Michigan fans aren't the most patient bunch in college football. How could they be?
Great coaches who've preceded Brady Hoke have set a remarkably high precedent, and whether or not that's fair to Hoke is a moot point. When people become accustomed to a program winning Big Ten championships and being nationally relevant year in and year out, anything less simply doesn't cut it. Like so many things in life, it's all relative.
So after a disappointing 7-6 record in 2013, the second consecutive season that Hoke's teams have regressed in the win column, is 2014 a make-or-break year for Brady Hoke?
I think it is, to an extent.
The talent is certainly there, as Hoke and his staff have done an outstanding job from a recruiting standpoint. Come National Signing Day on Feb. 5 he'll likely wrap up his third consecutive top 10 class, according to ESPN.com's RecruitingNation.
Hoke, who will be entering his fourth season as the head coach, will have the luxury of coaching his own recruits next season with the exception of a few fifth-year seniors. He'll also have a talented senior quarterback in Devin Gardner running the offense and a fairly friendly schedule, not to mention an entire offseason to fortify the team's weak spots.
Expectations will be particularly high for next year's team, and despite their struggles in 2013, the Wolverines really have no excuse for not performing at a high level in 2014.
If the Wolverines regress yet again, it wouldn't be surprising to see Michigan "move in a different direction," as the euphemism goes. It sounds harsh, but it's the reality of the position that he enthusiastically accepted.
In that sense, it is a make or break year for him.
Another regression would mean that Michigan would have suffered a losing season, which would be seen as unacceptable to alumni, the general fan base and, most importantly, athletic director Dave Brandon. Brandon confidently stood behind Hoke when he penned a widely-read blog post via MGoBlue on Nov. 27, saying that "Hoke is the right leader for Michigan football." He's under contract through 2017, earning an average of $3.25 million per year.
But things can change quickly in the crazy world of college football, and while there's little doubt that Brandon will stay in Hoke's corner for as long as he can, a major decision like firing a football coach is larger than one man's opinion.
What people need to see in Hoke's fourth year is genuine progress.
That progress certainly has to manifest itself in the form of wins, but it also has to be evident in the effort and preparation displayed by the players on the field. The 2013 season ended on a major down note when the Wolverines were drubbed by Kansas State in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. They looked lifeless, almost apathetic in their final game as they failed to establish a rhythm on offense and gave up big play after big play on defense.
Sophomore linebacker James Ross III didn't shy away from offering a brutally honest assessment of the defensive effort in the game. As per MLive, "It was our mindset from the jump, we weren't totally into it I would say," Ross said. "We didn't come out with a lot of energy."
This is a baffling quote to hear from a player, particularly an impressionable underclassmen. While exclusively blaming Hoke for this lack of effort isn't fair, it does raise red flags around his ability to adequately prepare his team. We saw similar listless performances from the Wolverines against Akron, Connecticut, Michigan State and in the second half of the Iowa game.
This most recent bowl game was hardly an outlier.
Next season is a make-or-break year for Hoke, but he doesn't have to lead Team 135 to a Rose Bowl berth or a spot in the inaugural four-team playoff. What he does have to do is prove that he's moving the program in a positive direction, and that he's capable of turning highly rated recruits into great college football players.
Sounds easy enough, right?
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