary to popular belief, DSU is no worse than many of the I-AA teams that find themselves on I-A schedules every year. Oklahoma played a I-AA opponent in each of the last two years. The combined record of those opponents was 1-18. The combined score of the two games was 121-2. Where was the outrage when Oklahoma scheduled a I-AA opponent, first of all, and then where was the outrage at the margin of victory and quality of I-AA opponent? It's not just Oklahoma, either. Trying to predict what year a I-AA team is going to be "good" is like Fat Albert trying to get in on a round of double dutch jump rope.

Nobody likes watching massacres. I certainly don't like watching Michigan dismember a team like Delaware State. If it were up to me, there would be a playoff that encouraged as many elite non-conference clashes as possible. That's not the case and until it is, complaining about I-AA teams showing up on schedules will garner as much traction as scheduling a D-2 team in college basketball. Translation: nobody cares! What Michigan did on Saturday was simply align itself with the rest of college football. Major college football is a business. Savvy Athletic Directors like Bill Martin understand that getting an extra home game does wonders for his bottom line. I'm sure he would've preferred to avoid the empty ridicule that comes from playing a I-AA opponent but he was limited by logistics. Michigan had an open date in the middle of the Big Ten schedule. Martin needed to find a team that could play in Ann Arbor on that day without asking for a return visit. As it turned out, Delaware State was the entirety of his options. It was a smart business decision by Martin and it was something that has been done hundreds of times by his AD counterparts. Does the excuse that everyone else is doing it make it OK? YES! As long as the NCAA allows wins over I-AA opponents to count towards bowl eligibility, then not playing I-AA opponents--and passing on multi-million dollar gates in the process--out of some misguided attempt at justice is just stupid.

Michigan is way late to the party, anyways. Saturday marked only the second time Michigan has played a I-AA opponent since 1943 while some schools are playing two in the same season. Clemson played two in 2008 and clubbed them by a combined total of 99-17. Florida State also played two in 2008 and won by a score of 115-7. The combined records of FSU's two I-AA opponents were 4-20. Texas Tech played two in both 2005 and 2008. Georgia Tech played two last year while North Carolina plays two this year. The NCAA has done a grave injustice to college football by allowing this to go on. Over the last decade, the NCAA has softened bowl eligibility requirements to the paper thin levels they're at today. Not too long ago, only one win versus a I-AA opponent could count towards bowl eligibility every four years. From there it moved to once every two years and now it's at one per year. Even under the most stringent rule the NCAA had, Michigan's win over DSU would've counted since it was its first I-AA win in 66 years. Michigan has been on the severe low end of taking advantage of the NCAA's I-AA allowances. If you want to complain about the system, take a dump on the NCAA. Leave Michigan out of the discussion.

Michigan did nothing wrong on Saturday. So, why all the drama? In case you hadn't noticed, Michigan has been the default criticism school of choice for the last two years. No matter how ridiculous, hypocritical, or downright delusional the accusation, nothing has been off limits. The scattering of criticism from hammering DSU is no different. In a break from the norm, however, ESPN did not lead the assault. In fact, virtually all of the criticism has come from op-eds. Anyone around the country who saw highlights of Michigan's dismantling of DSU was given a very favorable impression of Michigan by the networks. Instead of harping on the fact that DSU was a I-AA school, ESPN, NBC, and the Big Ten Network went through the highlights like it was just another game. The criticism came from one likely source and another unlikely source. While the network highlights never mentioned anything negative towards Michigan, a few writers decided to use the Michigan-DSU game as their platform for what has gone wrong with major college football. It's curious that the Stewart Mandel's and Matt Hinton's of the world chose the least egregious violator of I-AA assault to launch their dissatisfaction for the system. What did Michigan do differently? The answer is nothing. In fact, Michigan took its first-string quarterback out after one series. It took its second string QB out before halftime. It's third string walk-on QB was done in the third quarter. Then came the fourth string and fifth string QB's to close out the game. DSU's long snapper was injured early on. The back-up was so poor that Michigan could've blocked every DSU punt. Instead, Rich Rodriguez called off the punt block for the rest of the game. Michigan held out its first and second string running backs, took out nearly all of its starters after halftime, and played 84 players. If we weren't talking about big bad Michigan, the epitome of all that is wrong in college football, this could've been a human interest story. To some, it was.

