Finishing 8-4, an Outback bowl birth, and avenging their string of losses to those dreaded Buckeyes - all predictions I made toward the end of last Summer about the 2009 Wolverines football team. I recently went back to look at my logic and see if it was just my fanacity* that got the best of me. After looking at it again, I can honestly say that I can live with my projections. Obviously, things didn't work out like I guessed, but the logic was still legitimate. Most of what I wrote was true. Here's the million dollar question: if the logic wasn't so bad, why were the Wolverines 5-7 instead of 8-4, which is a far cry better? There were two major problems with my predictions that I was able to identify that I think made all the difference in the end.
What Went Wrong
First off, the Big Ten was down last year, despite their post season success. Wisconsin, Penn State and Ohio State should have all been borderline rebuilding from the previous year, and they were (with the exception of Wisconsin-they were the surprise team). They just weren't as bad as I expected them to be. I was on record as saying that I thought Iowa probably had the best team in the conference and would challenge Ohio State for the championship, so long as they could get through that brutal schedule, and I was right and take pride in that guesstimation**. I predicted that the experience, skill, and physicality of their defensive line would keep the Nittany Lions - the team that many picked to win the Big Ten outright, from moving the ball effectively. But I digress.
Secondly, and sadly, I think this same thing will plague the Wolverines this upcoming season as well, the Wolverines are undersized and were unable to take the physicality of a violent Big Ten schedule. As the season went on and the injuries piled up, the thin defense was brutally exposed and the entire team just seemed tired and hurt. That's what the Big Ten does to teams, more so than any other conference (in my biased opinion). Eventually I think this will be RichRod's undoing. I think he's a good coach and could be successful in possibly any other conference, but in more than any other conference, size matters in the Big Ten, and these Wolverines just didn't/don't have it. I've been on record saying that I don't think RichRod is a good fit at Michigan and I don't think he'll make it as the coach long term. I sure hope I'm wrong; I want to see him be successful; I think he gets a bad rap for personal issues that have gone on, and the NCAA investigation and what not; I just don't think an undersized team with a young, quick defense that lacks physicality will ultimately make it in the Big Ten.
Brief Observations about Next Year
While considering the incoming recruiting class brought more depth to their defense, they still lost two of their three best defensive players from last year's maligned team. I don't feel confident that they'll be able to stand their conference schedule, much like last year.
The bulk of the defense does come back, and the added depth should help out immensely, especially to the defensive line, which again should be their defensive strength. Offensively, they return four of five offensive linemen, which should also be an improvement from last year. They take a hit at running back with their top two rushers graduating, but depth at that position has never been a problem. They should have three capable quarterbacks and a slew of quick, solid receivers-another position of depth. Special Teams could be a big, overlooked problem for them as they lose one of their few bright spots of the last two years in punter Zolton Mesko, as well as their starting kicker from last year.
The Big Ten all around should be much improved from last year. This bothers me as a Wolverines fan. From what I can tell at this point, Michigan State, Penn State, Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Purdue should all be better, while Iowa is a little hard to judge right now, but could also be improved from last year if their newly revamped offensive line can hold its own. Illinois and Indiana could very well take a couple steps back from where they were at last year.
I'm going to try and be as objective as I can be, learn from my mistakes last year, and guess accordingly. I expect Michigan to look good early in the season like they did last year, but limp to the finish line in the end after injuries and their grueling schedule (MSU, Iowa, at Penn State consecutively at the beginning of conference play, and then ending at Purdue, Wisconsin, at Ohio State). I'm not sure What RichRod needs to do to keep his job, but at the bare minimum he needs to make a bowl game at 6-6, and probably win it.
I'm going to make a list of games that at this point, I would consider WINNABLE for the Wolverines. In all honesty, if all the games were independent of each other, then I do think they'd be capable of winning any game at any time, but because they are not independent events, and has much more to do with health, confidence, motivation etc., I really don't think playing at Penn State, Wisconsin, and at Ohio State are winnable games, so the best I think we can expect out of the Wolverines right off the bat is 9-3. Furthermore, I think games against Michigan State and Iowa are improbable, and games against UCONN, at Notre Dame, Illinois, and at Purdue are somewhere around 50-50, give or take a little. That leaves the probable to definite wins being UMASS, Bowling Green, and at Indiana. So worst case scenario in my opinion is 3-9. Here's what I expect to happen:
UofM will start pretty quickly, much like last year and start out 4-1, splitting with UCONN and Notre Dame and then winning their next 3 against inferior opponents. I expect both match-ups against Michigan State and Iowa to be tough, but they'll both be in the Big House and UofM shouldn't be too beat up at this point. Because I'm a big UofM fan, I'm going to be generous and say they split those two games, and look pretty good at 5-2, with a couple quality wins. What we won't see on the surface is how beat up and tired the Wolverines' lines will be. Penn State will take advantage and continue to wear them even more, making the following two winnable games that much tougher. I'm going to give them the benefit of the doubt and split the Illinois-at Purdue games. They lose their last two against Wisconsin and at Ohio State, limping to the finish line at 6-6, but still make it to a bottom of the barrel bowl game.
Is 6-6 and a probable bowl win enough for RichRod to keep his job? I think it all depends on how open Jim Harbaugh would be to leaving Stanford. If he doesn't want to leave, the RichRod era will continue. I'll do more research on the other teams to get a feeling about how good they're going to be this year, but from what I already know and my basic feeling, I think the Wolverines are looking somewhere between 5-7 and 7-5. Anything more will be amazing improvement. I'm excited for football, and UofM fans aren't going to like my analysis, but here's the formula I used:
Improved Big Ten-Best Defensive Players from Last Year+Undersized Players+Improved Team from Last Year+Added Depth to Defense-Key Special Teams Players from Last Season+Increased Strength of Schedule=Close to the Same Success from Last Year.
You may disagree with me, but this is the feeling I get from this year. Hopefully it's better than that, but we'll have to wait and see.
*fanacity-a clever combination of fan, and tenacity
**guestimation-a clever combination of guess and estimation