The very first article I wrote for Bleacher Report was a preview of the 2008 edition of the Michigan Wolverines' football program.
I've been a die-hard Michigan fan my entire life, and while I like to think that I am unbiased in my writing, I will admit that I had some blinders on. I definitely wasn't the only college football fan or expert that didn't see this coming, either.
Michigan turned in one of their worst seasons in decades. They finished the year with a 3-9 record, and a conference record of 2-6. Their 33-game bowl streak vanished, and they finished the year with a horrific loss to Ohio State, not to mention ugly losses to Penn State and Michigan State as well.
Many people have wanted to blame this squarely on coach Rich Rodriguez's shoulders...and that's simply not fair.
Last year's team saw their all-time leading passer (Chad Henne) and rusher (Mike Hart) graduate, along with one of the greatest offensive linemen in Big Ten history (Jake Long) and a dynamite college wide receiver (Mario Manningham).
When you combine a huge turnover with a completely new scheme on offense, what you have concocted is the perfect storm for disaster, and that's exactly what happened in 2008.
So, what's the outlook for 2009? If I can liken this to a weather report, I would say partly cloudy with a greater chance for sunshine than for rain. The Wolverines will be better this season, due to a few simple truths:
1. They have been in the spread system for one full season. The pro-style attack, previously employed at Michigan, is vastly different than Rich Rod's version of the spread, and it takes a different type of player to operate it.
Many players last year were playing a role that they weren't suited for. Players and coaches are gearing up for this season with a higher level of confidence and trust in one another, having gone through the "growing pains" of last year.
2. Improved QB situation. Want further proof of how different the spread is from the pro-style attack that Big Blue ran prior to last year? Look no further than to the departures of QB's Ryan Mallett (Arkansas) and Steven Threet (Arizona St.), last year's starting QB.
Once again, Michigan goes into 2009 with virtually no starting experience at the most important position on the field. Despite that, this year doesn't feel as uncertain with the arrivals of Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson.
Both freshmen will be given every opportunity to win the starting spot in their first years at Michigan. Nick Sheridan did start four games last year, and figured to have an advantage heading into spring, but a broken leg derailed his progression.
Still, being the only QB on the roster with starting experience does give him a chance to hold off the incumbents. Of course, there's a good chance that these QB's will simply be "keeping the spot warm" for the arrival of Devin Gardner in 2010, who has the potential to be a collegiate superstar.
3. More experience on offense. Returning starters is one of the biggest indicators of improvement for every team in the nation.
Last year, Michigan returned one starter on offense, a sure recipe for disaster when integrating a new offensive attack. This year they return 10 starters. That alone should make a huge difference in how efficient and tested this offense is going into 2009.
The entire offensive line returns, as well as some incoming freshmen for depth. Not only are all of the skill positions intact, but there's actually some impressive depth at both running back and wide receiver.
Brandon Minor spearheads the rushing attack with his strong finish to last year, and he'll have some help from a healthy Carlos Brown, Kevin Grady, Michael Shaw, and the newest addition to the backfield, Vincent Smith.
The starting trio of Greg Mathews, Martavious Odoms, and Darryl Stonum will give the QB's some varied weapons to throw at, while incoming freshmen Je'Ron Stokes, Terrence Robinson, and Roy Roundtree could push for some playing time.
4. Stronger pedigree across the board on defense. While most experts knew that the Wolverines' offense would be a work in progress in 2008, no one predicted that the defense would perform as poorly as it did.
There were some dubious records claimed by last year's defensive squad, the most telling one being the most points allowed in Michigan history (347).
With the talent that Michigan had on the roster, this equated to the resignation of Scott Schafer and the hiring of Greg Robinson.
Robinson will have to deal with losing six starters, but I believe that this year's defense actually has more talent and depth than last year's squad. The scheme is going from 3-3-5 to 3-4, but don't be surprised to see the 4-3 thrown into the mix to provide a different look.
The combination of Max Martin and William Campbell will make it difficult on opposing running games, and, along with end Brandon Graham, will have the potential of being one of the best defensive lines in the conference by season's end.
The linebacking corp. looks very deep as well, with the maturation of Obi Ezeh and Jams Mouton, along with the hybrid safety/linebacker role of Steve Brown.
The secondary looks to be much improved over last year, as the highly touted Boubacar Cissoko steps in at cornerback opposite Donovan Warren, going into his third year as a starter.
5. An easier schedule. I'm not the biggest proponent of a weak non-conference schedule, but this year's relatively easy matchups couldn't come at a better time for the Wolverines.
This team should go into their matchup with Michigan St. no worse than 3-1, and could quite possibly be 4-0. A start like this will go a long way into boosting the confidence of this young team, and could help to push them towards making it back into the bowl season.
Add it all together, and you have a team that should be vastly improved in 2009, and if everything falls their way, could make some noise in the conference title run.
Prediction: 7-5 overall, 4-4 conference, with an eye to the sky for 2010 and beyond.