Yet, for all the compassion Michigan showed in drubbing DSU, sportswriters were unwilling to give Michigan the same. Somehow, the fact that DSU chose to forfeit a conference game to play Michigan became Michigan's responsibility. As did the fact that Delaware State isn't as good as it was last year when this game was scheduled and the fact that DSU was without its starting QB. If you want to criticize DSU for forfeiting a league game, then fine. Go for it. Michigan had nothing to do with that decision. Even then, I would suggest that DSU is probably more in tune with the needs of its program than a random sportswriter. DSU took home $550,000 for coming to Michigan Stadium. What do you think is going to do more for the DSU program, winning a single football game or taking in $550,000? If the answer was the former, I don't think DSU would've shown up on Saturday.

Getting criticism from national columnists is nothing new for Michigan. It would be surprising if that didn't happen. What is new--and loathsome--is the ridicule Michigan received from some of its own fans including reporters from its own subscription sites. The word "embarrassing" was thrown around liberally. The game was described by many as "even worse than a bye week" and "below the standards" of Michigan football. That sort of thinking is what earned the Michigan fanbase its "stuck up" reputation in the first place. Its also the last thing Michigan--a program that has been unfairly raked over the coals again and again--needs at this point. The people making these criticisms are the same who were appalled by the Detroit Free Press's manufactured practice-gate investigation and its absurd follow-up on Michigan's team GPA. Criticizing the program for doing exactly what every other major program has done for years is just as damaging and petty. Playing a I-AA opponent is not "embarrassing" when virtually every school does it. Under that logic, allowing the flow and length of televised games to be dictated by commercials should also be embarrassing. How could any school allow the commercialization of college athletics reach such a point that it infringes on the integrity of the game? That sounds silly. You don't see anyone singling out Michigan for allowing ABC to take a three-minute commercial break in the middle of a major football game. I don't see the difference.

This was a mismatch. The same outcome would've occurred if Michigan would've scheduled Army, San Jose State, or Temple. The fact the some people are willing to distinguish a difference between destroying a clearly overmatched I-A team and doing the same to a I-AA team is laughable. There's no question that Michigan would've gained more by playing a mid-tier program like, say, Fresno State. However, it's silly and ignorant to suggest that Michigan gained nothing by playing DSU and, yet, would've gained something by beating the tar out of North Texas. Whatever Michigan would've gained hammering North Texas (a I-A school), it gained by doing the same to DSU. At the very least Michigan gained the vast gate from another home game. The Michigan Athletic Department is entirely self-sufficient. The Michigan football program funds the entire athletic budget. Before a single yard was gained on the field, Saturday was a huge gain for Michigan Athletics. Rodriguez also got a chance to see his second-stringers play against live competition which is invaluable for evaluation purposes. Denard Robinson played nearly as much against DSU as he had the entire season. Freshmen and sophomores make up 80% of Michigan's roster; simply getting on the field will make it easier the next time they get into a game. Most importantly, this was a chance for a young team to take a breath without falling completely out of routine. With so many talking heads questioning the gain from a game like this, I can't think of a single negative that resulted from it.

Michigan was never going to be challenged by DSU. It was a glorified scrimmage that gave Michigan a chance to get a number of its underclassmen experience while also providing an extra week of game-planning for Penn State. Would it have been more entertaining to see Michigan battle Boise State? Sure. It would also be great if there was a playoff, the NCAA barred games against I-AA opponents all together, and Gary Danielson got lost on his way to his next gig. Until the NCAA changes the landscape of college football, what happened on Saturday in Ann Arbor was not criticizable. For the people looking for a reason to criticize Michigan, there will always be plenty of crap to package as controversy. For the rest of the college football world, Michigan played another game and beat another opponent. Until teams like Florida State, Texas Tech, and Clemson get criticized for hammering two I-AA opponents in one season, I think we can lay off one of the last schools to schedule just one such opponent.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Tate or Denard

Instead of adding to the massive pile of words that already exists on the internet about whether Rich Rodriguez made the right decision putting Denard Robinson in on Michigan's final drive against Iowa, I would prefer to talk about the longterm picture for Robinson and Tate Forcier. As controversial as Saturday's decision was, the one Rodriguez will eventually have to make puts it to shame. For the record, although it seemed like Tate's fourth quarter heroics thus far combined with his ability to throw downfield made him the better choice on the drive in question, Rodriguez was the guy on the sideline and in the huddle. He was more in tune than anyone watching in the stands or on TV. Michigan lost for many reasons and the least was that decision. Plus, Robinson was one progression away from finding Martavious Odoms for a gain to the 50 yard line which would've put Michigan in an excellent position to win. That decision was, no doubt, a difficult one for Rodriguez. However, I think there will be a more difficult decision on the horizon. Barring an injury or a transfer, Rodriguez is going to eventually have to choose between Forcier and Robinson and I don't think the decision is as clear-cut as some might believe.

