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What Michigan Can Learn from Alabama's Return to Football Glory

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What Michigan Can Learn from Alabama's Return to Football Glory
LM Otero/Associated Press

The score was 41-14, but it felt so much more like every gruesome death scene from Game of Thrones.

It wasn't just that Alabama clubbed Michigan to start the 2012 season. No, the scariest part was that Alabama made it look so easy, as if the Tide were unfazed by it all. The 14-point spread from Bovada was, in hindsight, farcical. 

It was a rude awakening for the Wolverines, one of college football's blue-blood programs. But it showed Michigan had a long way to go before it was back in the national championship conversation. 

Alabama was in that position not all that long ago. Before Nick Saban's arrival in Tuscaloosa seven years ago, the Tide hadn't won an SEC championship since 1999 or a national championship since 1992. Saban has since led Alabama to a pair of SEC titles and three national championships, not to mention the program is in the national title discussion every year. 

"In the SEC, it's all about national championships," said Chris Walsh, Alabama's lead writer at B/R. "And, for Alabama fans, it's Crimson Tide football all year long." 

Saban proved that one of college football's great programs could be resurrected. What can Michigan and head coach Brady Hoke learn from the Tide so that they too can return to the national stage?

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

 

Dissecting the Origins

Before diving into what notes Michigan needs to take from Alabama, it's important to identify how Michigan got here in the first place. 

It's been 10 years since the Wolverines won a Big Ten championship. At best, they've been second fiddle to Ohio State. At worst, they were losing to Appalachian State and Toledo, and missing bowl games in 2008 and '09. 

According to Phil Callihan, who contributes to UMGoBlue.com and B/R, the problems began with talent development under Lloyd Carr, who led the program from 1995-2007. It's also an issue Callihan sees with Hoke.

"Michigan needs to prove it can win and get players to the next level," Callihan said. 

When Rich Rodriguez inherited the program at the end of the 2007 season, he brought a different style of coaching and offense with him from West Virginia. 

Rodriguez was an offense-first guy who ran a zone-read and option attack with the Mountaineers. And he had a perfect tool for it: quarterback Pat White. There was no White on Michigan's roster. (There was, however, a freshman named Ryan Mallett.) 

Michael Conroy/Associated Press

Rodriguez recruited well at Michigan, hauling in the No. 8 class nationally in 2008. But he recruited players who were designed to fit his system. The offense almost always prevailed, too. Not only did Rodriguez recruit more offensive players than defensive players in 2008 and '09, the balance wasn't even close. 

By the time the more defense-heavy classes of 2010 and '11 were signed, it was too late. Rodriguez, now at Arizona, was never fully accepted at Michigan and he was let go after three years with a 15-22 record.  

For the first couple of years, Hoke had the responsibility of undoing Rodriguez's work. But Hoke was a branch in Carr's coaching tree, which earned him instant credibility among the fanbase and program. 

After winning 11 games in his first season, the program has trended down under Hoke. This season isn't considered a make-or-break year for Hoke, barring an epic disaster, but at a place such as Michigan, the pressure is always on. 

There's one group in particular holding back Michigan. That's where Hoke must commence the turnaround. 

DAVE WEAVER/Associated Press

 

Start From the Inside-Out

Everything good about a football team, and everything bad, starts up front. It doesn't matter what the offensive or defensive philosophy is. Win up front and all other things tend to fall into place.

Michigan's offensive line was a mess in 2013, which is astonishing considering it had two players—Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield—taken in this year's NFL draft. Lewan, in fact, went 11th overall to the Titans and was the third tackle off the board after Greg Robinson (Auburn) and Jake Matthews (Texas A&M). 

But the Wolverines' other three spots along the interior of the line were occupied by a total of eight different players, including three freshmen, who rotated. That's where the trouble started. 

Although, really, the trouble started in 2011 when Hoke brought in just three offensive linemen in his first recruiting class: Chris Bryant, Jack Miller and Tony Posada. Miller has contributed at center, starting the first four games of last season. But Bryant had his career cut short by injuries and Posada left the program shortly after arriving. 

That lack of depth and experience put more pressure on Michigan's younger linemen, and the result was last year's 87th-ranked offense

So how does Alabama tie into this?

It's simple: Success starts in the trenches and Alabama has been excellent there under Saban. 

Alabama vs. Michigan O-Lines Since 2007 season
First-Round Picks Players Drafted First-Team All-Conference Award Winners
Alabama 4 8 9 3
Michigan 2 6 5 1

Various

Consider the table above. The Tide had twice as many first-round selections as Michigan for offensive linemen. Another big difference came in producing all-conference players. Michigan had five different linemen selected as first-team all-conference and Alabama had nine. That part is subjective, but the numbers were based on selections from conference coaches. 

