The Michigan Wolverines have found themselves off to their worst start since 2008 at 2-2
After three tumultuous years with head coach Rich Rodriguez and the spread offense, newcomer Brady Hoke took the Michigan Football program back to prominence in his first season, going 11-2 and winning the Allstate Sugar Bowl. The win propelled Michigan back into the national title picture and drove many to proclaim that Michigan was "back."
However, Hoke's second season began with his toughest challenge: a Dallas, Texas showdown with the national champion Alabama Crimson Tide.
After a brutal loss to Alabama, an underwhelming showing in their home opener against Air Force, a confidence booster against the lowly UMass Minutemen and an offensive flop against Notre Dame in South Bend, can the Wolverines salvage a season that began with a No. 8 ranking and Big Ten title hopes?
If their performance to date is any indicator of how the rest of their season will go with Big Ten play starting next week, the Wolverines and their fans should be very worried. What has caused Michigan's underwhelming start to the year?
A 1,000 yard rusher last year, RB Fitzgerald Toussaint has struggled in 2012
The running game was arguably the best facet of Michigan's offense in 2011. The spread/pro style hybrid created by offensive coordinator Al Borges allowed for dynamic, dual-threat QB Denard Robinson, as well as the more traditional back Fitz Toussaint, to each rush for over 1,000 yards.
In 2012, the running game has not been nearly as effective.
Fitz Toussaint started off the season on the wrong foot after getting suspended for a DUI and subsequently missing the Alabama game. In the three games since, Toussaint has rushed for a measly 150 yards on 36 carries and one touchdown.
Toussaint has not shown the same burst and field vision that made him a Heisman Trophy dark horse candidate heading into 2012, and his play has suffered because of it. sophomore Thomas Rawls, heralded as an eventual replacement for Toussaint and a conventional power back, has been a non-factor through four games.
QB Denard Robinson, who may be the all-time NCAA leading rusher for QBs at the end of this season, has also underwhelmed, running for just 3.3 yards per carry and one touchdown against ranked teams this season. More surprisingly, he has only run for 32 yards on 15 carries in the red zone in 2012, where he normally uses his elite lateral quickness to dance around defenders and into the end zone.
Robinson cannot struggle to run the ball if the Michigan offense wants to score points on Big Ten defenses.
Sophomore CB Blake Countess was primed for a breakout year before tearing his ACL against Alabama
One knock on Michigan heading into the year was that many of their players on both offense and defense lacked experience and that they lacked depth along the offensive and defensive lines. Injuries to key players all over the field have made these questions even more relevant for Michigan in 2012.
One area of strength for the Wolverines was supposed to be their secondary, where they returned senior CB J.T. Floyd and sophomore CB Blake Countess as one of the most fearsome cornerback duos in the country. However, in the first game against Alabama, Countess tore his ACL and will miss the rest of the season.
While a committee of CBs, led by sophomore Raymon Taylor and junior Courtney Avery, have played well in his absence, Countess was primed to rise to an elite level this season and can't be replaced.
Also in that disastrous Alabama game, the only tight end with any real experience, Brandon Moore, injured his knee and is still waiting to get back on the field.
In an area of particular weakness, the defensive line—where Michigan lost two defensive leaders in Ryan Van Bergen and Mike Martin—promising true freshman defensive end Chris Wormley tore his ACL before the season started. Also, DE Brennan Beyer, an impact lineman last season, has missed the last two games with a shoulder injury.
Fullback Stephen Hopkins has missed the last two games with an injured hamstring, possibly explaining the struggles Michigan has faced in the running game.
While some players have been replaced very nicely, it is unlikely that Michigan can succeed in Big Ten play with so many injuries to players who were expected to log major minutes this fall.
"Shoelace" threw a career high four interceptions against Notre Dame
Denard Robinson was supposed to make a significant improvement in his passing this season as most QBs in Al Borges run offenses have in the past. However, Robinson has not improved in 2012.
If anything, his passing has regressed.
He is completing only 54.5 percent of his passes (down from 55.0 percent last season) and has already thrown eight interceptions (as opposed to 15 all of last year). Robinson has continued to throw off of his back foot, a major problem with his mechanics last year, leading to overthrows and inaccuracy. He struggles to hit intermediate routes between 10 and 20 yards, which severely limits the offense on long second and third downs.
We have seen Robinson (sometimes with the help of athletic receivers) make dynamic plays with his arm, but he needs to establish some sort of consistency in order for the Wolverines to win the Big Ten. The offense will rise and fall with the play of Denard Robinson, and they will not compete against the likes of Michigan State, Nebraska or Ohio State unless Denard starts holding himself accountable.
Braxton Miller's breakout campaign for Ohio State and Michigan State's stout defense pose challenges for the Wolverines in the upcoming weeks
Michigan has to play its hardest schedule in recent memory in 2012. In what was effectively an away game in Dallas against Alabama, they played the best team in the country and came away from that game decimated by injuries. Playing at No. 11 Notre Dame was no walk in the park either. Air Force came to Ann Arbor as one of the tougher non-conference home opponents that Michigan has played in recent years, and the upcoming schedule doesn't get any easier.
In Big Ten play, Michigan will have to play at No. 21 Nebraska, at home against No. 24 Northwestern, at home against Michigan State (whom they haven't beaten since 2007), at the currently 4-1 Minnesota Golden Gophers and they finish the season in Columbus against Urban Meyer's rejuvenated Buckeye's squad.
Michigan has a marathon of a schedule to run, and will not catch any breaks this season against teams who are all hungry to win in what seems to be a wide open Big Ten race. They need to get healthy fast if they want to keep pace with the rest of the conference.