In 25 years of watching college football, I do not remember a situation when a coach rotated the same two quarterbacks for four consecutive years let alone two or three. There have been plenty of one-year merry-go-rounds. The Old Ball Coach certainly comes to mind. At different times, he alternated Terry Dean and Danny Wuerffel, Doug Johnson and Jesse Palmer, and then Palmer and Rex Grossman. Those were one-year deals. Even Steve Spurrier, the most fickle quarterback switcher in college football history, never used a rotation with the same quarterbacks for more than one year. Unless we're about to witness the most surreal quarterback rotation in college football history, Rich Rodriguez is going to eventually have to pick his guy.

It's amazing that this is even a worthy topic to discuss. In just six weeks, Tate Forcier has become one of the most accomplished true freshman quarterbacks in college football history. He engineered three fourth quarter comebacks in his first five games. He has single-handedly revitalized a Michigan offense that is averaging 14 more points per game over last season. Silly as it seemed, he was even in the Heisman picture and remained there until Rodriguez's fateful final-drive decision on Saturday. There would have to be a one-of-a-kind, transcendent athlete in the picture to even remotely challenge Forcier's apparent stranglehold on Michigan's quarterback position. And, it just so happens that there is. Denard Robinson hasn't led any fourth quarter comebacks. He hasn't played more than a couple possessions in any of Michigan's games. He's a timid passer, has iffy mechanics, and stays in the pocket just slightly longer than it takes to flip a light switch. He is nowhere near Forcier as a quarterback. At least, not yet anyways.

Forcier arrived at Michigan last winter. He graduated early, took advantage of a Nick Sheridan injury, and easily became Michigan's starting quarterback. He had six months on Robinson to learn the playbook and get comfortable with the speed of college football. After seeing Forcier thrive with such inexperience, it is literally painful to imagine his reward being a seat on the bench for the next three years. That possibility seems like an impossibility. However, I'm not so sure it is. Denard Robinson is likely the fastest athlete who has ever played football at the University of Michigan. He is Olympic-level fast. He is faster-than-Ted-Ginn fast. He ran a 10.44 100m in high school and reportedly, but not officially, went as low as 10.28. Robinson may be the fastest quarterback in the history of major college football. In most instances, an unpolished quarterback with that sort of speed would almost certainly be headed for a position switch at the college-level. Rich Rodriguez, however, is not most coaches. In fact, above anyone else in college football, Rodriguez demands speed at the quarterback position. His entire offensive philosophy is based on it. He took a wide receiver named Pat White and made him one of the most prolific quarterbacks to ever play college football. White was fast for a quarterback but he was nowhere near Denard Robinson-fast. If you're a fan of college football, you no doubt have many memories of White running rampant through hapless defenses at West Virginia. Imagine how much more dangerous he would've been with an extra gear. Rodriguez must salivate at the thought of Robinson mastering his offense. All of the practice in the world can't make Tate Forcier as fast as Robinson.

That brings us to the precipice of this discussion: can all of the practice in the world make Denard Robinson as savvy and productive as Forcier? Or, at least, can it make Robinson an effective enough passer that combined with his ability to run, makes him the choice over Forcier? Nobody knows that answer. In fact, its such a mystery that any attempt to predict it would simply be a fruitless endeavor. However, that doesn't mean we can't predict the scenario in which this decision will have to be made. This decision is going to drive Rodriguez crazy. He absolutely cannot go with a four-year quarterback rotation. Even if both quarterbacks were willing to stick around long enough to split snaps for four years, it's hard to imagine such volatility at the quarterback position resulting in the most efficient offense possible. Rodriguez clearly isn't in a hurry to make a decision. He's too busy taking his new and improved wheels for a spin. Michigan will be 5-2 after this weekend. Although Rodriguez clearly wants to win, he will spend the next seven weeks with a keen eye on how his quarterbacks run the offense. He'll get to see more of Robinson in bowl and spring practices than he has in his short Michigan career. That'll be when Rodriguez realizes whether Robinson is destined to be Michigan's Pat White or the next Percy Harvin.