The offensive line is unique in that it really is a position of the sum of its parts. It takes reps, reps and more reps—together—to build the chemistry necessary to become a cohesive group. Ideally, freshman offensive linemen aren't called into duty to play right away. There's a lot of physical and mental maturation that has to take place. 

"The roster is in a good position, except the offensive line," Callihan said. "I don't know how they get better, either." 

That concern has validity. In April, Nick Baumgardner of mlive.com wrote following Michigan's spring game that the offensive line was still a major liability: 

This offense can be explosive. It has playmakers. Devin Gardner is still dynamic. Devin Funchess is a monster. Freddy Canteen looked pretty sharp (more on that soon), and Smith and Green both looked like real Big Ten running backs at times.

But if the offensive line isn't giving those playmakers a chance, then it doesn't matter. Tackles for loss and not being able to convert a 3rd and 1 are killers. 

Michigan was in the running to upgrade its O-line with Chad Lindsay, a transfer from Alabama, of all places. However, Lindsay chose to finish his career at Ohio State. That added insult to injury.

"He could have been a great locker room guy," Callihan said. 

Guys like Kyle Bosch, Kyle Kalis and Erik Magnuson are all young, touted players who have great potential. They're still learning, though, and now they're being asked to anchor the line with the departures of Lewan and Schofield. 

That development simply takes time. 

"I'm not sure Hoke has the time." Callihan said, "[Michigan] is always a year away." 

Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

 

Develop an Identity and Stick to It

Having an "offensive identity" is a one-size-fits-all statement, but it helps to know what to expect from week to week.

"This isn't Madden. You can't just run any play you want," Callihan says.

Michigan didn't have much of an offensive identity last year, odd given that offensive coordinator Al Borges finally had the players to move away from Rodriguez's spread offense. Michigan couldn't run the ball successfully and moved to something that resembled the run-and-shoot offense—when it didn't resemble something else, that is. 

Whatever it was, it didn't work. That led the way to Borges being shown the door. It was a defining, albeit necessary, move for Hoke considering how close he is to Borges. But, according to Callihan, Borges was complicated for the sake of being complicated. 

Tony Ding/Associated Press

Conversely, there's nothing convoluted about what Saban does at Alabama, and it starts with "the process." In his own words, the process is "really what you have to do day in and day out to be successful." (h/t Greg Bishop, The New York Times.)  

There's a lesson to be learned from Saban, and Hoke has already jumped on it. In January, Michigan hired offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier right out from under Saban. 

Nussmeier has a history of running a balanced offense with an emphasis on a solid running game. It's no coincidence that's what Hoke wants to accomplish with the Wolverines:

Run the dadgum ball. 

"Linemen love to run block; they hate to pass block," Callihan said. "They may take it on the teeth at first, but this can help the offensive line come together." 

Doug Nussmeier Offenses
School Year Run-Pass % Conference Rank (Total Offense)
Alabama 2013 56-44 6th
Alabama 2012 63-37 4th
Washington 2011 53-47 7th
Washington 2010 56-44 6th
Washington 2009 50-50 7th
Fresno State 2008 56-44 N/A

cfbstats.com

Having an identity is what separates Ohio State from the Wolverines. It's also what separates Michigan State from Michigan. Not coincidentally, the Wolverines are 6-14 against the Buckeyes and Spartans over the past 10 years and haven't beaten both in the same year since 2003. 

It's one thing to lose to Ohio State, which Michigan has done plenty of recently. The Buckeyes are another one of college football's historically premier programs. The so-called Ten-Year War between Bo Schembechler and Woody Hayes featured some of the most memorable games between the programs. 

But Michigan State's rise under head coach Mark Dantonio? The Spartans land a few 4-star prospects every year and even the occasional 5-star player. But, largely, Dantonio and his staff find 3-star recruits who can play, fit their system and develop them. 

"It sucks," Callihan said. "They're just better." 

Butch Dill/Associated Press

  

Pay Attention to the Details—All of Them

There is no other person like Saban in college football. Thus, there is no duplicating Saban.

"Their recruiting room looks like a war room in the NFL," Walsh said. "Everything is color-coded and it's updated constantly.

"In practice, everyone is always doing something. There will be six stations all happening at once." 

Saban is prepared for everything*, even his radio show. Beforehand, Walsh explains, Saban will write down a list of talking points he wants to get across. It doesn't matter what the questions are, he'll find a way to communicate whatever message he has in store. 