For those who have written off Robinson due to his shakiness as a passer, Forcier's heroics, or a combination of both, look no further than his first drive against Iowa in which he pretty much received the snap and went off-tackle over and over again. He ran the ball eight times for 42 yards including a touchdown. The most impressive aspect of the drive is that Robinson did nearly all of his damage between the tackles. Iowa knew what was coming but was overwhelmed by his his speed and quickness. Imagine what he could accomplish with the space that comes with the understanding of Rodriguez's offense. That space will come if he can learn the offense as well as White did. It must be downright scary for defenses to imagine Robinson as a bona fide dual-threat quarterback. I'm not sure if it's possible to stop a quarterback who can throw with Robinson's speed. Nobody has ever seen it before to know.

This scenario is far from unfolding. Robinson isn't experienced or confident enough for anyone to think that he should be starting ahead of Forcier. Rodriguez and Michigan fans are still soaking up the fact that instant death is no longer the primary skill at the quarterback position. Nobody is in a hurry to make this decision. However, I think there a lot of people out there who have mistakenly dismissed Robinson as a viable candidate. Rodriguez values speed above all at quarterback and it doesn't come any faster than Denard Robinson. This has the makings for an uncomfortable situation. Fans have embraced both. They are a mountain of fresh air for a program that has seen far too much negativity over the past two years. Sometime soon, though, these guys aren't going to be freshmen and Michigan will no longer be content with simply making a bowl game. This is equally uncomfortable and good news for Michigan fans. Nobody wants to see either of these guys riding the bench. However, it's pretty evident that whoever ends up being Rodriguez's choice whenever that choice is made is going to give Michigan an offense that will wreak havoc on opposing defenses. If Robinson becomes a good enough passer that he beats out Forcier, then we could be witness to a truly revolutionary football player. If Forcier becomes a smart enough quarterback that he wards off Robinson's speed, then he'll become a legend at Michigan. The only sure winner in this scenario is the Michigan football program. Plus, there's this guy.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Is it Too Much to Respect the Process?

If you looked at Michigan's football schedule before the season and tried to predict wins and losses, it is very likely that you marked down "loss" next to road games at Michigan State and Iowa among others. Winning on the road with an inexperienced team against quality opponents in the Big Ten with a true freshman quarterback is a near-impossible endeavor. Before the season, it seemed that virtually everyone was in agreement on Michigan's chances in those two games. Well, the Michigan State and Iowa games have come and gone and Michigan lost both as expected. Yet, the response from a good-sized contingent of the fanbase has been vehement in its criticism of both Rich Rodriguez and the program he is building. What changed?

Michigan beat Notre Dame. That's what changed. Before Michigan beat Notre Dame, I cautioned against raising expectations to an unreasonable level based on one victory. After Michigan beat Eastern Michigan to climb to 3-0, I cautioned again against raising expectations. Rich Rodriguez is in the midst of building a program. The last thing he and his players need is to be burdened by the irrational exuberance of people who, for the most part, have very little understanding of the game of football. Apparently, there are a lot of people out there who think that iswhat the team needs. That's the only way to explain how two losses that were mere formalities before the season could be viewed as colossal failures during the season. There was a lot to criticize about Michigan's performances against both Michigan State and Iowa. Yet, it went to overtime on the road against Michigan State and came within two points of beating a top ten team on the road. Both are blatant signs of Michigan's progress from last season to this. Both are also evidence of just how close this program is to breaking through. Last season, Michigan went on the road to play a top-ten Penn State team. Michigan played well and still lost by 29 points. This team has improved more in one season than could be reasonably anticipated. Yet, you'd never know by the response from some fans and most of the local media.

Michigan went 3-9 last season. After next weekend, it will be 5-2 heading into a big-time matchup with Penn State. Instead of celebrating progress and potential, fans are demanding more and more like selfish toddlers. Except, toddlers have an excuse. In many ways, Rodriguez would've been better off losing to Notre Dame. His reward for winning that game has been a rapidly increased timeline and the removal of any and all patience and perspective. It would be one thing if the undermining was confined to the local print media that is trumpeting up Michigan's every misstep in a last ditch attempt to avoid death. As pathetic as that is, that by itself really isn't a threat. However, combined with a big enough contingent of ignorant fans, Rodriguez is facing quite an obstacle before he even steps foot on the field each week. The truly stupefying thing about all of the criticism is that it comes in the face of remarkable improvements.

Evidence of progress is everywhere. Yardage is up considerably. Points are up considerably. Competitiveness is night and day from last season. Everyone knows that Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson are true freshman. Everyone knows that 75% of the team is freshmen and sophomores. Yet, after two noble efforts on the road against two quality opponents, all the Detroit News can muster up is a lousy hack job claiming that the team is starting to unravel? If I didn't know any better, I'd think the News has an agenda. If it were any other team in the country coming off a 3-9 season, it would be lavished with praise for coming such a long way in just one season. Instead, all anyone wants to talk about is everything but the progress. Before the season, charts chronicling Rodriguez's improvements from year one to year two at other schools were the rage. Vast improvements occurred at every previous stop including Glenville St., Tulane, Clemson, and West Virginia. Fans and media alike wondered if the same would happen at Michigan. After six games, it's possible that he is in the midst of the biggest first to second year jump of his career.

Nobody expected things to be as bad as they were last season. Rodriguez has received more than enough criticism for that. Everyone expected a huge improvement this season and Rodriguez has delivered. So, where is the praise? The only thing he has ever asked out of anyone is to respect the process. That seems to be the only thing people aren't willing to do. The hacks from the print media will continue creating stories until the papers die. That's not going to change. However, that stuff would be irrelevant if Michigan fans stopped giving credence to those reports. There are a lot of fans who are on board with Coach Rod and his program. The problem is that as long as there is a sizeable contingent willing to criticize every move, the News will have an audience for its fiction. The most frustrating thing about all of this is that the people who support Rodriguez will continue to support him and the people who are trying to undermine him will continue to undermine him. For some, this isn't about results. This isn't about logic. This is about ideology and preconceived notions. The fact that Rodriguez is progressing at Michigan is irrelevant which, unfortunately, means that he'll be running into resistance for a long, long time. It's kind of a sucky conclusion to reach but it's the sad reality of a sad situation.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

What were the odds?

It's too bad the Tigers have to be judged on wins and losses and not on the incredible odds against what they just accomplished. In a parallel universe, they might be immortalized for pulling off such a remarkable feet. The Tigers blew a seven game lead on September 6. They blew a three game lead with four games remaining. They blew a 3-0 lead in their one-game playoff with the Twins. They also led going into the bottom of the 10th, and squandered two scoring chances in the 9th and 12th innings in which the probabilities for scoring a run were 84.6% and 65.4%, respectively. The Tigers had roughly a 90% chance of winning the AL Central as of early September according to They also had a 75% chance of beating the Twins in their one-game playoff after taking a 3-0 lead according to ESPN's Gamecast. No team in MLB history had ever lost a three game lead with four games left. For mathematical purposes, let's say the Tigers had a 95% chance of winning the division with three games remaining. The odds that the Tigers could choke all three situations away are roughly .125% or 1 in 800. That doesn't even factor in the probability failures in the 9th, 10th, and 12 innings.

With that in mind, I'm pretty sure that this is the biggest collapse in the history of baseball. The '07 Mets are highly respected for choking away the NL East but whereas the Tigers were up three games with four games remaining, the '07 Mets were tied with four games remaining. Plus, the Mets simply cannot compete with Detroit's bonus choke in Game #163. The '95 Angels are also immortalized for blowing a big lead but their biggest lead in September was 6.5 games and they lost their lead two weeks before the season ended. The Tigers led the division for 149 consecutive days and only needed to do it for one more day to win the division. The '95 Angels only led their division for 79 consecutive days and didn't lead at any point in the last two weeks. Bilfer at the totally awesome Detroit Tigers Weblog hesitates to call this a "collapse." He argues that since the Tigers were 17-16 in September and October that it was the Twins who won the division and not the Tigers who lost it. I understand the sentiment but I cannot agree. I'm just going by the odds and the marshmallow-soft schedule that the Tigers had to work with. Both were heavily in Detroit's favor. They defied the odds in the wrong direction over and over again. I have no problem using the words "major" and "collapse" to describe this.