(*Except for a kick-six, as Auburn fans will gladly point out.) 

Everything is a teaching moment. 

Saban comes across as someone who says a lot without actually saying anything. As it turns out, nothing could be further from the truth. Because what he says is meant for a specific audience: his players. 

A prime example is the recruiting story about former Tide receiver Julio Jones. A 5-star recruit in 2008, Jones could have gone anywhere he wanted. Instead, he went to a place where nothing was promised to him. Via Jeff Schultz of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Growing up, I really didn’t watch a lot of college football. But one of the reasons I liked Alabama was when I went to visit coach Saban, he said, ‘Well you know, we want you here. But we’re going to win with you or without you.’ I was like, that’s me. I just want to win. I don’t like stuff just given to me.

The pitch happened to work for Jones, but the lesson is that even the best prospects are replaceable. 

Despite that attitude, Saban is described by Walsh as someone who doesn't cast people aside. Saban is tremendously loyal to his coaches and players. The narrative on Saban is that he's a nightmare to work for, but roughly half of the Tide's coaching staff has either been with Saban since 2007 or left, only to return to Tuscaloosa. 

Walk through the weight room and Walsh says you'll see a handful of former players on any given day. 

The coaches and players all have the same goal: win. This isn't unique to Alabama, of course. Everyone at this level of football works hard, but a relentless attention to detail is what makes Saban so good—and what makes Alabama so dominant. 

Alabama and Michigan since 2007
Record Conference Titles National Titles Coaches
Alabama 79-15 2 3 1
Michigan 50-39 0 0 3

ESPN.com

Saban's process has begun to filter into the rest of college football. Other coaches, such as Florida State's Jimbo Fisher, take principles from it and make it their own. 

With a 15-11 record the past two seasons, it's time for Hoke to reinvent how he operates on a day-to-day basis. Like other reinventions, it starts with the little things. Redo the schedule, shake up how practices are run, micromanage, even.

"Hoke is great at delegating," Callihan said.

Maybe it's time for a more hands-on approach.   

Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

 

Think Progressive

Alabama's rise didn't actually begin with Saban. It began with former athletic director Mal Moore. 

Moore arrived in Tuscaloosa in 1999 and immediately began a colossal fundraising effort to renovate the school's athletic facilities. According to Alabama, Moore, who died in 2013 shortly after retiring, raised $240 million to improve facilities. 

Then, in 2007, Moore gave Saban a $32 million contract without a buyout. He handed the keys over to Saban—who was "not going to be the Alabama coach"—and walked away. 

"It showed the commitment—and probably the desperation—they had for him," Walsh said. 

Call it what you will, but Alabama put all its chips on red (or crimson) for a coach it believed in. In some ways, Michigan athletic director David Brandon is all-in with Hoke. 

That will likely change if the Wolverines continue their downward spiral. The question is how long it would take to make that change. Hoke is well-liked in Ann Arbor, but it's not a given that he'll turn the program around, let alone make it a national contender again. 

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

If Michigan eventually does go in another direction, it will have to get creative like Alabama without being scared of encountering another failed Rodriguez experiment. 

Callihan thinks Michigan's next coaching search—if and when that happens—will concentrate on landing a big-name coach, maybe someone from the NFL.   

"For as big as Michigan perceives itself, it has to be someone big," Callihan said. "I don't think it could be a young coach." 

The Wolverines reportedly made a run at then-Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh, a Michigan alum, in 2011 before hiring Hoke. Harbaugh, now with the San Francisco 49ers, has been connected to college jobs at Texas and USC, but remains in the Bay Area despite an alleged "rift" between him and the organization's front office. 

Harbaugh would be a great coach anywhere, but Callihan believes Michigan would have to seriously consider breaking the Wolverines lineage. The "Michigan Man" prerequisite, the silliest in all of college football, has to go. 

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Then, Michigan has to have a hook, something with which to reel that big-name coach. The facilities are great, but the Rust Belt is an ever-shrinking recruiting ground. The brand of Michigan football is still dominant, but not as much as it once was. 

Splash hires are overrated, but if Hoke doesn't work out, that might be what Michigan needs to right a program that has slowly veered off course. And it might take an obscene amount of money to make it happen. 

For now, Hoke has a turnaround to orchestrate. He's already replaced one key staff member and may need to replace more if it means saving his job. 

But if Michigan really wants to be relevant in the national discussion again, it should take some pointers from the program that dismantled it two years ago. 

 

Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football at Bleacher Report. All quotes obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise. All stats courtesy of cfbstats.com. All recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.com

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