The worst part about all of this is that the Tigers actually played well against the Twins on Tuesday night. Sure, they made mistakes but they played admirably. In fact, they likely would've won the game if it weren't for a raw deal from the umpires. Placido Polanco was called out on a horrible called-third strike by homeplate umpire Randy Marsh. The Tigers had a guy on first and third with no outs at the time. Brandon Inge was robbed by Marsh again in the 12th inning when he was clearly hit by a pitch that would've given the Tigers a one-run lead. They had the bases loaded with one out at the time. The Tigers had an 84.6% chance of scoring when Polanco stepped to the plate in the 9th and a 65.4% chance of scoring when Inge stepped to the plate in the 12th. It is very likely that Doug Marsh cost the Tigers the game against the Twins.

Unfortunately, it doesn't matter that the Tigers played well on Tuesday. In baseball, teams play well and lose everyday. When the Tigers failed to take advantage of the massively advantageous position they had put themselves in all season by letting Minnesota force a one-game playoff, they had pretty much given up any claim they had to the division. The Tigers weren't going to win on Tuesday. They were 2-7 in Minnesota this season. The Twins are a different team at home as are the Tigers on the road. It's true they lost to Minnesota on Tuesday, but they lost the division long before that. Had they just played .500 baseball against some of the worst teams in the American League over the last three weeks, they wouldn't have needed an extra game. They lost two series to the White Sox, two series to the Royals, and split against the Blue Jays over that span. That's why I won't let the Tigers off easy by giving all the credit to Minnesota.

As you might expect, there is a lot of blame to go around when a team repeatedly collapses over an extended period of time. However, there are also levels of culpability. The most culpable, in my opinion, is the front office. I love the job that Dave Dombrowski has done but his decision to not trade for a major bat at the trade deadline went a long way in making this collapse possible. The Tigers were never going to be able to coast to the division. Anyone who knows anything about the Minnesota Twins knew they would get hot. Heck, I wrote about it repeatedly over the season. By not adding elite offensive production to one of the worst lineups in baseball, Dombrowski all but guaranteed that the Tigers were at the mercy of the Twins. Considering the ineptitude of the offense at the time, that was a dreadful decision. To his credit, Dombrowski could not have known that Jarrod Washburn would turn into the worst pitcher in pitching history when he brought him to Detroit. Even though the lineup needed to be addressed, the rotation was thin and adding a veteran arm was a strong move. Dombrowski's other mistake was not bringing in another arm after the trade deadline when it was obvious that Washburn was washed up. While the Angels traded a bag of doughnuts for Scott Kazmir, the Tigers went with a carnival of questionable arms down the stretch including starts from Eddie Bonine, Nate Robertson, and Alfred Figaro. Kazmir started six games for the Angels and posted a 1.73 ERA. Obviously, even the Angels didn't expect that level of success but it was pretty obvious that he would've been better than what the Tigers were getting down the stretch.

I've never been a big fan of Jim Leyland. His in-game management leaves a lot to be desired. He is way too conservative. His quick hook of Porcello on Tuesday may very well have cost the Tigers the game. Porcello needed to come out at some point but Leyland must have been the only person in the world who felt Zach Miner gave the Tigers a better chance of winning than Porcello at that point. Having said that, I'm not sure there was a lot he could've done in the last month of the season. The Tigers were a flawed team. Once Edwin Jackson decided he was done pitching well, Leyland and the Tigers were done. The offense was brutal and the pitching staff was basically a 2-man show with Porcello and Justin Verlander. Leyland deserves blame and I'm pretty sure he'll get the majority of it from fans and media. I just don't think he was as responsible as it might seem.

The least responsible of the responsible parties, in my opinion, were the players. The Tigers weren't expected to win the AL Central division this year let alone compete for it. They thrived in the first half in large part because Edwin Jackson pitched like a hall of famer. His performance combined with the impressive pitching of JV and Porcello masked the horrible 4th and 5th spots in the rotation. The Tigers started to lose games when they started playing more like the team people expected coming into the season and less like the team that led the Central for four months. Still, they players deserve a considerable amount of criticism for getting owned by the Royals and White Sox to close the season.

Next season isn't likely going to bring such a monumental collapse. It's doubtful that the Tigers will even be in a position to collapse. Dave Dombrowski and Jim Leyland bought Magglio Ordonez for $15 million next season crippling any chance to drastically improve the lineup. The rotation will be in flux to start the season with the uncertainty of Nate Robertson and Jeremy Bonderman. I can realistically get excited about 2011 since they'll be shedding a boatload of payroll and some of the young pitching prospects like Jacob Turner and Casey Crosby might be ready to join the team. Next season, though, is not going to be pretty. Plus, let's say the Tigers do surprise and contend for the playoffs. After what we saw this season (and in 2006), will anyone be able to take it seriously?

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Bad News for Kimbo

I'm not ready to touch anything that occurred over the weekend so this seems like the perfect opportunity for my virgin MMA-post. I'll jump right in with Kimbo Slice since he hand-delivered The Ultimate Fighter its highest rated show ever last week. When it was announced earlier in the year that Kimbo had accepted Dana White's invitation to appear on the 10th season of The Ultimate Fighter (TUF), record ratings were merely a formality for Spike TV. It's not that people were going to tune in because they thought that Kimbo was for real, they were going to tune in to find out if he was for real. And tune in they did.

Even though Kimbo's appearance on TUF was guaranteed to give White and the UFC a ratings bonanza, Slice had no such guarantees. In fact, he had everything to lose. His entire reputation had been built on annihilating helpless hacks on the streets of Miami. His many shortcomings as a multidisciplinary fighter might have been ignored by internet-gawkers who were enthralled by his YouTube beatdowns and maybe a few novice MMA fans but they certainly weren't ignored by savvy fans and even Dana White himself. White ripped into both EliteXC and Slice for making a mockery of the sport which ended up leading to White offering a chance for Kimbo to prove himself on TUF 10. Appearing on a show as widely seen as TUF would leave Kimbo no room to hide. Every nuance of his repertoire would be exposed. If he embarrassed himself, his career would be over.

As it turns out, Kimbo didn't embarrass himself. In fact, even in defeat, his opponent--Roy Nelson--was the object of most of the post-fight criticism including a few jabs from White. There is no question that Kimbo is a superb athlete. He looks like he's built out of granite. He is clearly in great physical condition. He is an avid learner. In fact, he comes across on the show as an incredibly likable person and a lot of that has to do with his work ethic. Kimbo had everything to lose last week and, other than the match, he didn't lose anything. He deserves a lot of credit for that.

Unfortunately, his match against Nelson revealed a glaring hole in his arsenal; a hole that will keep him from ever becoming an elite MMA figther. Roy Nelson is an out-of-shape journeyman. He would be quickly destroyed by Brock Lesnar yet he was never in serious trouble against Kimbo. It's commendable that Kimbo was able to get in a few shots against him but Nelson exposed him for lacking two mandatory skillsets for fighters in the heavyweight division: takedown ability and takedown defense. I am convinced that it is impossible for a "striker" to succeed in the heavyweight division. Maybe it was possible five years ago when Tim Sylvia and Andrei Arlovski were the only guys in town but those days ended when Randy Couture pummelled Sylvia for the heavyweight championship. Couture won because he was a master wrestler who could strike with the ability to takedown his opponent and exhibit takedown defense. Couture was a curious heavyweight champion because his svelte frame made him much more appropriate for the light-heavyweight division. He won by taking advantage of a division plagued with one-dimensional fighters. Considering what Lesnar did to Couture, it's safe to say that there isn't a loophole in the heavyweight division anymore.

With the emergence of Lesnar and, to a lesser extent, Shane Carwin and Frank Mir, the UFC heavyweight division has undergone a total makeover. The path to victory is now on the ground. Roy Nelson isn't an MMA powerhouse but he has multidisciplinary skills and the ability to take his opponent to the ground which he did easily to Kimbo. Kimbo had no defense for the fat-footed Nelson's takedown attempts which doesn't bode well for potential matchups with Lesnar, Carwin and Mir. Kimbo would get sent to the hospital by all three of them. I don't even want to think about what Fedor Emelianenko would do to him. Those are the toughest cats on the block but if Kimbo is going to be taken seriously, those are the guys he'll have to fight.

As for his future in the UFC and MMA, the fact that he didn't get killed by a seasoned-fighter will go along way. Kimbo has powerful name recognition right now and he'll be able to ride that for a few more fights. As for longterm success, don't look for any. Nelson is fat. The fact that he was able to manhandle Kimbo is the real story from their fight. Yes, he didn't get himself killed. Yes, he didn't embarrass himself. However, just like you can't teach a 35-year old strikeout machine plate discipline, you can't teach a 35-year old "ground and pound." Kimbo doesn't have the skills to compete. He missed his window of opportunity four or five years ago when the heavyweight division was a striker's division. Word to the wise: anybody who cares even a small amount about Kimbo will not let him get in the right with Lesnar, ever.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

State of Desperation

The Michigan-Michigan State game on Saturday is a big deal for the Michigan Football Program. Michigan is 4-0 and has, at times, looked equally dominating and docile depending on the game, quarter and series. There have been so many positive and negative takeaways from Michigan's first four games that there is enough ammunition for both the most ardent supporter and the most hate-fueled detractor to get their points across and not sound like an internet flamer. Michigan leads the Big Ten in scoring and rushing. It has failed to put up fewer than 31 points in its first four games. There is no question that there has been a massive change since last season's carnival freak show. However, Michigan has had the luxury of playing all four games in the confines of Michigan Stadium where the noise level has never been higher. Tate Forcier has been a revelation but he has yet to experience the plague that ravages nearly every rookie signal caller in road game #1. If he's immune, then Michigan should be able to outscore the Spartans despite its Kleenex soft defense. If he's not, though, bad, bad things will happen at Spartan Stadium. Regardless of what happens in the game, Michigan has arrived earlier than anyone expected. Saturday will simply reveal to what extent.

Michigan has little to lose on Saturday. Nobody thinks this team is going undefeated. Nobody thinks this team is going to win the Big Ten. Most neutral observers don't even think Michigan will beat MSU. Vegas has it -2.5 in favor of Sparty. Michigan is young and inexperienced. This season is simply a training ground for a program badly in need of experience. A loss to Sparty would sting in the short-term but it's really irrelevant in the long-term. If Michigan doesn't beat Michigan State at home next season, then we can start thinking about which cliff to jump from.

The team that absolutely needs this game more than perhaps any other team needs any other game this season is Michigan State. Foolhardy as it may have been, Michigan State was almost universally picked to finish in the top three of the Big Ten this season. The "Mark Dantonio is God" hype train was moving forward with so much momentum that ridiculous assertions flew out of newspapers almost on a daily basis. The notion that Michigan State had taken over football supremacy in the state was bordering on fact according to many of the local media outlets. Michigan State's in-state recruiting dominance--something more of a oxymoron in the state of Michigan--was being woven with absurd half-truths like the Detroit Free Press' assertion (don't worry, it's the print page so there will be no evidence of your visit to the Freep) that Devin Gardner was only the 6th best player in the state of Michigan despite being the #1 QB in the country according to Rivals. The green and white propaganda machine was blazin' forward like Lewis and Clark on acid.

The problem with all of State's hype is that it was based on nothing. It was conjecture masquerading as fact. Oddly enough, the people who were most in-tune with what was really going on were recruitniks. Rich Rodriguez was killing it on the recruiting trail all the while MSU was picking up it's usual bin of mid-tier talent with one or two nice scores along the way. College football is about two things and two things only: coaching and talent. Rich Rodriguez has proven to be one of the best coaches in college football so many times now that I'm beginning to think he's doing it on purpose. Mark Dantonio has proven to be an average coach in his time with Cincinnati and Michigan State. Michigan has an enormous edge in "coaching." Anyone who watches college football should know that. What the average fan might not know--and this is why recruiting nuts are the most informed on this subject--is that Rodriguez is getting better athletes at Michigan than he could've ever imagined at West Virginia. This is as close to "1+1=2" as college football gets. A program with better coaching and more talent will--over the longterm--significantly beat out a program with inferior coaching and inferior talent.

In spite of this, MSU did so well in the propaganda game that it actually had an opportunity to turn the "hot air" hype into reality in the same way Spinal Tap capitalized on being a fake band by becoming an actual band. Even though the majority of the claims being made about the program were based on very little, few people would actually ever know that they were based on very little if Michigan State could've met expectations in 2009. Obviously, that didn't happen. Michigan State is 0-3 against I-A schools (I can't do the FBS thing) including a loss to Central Michigan at home. The result is Sparty trying to tell everyone to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. I assume that after a 1-3 start, most people are on to the "act." However, total and undeniable exposure would come with a loss to Michigan on Saturday. A win would allow Sparty to keep up the charade for another week.

That's why this game means way more to MSU than it ever could to Michigan. A loss would move MSU to 1-4 and Michigan to 5-0. The records would be damning enough but the fact that this was supposed to be the year for MSU and a rebuilding year for Michigan would speak volumes about where each program is at and where each program is heading. Don't get me wrong; a loss to Michigan State would be a horrendous blow for Michigan and its fans. It's just that it will have little impact on the program moving forward. On the other hand, a loss for Michigan State would deplete Sparty of its credit limit at the Bank of "hot air."

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